Ritika and I have received many thoughtful responses to our post the other day about the War of 1812, James Madison, executive power, and civil liberties. The most eye-opening–to me, at least–was a note from Stephen F. Knott, a professor at the United States Naval War College, which reads in relevant part:
there were aspects of Madison’s presidency that were “imperial,” despite the best efforts of his biographers to portray him as the personification of a genuinely republican chief executive. I am speaking of his duplicitous, clandestine conduct regarding the acquisition of West Florida and East Florida. Both regions were the target of covert operations launched from the executive office, the details of which were kept from Congress and the American public for decades. Madison’s State Department simply lied to British, French, and Spanish envoys about the American machinations in toppling the feeble Spanish regime in West Florida, as well as about their involvement in a failed effort to overthrow Spanish authority in East Florida, an operation led by George Mathews who was a State Department agent. The operation in West Florida succeeded brilliantly when a cabal of American settlers guided by Madison’s operatives declared their independence from Spain in 1810 and immediately asked for U.S. recognition. George Mathews’ operation in East Florida failed because the administration’s covert efforts to create a ”spontaneous” and “indigenous” uprising were thwarted by the presence of a large number of runaway slaves and native Americans who expressed little interest in becoming part of the United States. As for Mathews, when the administration pulled the plug on his operation, he decided to travel to Washington to expose Madison’s role in sanctioning his efforts, only to die on his way to the nation’s capital.
Madison was drawn to covert operations for the same reason they were attractive to many of his successors — they allowed the president to project force short of war and without the need for a large military establishment; they were cheap and generally bloodless (at least in terms of shedding American blood); and if properly concealed they allowed you to preserve certain cherished American myths, such as the idea that American’s did not covet other peoples territory.
After getting this note, I immediately ordered a copy of Knott’s remarkable history of American clandestine operations, Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency, which describes in loving detail what turns out to be a flair on Madison’s part for what we now call covert actions–and their attendant deceits toward the public, the Congress, and international interlocutors. Knott’s book is an important reminder that Madison was far from boy scout; indeed, as Knott’s note suggests, the efforts to acquire the Florida territories involved unilateral executive exertions that don’t square neatly with the hagiographic portraits of Madison’s commitment to a republican conception of executive power. (Yes, this is the same Stephen Knott whose more recent book was reviewed by Benjamin Kleinerman recently on Lawfare.) Writes Knott:
many chroniclers of Madison’s presidency view him as a model of restraint in his exercise of executive authority. . . . An examination of Madison’s presidency actually reveals that contemporary opponents of covert activity who invoke the legacy of the Founders are either deliberately disingenuous or simply unaware of the persuasive evidence that points to the endorsement of [the Florida] operations by this preeminent Founder. . . . James Madison believed covert operations were an essential part of America’s foreign-policy arsenal.
Knott also notes that,
Madison revealed his familiarity with the unseemly necessities of foreign relations by procuring, at public expense, a prostitute for a foreign envoy. He probably had this particular event in mind when he noted that “appropriations to foreign intercourse are terms of great latitude and may be drawn on by very urgent and unforeseen occurrences.” During Madison’s presidency, intelligence reports and other secret government documents were also given added protections by a formal system of classification (consisting of “secret,” “confidential,” and “private”).
Madison’s major covert operations–at least those discussed by Knott–were directed against Spain, not Britain, and they predate the War of 1812, limiting their relevance to a discussion of Madison as a wartime president with respect to the repression of dissent. At the same time, Knott makes the important point that one should not romanticize Madison’s views of presidential power, at least not without factoring in the quieter, less public, sides of presidential exertion.