Madison’s act of belevolence: the Venezuela Earthquake and 200 years of American foreign aid.

James Madison is often quoted as having been against hand-outs,

“I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”*

Although these probably weren’t James Madison’s exact words, Congressman Madison probably said something similar.

Portrait of James Madison
Portrait of James Madison

Note: A quote close to the above can be found in the Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 3rd Congress, 1st Session, page 170 , January 10, 1794, but there’s no “I” as the original article was more of a paraphrase than a quote.  (These “Annals of Congress” were taken from newspaper articles, not congressional records.)

Perhaps more powerfully, Madison’s famous words were preceeded by these:

“Mr. Madison wished to relieve the sufferers, but was afraid of establishing a dangerous precedent, which might hereafter be perverted to the countenance of purposes very different from those of charity.”

Yet the during the Presidency of this same James Madison when Congress would approve of America’s first foreign aid payment. This act of benevolence was not accompanied by a change in the Constitution. So, what changed?

The rejected act of Benevolence.

In 1794, Haiti was undergoing a revolution. The French had toppled their king, there were cries of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and these resonated with the slave population on the island of “Santo Domingo.”

At first, the slave revolt was loyal to the Republican movement on the French mainland. Many of the free inhabitants joined in the revolt, and there was a degree of acceptance and tolerance of non-combattants by the revolutionaries.

However, many people on the island of San Domingo fled, fearing for their lives (especially French royalists).

As France was also in revolt, and the United States had been an ally of the Ancien Régime that these royalists were loyal to, nearby America seemed the logical place for royalists to take refuge.

The individual States were the refugees landed had trouble paying for the upkeep of these people, many of whom landed with nothing. So, these States asked the US Federal Government for help.  This plea for the Federal government to give financial assistance to the states, in order to deal with the refugee crisis, is what Madison proposed to reject.

I don’t know if the exact words he used were recorded anywhere, but the Annals on Congress, which according to the Libary of Congress were based on Newspaper reports and compiled decades after the event, seem reliable enough.

So why, when Madison refused to give aid to American allies who were within American borders, did he later accept the idea of giving aid to people in a country far away who had little relationship with America?

Venezuela becomes a Republic

The French revolution was said to have been inspired by the American one.  The French Revolution itself inspired other revolts, not only in Haiti but throughout what we now call “Latin” America.

After Spain was occupied by Napoleon, the royalists there were occupied with what British historicans often call “the Peninsular War.”   The Spanish, however, were divided, and some supported a Republic in the Americas, while others supported other forms of independence.

This presented opportunities to the British, who gave aid to the Republican rebels in parts of South America, including Venezuela, hoping to get trading concessions.

The British (who were supposed to be Spain’s “ally”) also tried to seize a few Spanish territories, like Buenos Aires in modern day Argentina, creating division and further fanning the flames of rebellion.

A Republic was born.

Yet on 26th March 1812, an Earthquake brought down the Republic (see “Covered“, a brief story based on historical accounts).

News spread quickly that a devastating earthquake had hit Venezuela.

This earthquake was then debated in the Congress.

The aid was debated on Wednesday, 29th of April, 1812.

Most of the people agreed to the bill in principle, but ever a troublemaker, a little man named Randolf wanted to change the last phrase. The aid was going to Tenerif as well, which was rumored to be troubled by locusts.

Some accused Randolf of partisanship.

Mr. Calhoun “expressed his regret that this proposition to aid the cause of humanity could not be permitted to pass without the intermixture of party feelings.” Calhoun thought that Randolf wanted to use the amendment to kill the bill.

Randolf countered that he knew there was an earthquake in Venezuela, but he wasn’t so sure about the locusts in Tenerife.  All that the House of Representatives had to go on was a newspaper report, and we all know how “reliable” newspapers can be.

The debate went on, and Randolf found some supporters but his ammendment was defeated.

Still, why the change of heart? Was this not one of the “benevolent acts” that the President had found unconstitutional so many years before, when he was in Congress?

Well, I can’t find exactly where attitudes shifted or why. What I can find is a summary of a speech by a Mr. Rhea, who seemed to agree with Randolf.

Rhea saw the aid to Venezuela as being “in the interests of the United States” as it would bring friendship between the US and “the South American provinces.”

The nation that Bolivar eventually won was much larger than present day Venezuela, but at the time it was uncertain what the territory we now call Venezuela’s future would be.  It’s unlikely, in any case, that the Venezuelans would object to receiving life saving supplies of food.

So, in addition to being a humanitarian act of compassion, helping out Venezuela would be good politics.

However, after more debate, Randolf’s point of view won without the amendment.

The first clause of the resolution was passed unanimously, but the second half concerning Tenerife rejected. President Madison was given carte blanche on how much aid he’d give to the earthquake sufferers in South America.

Randolf also asked for an enquiry into the state of Tenerife, and whether aid to there was needed. This was also passed.

“Resolved, that the Committe of Commerce and Manufactures be instructed to report a bill authorizing the President of the United States to cause to be purchased —- barrels of flour, and to have the same exported to some port in Caraccas, for the use of the inhabitants who have suffered by the earthquake; and also authorizing him to cause to be purchased — barrels of flour, and the have the same exported to some port in Teneriffe for the use of the inhabitants who are likely to starve by the ravages of locusts.”

This doesn’t mean that Madison changed his mind about “acts of benevolence.”  Madison, as President, may not have seen it as his place to question an act of Congress.

If Madison and his supporters did change their minds, or if they wanted to break their old rules in favor of helping others, there was the face-saving excuse that this act was in the interest of America’s foreign policy.

However, I’m still looking for what happened to the “dangerous precident” mentality.  Over the past two hundred years, many other acts of benevolence have been funded by taxpayers, after Congress made laws on everything from Social Security to the new Health Care project, currently being considered by the Supreme Court.

I wonders, which Madison will win this time.  The 1794 Madison, or the Madison of 1812.

“We learn, by letters from the Brazils, that the efforts of the British cruizers to suppress the Slave trade have.” Times [London, England] 2 July 1812: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

Annals of the Houses of Congress, p. 1347-1352; House of Representatives, 12th Congress, 1st Session. (also other Annals of Congress.)

de Sousa, Vasco. “Earthquake Denial and America’s First Foreign aid.” unpublished essay.

US food aid website:

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