Historians have long been interested in James Madison’s public service, but this interest has traditionally been confined to his time in Congress and the Constitutional Convention through the time of the diplomatic debacle with England in which he became the only U.S. president to flee the capitol before an invading army. As a result, a complete and accurate appraisal of Madison’s accomplishments has remained elusive. J. C. A. Stagg and Ralph Ketcham, two of the most practiced Madison scholars, offer new contributions to the historiography that help complete our understanding of this most revered yet often criticized statesman.
Stagg’s book, Borderlines in Borderlands, is a determined effort to examine James Madison’s diplomacy with Spain and challenge longstanding theories that the president acted in a manner contrary to international law, deploying subversive strategies in West Florida, East Florida, and Texas in order to expand federal territory. In doing so, Stagg calls into question earlier theories that suggested that Madison was inept in matters of foreign policy. Madison did in fact believe the United States had credible claims within these territories, first through independence and the assumption of all territories formerly a part of the British imperial domain, and later as a “natural” right of a sovereign nation.
There was also the 1803 treaty that secured the Louisiana Territory, with which his predecessor Thomas Jefferson further challenged Spain’s right to the aforementioned regions. Madison chose to address territorial claims through international law and calculated diplomacy; his strategy was greatly influenced by the hostilities that plagued Europe. Knowing that Spain’s defeat by Napoleon and France during the Peninsular War was inevitable, Madison understood that working with Spain, rather than against it, would ensure the successful transition of any disputed territories to the United States. He employed this strategy for several reasons, the most significant of which was the desire to have irrefutable, legally [End Page 492] binding agreements in accord with international law that would prevent the continued presence of foreign imperial claims—particularly French and British—to territories in North America. Equally important was Madison’s desire to protect the economic development and prosperity of New Orleans and parts of southern Georgia in relation to East Florida.
In the event that formal agreements could not be reached with Spain, the president needed to explore the prospect for favorable relations with various local dissident groups who could potentially assume power and displace Spanish authority. To gain a better understanding of regional prospects, Madison dispatched executive agents to observe and make contact with leading revolutionary factions. Stagg emphatically insists these appointees were given specific instructions in accordance with domestic and international law, and consequently they were not “covert” operatives, jargon, as Stagg points out, that is improperly steeped in the language of the Cold War.
Drawing on a vast collection of resources from both U.S. and European archives, Stagg has determined that unforeseen events and the personal ambitions of key characters forced Madison on several occasions to take action, not the other way around. Formally or otherwise, the president did not support civil disobedience in any of Spain’s North American territories. In West Florida in 1808, it was American citizens living under Spanish rule who put into motion a series of events designed to break formal ties with Spain, not intending to create a new independent nation, but to force the United States to intervene. Madison “took possession” of West Florida to prevent not only further challenges to U.S. claims to the region, but to reduce the possibility of retaliation from Spain. In East Florida, it was the unauthorized action of executive agent General James Wilkinson that obliged Madison to abandon his agenda and perform damage control. Tasked with peacefully negotiating with a local Spanish official for the parts of West Florida not already...