JAMES MADISON, WAR MESSAGE TO CONGRESS, JUNE 1, 1812
To the Senate and
House of Representatives of the
I communicate to Congress certain
Documents, being a continuation of those heretofore laid before them, on the
subject of our Affairs with
Without going back beyond the
renewal in 1803, of the war in which
British cruisers have been in the continued practice of violating the American flag on the great high way of nations, and of seizing and carrying off persons sailing under it; not in the exercise of a Belligerent right founded on the Law of Nations against an Enemy; but of a municipal prerogative over British subjects. British jurisdiction is thus extended to neutral vessels in a situation where no laws can operate but the law of nations, and the laws of the Country to which the vessels belong; and a self-redress is assumed, which, if British subjects were wrongfully detained and alone concerned, is that substitution of force, for a resort to the responsible sovereign, which falls within the definition of War. Could the seizure of British subjects, in such cases, be regarded as within the exercise of a Belligerent right, the acknowledged laws of war, which forbid an article of captured property to be adjudged, without a regular investigation before a competent Tribunal, wound imperiously demand the fairest trial, where the sacred rights of persons were at issue. In place of such a trial, these rights are subjected to the will of every petty commander.
The practice, hence, is so far from affecting British subjects alone, that under the pretext of searching for these, thousands of American Citizens, under the safeguard of public law, and of their national flag, have been torn from their country and from everything dear to them; have been dragged on board ships of war of a foreign nation; and exposed, under the severities of their discipline, to be exiled to the most distant and deadly climes, to risk their lives in the battles of their oppressors, and to be the melancholy instruments of taking away those of their own brethren.
Against this crying enormity, which Great Britain would be so prompt to avenge if committed against herself, the United States have, in vain, exhausted remonstrances and expostulations: And that no proof might be wanting of their conciliatory dispositions, and no pretext left for a continuance of the practice, the British Government was formally assured of the readiness of the United States to enter into arrangements, such as could not be rejected, if the recovery of British subjects were real and sole object. The communication passed without effect.
British cruisers have been in the
practice also of violating the rights and the peace of our Coasts. They hover
over and harass our entering and departing commerce. To the most insulting
pretensions, they have added the most lawless proceedings in our very harbors;
and have wantonly split American blood, within the sanctuary of our territorial
jurisdiction. The principles and rules
enforced by that nation when a neutral nation, against armed
vessels of Belligerents hovering near her coasts, and disturbing her commerce,
are well known. When called on,
nevertheless, by the
Under pretended blockades, without the presence of an adequate force, and sometimes without the practicability of applying one, our commerce has been plundered in every Sea; the great staples of our Country have been cut off, from their legitimate markets; and a destructive blow aimed at our agricultural and maritime interests. In aggravation of these predatory measures, they have been considered as in force, from the dates of their notification; a retrospective effect being thus added, as has been done in other important cases, to the unlawfulness of the course pursued. And to render the outrage the more signal, these mock blockages, have been reiterated and enforced, in the face of official communications from the British Government declaring, as the true definition of a legal Blockade “that particular ports must be actually invested, and previous warning given to vessels bound to them, not to enter.”
Not content with these occasional expedients for laying waste our neutral trade, the cabinet of Great Britain resorted, at length, to the sweeping system of Blockades, under the name of orders in council; which has been moulded and managed, as might best suit its political views, its commercial jealousies, or the avidity of British cruisers.
To our remonstrances
against the complicated and transcendent injustice of this innovation, the
first reply was that the orders were reluctantly adopted by
When deprived of this flimsy veil for a prohibition of our trade with her enemy, by the repeal of his prohibition of our trade with Great Britain; her Cabinet, instead of a corresponding repeal, or a practical discontinuance, of its orders, formally avowed a determination to persist in them against the United States, until the markets of her enemy should be laid open to British products: thus asserting an obligation on a neutral power to require one Belligerent to encourage, by its internal regulations, the trade of another Belligerent; contradicting her own practice towards all nations, in peace as well as in war; and betraying the insincerity of those professions, which inculcated a belief that having resorted to her orders with regret, she was anxious to find an occasion for putting an end to them.
Abandoning still more all respect for the neutral rights of the United States, and for its own consistency, the British Government now demands, as prerequisites to a repeal of its orders, as they relate to the United States, that a formality should be observed in the repeal of the French Decrees nowise necessary to their termination, nor exemplified by British usage; and that the French repeal, besides including that portion of the Decrees which operate within a territorial jurisdiction, as well as that which operates on the high seas against the commerce of the United States, should not be a single and special repeal in relation to the United States, but should be extended to whatever other neutral nations, unconnected with them, may be affected by those Decrees. And as an additional insult, they are called on for a formal disavowal of conditions and pretentions advanced by the French Government, for which the United States are so far from having made themselves responsible; that in official explanations, which have been published to the world, and in a correspondence of the American Minister at London with the British Minister for foreign affairs, such a responsibility was explicitly and emphatically disclaimed.
It has become indeed sufficiently
certain, that the commerce of the
Anxious to make every experiment,
short of the last resort of injured nations, the United States have withheld
from Great Britain, under successive modifications, the benefits of a free
intercourse with their market; the loss of which could not but outweigh the
profits accruing from her restrictions of our commerce with other nations. And to entitle these experiments to the more
favorable consideration, they were so framed, as to enable her to place her
adversary under the exclusive operation of them. To these appeals her Government has been
equally inflexible; as if willing to make sacrifices of every sort, rather than
yield to the claims of justice, or renounce the errors of a false pride. Nay, so far were the attempts carried, to
overcome the attachment of the British Cabinet to its unjust Edicts, that it
received every encouragement within the competency of the Executive branch of our
Government, to expect that a repeal of them would be followed by a war between
the United States and France, unless the French Edicts should also be
repealed. Even this communication,
although silencing for ever the plea of a disposition in the
In no other proof existed of a
predetermination of the British Government against a repeal of its orders, it
might be found in the correspondence of the Minister Plenipotentiary of the
United States at London and the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in 1810,
on the question whether the Blockade of May 1806 was considered as in force, or
as not in force. It had been ascertained that the French Government, which
urged this Blockade as the ground of its Berlin Decree, was willing, in the
event of its removal, to repeal that Decree; which being followed by alternate
repeals of the other offensive Edicts, might abolish the whole system on both
sides. This inviting opportunity for
accomplishing an object so important to the
There was a period when a favorable
change in the policy of the British Cabinet, was justly considered as established. The Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic
Majesty here proposed an adjustment of the differences more immediately
endangering the harmony of the two Countries.
The proposition was accepted with the promptitude and cordiality
corresponding with the invariable professions of this Government. A foundation appeared to be laid for a
sincere and lasting reconciliation. The
prospect, however, quickly vanished. The
whole proceeding was disavowed by the British Government, without any
explanation which could, at that time, repress the belief, that the disavowal
proceeded from a spirit of hostility to the commercial rights and prosperity of
In reviewing the conduct of Great Britain towards the United States, our attention is necessarily drawn to the warfare just renewed by the Savages, on one of our extensive frontiers; a warfare which is known to spare neither age nor sex, and to be distinguished by features peculiarly shocking to humanity. It is difficult to account for the activity, and combinations, which have for some time been developing themselves among tribes in constant intercourse with British traders and garrisons, without connecting their hostility with that influence; and without recollecting the authenticated examples of such interpositions, heretofore furnished by the officers and agents of that Government.
Such is the spectacle of injuries and indignities which have been heaped on our Country: and such the crisis which its unexampled forbearance and conciliatory efforts have not been able to avert. It might at least have been expected, that an enlightened nation, if less urged by moral obligations, or invited by friendly dispositions on the part of the United States would have found, in its true interest alone, a sufficient motive to respect their rights and their tranquility on the high seas; that an enlarged policy would have favored that free and general circulation of commerce, in which the British nation is at all times interested, and which in times of war, is the best alleviation of its calamities to herself, as well as to other Belligerents; and more especially, that the British Cabinet, would not, for the sake of a precarious and surreptitious intercourse with hostile markets, have persevered in a course of measures, which necessarily put at hazard in invaluable market of a great and growing Country, disposed to cultivate the mutual advantages of an active commerce.
Other Councils have prevailed. Our moderation and conciliation, have had no other effect than to encourage perseverance, and to enlarge pretensions. We behold our Seafaring Citizens still the daily victims of lawless violence, committed on the great common and highway of nations, even within sight of the Country which owes them protection. We behold our vessels, freighted with the products of our soil and industry, or returning with the honest proceeds of them, wrested from their lawful destinations, confiscated by prize Courts no longer the organs of public law, but the instruments of arbitrary Edicts; and their unfortunate crews dispersed and lost, or forced, or inveigled in British ports, into British fleets: whilst arguments are employed, in support of these aggressions, which have no foundation but in a principle equally supporting a claim, to regulate our external commerce, in all cases whatsoever.
We behold, in fine, on the side of
Whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations, and these accumulating wrongs; or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the almighty disposer of events; avoiding all connections which might entangle it in the contest or views of other powers, and preserving a constant readiness to concur in an honorable re-establishment of peace and friendship, is a solemn question, which the Constitution wisely confides to the Legislative Department of the Government. In recommending it to their early deliberations, I am happy in the assurance, that the decision will be worthy the enlightened and patriotic councils, of a virtuous, a free and a powerful Nation.
Having presented this view of the
relations of the United States with Great Britain, and of the solemn
alternative growing out of them, I proceed to remark, that the communications
last made to Congress, on the subject of our relations with France will have
shown, that since the revocation of her Decrees, as they violated the neutral
rights of the United States, her Government has authorized illegal captures, by
its privateers and public ships: and that other outrages have been practiced,
on our vessels and our citizens. It will have been seen also, that no indemnity
had been provided or satisfactorily pledged, for the expensive spoliations
committed under the violent and retrospective orders of the French Government,
against the property of our Citizens seized within the jurisdiction of
[Congress heard the message with
mixed feelings and no sense of urgency.
A declaration of war was not passed until June 18, when the British
minister was handed his passports and informed that a state of war existed