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April 24 1812: Madison and the "Great Differences of Opinion"

On April 24, 1812, President Madison responds to the letter of Thomas Jefferson of April 17, 1812. Jefferson had raised concerns about the Embargo Act that had been recommended by Madison and passed by Congress. In particular, Jefferson was concerned that farmers would not have a market for their produce such as flour and tobacco. Jefferson had made the case for being able to trade even if the trading partner was the enemy.  In response, Madison describes some of the thinking behind the Embargo Act. Madison indicates that he had recommended the embargo as a war measure that would be followed with a declaration of war. The execution of this plan was upset by Congress extending the embargo to 90 days. The coalition responsible for this extension, Madison writes, "proceeded from the united votes of those wished to make it a negotiating instead of a war measure; of those who wished to put off the day of war as long as possible, if ultimately to be met; and of those whose mercantile constituents had ships abroad, which would be favoured in their of getting safely home".  He notes that there  exist "great differences of opinion" as to the "time and form of entering into hostilities." Madison concludes by assuring Jefferson that the embargo will mean that farmers will get a good price for their flour. Curiously, Madison also assures Jefferson, even if war comes, that American produce can make it to Great Britain under "Spanish and Portuguese flags and papers, real or counterfeit." Madison's letter is reproduced below.
TO THOMAS JEFFERSON Washington April 24 1812
Dear Sir, - I have just received your favor of the 17th The same mail brings me the "Proceedings of the Government of the United States relative to the Batture" for which you will accept my thanks.

I had not supposed that so great a proportion of produce, particularly of wheat and flour, was still in the hands of the farmers In Pennsylvania, it was known to be the case. In New York, almost the whole of the last crop is in the country, though chiefly in the hands of the Merchants and Millers.  The measure of the Embargo was made a difficult one,  both as to duration and its date, by the conflict of opinions here,  and local interests elsewhere; and to these causes are to be that invariable opposition open with some and covert others, which has perplexed aud impeded the whole course our public measures. You will have noticed that the Embargo, as recommended to Congress was limited to 60 days. Its extension to 90 proceeded from the united votes of those wished to make it a negotiating instead of a war measure; of those who wished to put off the day of war as long as possible, if ultimately to be met; and of those whose mercantile constituents had ships abroad, which would be favored in their of getting safely home. Some, also, who wished and hoped anticipate the expiration of the terms, calculated on the ostensible postponement of the war question as a ruse against Enemy. At present, great differences of opinion exist as to time and form of entering into hostilities; whether at a early or later day, or not before the end of the 90 days, whether by a general declaration, or by a commencement letters of Marque and Reprisal. The question is also to brought forward for an adjournment for 15 or 18 days. Whatever may be the decision on all these points, it can scarcely doubted that patience in the holders of wheat and flour at will secure them good prices, such is the scarcity all over Europe, and the dependence of the W Indies on our supplies. Mr Maury writes me on the 21st of March that flour had risen to 16 1/2 dollars, and a further rise looked for. And it foreseen, that in a state of war, the Spanish and Portuguese flags and papers, real or counterfeit, will afford a neutral to our produce, as far as wanted in ports in the favour of G Britain. Licences, therefore, on our part will not be necessary which though in some respects mitigating the evils of war, are so pregnant with abuses of the worst sort as to be liable, others to strong objections. As managed by the belligerents of Europe, they are sources of the most iniquitous and detestable practices.

The Hornet still loiters. A letter from Barlow to Granger fills us with serious apprehensions that he is burning his fingers with matters which will work great embarrassment and mischief here, and which his instructions could not have suggested. In East Florida, Mathews has been playing a strange comedy in the face of common sense as well as of his instructions. His extravagances place us in the most distressing dilemma.

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