By the time President Madison signed the declaration of war against the United Kingdom in June of 1812, John Sevier and most of his fellow Democratic-Republicans had been suing for war for many months. In a letter to Tennessee governor Willie Blount, which was published in the Knoxville Gazette on July 13th, 1812, Sevier writes that Congress has finally approved the war bill. He had been “well assured” that the bill would pass in the House, but the course of the Senate had been unclear. His personal vendetta against Native Americans is plain; about the Creek Nation he writes that “fire and sword must be carried into that country before those wretches will be reduced to reason or become peaceable neighbors, there can be no reliance or trust placed in them…”, and adds that he hopes the U.S. will take Florida from the Spanish.[i]
Madison had initially offered a position of high command in the army to Sevier, who had declined on the grounds that he was too old. Instead, the president made him chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs.[ii] Sevier continued to attend the House during the day and make his rounds around the capitol in the evenings & on weekends: Mrs. Madison’s “levee” on July 1st, a visit with the French ambassador on July 3rd, and a 4th of July celebration, attended by all members of the president’s cabinet, at Samuel Ringgold’s residence. The first session of the twelfth Congress ended on July 6th, and Sevier set out for home two days later.[iii]
Sevier returned to Washington on October 28th, 1812, and promptly called on the president on the 30th, three days before the beginning of the second congressional session. In late 1812 he began lodging at Mrs. Suter’s boardinghouse, which was located at the corner of 15th Street & F Street, one block east of the White House and directly across the street from the Treasury building. Regarded as a Washington institution, the boarding house & restaurant was a popular meeting spot for government officials and was run by an elderly widow named Barbara Suter.[iv]
November 1812 seems to have been a particularly busy month for the old general: he attended Mrs. Madison’s famous drawing rooms on the 11th and 25th, dined with the president on the 17th, and on the 26th, at the invitation of Captain Stewart, dined onboard the USS Constitution with “the president, all the heads of the departments, the greater part of the members of the two houses of Congress, & many of the officers of the army and navy.”[v]
1812 drew to a close but the war, contrary to the expectations of those who had advocated for it, dragged on. Sevier remained busy attending the House during the day and visiting with political and military leaders in the evenings and on weekends – though he also found a fair amount of time for gambling and taking in shows at the theater. From the beginning of the year until the end of the session, he attended a party at the French ambassador’s residence, dined at Mr. Villard’s at the Navy Yard, and called on the new Secretary of War (John Armstrong Jr.) and the Russian ambassador (Andrey Dashkov). The Twelfth Congress concluded on March 3rd, 1813, but Sevier remained in D.C. for almost two more weeks. On the fifth of March he made an appearance at a ball at the Russian embassy. Given his personal affinity for France, his cordial relationship with the French ambassador, and the U.S.’s friendly relationship with France, it is interesting that Sevier was a guest of the Russian ambassador, since Napoleon had recently abandoned a disastrous invasion of the Russian empire. Before setting out for home (which he did in company with the Russian secretary of legation), he also visited the president and dined at Mr. Villard’s at the Navy Yard again.[vi]
A couple surviving documents from this period give some insight into the “Russia situation”. In an address dated Feb. 27th, 1813, Sevier reports that the French have invaded Russia and have “desolated a large part of the Russian empire, and have destroyed a number of the finest cities in that or perhaps any other country… The Russians have defended themselves with great spirit and bravery, and the damage done on each side is incalculable.” Whether he fails to condemn the French assault on Russian liberty because of his sympathies toward France or for the sake of diplomacy is unclear (though “a little bit of both” may be the answer). In his denunciation of the U.K., however, he spares no hyperbole: “haughty, tyrannical, and malicious” Britannia is trying “by every foul art in her power to subjugate our free and independent nation, and hang round our necks the iron and despotic yoke of the British government.” It is necessary, therefore, for the U.S. to “guard against the diabolical machinations of the malignant and embittered nation with whom we are at war.”[vii] Sevier wrote a letter to his son the following month, relating the latest he had heard regarding British and American troop movements, and adding that the Russian emperor had offered, via the ambassador, Dashkov, to mediate between the two belligerents.[viii]
Sevier scarcely had a month to rest at home before undertaking the approximately two-week journey back to the capitol. On May 17th he arrived at Mrs. Suter’s and took up his lodgings; four days later he visited the president and Secretary of the Navy William Jones, who had replaced Paul Hamilton in January. The first session of the 13th Congress opened on May 24th, 1813, and Sevier’s diary is once again filled with after-hours activity that appears to combine work and leisure. He visited the Navy Yard no less than five times – three in the company of his landlady, Mrs. Suter. He attended at least one Saturday meeting of the military committee, dined with the president in May and visited him again in July, went to two of Mrs. Madison’s levees, visited the secretary of war, spent one June evening with the French ambassador, and dined with the Russian ambassador the following week.[ix]
He wrote to his son George frequently and appeared to grow increasingly homesick. A letter dated June 11th, 1813 gives further updates on the war: the U.S. frigate Chesapeake, which he had previously heard was victorious over the HMS Shannon, is now understood to have been captured. General Henry Dearborn and Commodore Isaac Chauncey have had several victories in the Great Lakes theatre, but in all the war is progressing slowly. Sevier confides that he is “entirely sick at being so long from home”, and wishes he could return to his farm and stay there.[x]
Two weeks later, in a letter written “late in the night”, he relates more news of battles and troop movements. As for his own part in the war effort, he is deeply involved in “the tax business” and much of his time is consumed by the military committee: “there is [sic] only seven of us, and almost every thing relative to that all important subject, is laid before that committee, and to make arrangements for the defence of all our extensive frontiers on both sides, is an immense undertaking indeed.” He tells George that he will try to have him and his regiment sent to the north, and again laments that he is “quite sick being so much time from home, and [were] I there again… I should be very unwilling to leave it,” adding in a postscript “much business and weary, &c.”[xi]
With the war still raging, the first congressional session adjourned on the second of August 1813; Sevier arrived in Knoxville at the end of that month.[xii] Late that autumn, Sevier’s old archnemesis Andrew Jackson was busy battling the Creeks and trying to coordinate the various local militias of the southeast. Jackson encountered particular trouble in east Tennessee, where the militia was commanded by John Cocke, a political ally of Sevier.[xiii]
Representative Sevier left home for D.C. once more on Nov. 15th, arriving at Mrs. Suter’s on Sunday, Dec. 5th – just in time for the opening of the second session the following day. Sevier remained in close contact with the president during this session, dining with him twice, visiting him at the beginning of January, and attending three of Mrs. Madison’s drawing rooms. He called upon Secretary of State James Monroe and Secy. of the Navy William Jones in December, likely in his capacity as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. In January he dined at the French ambassador’s residence again, and went to the Navy Yard to watch the launch of the USS Argus. In April he dined with Secretary of the Treasury George W. Campbell, Secy. of War Armstrong, and Vice President Gerry.[xiv]
The second session of 13th Congress ended on Apr. 14th, 1814, and Sevier set out for home on May 8th.[xv] In the absence of Congress, however, things in Washington were about to heat up even more. On August 24th, a British squadron under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn disembarked in the city and proceeded to burn its way toward the White House. Sevier’s D.C. home, Mrs. Suter’s boardinghouse, stood on the route the British took from Capitol Hill to the president’s house. With most of her tenants out of town for the congressional recess and her two sons off fighting, Mrs. Suter found herself in the uncomfortable position of inhabiting a nearly empty building while the town burned around her. Late that evening, Major General Robert Ross of the British Army appeared at Mrs. Suter’s door and ordered dinner for himself and his staff. Cockburn joined Ross and his men there a couple hours later, and the boardinghouse became Ross’s temporary headquarters.[xvi]
Sevier’s friend Louis Sérurier, the French ambassador, was also stranded in the city as the British closed in. He had recently taken up residence in the Octagon, “the most elegant private home in Washington,” which was located just west of the White House. The home’s owners had offered to rent it to Sérurier in the hope that, in the event of a British invasion, the house would be spared on the grounds of its occupation by a foreign diplomat. On the evening of the 24th, the ambassador hung a makeshift French tricolor on a pole outside the house; the strategy paid off and the house was spared. Three and a half miles away, however, the Navy Yard, which Sevier had visited so often over the previous two years, was engulfed in flames.[xvii]
On Sept. 17th, 1814, Sevier returned to the charred capitol for what would be his last session in Congress. The House opened on Monday, Sept. 19th, and Sevier visited the president, the secretary of war, and the secretary of the treasury that Thursday. He noted in his diary that the House met on a Saturday (Oct. 15th) to negotiate a bill for the removal of the seat of the government. Dolley Madison refused to let the destruction of the White House hamper her social activities, and Sevier attended two of her “Wednesday Drawing Rooms.”[xviii]
In a long letter, written in January to his son George, who was in Knoxville, Sevier expresses more anxiety over the expenses of the war and his role in figuring out how to finance it. “I fear we shall be much embarrassed respecting money to supply the army,” he writes, adding that the bank is in danger of failing. He assures George that his regiment will most likely not be transferred. Winter in the capitol was proving difficult: “I am still enjoying good health, but closely surrounded by sickness,” he writes. There was snow on the ground and firewood was in short supply; he relates that the housekeeper does not know “where to get one single cord,” and he may have to borrow some coal from one of the ministers.[xix]
He dined with the president at the end of January, and on Feb. 18th, 1815, Washington was illuminated to celebrate the end of the war; to this note, Sevier adds “cold day and a little sleet.” With the war finally over, the 13th Congress ended on the third of March, 1815. Two weeks later, on the 18th, he settled his account with Mrs. Suter and left her $12 in his debt. The following day, he left D.C. by stagecoach, paying a fare of $5, and so completed his eventful service as a U.S. representative for the 12th and 13th Congresses. [xx] Though taciturn on the House floor, Sevier’s diary, letters home, and other sources show that he was indeed devoted to his duties and actively involved in the committee he was assigned to. He closely followed news of the war on all fronts and shared whatever information he received with his family back home. He was a frequent guest at the White House, the French embassy, and the Navy Yard, and personally knew many cabinet members and top military officials. In the twilight of his career, he was as close to the pulse of the nation as he had been so many years earlier during the first American war against the British.
Written by Jennifer Albertsen
1 - Department of the Treasury website:
2 - Driver, Carl Samuel. John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1932.
3 – “John Sevier’s Diary”, in Heiskell, Samuel Gordon, Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee
History, vol. 2. Nashville: Ambrose Printing Co., 1920. (Includes reprint of entire
diary of John Sevier)
4 - Stagg, J.C.A. The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2012.
5 - Tennessee State Library & Archives website: http://tnsos.net/TSLA/findingaids/13.pdf
6 - Tennessee State Library & Archives, Nashville.
Address written in Washington, 27 Feb. 1813. Collection: TN Historical Society, Box:
correspondence by author, 1809 b2; Document: sl053
Letter written to his son, Col. Sevier, 22 Mar. 1813. Collection: TN Historical Society, Box:
correspondence by author, 1809 b2; Document: sl052
7 - University of Tennessee Special Collections Library.
Letter written to Col. George Washington Sevier, 11 Jun. 1813. Collection: John Sevier
collection; Box: MS-1941 b1; Folder: 14; Document: sc101.
Letter written to Col. George Washington Sevier, 27 Jun. 1813. Collection: John Sevier
collection; Box: MS-1941 b1; Folder: 14; Document: sc102
Letter written to Col. George Washington Sevier, 22 Jan. 1815. Collection: John Sevier
collection; Box: MS-1941 b1; Folder: 15; Document: sc103
8 - Vogel, Steve. Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation. New York:
Random House, 2013.
[i] Driver 208
[iv] Heiskell 602; Vogel 177-78
[v] Heiskell 601-02
[vi] Ibid. 602-03
[vii] Sevier, John. Address written in Washington, 27 Feb. 1813. Held by Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.
[viii] Sevier, John. Letter written to his son, Col. Sevier, 22 Mar. 1813. Held by Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville
[ix] Heiskell 604-06
[x] Sevier, John. Letter written to Col. George Washington Sevier, 11 Jun. 1813. Held by Special Collections Library, University of Tennessee.
[xi] Sevier, John. Letter written to Col. George Washington Sevier, 27 Jun. 1813. Held by Special Collections Library, University of Tennessee.
[xii] Heiskell 606
[xiii] Stagg 107
[xiv] Heiskell 607-08. Treasury Secretary Campbell, who was having a difficult time securing funding for the war, was also from Tennessee. https://www.treasury.gov/about/history/pages/gcampbell.aspx
[xv] Heiskell 608
[xvi] Vogel 177-78, 185
[xvii] Ibid. 176. The next month, Sérurier offered to vacate the house so that the now-homeless President & Mrs. Madison could move in – an offer the first family accepted. (Vogel 357)
[xviii] Heiskell 609-10
[xix] Sevier, John. Letter written to Col. George Washington Sevier, 22 Jan. 1815. Held by Special Collections Library, University of Tennessee.
[xx] Heiskell 610-11