- The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series ed. by Mary A. Hackett, and: The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series, Volume 11: 1 January 1806-31 May 1806 ed. by Mary A. Hackett
In the early days of President Thomas Jefferson's second term, in 1805 and 1806, James Madison was capably handling the many demands that came with running the State Department. He instructed and strategized with representatives of the United States serving abroad at a time when the stakes, particularly in European diplomatic relations, were growing ever higher. He coordinated issues of territorial governance, an especially difficult and important task in the recently acquired Louisiana territory. And he managed the comings and goings, angry demands, and humble requests of international diplomats assigned to Washington, D.C., men who were always difficult, often vain, and usually dissembling in one way or another. Through it all, Madison was also a loving husband, a confidant second-to-none to the president, and a serious thinker who turned, as he had in 1787, to intensive study of history to help resolve present-day troubles. All of these things are in abundant evidence in Volumes 10 and 11 of the ongoing Secretary of State Series of The Papers of James Madison, both of which are filled with invaluable documents and impressive editorial insights.
In Madison's correspondence with ministers such as John Armstrong, James Monroe, and James Bowdoin, dispatched to those European nations that most immediately affected the geographic and commercial aspirations of the young United States—Napoleon's France; its enemy, Great Britain; and its subservient ally, Spain, respectively—we see a secretary of state confident in his role and fairly clear about U.S. goals, particularly regarding free trade and the acquisition of Spanish-held territory in North America. But Madison remained somewhat uncertain about the best means to pursue those ends. In the late summer and fall of 1805, for example, Jefferson and Madison discussed seriously the prospect of seeking an alliance with Great Britain against Spain and France. Before long, such an idea would seem ridiculous.
Over the course of the eleven months covered in these two volumes, the balance of power in Europe could scarcely have been more in flux, and the [End Page 152] United States watched closely. Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz at the end of 1805 left the Continent more in his hands than ever before. And that resounding French success, of course, came just weeks after the great British naval victory at Trafalgar, which, from an American perspective, added great consequence to existing British policies restricting (often by forcibly seizing) neutral ships trading during this time of war.
Madison had already spent months researching and writing an argument for why those British actions were a violation of long-standing international law. Invoking the so-called Rule of 1756, which held that neutral ships were not allowed in a time of war to access any trade previously denied them in peacetime, the British government and the Royal Navy clamped down on American shipping and trade. And Madison, for both practical and philosophical reasons, would have none of it. His lengthy An Examination of the British Doctrine, Which Subjects to Capture a Neutral Trade, Not Open in Time of Peace appeared anonymously for sale and on the desks of Congress in January 1806, and it appears in Volume 11, annotated, along with the relevant notes and sketches made during the preceding months, so that Madison's exhaustive research into treaties and legal arguments can be better understood and appreciated. Madison was a diligent historian when given a practical problem to explore. And...