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PATRICK HENRY [Matthew Livingston Davis] to MVB, 9 September 1834

Letter IV.


It is not proposed to discuss the merits or demerits of either the friends or the opponents of the late war. So far, however, at the incidents connected with that contest have became a part of the history of our country; and so far as their notice is deemed necessary to a true develpment of your character, a retrospect will be taken.

I now charge you, sir, with aiding and abetting those men who were opposed to the war; with using your efforts to elevate to power those who censured it, and with assailing those who were instrumental in producing an open and manly resistence of British agression. Yes, sir, you was the uncompromising opponent of Mr. Madison’s re-election, as President of the United States, on the ground, that he had involved the nation in an unnecessary war; that he was incapable of conducting it, and that if he was left in power, he would soon be compelled to sign a disgraceful and ignominious treaty of peace.

It has been remarked, in a preceding letter, that no charge would be made against you, on vague assertion. This plege shall be redeemed. After showing your hostility those men who had hurled back upon the British ministry, a proud defiance of their boasted power, I will exhibit you in the prostituted aspect of a vindictive foe to the late Governor Clinton, in concert with whom you had been acting; and then, as the pliant sycophant of Mr. Madison, whom you had endeavored to destroy, and whose measures you had reprobated and condemned.

During the year 1811, our foreign affairs were approaching a crisis. The apprehensions of the patriot were depicted in his countenance. The wrongs which were inflicted upon the persons, as well as upon the commerce of our unoffending people, were daily increasing, while the minions of Britain taunted and insulted our government. Our national honor was suspended by a slender thread. Indulging the hope, that peace might yet be preserved, we had faultered and hesitated too long. It had been insolently announced on the floor of Congress, by a distinguished and leading federalist,-“that we could not be kicked into a war.” At the close of 1811 it was, therefore, evident that a base of degrading submission to Great Britain, or a patriotic and manly resistance, was inevitable.

At this perilous crisis, where was Martin Van Buren? His supple biographer, referring to this period, says-“His support of the government was not merely active, but zealous; nor was his the zeal of ordinary men. It absorbed his whole soul; it led to untiring exertion; it was exhibited on all occasions, and under all circumstances.” It is not my habit to use vulgar and ungentlemanly language. If it was, this quotation would receive harsh epithets. It shall be demonstrated, however, that every sentence of it is untrue.

In April, 1812, you was a candidate for the State Senate. Your opponent was Edward P. Livingston, then branded as a thorough federalist; but since recognized by you and others, as a pure Jackson democrat. Your election depended on the county of Rockland; the other counties in the district being opposed to you. In that county, the friends of De Witt Clinton had an overwhelming influence. It was exerted in your behalf, and you was elected by a small majority. You was known to be their man. The question of war, or no war, now agitated the whole country.—Where was Martin Van Buren’s “zeal and untiring exertion?” I will point to it. On the 29th of May, 1812, a few days before the declaration of war, a caucus was held in this city. You, sir, was a promoter of that caucus, and a supporter of its doings.—Mr. De Witt Clinton was opposed to the war. He was nominated in that caucus, as a candidate for the office of President, in opposition to James Madison.

To a right understanding of the whole case, it is necessary, perhaps, to retrospect. In 1812, and previous, the caucus system prevailed at Washington. Mr. Jefferson had been twice nominated by a Congressional caucus. Mr. Madison had, in like manner, been nominated and elected. The caucus, therefore, by the Democratic party, was the test of party men.—Those who would not abide its decisions, were considered politically heterodox, if not federal. Such were the “usages and discipline of the party” in those days. Did you act with the democracy, in supporting James Madison? Or did you act with the federalists against him? Did you support, or oppose “regular nominations?”

In June, 1812, war was declared. It was the act of the party. It was an Executive recommendation, in a special message, transmitted to Congress on the first of June. It was a measure adopted by every branch of the Government. Where was your fiery zeal, spoken of by your puny biographer? Did you sustain, at that period, that measure, or the men who had boldly and fearlesly adopted it? Did you, on that occasion, “support the government?” Did you defend Congress and the administration, insomuch, that “it absorbed your whole soul?” Did you unite your energies with the friends of the war for the purpose of securing the re-election of the man, who had hazarded the high and exalted station he then filled, rather than behold his country’s honor trodden in dust and ashes, by a foreign foe? Or did you, recreant like, flee the banner which the democracy of the land had gallantly unfurled to the breezes of Heaven? I pause, because my indignation is excited, when I hear you spoken of as an early friend of the war. I have not done, however, with this branch of the subject. It shall be resumed in my next letter. But first I shall take occasion to notice and explain, the movements, during the summer of 1812, of your then friend and counsellor, James A. Hamilton. He too, with equal truth and propriety, might be pronounced an advocate of the war. Par nobile fratrum.


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Source: New York (NY) Evening Star
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 7 (4 March 1833-3 March 1837)