Nathaniel Macon of North
Carolina chaired the House
Foreign Relations Committee

War of 1812

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Founding Fathers

Because a card only holds so much.

Macon Bill Number 2
The English Channel is really an overgrown river. At one point in much colder prehistoric times it was only that, just a river, and both the Thames and the Seine flowed into it. (This is the situation in the game Origins: How We Became Human, by the way.) Unfortunately for Napoleon, by the 1800s it had already become what it is today, an impassable barrier between him and the ability to conquer Great Britain by land.

Consequently, Britain and France engaged in a furious struggle on the high seas, and American trading ships were often the victims. From the American perspective, the British were worse, for not only did they seize vessels destined for their enemy, but they were wont to "impress", i.e. seize, American sailors as well, claiming they were deserters from the Royal Navy. Well, the two nations spoke the same language and in those days of imperfect documentation, it was difficult to be sure either way.

What was America to do? In President Jefferson decided his time was waning and the time of Madison on its way. For the last year and a half he mostly moved his stuff back home and left the decisionmaking in the able hands of Secretary of State Madison. The solution was to avoid a ruinous war and instead try to have an effect via an embargo of US exports, The Embargo Act of 1807. Although it was highly unpopular with northern shipping interests, the research of historian Henry Adams has shown that it hurt the tobacco states even more. It was very difficult to enforce as well. Unsurprisingly it was repealed in 1809.

The new idea was the Non-Intercourse Act, which wasn't the bedroom law you might think. This specified that the embargo only applied to France and Britain. Of course this was even less enforceable than the previous embargo for once a ship was allowed to leave port, who was to know where it would go.

As the new act wasn't working either, on May 14, 1810 Congress thought it would try a new tack and passed Macon's Bill Number 2. The law would lift the embargo with Britain or France – for three months – if either would cease attacking American shipping.

In retrospect, that Congress looks a little naive, if not about statecraft, at least about their opponents, for no sooner was this announced than Napoleon saw an opportunity. He immediately communicated to President Madison that indeed, France would be happy to abide by such an agreement. Madison so informed the Congress and all looked happy for a moment, except in Great Britain. The British saw this as a form of alliance between France and the US and threatened force. Meanwhile it turned out that Napoleon had never intended to actually follow through with his promise and eventually Madison rescinded the order, but the damage had been done and the US was on the road to war with Great Britain, a war for which it was woefully underprepared. How happy Napoleon must have been to have accomplished so much with but a little lie.

Founding Fathers

Created: 22 December 2014