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2006 Book Reviews


Henry Adams and the Making of America by Garry Wills








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Thanks to Garry Wills, readers of his new book, Henry Adams and the Making of America, will gain new impressions of that seminal historian, will have misconceptions corrected, and will share Wills’ gratitude to Adams for his contributions to the study of history. Today, Adams is read via The Education of Henry Adams, or Democracy. Most readers and historians have neglected the nine volumes of the history of the United States from 1800 to 1817. Thanks to Wills, that work comes alive. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 4, “Three Foes: The History, Volume Three,” pp. 186-193:


Following his triumphant first term, Jefferson had a pro­gressively difficult second term. It began with trouble coming from three foes, two abroad (Talleyrand and Pitt) and one at home (Marshall).


The First Foe: Talleyrand

Engagement in Paris with Talleyrand had been broken off, for a time, by Monroe. Fed up with French attempts to make a “job” of negotiations for Florida, Monroe decided that he could, as a special emissary, leave Paris and make his demands for Florida directly to Spain. But he began in Madrid with a great disadvantage, the presence there of the regular minister, Charles Pinckney, whose bluster had amused as much as of­fended the court. Instead of making things better, Monroe brought things to an abrupt halt by refusing to discuss the separate points at is­sue with Spain (618). He said all of five demands must be met together (1) surrender of Texas as part of “Louisiana:’ (2) surrender of Florida as part of “Louisiana:’ (3) recompense for spoliations incurred by the closing of New Orleans, (4) return of ships and goods seized by Spain, and (5) return of ships and goods seized by France and taken to Span­ish harbors. He was exasperated that “for nearly a year past the French and Spanish governments had combined to entrap and humiliate him” (622). He and Pinckney encouraged each other to think that threats of force were the only expedient left them.

In this spirit, Monroe urged Armstrong in Paris to threaten American action if France did not join in pressuring Spain to yield what he was asking. As Adams puts it, “He undertook to terrify Napoleon” (622). A harsh response from the French government convinced Monroe that he could do no more in Madrid than in Paris.


To escape from Madrid without suffering some personal mortification was his best hope, and fortunately Godoy took no pleasure in personalities. The Spaniard was willing to let Monroe escape as soon as his defeat should be fairly recorded. (624)


In this mood Monroe went to England, which still lacked an American in the minister’s post. But he fared no better there. In Spain his de­mands had at least been turned down courteously (if tediously); in Eng­land they were rudely rebuffed when not ignored:


Monroe had felt the indifference or contempt of Lord Harrowby, Talley­rand, and Cevallos: that of Lord Muigrave was but one more variety of a wide experience. The rough treatment of Monroe by the Englishman was a repetition of that which he had accepted or challenged [provoked] at the hands of the Frenchman and Spaniard. Lord Muigrave showed no wish to trouble himself in any way about the United States. (624)


Monroe was dealing not only with a new foreign minister but a new prime minister as well. William Pitt had replaced the accommodating Addington, and he had a new weapon in his arsenal for use against America. The famous judge of Admiralty Court Sir William Scott de­cided the Essex case in July, 1805, invalidating the former “broken voy­age” rule for neutral trade that a ship could take goods from the Ca­ribbean to Europe if it stopped on the way in a United States port, unloaded there, paid customs, and put the merchandise on a new ship. Now such trade must terminate in America (632). With this ruling, the British fleet began capturing American merchant ships that had ob­served the old broken voyage rule. Monroe could do nothing but protest, and Pitt would do nothing but point to the ruling. Monroe in his frustra­tion saw no recourse for America but to “threaten war upon France, Spain, and England at once” (534). Adams sees a sadly comic side to Monroe’s travail, rejected in court after court, like a silent-movie actor who opens a series of doors and gets a pie in the face every time:


During a century of American diplomatic history, a minister of the United States has seldom if ever within six months suffered, at two great courts [French and Spanish], such contemptuous treatment as had then fallen to Monroe’s lot. . . and he could no longer avoid another defeat [in England] more serious, and even more public, than the two which had already dis­turbed his temper. (631)


The frustration was mounting at home as well. Through the summer and fall of 1805, the Washington triumvirate tried to assess the damage registered in the reports from all three major powers, France, England, and Spain. Negotiation was at a dead end in all three places. Monroe had trod a weary round of rejection. What was left to do? What plan could be put before Congress at the end of the year? On Florida, Jeffer­son could not understand Spain’s attitude. As he told the new minister being sent to Madrid, James Bowdoin, “We want nothing of hers” nothing, Adams wryly notes, but Baton Rouge, Mobile, Pensacola, East Florida, and Texas (642). But the president felt that for now he could de­mand little more than navigation rights on the Mobile River (639). Madison agreed, and said that a new mission should be created to pro­pose this which prompts Adams’s first severe criticism of the man whose presidency he will later be studying: “Madison, after enduring one ‘refusal of all our overtures in a haughty tone: suggested that an­other be invited” (42).

Jefferson was meanwhile reverting to his idea of marrying the British fleet in order to defy France and Spain by seizing Florida and Texas. In August, he wrote to Madison, who was in Philadelphia (where his wife was being treated by the eminent doctor Philip Syng Physick):


Whatever ill humor may at times have been expressed against us by indi­viduals of that country, the first wish of every Englishman’s heart is to see us once more fighting by their side against France; nor could the King or his ministers do an act so popular [with their subjects] as to enter into an alliance with us. . . England should receive an overture as early as pos­sible. (646)


Did Jefferson really think that the British had been hugging sentimental memories of the French and Indian War for nearly half a century (“the Spirit of ‘63”)? Adams noted a little earlier that “Jefferson had the fac­ulty, peculiar to certain temperaments, of seeing what he wished to see, and of believing what he wished to believe” (641).

Jefferson agreed with Madison’s proposal for sending Bowdoin on the mission to Spain, a mission to secure the status quo, but only as a cover for his real response to this crisis: “We should take into consideration whether we ought not immediately to propose to England an eventual treaty of alliance, to come into force whenever (within years) a war shall take place with Spain and France” (544). That was written less than a month after the Essex decision, when Jefferson could not know that the British fleet was already seizing American commercial vessels for violation of it. Madison, too, was ignorant of the decision when he said that he would improve relations with Merry, to see if England might be open to an alliance though he warned against giving too many benefits in return (645-47).

Gallatin, writing from Washington to Madison in Philadelphia and Jefferson in Monticello, threw cold water on all the options being enter­tained negotiation, war, or some combination of the two. He did not share his fellows’ belief that Florida belonged to the United States. The negotiations with Spain had failed because of the “unpardonable oversight or indifference” of Livingston and Monroe in not making the boundaries of the Purchase clear before signing the treaty (648) and be­cause “the demands from Spain were too hard to have expected, even in­dependent of French interference, any success from the negotiation” (DM 5.51—52). As for war, “We again run the risk of lowering the na­tional importance by pretensions which our strength may not at this moment permit us to support” (647).

The physical separation of these three men during such a crucial dis­cussion gives us in their letters a hint of what may have gone on in their Washington meetings. It is an interesting dynamic Jefferson’s high-flying optimism, Madison’s cautious stalling, and Gallatin’s realistic con­centration on what could actually be done. In this case, he advised re­newed negotiations with England and Spain, with fewer demands, while preparing for eventual war. Congress should be asked to build ships of the line not gunboats, and not even frigates, but the Flying Fortresses of their day. Much as Gallatin hated the idea and expense of a navy~ if the United States were going to have one, it should be a real one.

Madison, while still warning that a bargain with England might ask of the United States more than it could give, agreed that it would be a good idea to make gestures in that direction, to put the French “under ap­prehensions of an eventual connection between the United States and Great Britain” (651). Adams is scathing on this plan:


To leave Bonaparte “under apprehensions” was to be the object of Madi­son’s diplomacy at Paris a task which several European governments were then employing half a million armed men to accomplish, hitherto without success, but which Madison hoped to effect by civilities to Merry. (651)


Jefferson could not come up with any better plan. Overtures to the British as war partners “would correct the dangerous error that we are a people whom no injuries can provoke to war:’ but he shrank from the hated step, just as he had during the closing of the entrepôt at New Or­leans. “He shrank from war except under the shield of England, and yet he feared England for an ally even more than Spain for an enemy” (652). What Jefferson meant by using England for a shield was made clear in his report on a cabinet meeting after he had returned to Washington. He wrote Madison, who was still in Philadelphia, that the cabinet consid­ered “whether we shall enter into a provisional alliance with England to come into force only in the event that during the present war we be­come engaged in war with France, leaving the declaration of the casus foederis [activation of the alliance] ultimately with us” (652, emphasis in original).

The idea that this arrangement would appeal to William Pitt is per­haps even more comic than an appeal to the Spirit of ‘63. There is a poi­gnancy in reading this correspondence and reflecting that these men were engaged in conflict with people as shrewd and tricky as Pitt, Na­poleon, Talleyrand, and Godoy. At the very time of this writing, “Pitt’s great collaboration with Russia and Austria against Napoleon took the field” (653). Napoleon was moving on toward his victories at Ulm and Austerlitz yet Madison hoped to put him “under apprehensions” that the United States, without an army, might someday, somehow, do what the troops of Russia and Austria were actually doing.

Only against the backdrop of the irresolute resolutions the triumvi­rate came up with in the summer and fall of 1805 can one understand what was decided in November, less than three weeks before the reas­sembling of Congress, when some plan had to be presented. In Septem­ber, Talleyrand sent an intermediary to deliver a letter, in his hand but unsigned, to Armstrong in Paris. The Emperor was still willing to offer his services for the acquisition of Florida if the United States would pay Spain ten million dollars. Armstrong rejected the idea out of hand, but the intermediary came back with a lowered price only seven million. It was clear that France would pocket all or most of the money, and force Spain to do its will. When Talleyrand was jobbing, says Adams, “Spain was always the party to suffer, and France was always the party to profit by Spanish sacrifices” (629).

Madison had written in the very month when this letter was delivered that the United States would refuse “every hope of turning our contro­versy with Spain into a French job” (651). Yet when the letter reached Jefferson, such was his extremity that he was already considering some such measure. Talleyrand would get the money? No matter. It was time for a new effort, he told Madison in late October:


Where should this be done? Not at Madrid, certainly. At Paris! through Armstrong, or Armstrong and Monroe as negotiators, France as the inter­mediary, the price of the Floridas as the means. We need not care who gets that, and an enlargement of the sum we thought of may be the bait to France:’ (954—55)


The triumvirate was ready to bargain but it would offer only five mil­lion, with two million put down as an advance payment. Now all the tri­umvirate had to do was get the two million from Congress, which would be harder than they imagined.

Since Adams is scornful of the plan the triumvirate finally came up with (or had thrust upon them), it is worth asking what he thought should have been done. Monroe and Armstrong, convinced by the futil­ity of their negotiations that they would never achieve what was wanted, urged Jefferson to seize Texas by force. The Mexican army was not large on that frontier, and it would take time for Spain to supply extra troops. Adams who thinks Texas, unlike Florida, was a part of the Purchase agrees with the two ministers:


Spain might then [after the seizure of Texas] have declared war; but had Godoy taken this extreme measure, he could have had no other motive than to embarrass Napoleon by dragging France into a war with the United States, and had this policy succeeded, President Jefferson’s difficulties would have vanished in an instant. He might then have seized Florida; his controversies with England about neutral trade, blockade, and impress­ment would have fallen to the ground; and had war with France continued two years, until Spain threw off the yoke of Napoleon and once more raised in Europe the standard of popular liberty, Jefferson might perhaps have ef­fected some agreement with the Spanish patriots, and would then have stood at the head of the coming popular [anti-Bonapartist] movement throughout the world the movement which he and his party were des­tined to resist. (658)


Jefferson, by continually deferring to Napoleon, hoping to get Florida from him, had helped crush freedom in Haiti, handicapped England in its effort to rally Europe against the Emperor, and made it harder for Spain to slip out from under his yoke. Even Dumas Malone agrees on what (ideally) should have been done in suppressing Napoleon:


In the light of subsequent events it can be argued that Jefferson would have run relatively little risk and have saved much later trouble if he had fol­lowed the recommendation of his representatives abroad that he employ force at this juncture. Had he been a Napoleon Bonaparte, or even an Alex­ander Hamilton or Aaron Burr, conceivably he might have taken military steps as a result of which his country would have gained speedy possession of territories it was destined to acquire later by means which were not wholly diplomatic. By ranging the United States, in effect, on the side of Great Britain in the international conflict, he might have greatly reduced, though he could hardly have wholly obviated, later commercial difficulties with that country. He might have prevented the War of 1812 and hastened the downfall of Napoleon, whom he actually detested. Unlike the historian, however, he was unable to take a retrospective view. (DM 5.55)


Instead, Jefferson chose a course that did not work and one that was morally sordid, one that would rely on Napoleon, not oppose him. As Jefferson told the Anglophobe editor of the Aurora: “We were not dis­posed to join with Britain under any belief that she is fighting for the lib­erties of mankind” (DM 5.108—9). But in fact, she was. The course Jef­ferson chose had only an outside chance of working (and it did not work), and it involved unsavory means used, as John Randolph put it when shown the plan, to “excite one nation by money to bully another nation out of its property” (695).

To pursue his scheme, Jefferson first needed to get the money be would be offering Talleyrand. He had to approach Congress in a way that would not arouse public opposition to buying what Jefferson said had already been bought. Secrecy was important, as Talleyrand knew. Jefferson decided to use a two-track approach, one for the American public and one for those with what would later be called “security clear­ance:’ To throw the public off, he used his inaugural address to inveigh heavily against Spanish aggressions in the vicinity of New Orleans, as if there were no longer any hope of negotiation with that country. This, he told Gallatin, would have the extra benefit of putting pressure on France to settle the Florida question without war. “He played a game of finesse hardly safe in the face of men like Godoy, Talleyrand, and Napoleon, whose finesse was chiefly used to cover force” (682).

While requesting funds for fortifications and naval expansion, Jeffer­son said he would be sending a message to Congress for its confidential consideration. Adams thinks that the martial language of the address made members of Congress expect war plans to be laid before them. In­stead, Jefferson’s message assured the members that there was now great promise of successful negotiation and that he would need two mil­lion dollars as “expenses” for this unspecified plan. Gallatin criticized the message as too vague the two million was to be a down payment on a larger sum, but Congress might think it was the whole amount re­quired.

Jefferson also asked Congress to join him in deception of the public. He actually sent Congress two messages, “double messages breathing war and peace” (684), and asked that Congress make a public answer only to the bellicose one while secretly voting the money asked for in the other one. John Randolph wanted neither the secrecy nor the grant of money. Randolph, whose hatred for Madison over the Yazoo settlement had become a fixation, was now trying to promote Monroe for president, and he remembered how Monroe had left Paris in high dudgeon rather than “grease the fists of Napoleon with American gold” (DM 5.75). Randolph lost this battle. The Two Million Act was passed, though there was a rancorous dispute over the choice of an emissary to offer Talley­rand the money.

John Armstrong was chosen as the emissary to work with James Bowdoin, the minister already in Paris. The two submitted their bid to Napoleon, but when no reply was forthcoming they floundered in the uncertain world of Talleyrand’s agents and money managers. At length Napoleon told Talleyrand he was not willing to take Florida for the Americans Adams thinks because his designs on Spain made it desir­able that hostility exist between that country and America (860—69). Talleyrand lost his bribe money, and the Americans again lost the Flor­ida they claimed they already had. It is a trying thing to put one’s soul up for sale and find no buyer.


The combination of Wills and Adams make this period of history come alive. Henry Adams and the Making of America highlights the compromises made in the early years of the republic, and the opportunities presented to our early leaders. Adams’ optimism shines throughout this book, and provides a new image of him. It also becomes very clear how Henry felt about John and John Quincy. Entertaining and enjoyable reading, especially for those who enjoy this period of American history.



Steve Hopkins, December 22, 2005



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