Assume, reader, that in 1803 Bonaparte did not sell Louisiana to the United States but retained it as a French possession and sent a strong army to guard it. Assume further that Alexander Hamilton recovered from the wound received in his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.
Hamilton's brush with death restored to him a measure of public trust and affection. He went on to assume effective leadership of the Federalist opposition to Jefferson's administration, though deep in his heart he was convinced that the constitution of 1787—a "frail and worthless fabric," he had once called it—could never last, that the federal union would someday fall apart.
The duel discredited Burr in the North and East. When his term as vice-president expired in 1805, Burr made his way to Georgia. The federal experiment had lost popularity in that frontier state; there was resentment that the Yazoo claims had not been settled and that the Indian tribes had not been expelled. Burr was soon deep in the intrigues of Georgia politics.
Jefferson's second term saw the triumphs of his first term go sour. In domestic affairs, his Republican party threatened to break into factions. In foreign relations he found no way to end the harassment of American commerce in the endless British war with Napoleon. After various ineffectual gestures and unsuccessful efforts to negotiate an arrangement with Britain, at the end of 1807 he pushed through Congress his pet project, an embargo on all foreign trade. The ruin thereby threatened not merely to New England shipping but to those Georgia interests which had hitherto held aloof from Burr enabled Burr to carry though the secession of Georgia from the Union. Over the private protests of his secretary of state and closest friend and ally, James Madison, Jefferson acquiesced in the secession of Georgia; consistent with his constitutional principles, he could not do otherwise.
The embargo, Jefferson's handling of the secession crisis, and the efforts of John Randolph's "Old Republican" faction to make James Monroe president, all combined to prevent the election of Madison in 1808 as Jefferson's successor. A narrow victory went to Hamilton's "Constitutional Union" ticket of the Federalist John Marshall for president and the Republican DeWitt Clinton for vice-president. Jefferson retired to Monticello and soon died, a broken man. But the "Constitutional Union" coalition proved to have no enduring basis.
There came to prominence in those years a patriotic and ambitious young Republican from Kentucky named Henry Clay. Concluding that a war with Britain to vindicate American honor was the only cure for the seeming disintegration of the federal union, he and a like-minded band of followers, called by their foes "War-Hawks," made such a war the goal of their policy. In 1810 they defeated the ratification of a treaty which Hamilton had negotiated with Britain to settle the issues of neutral rights. In 1812 they defeated Marshall's bid for a second term, electing Madison as president and Clay himself as vice-president. Hamilton and other Northern Federalists concluded that the separation of the Northern states was inevitable and desirable; some of this group actively connived at the War-Hawks' efforts, on the theory that a war with Britain would justify secession.
In the spring of 1814, Napoleon was finally defeated in Europe. Spurning the suggestion that he abdicate and retire to Elba or some similar place, he escaped through the British blockade to New Orleans with his family and a few followers. Though he was welcomed by his army and the Creoles, within a few months the army was devastated by an epidemic of yellow fever. Shortly thereafter, word came that the British were sending a powerful expedition to attack New Orleans. Napoleon dispatched two special emissaries to Washington to seek an American alliance: Marshal Victor, Duke of Mobile, Captain-General of Louisiana, who was popular with the Americans, and Napoleon's foreign minister, Armand de Caulaincourt, Duke of Vicenza, who had fled France with his Emperor.
Victor and Caulaincourt reached Washington just as Clay and his War-Hawks, gambling that at the showdown the North would not secede, were making their final push for war with Britain. A war resolution passed the House of Representatives through the votes of New England secessionists. In the Senate, Hamilton warned that war could mean the dissolution of the union, in a speech whose passion astonished his hearers; for at the last minute, Hamilton drew back from the event he had so long predicted and more recently sought. Clay replied to Hamilton in the most dramatic and brilliant speech of his career. The Senate divided evenly on the resolution. Clay as vice-president cast a tiebreaking vote for war. That was Nov. 12, 1814.
* * * *
So now it was up to James Madison.
Under the Constitution he had until November 25 to consider the resolution. If he approved it, a state of war would result. If he disapproved it, it would be returned to the House and could not become effective without a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, a vote that clearly could not be achieved. If he did neither, on November 26 it would go into effect automatically. Around him raged the storm; he remained calm and inscrutable at its eye. No one knew what he would do. No one could tell what the country really thought, if it thought anything.
Albert Gallatin, his secretary of state, implored Madison to veto the resolution promptly and firmly. It is a time for leadership, he urged. If the country does not know what it thinks, it will think what you tell it to think.
Madison simply looked at him quizzically.
"It isn't that easy," he said.
* * * *
Gallatin and others remarked upon how very bad the president looked. Never strong, the little man now seemed withered away to a mummy. He could not sleep. Dolley would awaken in the small hours of the night to find him sitting by the window, a greatcoat over his nightshirt, staring westward through the darkness as if he could see beyond the Potomac, beyond the rolling hills of Virginia to Montpelier, where Thomas Jefferson lay; as if he were silently imploring the spirit of Jefferson to give him counsel; or, it might be, silently reproaching that spirit for the plight in which Thomas Jefferson had left the federation.
"Come to bed, Mr. Madison," Dolley would beg.
He would reach for her hand in the darkness, and they would sit together in silence.
Dolley watched the agony in a silent agony of her own. She knew that Madison did not want war and did not want to put the union to a trial of strength with both the High Federalists of New England and Randolph and Monroe's faction in the South. She knew that he believed that some such trial might have to come sooner or later and that perhaps if it came now the union might prevail. She knew too how very strong, stronger than anyone else realized, was his reluctance to interpose the presidential veto against the constitutional and constitutionally declared will of the people, even when, as now, what had been put before him reflected the will of the people, or even the action of the Congress, in no more than a technical sense.
She thought he should stop agonizing and veto the resolution. But she never interfered in politics.
So the days passed, and the president said nothing to anyone. There was more news from Europe: the British expedition against New Orleans was a formidable one, was likely to set out from Jamaica any day, might already have done so. From Nashville came word that a private volunteer force to aid Napoleon, raised illegally by Major-General Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee militia, had set off down the Natchez Trace on its way to New Orleans.
* * * *
The evening of November 24 was cold and rainy. As President Madison sat late by the fireside while Dolley wondered whether to suggest he go to bed, a servant came to announce Senator Hamilton.
A puzzled Madison told the servant to show the senator in. He told Dolley to stay.
Hamilton entered the room almost hesitantly, Dolley remembered later. There was none of his usual dash about him.
"Mr. President, Mrs. Madison, I am sorry to disturb you at this hour."
"You are never unwelcome, General," said Madison. "The rain has not treated you graciously. Come, warm and dry yourself."
Hamilton stood nervously by the fire. They made small talk. Outside, the rain rattled against the windows.
"I'm afraid that Mr. Latrobe has not yet succeeded in making this house wind and water tight," said Madison. "We will find leaks in the morning."
"Jemmy," said Hamilton suddenly.
Madison looked up, startled.
"Jemmy, you've got to veto this bill." There was urging in his voice; a pleading tone almost.
Madison regarded him thoughtfully. First names, nicknames, he reflected, what do they mean? Hamilton had seemed such a stuffed shirt when he first met him thirty-odd years ago, a pompous ass such as New York specialized in, with such lofty notions, and some kind of chip on his shoulder about Princeton men too. Yet he had thawed, and they had been good friends for a time, "Jemmy" and "Alex" to one another. What did this mean after all these long years? Toward what obscure end was Hamilton cozening him now? They were friends no more, and Madison did not like him.
Still, he would give as good as he got. For old times" sake. They had been friends once, and together they had made a government and saved America, long ago.
"Are you really against it, Alex?" he asked softly.
A curious expression passed across Hamilton's face. It was the first time in ten years anyone had called him "Alex," and it brought back with a rush that morning on the ledge at Weehawken facing Burr, and Nathaniel Pendleton's voice. Kill the bastard, Pendleton had said, and had set Alexander Hamilton free.
"I was never more serious in my life," said Hamilton fiercely. "For God's sake kill this war!"
Madison was struck by Hamilton's agitation and seeming sincerity.
"I really think you mean it," he said.
"But, Alex," said Madison gently, "you have not meant it for very long, have you? You have wanted this war as badly as Mr. Clay or Mr. Cheves want it; can you gainsay that? You, and Mr. Morris, and Mr. Pickering, and Mr. King, and Mr. Clinton, and the rest of you? I must not omit Mr. Webster. He learned his lesson well, he did your work in the House very well. You have wanted war as much as the rest of them, as something to dissolve the union with. Why have you changed your mind now?"
"Because I do not wish to see the union dissolved," said Hamilton.
"Then do not dissolve it," said Madison. "It is quite simple. You know as well as I do that even in Massachusetts, even in Connecticut, there is great loyalty to the union. You know as well as I do that it will not be easy to carry public opinion in any state along with you even now, even if there is a war. Your voice alone will be enough to save the union. If you do not want to see the union dissolved you have only to rise in the Senate tomorrow morning and say so."
"I cannot do that," said Hamilton, dropping his gaze briefly.
"It need not be tomorrow morning. You could wait and see what I do. If I veto the resolution you need say nothing. Only if I sign it need you speak, though I had rather you spoke for the union of the states no matter what. Do not look mystified. I truly have not yet decided what I will do with this resolution. One thing I do know. I will not wash my hands of it. I will sign it, or I will return it. I will not trim; I will not let it go into effect of its own accord.
"Now. You say you do not wish to see the union dissolved. Will you save it, then?"
Hamilton regarded him levelly now, coolly, now.
"It is too late for that," he said.
Madison returned Hamilton's gaze. Then it was as if he looked through Hamilton at something far away; something far behind.
"Do you remember that summer of "88, Alex?" he asked gently. "Do you remember, when you were in Poughkeepsie, and I was in Richmond, with the couriers galloping between us, and we brought it off? You brought it off? "In toto and forever." Do you remember those words? "In toto and forever." That was our—our watchword." His eyes focused on Hamilton again, with a little smile. "In toto and forever. Do you remember?"
"I remember. Times have changed."
"Times do not change for in toto and forever. That is what those words mean. Oh, Alex, you say you do not wish to see the union dissolved. You do not mean that. You are like Jack Randolph, and poor deluded Monroe; you want to see the states stay together on your terms only. But that was not what we thought in '88, was it? It was a marriage. We took each other, all of us, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health."
"Till death us do part," said Hamilton.
"There is no death for in toto and forever," said Madison.
The two men looked long at one another. There was nothing else to say.
With a sigh, Madison rang for the servant to let Hamilton out.
Hamilton made a polite good-night to Dolley. Madison accompanied him to the door. With his coat on and his hat in his hand, Hamilton turned suddenly to Madison one last time.
"Then you mean to let this war happen," he said. It was not a question.
"By no means should you assume that," said Madison. "I mean exactly what I said, and I will say it again: I do not know yet what I will do; but I will not do nothing. And you, Alex, once more I ask you: will you stand for the union, no matter what?"
"No," said Hamilton.
After a moment he put out his hand.
"Good night, Mr. President," he said.
"Good night, General," said Madison. "But not, I hope, in toto and forever."
Hamilton bowed and departed.
Madison sat silently for a long time, while the rain gusted against the windows.
"If Hamilton had been steady and had really known himself," he said to Dolley at last, "what a different world we would have had."
Dolley could bear it no longer. After two decades she spoke up.
"If Mr. Jefferson had been steady, and had really known himself, and had let you alone, we would have had a better world still," she said.
Madison closed his eyes.
"I'm afraid you are right, my dear," he said finally, sadly, with an effort.
* * * *
Dolley woke suddenly in the cold darkness. Madison was not beside her. The rain had stopped. It was five, perhaps five-thirty in the morning, the black dead of night before the dawn. From far away in the darkness came a ghostly whistling. It was a flock of swans, moving south for the winter, who for several nights now had been sojourning in the marshes between the White House and the Potomac.
Dolley rose and threw on a dressing gown and slippers in the darkness. She expected to find Madison staring out of the window into the night, as she had so often found him of late. Instead, she saw a glow of light from the room he used as an office. She found him at his desk, writing industriously by candlelight, a fire crackling in the fireplace.
"My dear," he said cheerfully, "I have made up my mind." There was a new lightness in his voice. A great weight had plainly lifted itself from his soul.
Dolley laid a hand affectionately on his shoulder. He covered it with his own, continuing to write.
"I am so glad," she said. "What will you do?"
"Ah, that's my little surprise, even for you," he said gaily.
"What are you writing?"
"A brief statement or message, to go along with what I intend to do this morning," he said. He frowned at a sentence; crossed it out. "I have always meant to put forth such a statement, whether I approved the resolution or sent it back. General Hamilton's visit gave me a thought or two." He frowned again at the pages before him. "It's not easy to say it just the way I want to, though."
Dolley had watched James Madison wrestling with the creative process many times. She knew that the best thing she could do would be to stay out of the way. Outside, the swans had fallen silent and the small birds were beginning to chatter. Dawn would soon be breaking. The kitchen staff would be stirring. Dolley took a candle and returned to the bedroom. She would dress and go down to the kitchen and see to it that a good breakfast was made ready. Silently she thanked God that the agony was over and Mr. Madison had made up his mind.
She returned three-quarters of an hour later, bringing him with her own hands a pot of coffee and cups on a tray. She knew something was wrong the moment she entered the room. Madison was standing by the hearth, scowling at a handful of manuscript in his hand. Suddenly, with an impatient gesture, he crumpled it and tossed it into the fire. That kind of thing always went on when he was drafting any important paper, that was not what was wrong; what was wrong was that his face was drawn, pinched, gray as ashes.
"Mr. Madison, what is it? What is it?"
"I have a terrible headache," he said.
He clapped one hand to his head. He took two hesistant steps forward, and toppled to the floor.
Dolley yanked the bellpull and ran to the head of the stairs.
"Paul! Paul!" she called urgently. Paul Jennings was Madison's valet. "Paul, come quickly, Mr. Madison is not well."
Paul ran to her, Jean-Pierre Sioussat, Dolley's master of ceremonies, close behind. They found the president lying on the floor where he had fallen, with the last draft of his statement on the war resolution blazing in the fireplace behind him. He was still breathing. They carried him to his bed. A doctor was summoned. Those few citizens who were abroad just after sunrise saw the doctor galloping up the drive to the White House, and the word quickly spread that something was wrong.
"Apoplexy," said the doctor. Most physicians of the time would promptly have drawn a pint or so of blood from the patient, but he did not believe in indiscriminate bleeding. Wait an hour or two and see what happens, he said.
People began to arrive: Gallatin; other members of the cabinet; Langdon Cheves, the Speaker of the House; even Chief Justice Bushrod Washington. A crowd gathered on the lawn.
* * * *
At nine o'clock James Madison's eyes opened. They looked at the people by his bedside: Dolley, the doctor, Gallatin.
"Dolley." The word was slurred, came from only one side of his mouth.
"Yes, Mr. Madison, I'm here."
"Bring . . . paper . . . pen . . ."
They were brought.
"Now . . . write this. . . ."
Slowly, laboriously, James Madison dictated:
"As this advice, if it ever see the light, will not do it till I am no more, it may be considered as issuing from the tomb, where truth alone can be respected and the happiness of man alone consulted. It will be entitled therefore to whatever weight can be derived from good intention, and from the experience of one who has served his country in various stations for a period of thirty years, who espoused in his youth and adhered through his life to the cause of its liberty, and who has borne a part in most of the great transactions which will constitute epochs of its destiny."
He paused to collect himself. The labor of dictation was enormous and exhausting.
"The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my conviction is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as Pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the Serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise."
"Read it back," said Madison when he had finished. He listened with closed eyes as Dolley did so, her voice clear and steady. Madison's eyes opened again. He groped toward Dolley with his left hand.
"Now . . . sign . . ."
He held the pen clumsily. Dolley put her hand over his and guided it for a shaky signature.
"Now . . . bring resolution. War resolution," said Madison.
Paul Jennings fetched the paper from Madison's desk and handed it to Dolley. Madison groped again for the pen. Suddenly a tremor shook him.
"Glass of water," he said.
Dolley poured it and held it to his lips. He did not try to drink; seemed unaware of it,
"Do you want the water, Mr. Madison?" asked Dolley gently.
He regarded her.
"Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear," he said quite clearly.
His head dropped. As Gallatin wrote later, "He ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out."
* * * *
Henry Clay hurried up the White House drive. Quite a little crowd had gathered in front of the mansion. They parted respectfully for him. Inside he was told that the president had just died.
He ran upstairs. At the head of the stairs he encountered Dolley. She was crying gently, leaning on the arm of her ne'er-do-well son Payne Todd.
"Oh, Cousin Henry," she said, and hugged Clay. They were not really related, but, having both been born in Hanover County, Virginia, they had playfully called one another "cousin" from the time young Senator Clay had first come to Washington.
"There, there," said Henry Clay, or something like it, patting her. He was awkward at such times.
"Cousin Henry, you are the president now," she said.
"Don't think about that now," Clay said. In fact, there might be considerable doubt whether he was now president. The Constitution said only that in case of the death or resignation of the president or his "inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve upon the vice-president." That could mean a lot of things. Did the "office" devolve, or just its "powers and duties"? He meant to contend that he had become president, but there might well be disagreement about that.
"No. I must think about that first of all," said Dolley. "It is the most important thing. Mr. Madison would have thought so." She groped in her bodice for a moment and handed him two papers.
"Here," she said. "This is Mr. Madison's last advice to his country. This is the war resolution. They are for you now."
He took them.
"What was Mr. Madison going to do?" he asked as gently as he could.
"Cousin Henry, I truly do not know. He had made his mind up. But I do not know what it was."
Clay excused himself and went into the sickroom. Madison lay on the bed as if sleeping, looking no worse, better perhaps, than he had looked in life of late. Attorney-General Pinkney was there. So was Secretary of the Treasury Campbell. Clay was not sure he trusted Pinkney. Campbell was an old ally from Tennessee. Clay took Campbell aside and told him to get someone over to administer the presidential oath. Campbell scurried off. Gallatin appeared.
"Mr. Gallatin, I hope that you and all the cabinet will stay at your posts in this sad and critical hour."
"I won't leave you, Mr. Clay," said Gallatin.
"I suppose that you intend that there be war, Mr. Clay?"
"I do, Mr. Gallatin."
"You know my views, of course."
"Nevertheless, I will be of such service as I can as long as I can."
"Thank you, Mr. Gallatin."
A servant touched Clay on the arm and said that Mrs. Madison wanted to see him. Clay hurried to her.
She was dry-eyed and composed.
"Mr. President," she said—that startled him, it was the first time anybody had called him that—"I have asked Mr. Campbell whether you should not take the oath as president, and he thinks you should, and I think you should do it right here and right now. I know that that is what Mr. Madison would have wanted."
This was a lucky break indeed. Dolley's hearty approval would go far to disarm any resentment over his moving swiftly to seize the reins of government.
"That is good of you, Mrs. Madison," said Clay. "But this is a sad time for you, and I do not think we should intrude public matters upon you here and now."
"No, sir," she said firmly. "It is what Mr. Madison would have wanted. More than anything else, Mr. Madison wanted the government set up by the constitution to work, and he wanted people to see it work. He must have said that to me a thousand times."
She rose and took Henry Clay's arm.
"Come, Cousin Henry. Judge Washington is here. We will do it now, and we will do it outside, so the people can see. Come along now. Payne, fetch the Bible from beside my bed. Mr. Gallatin? Mr. Crowninshield? Mr. Cheves? Are you coming?
Awkwardly the high officers of the federation fell in behind the little plump woman. With an expression of determination on her round face under the curls, touched up now with black dye, that peeped from under her ever-present turban, she led the way down the stairs and on to the front steps of the White House, Henry Clay at her-side.
"Good people!" she called out to the crowd that waited at a respectful distance. "Come near, good people."
They gathered around the steps of the mansion.
"Good people," said Dolley Madison, "you have heard that Mr. Madison is no more. Mr. Clay is our new president. I have asked him to take the oath here, now, before you all. It is what Mr. Madison would have wished."
Payne Todd handed her the Bible. She held it before her and looked expectantly at Clay and at Bushrod Washington. Clay laid his left hand on it and raised his right. Chief Justice Washington led him through the oath in a flat voice.
For Bushrod Washington it was at least as distasteful to preside over the inauguration of Henry Clay as it had been for John Marshall to preside over the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson; moreover, he recognized the fait accompli with which Dolley Madison was presenting the country. He had to admire her for it. She had to know that Clay would move decisively toward war, she must at least suspect that her husband would have vetoed the declaration of war, yet she had seen that the most important thing of all was the clear, unambiguous, and immediate succession of power. Fools saw her as a flighty southern belle. In fact, reflected Bushrod Washington, she was as good a political scientist as her husband had been; as sly a politician as any man he knew.
"So help me God," said Henry Clay. He kissed the Bible. It had fallen open, he noticed, at the one hundred and thirtythird Psalm. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
Henry Clay, 37 years old, sixth president of the United States, looked out over the little crowd standing in the muddy yard of the White House.
"Fellow-citizens," he said, "I will not address you now, except to say that I will do my best in the high office to which I have been called, I ask your help and your prayers."
He bowed. They applauded. On an impulse, one of their number, a young storekeeper named Darius Clagett, stepped up, drew a rabbit's foot lucky charm from his pocket, and handed it to him.
"Good luck, Mr. Clay," said Clagett. The crowd applauded again, and Clay shook Clagett's hand, thanked him, waved at the crowd.
He turned to Dolley.
"You have things to do now, Mr. President," she said quickly. "Come back and see me this afternoon." Her face trembled, just a bit.
Henry Clay took her hand.
"I will," he said. Then, quietly: "Thank you, Cousin Dolley."
"Oh, get along with you, Henry Clay" she said, even more quietly. Her eyes were brimming now.
* * * *
He passed word that he wanted to meet with the cabinet at once, in his room in the Senate wing of the Capitol—his former room, for it was the vice-president's office, and he was vice-president no more.
He rode with Langdon Cheves down the broad mile-long river of mud that ran between the White House and the unfinished Capitol, called Pennsylvania Avenue. Behind him rode Gallatin, Pinkney, Campbell, and Crowninshield. Word of the morning's extraordinary events had flown through the town, and citizens waved at their new president and his cabinet and wished him well.
The cabinet officers—and Clay's closest allies, Speaker Cheves and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and George Bibb of Kentucky, as well—crowded into the little room. Clay spoke directly and to the point. He said that he hoped that the cabinet would all stay with him; that he wanted no pro forma resignations, he would not accept any and it would be a waste of time to offer them. He said that he meant to sign the war resolution without delay and that he expected their support. He said that he would send the Congress a message as soon as he could draft it, calling on the Congress to levy new taxes to pay for the war, to expand the army, to take Andrew Jackson's force into federal service, to call on the states for militia and volunteers. He said that he would continue to recognize Napoleon as rightful Emperor of the French, that he would receive Victor and Caulaincourt as the Emperor's emissaries, that he would consider acceding to Napoleon's proposal for an alliance against Britain in exchange for an American port at the mouth of the Mississippi. He asked whether there were any questions,
"What will you do if New England tries to secede?" Gallatin asked.
"I am sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. I will do so."
There were no more questions. President Clay remembered something. He reached into his pocket and drew out a rumpled sheet of paper. It was the war resolution. He laid it on the desk before him, tried to smooth out the wrinkles, reached for a pen, dipped it.
"What time is it, Langdon?" he asked.
The Speaker of the House consulted his watch.
"Eleven-twenty, Mr. President," he said.
Clay scrawled in a big hand across the bottom of the sheet before him the words:
"Approved, November 25, 1814, 11:20 ante meridiem. H. Clay."
He thought of the words John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, was said to have uttered when he signed the Declaration of Independence.
"King George should be able to read that without his spectacles," said Henry Clay, president of the United States.
He looked around the room.
"Gentlemen," he said, "we are at war."
He slipped his hand into his pocket and gave Darius Clagett's lucky rabbit's foot a quick rub, just in case.