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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Responding to British Orders in Council

Wars between Britain and France in the early 19th century placed the United States in an untenable position. British Orders in Council allowed British authorities to stop and search any ship that did not call at a British port. In response, the French issued a decree that any ship that called at a British port or was searched by British authorities could be seized by the French. The U.S. government reacted by restricting foreign trade (via the Embargo Act) and then narrowed the embargo to trade with France, Great Britain, and their allies (via the Non-Intercourse Act). These acts, initially passed during the Jefferson Administration, caused problems for the Madison administration.

In an 1811 letter to John Quincy Adams, U.S. minister to Russia, President Madison writes of ongoing hostility in Congress to the British Orders in Council and the probability of a conflict with Britain. He outlines several possible responses.

  • What alternative courses of action does Madison identify? What would be the costs and benefits of each of these courses of action?
  • What events seem to have influenced Madison's thinking about a possible response? In what other ways might the United States have responded to the British enforcement of the Orders in Council?
  • Imagine that you are John Quincy Adams responding to Madison's letter. What course of action would you recommend? Give reasons supporting your recommendation.