WHEN President Madison sent his war message to Congress on June 1, 1812, there was no precedent to follow. The measure was recognized as of high importance, but other measures had seemed equally important to the young republic. The congressmen regarded the message as one to be debated in the usual manner. American citizens watched with interest, registering their views as best they could. Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States had met many international problems irresolutely, with the actions of the Barbary pirates and the crippling of the Chesapeake by the British as outstanding examples. Avoiding outright war despite provocations was regarded as an expedient to allow us to develop our strength. In 1812 the young nation had neither naval nor military strength. War was certainly a fit subject for debate.
The Republicans were expected to follow the recommendation of their president although the party was not well enough organized to command a party vote. The decision in Congress was made chiefly by southern and western members, urged on by the War Hawks led by Clay and Calhoun. The Federalists opposed, although not as obstructionists to Madison. They preferred peace with Great Britain so that their commerce could continue, at least in some fashion. Proponents of war, with designs on Canada, countered by pointing to prospects of making the seas completely open to our commerce.
New York State had far more at stake than the western and southern states. War would interfere with commerce out of New York City. In addition, Canada touched New York State borders both at Niagara and in the north country. The waters of Lakes Ontario and Champlain would undoubtedly be paths of British invasion. The war question meant much to Van der Kemp as a citizen of central New York and as a Federalist. He also had a son eligible for military duty.
The Utica Patriot carried fervent editorials in opposition to the war and expressed its approval of peace meetings by lengthy and favorable reports. “A large and respectable meeting of the Friends of Peace, Liberty, and Commerce, in the County of Oneida” occurred at Whitesboro on October 13. Resolutions against the administration were passed.1 If Van der Kemp was not at this meeting, some of his neighbors surely were. Sentiment against the war resulted in a “peace Ticket” in the fall election. Morris Miller, a friend of Van der Kemp, carried the town of Trenton for the Peace party by a vote of 152 to 69 and other towns by similar majorities. He was elected to Congress. Editorials called Madison’s war “ruinous.”2
In the meantime soldiers, sailors and marines were passing through Oneida County on their way to Sackett’s Harbor or to Fort Niagara. Some of those going to Sackett’s Harbor passed through Oldenbarneveld. Newspapers reported a few contingents to be unruly and others were accused of theft where they camped. The build-up of land and sea forces on the border continued and ultimately led to action. Oneida County was not so far away but that its invasion by the British was considered possible if Niagara, Sackett’s Harbor and Plattsburg did not hold.
Volunteers from Oneida County marched away north or west. Colonel Andrew W. Bellinger led a whole detachment of locals to the north and in the fall Colonel John Westcott led the Oneida militia to Sackett’s Harbor. Captain John Billings of Oldenbarneveld took one company north. At home a guard was formed of the older men and Adam Mappa became captain of the Silver Greys. He drilled the company rigidly, “put them through the manual, marched and wheeled with the boys—left—right,” and tired himself “finely.”3 The state government allowed this home guard 75 muskets and one box of cartridges on loan.4 Van der Kemp was not one of the marchers although he would have taken a musket if an invasion had threatened central New York. At the age of sixty he could do more good as a civilian by oral and written word.
Only part of what Van der Kemp wrote and spoke was recorded. Public statements doubting the fitness of Stephen Van Rensselaer for command at Niagara because he was a Federalist and an early opponent of the war surely roused Van der Kemp to his defense. The argument between the regular army and the militia found Van der Kemp favoring the state militia. When Van Rensselaer ran for governor against Tompkins, and De Witt Clinton ran against President Madison, Van der Kemp was for Van Rensselaer and Clinton. One document indicating his activity is a letter from Mappa to Morris S. Miller, newly elected congressman, written on January 6, 1813.
… I take the liberty of enclosing these two little fragments of our friend Van der Kemp; if you think they are worth a little corner in the [Utica] Patriot or Albany Gazette, the printer is welcome to them, provided that no name of the author is asked, for my friend, I believe, would not wish to be dragged before the bar of the majesties.5
If the “fragments” were published, they were probably signed Manlius, Pro Bono Publico, Cato, or a similar classical pseudonym. This was according to the custom of the day, and allowed “letters to the editor” to be identified in series if the same writer continued his contributions. In Holland Van der Kemp had used the name Junius and in religious contributions to the Panoplist in 1806 he used the name Candidus. The referral of the items to Miller gave them more weight and also allowed for secrecy. It is doubtful, however, that Van der Kemp feared any reprisals from the Republican officials for his writings.
In the winter of 1812–13 an epidemic illness spread through central New York and the north country. Physicians were uncertain or in disagreement as to how to treat it, although when in doubt bleeding seemed to be the logical procedure. The disease, perhaps a virus, spread to civilians and soldiers alike. Doctor Luther Guiteau described the spread of the epidemic as follows:
Amidst this general gloom and alarm which overspread the country, our soldiers daily falling victims—our legislature then in session at Albany witnessing the decrease of its numbers, and our citizens in every town bending beneath its force, the inhabitants of the northern towns of this [Oneida] and Herkimer county as well as the counties of Lewis and Jefferson had their full share of calamity and were thoroughly tried in the crucible of affliction.6
Both Mrs. Van der Kemp and Peter came down with the disease. Peter, with the stronger constitution of a young man of twenty-three, threw off the disease after some varied treatments including bleeding. His mother was not so fortunate. At the age of sixty-four she suffered a long illness “under a rigidly antiphlogistic regimen.” Doctor Guiteau regretted that he did not bleed her.7 On May 5, 1813, Van der Kemp wrote to Adams, “The severe sickness of my Son was scarce over before Mrs. VanderKemp was indisposed. She is now—after four weeks illness reconvalescent, and will—ere long recover her strenght [sic].” Mrs. Mappa and her daughter, Sophia, also had the disease but both were on the way to recovery at this time. To add to Van der Kemp’s troubles, his close friend, Chancellor Robert Livingston, died and John Mifflin, his friend at Philadelphia, was very weak with the gout. The celebration of Van der Kemp’s sixty-first birthday and the twenty-fifth anniversary of his landing in New York was less than joyful in 1813.8
The war on the northern front was disastrous to the Americans in the campaigning of 1812. Hull had surrendered Detroit, Smyth and Van Rensselaer failed at Niagara and Dearborn did practically nothing against Montreal from his base at Plattsburg. The War Department continued to send troops to Niagara and to Sackett’s Harbor and the new secretary, John Armstrong, urged General Henry Dearborn to action. The plan was to strike at the Canadian villages of Kingston and York from the Sackett’s Harbor base. The attack on Kingston was not made, partly due to an erroneous report that reinforcements of European veterans had arrived. The attack on York awaited a proper buildup of forces, the arrival of spring, or the inclination of Dearborn. One small raid was made on Elizabethtown across the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg and a retaliatory raid by the British and Canadians on Ogdensburg.
Van der Kemp did not like what he heard about the military confusion at Sackett’s Harbor. He decided to see for himself, perhaps aided and encouraged by his political friends. Sometime near the first of March he started north on the military road, either by horseback or in a sleigh, “to take a view of the boasted powerful defence of our frontiers, after the surprise of Ogdensburg, courted so long by the iterated incursions on the defenceless and peaceable Canadians.” He reported the raid to have been severe with much loss of property both public and private. When he arrived at the harbor all was confusion because of an impending attack by a superior force of British veterans. The place “had more the appearance of a crowded, noisy, European fair than that of a well regulated fortified camp.” No sentinels challenged those coming and going. Morale of the troops was low because of the military situation and the increasing amount of sickness. Yet Van der Kemp thought a few crack companies would “fight the Devil” if well led. The raw militia were hardly fit to fight a human foe. However, the infant navy was “in an excellent condition, full of activity, and obeying orders at a wink.” Commanders James T. Leonard and Melancthon T. Woolsey had the sailors well in hand and the marines were ready too. If Sackett’s Harbor was to be saved, the naval forces would do it.9
No attack came until much later in the year when conditions were vastly changed. In the meantime, General Dearborn took the best of the troops on an expedition to burn the half-built frigates and the government buildings at York. From there the expedition went to Niagara where skirmishing took place but ended with no great advantages to either side. Back at Sackett’s Harbor the British made an attack, having heard of the weakened condition of the base. Van der Kemp would have been even more discouraged if he had been there then. On May 28, the British appeared, were frightened off briefly by American gunboats, but landed on the following day. At the first shots the militia fled. General Jacob Brown held a position with his regulars and rallied some of the militia. The British withdrew and returned to Canada.
Van der Kemp and Mappa were both very busy men by this time. Mappa was involved in the organization of a woolen factory and Van der Kemp was finishing his major book and planning a trip to Boston. A story has been handed down that only Federalists were allowed to buy stock in the woolen mill. Prices were high and profits were good until after the war. Then the Federalists lost money.10 The organization borrowed money from the state school fund in 1812 and later the state took action to recover this money. Van der Kemp was concerned with Mappa’s overwork and possible financial losses as a friend as well as a political brother.
Van der Kemp continued to have headaches and Adams told him not to work so hard and worry so much. His visit to Boston in August of 1813, his book on natural science, his reading, and his garden took his mind away from the war. But he was never able to escape it for long.
Harrison was successful around Detroit but Wilkinson’s attempt on Montreal failed. In mid-December the American forces burned Newark on the Canadian side and the British, Canadians and their Indian allies retaliated by capturing Fort Niagara and slaughtering the garrison. Then they destroyed the villages of Lewiston, Manchester, Schlosser and Tuscarora, going thence to destroy the ships at Black Rock and to burn that village along with Buffalo. The whole Niagara country was laid waste. News of the tragedy reached Oneida County and aroused the sympathy of the inhabitants. Mappa and Van der Kemp conscientiously did what they could to help. In the Utica Patriot appeared the following notice:
The subscribers offer themselves to the Inhabitants of this town and village, to receive and forward any gifts, for the relief of the suffering inhabitants on the Niagara frontier, and request the cooperation to this charitable end of the Washington Benevolent Society, and Masonic Lodge.
F. A. Venderkemp
A. G. Mappa
Oldenbarneveld, Jan. 19, 1814.11
A month later the legislature passed a $50,000 relief act to augment the compassionate aid offered by private citizens such as Van der Kemp.
The sympathetic Van der Kemp had just recovered from a serious malady at the time he offered to send relief supplies to the Niagara country. He feared the infection might be the same as that which killed his father. “An odious swelling in my right upper jaw—rending my face so monstrous to frighten babes in their mothers’ laps—aided with acute head ache and severe fevers” made death appear imminent. He had used a lotion of ammoniac and vinegar. His recovery by mid-January was signified by attendance at “a party of Quadrille” at Mappa’s house.12 He was well enough to dance—and also well enough to worry about political matters again.
The Madison administration had a staunch supporter in Governor Tompkins but Federalists and Peace Democrats had no confidence in either the state or national executive. Van der Kemp heard that Jefferson was in favor of Tompkins as next president and the idea revolted him. “It seems to me he [Jefferson] could not stoop so low—if this State must provide one—[let it be] a King [Rufus]—Platt [Jonas]—a Clinton [De Witt]—or any other one, whose little finger is bigger than the soul and body of that manikin …”13
As victories were won by the British and their allies on the European continent, peace with the United States seemed more desirable. Lord Castlereagh offered to negotiate directly and Madison agreed, appointing John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard, Henry Clay, Jonathan Russell and Albert Gallatin as commissioners. The senate confirmed the appointments in January and February, 1814. Van der Kemp rejoiced: “God’s blessings on the Peace Negotiations! May the Son [J. Q. Adams] be so successful as the Father—So their country shall be indebted to them—as their benefactors! hail—happy Peace!”14 Sober second thoughts or discussions with more pessimistic citizens caused him, three weeks later, to ask Adams if he really thought the administration was sincere in negotiating for peace on a perfect reciprocity. He said a simple yes or no would relieve his anxiety.15
Adams replied that he did believe the administration wanted peace, but doubted that Britain would consent to a peace of “perfect reciprocity.”16 Van der Kemp had one more comment. He hoped that Adams was correct but why did not Madison allow John Quincy Adams and William H. Crawford to conduct the negotiations? The sending of five commissioners seemed a waste of money and a discourtesy to Adams.17
Another phase of the war delighted and enthused Van der Kemp. In November, 1813, the Dutch rose against their French masters and in a few months were able to re-establish their independence. The definite news reached Van der Kemp early in February and he wrote happily to Adams as follows:
Fill the glass to the brim—and empty it till the last drop. Now you rejoice with your friend on the reestablished ancient Dutch Government—My friends rule once more—The Almighty make them prosper, and confound their enemies, and humble them in the dust. Was John Adams now America’s President—I would beg him, how ungracefully I may beg, to send me immediately on an extraordinary mission—to congratulate the government and renew the alliance, and treaty of commerce, which we owe to you—or—had I the hundred part of the confidence in our Administration, which you so imperiously commanded, I would offer it my services—persuaded that no individual—how far my superior in talents—could be so successful.18
The Dutch people at Oldenbarneveld rejoiced with Van der Kemp and asked him to prepare an oration. For three weeks he read nothing “except a few of Horace’s Odes” while he worked from his own extensive notes. Congratulations on the freedom of the Dutch poured in daily, one accompanied by a cooked haddock. Van der Kemp said he stopped writing long enough to eat it all. He added, “I never dreamed that I should—so near the grand climacteric year [Napoleon’s downfall] have composed an oration … in behalf of the Dutch, and meddle anew with their history and political concerns—”19 The oration was read at Mappa’s house.
He was requested to deliver the oration at Utica, and March 12 was set for the celebration. He asked if his friends James Kipp of Utica, Majors Benjamin Newkirk and Robert Cochran at Palatine and George Huntington of Rome could be invited. He would write personally to John Bernhard at Oneida Lake, “an old zealous friend of the Orange family.”20 Well did he remember the bitter political quarrel which had caused Bernhard to go out into the even more bitter winter weather in 1795—and the great relief with which he was welcomed back into the Van der Kemp cottage.
On March 8, the following notice appeared:
Pursuant to a previous arrangement by a number of Dutch descendants in this village, who are actuated by strong emotions of joy at the deliverance of Holland, the land of their Forefathers, from the shackles of tyranny and oppression, on Friday next, at ten o’clock A.M. Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, Esq. will deliver an Oration suitable to the occasion, in the Presbyterian Church. The descendants of Dutchmen, and such other patriotic citizens as may wish to partake of the Dinner, to be prepared by Mr. Welles, will please to send their names by Thursday noon to one of the committee.21
On the big day a procession led by a band made its way along the streets of Utica to the church. Doctor Azel Backus, president of Hamilton College, opened the meeting. Van der Kemp gave his oration with “pathos and rapture” and appropriate gesticulations. He outlined the Dutch history and praised the people for their sufferings, their endeavors and their recent glory. The Reverend Henry Dwight, pastor of the church, gave the closing prayer. Then they adjourned to dinner and to toasting and general rejoicing. The orator proposed one of the first.
The County of Oneida—May its inhabitants in emulating the Dutch in their patriotism, love of liberty, frugality, industry and activity, spur their fellow citizens to imitate their example, that the State of New York may obtain that rank and influence in our union, to which it is entitled by its wealth and population.
Peter Van der Kemp added a toast somewhat later:
Morris S. Miller, our representative in Congress—a cheerful friend at home—a firm supporter of our rights in Congress.22
Nathan Williams, prominent attorney, judge and former congressman, wrote a letter of congratulations to Van der Kemp but questioned one word, “miscreants,” which seemed to apply to Madison’s supporters in their opposition to the British.23 Van der Kemp changed the wording for the printed version to avoid political wounds but asserted that “the alliance between the Dutch and English is founded upon the most solid basis—reciprocal Interest—”24
Abigail and John Adams raised a question of a different nature. How could the Dutch go back to a monarchy under the House of Orange after being a republic? Van der Kemp replied to Abigail, “To be frank … I would prefer any Monarchical form of government, did I reside there—than to remain a subject of the French empire—even if Bonaparte was out of the question.”25 To John he said, “I approve the Dutch invitation, and the Prince’s acceptance—supposing him sincere—… If this house provides a wise constitution—then a greater share of Liberty may fall to the lot of every inhabitant than they ever enjoy’d since the abjuration of Philip II.”26
The printed copies were distributed to Van der Kemp’s friends and sold by booksellers. De Witt Clinton and Colonel Benjamin Walker appreciated their copies. Some were sent to Holland and to France. Clinton sent a note of thanks, one of the steps in the growth of his friendship with Van der Kemp.
The orator soon became involved in his studies again and in his garden. The latter became more laborious when his son, Peter, was ill for more than a month. Even though past the age of sixty the father worked in the hay in place of his son and recalled that if he had continued a military career he could have retired at sixty.27
When the word reached Oldenbarneveld that the city of Washington had been burned by a small British force in late August, Van der Kemp was shocked, and aroused anew against the administration.
Alas! City of Washington! This would not have happened under your [the Adams] administration! No President ought to be bullied by his ministers [probably directed at Secretary of War, Armstrong] and he who is too good natured or to weak—to controul the whole entrusted to his care … ought to resign the reins—28
The British had only retaliated for the unnecessary burning of York and several villages of Canada. Van der Kemp did not approve of any of the burning but he did believe in good defense.
At Oldenbarneveld he saw more confusion in the movement of troops to Sackett’s Harbor. Men and supplies passed through and then returned because of counterorders. Such confusion led to grave concern in a father whose son was of military age. In September the Oneida quota was drafted, in it Peter Van der Kemp. “He declined to volunteer—but was determined to go at his country’s call—” The boy’s mother and sister were quite upset but the father was proud of his son. Betsy made Peter’s knapsack and got his equipment ready. The company was ordered to be ready to march the next day but counterorders during the night stopped the departure and the whole outfit was discharged. Within a day or two General George Izard passed through the village with four thousand men on his way from Plattsburg to Sackett’s Harbor.29 Perhaps this was why Peter’s company was not needed. This move was for diversionary purposes and actually weakened the American position at Plattsburg just before a British attack.
A month later Peter was called up under the new state conscription law and this time marched to Sackett’s Harbor. Rumors reported the post to be in considerable danger. “The English fleet is in sight—Ours is brave and commanded by an expert, gallant and worthy officer—God give [grant] our militia may be firm—but they are chiefly without arms, and I doubt, that there is a sufficient supply.”30
The new conscription law angered Van der Kemp and Mappa. In October Van der Kemp began writing letters and newspaper articles. A letter to Benjamin Walker gives part of his activity.
As Judge [Morris S.] Miller and Mr. Varick [Abraham] are absent, and I doubt if Mr. Jerh. v. Rensselaer is at home—I send you enclosed [articles] for the press—requesting the publication with all possible speed….
You shall I know agree with me about our critical situation, and that the only way to prevent disturbances—and avert—perhaps—this deadly blow on our liberty is to show the danger, and prepare the minds against it….
Friend Mappa urges immediate publication—a small pamphlet in 8c as the oration. It may then next week be republished in the U. papers. It may be printed in a day. Lothrop [editor of Utica Patriot] shall not decline to correct the too great coarseness of Idiom….
As soon it is published—I intend—to procure a town-meeting in this place—to have the subject canvassed—
Tomorrow I shall send you another copy—to be forwarded to Albany, either for the N. papers of Websters and Southwick—or for separate publication as may be deemed best—Perhaps [Abraham] Van Vechten—or any other acquaintance of us would charge himself with the trouble.
We shall send a third copy to our friends in N. York to have it inserted there likewise in the papers or published separately….
Mappa was of opinion the signature of an Exempt was preferable—if my name is prefered—upon maturer consideration you are at liberty to use it….31
The major article did appear in pamphlet form and occupied three columns in the Albany Gazette of November 17. It was titled, “An Address to the Citizens of Oneida County on the Subject of the Late Law of this State, for Raising 12,000 Men by Classification of the Militia.” It was signed, “By an Exempt.”32 A second article of similar nature addressed to the citizens of Madison county, was published through the arrangements of Peter Smith. Van der Kemp also wrote a public letter to James Monroe, now secretary of war, intended for publication.33
The response was not encouraging. Van der Kemp could not keep bitterness from his comment to Adams.
My son is yet at the Harbour—and I see him again—in his Native State—doomed to conscription and the Constitution violated by them who had sworn to be its guardians—If my fellow-citizens submit to this—they do not deserve the liberty acquired by their fathers blood—they deserve a Master—and the glorious deeds of the Heroes of 76—the example of an Adams had been for me an innocent lure—to throw my Offspring in Slavery—when I meant to save it from the fangs of European Despots.34
In December a bill was presented in Congress to provide for conscription. Representative Morris S. Miller, who had aided Van der Kemp in his work on the state level, made an able speech against it. This speech was published in pamphlet form early in 1815.35 Miller and Van der Kemp were in correspondence at this time. Van der Kemp wrote that he approved Miller’s reflections on the bank bill because peace seemed so doubtful, the administration not being “sincere in wishing it.” He agreed with Miller that the cause of the nation was “desperate.” The people of New York State were “in a deplorable torpor” and would not awake before the terrible “knife” of despotism was at their throats. Not a person was stirring besides himself. The address he had written had been “horribly mangled” by the press but he had written two more smaller articles. He did not intend to betray his country by surrendering rights “for whose preservation I crossed the Atlantic—I will live or die a free man.” He implored the congressman to write something to rouse the citizens now suffering sickness and death from repeated unnecessary mustering of forces and “without a farthing of their promised wages.”36
Whitesboro had a public meeting of more than two thousand citizens to consider conscription on January 27, 1815. They passed resolutions and sent a memorial to the legislature.37 But peace had already been made. Reports came and with them a rumor that Madison refused the treaty of the commissioners. Van der Kemp said had it been true nothing could have prevented him from loading Madison “with a hearty curse.”38
The peace was accepted and announced. Van der Kemp with another Federalist and two Republicans arranged the celebration in Oldenbarneveld. He felt much better. Some two hundred villagers and others assembled for the reading of the treaty, and marched in procession with a band. Every house was decorated and lighted. Van der Kemp believed the day would bring greater harmony to the people and that now he could look forward to dying in peace.39 War was over, conscription was over, Peter would return, all was well—for the moment.