The John Henry Papers

The internal debacle before the War of 1812

Photo courtesy of Founder of the Day

Few have probably heard of the Henry Affair or the man by whom it was named after. In short, John Henry was a British spy. In his early years, Henry emigrated from Ireland and served in a variety of roles within the United States Militias during the Quasi-War with France during the late 1790s and in the following years until his resignation from the military in 1801. Henry would then take up residence in Vermont where he studied law. During his time in Vermont, Henry would also write letters for the press speaking out about Republican forms of government.

Estimating Insurgency

John Henry’s writings about anti-Republican sentiments were noticed and enticing to then Governor-General of British Canada, Sir James Craig. With anti-British feelings spreading rapidly in the western and southern colonies at the start of then president James Madison’s term in 1809, Craig employed Henry to dig into any Federalist anti-government sentiment in New England, which had historically been pro-British in their affairs. Henry continuously reported his findings to the governor-general. During this time, Henry felt that if the United States declared war on Great Britain, the New England states, led by Massachusetts, would secede and form their own confederacy.

Strapped for Cash

Sir James Craig was pleased with these findings and promised Henry an official office in Canada. Unfortunately for Henry, Craig died before this was actualized. This left Henry, who had been faced with many failed business ventures to this point, with the need for money. Henry attempted to travel to London to obtain his post, but he was met with no success.

Henry decided to return to the United States in late 1811. During his voyage, he met and befriended Comte Edouard de Crillon, whose real name was Paul Émile Soubiran — which was unbeknownst to Henry. De Crillon was actually just a con artist posing as a French count. He suggested that Henry sell his papers that he had drafted for James Craig which detailed the unrest in New England. De Crillon persuaded Henry to offer these papers up to President James Madison, who, along with his administration, was fueling pro-war sentiment toward Britain.

Scandalous Dealings

President Madison purchased the papers in February of 1812 without having ever read them and without even knowing John Henry. Madison paid up to $90,000 for the papers, which was a massive sum for the report. Henry shared a portion of his profits with de Crillon in exchange for de Crillon’s estate back in France. Henry, following the exchange with President Madison, sailed to France in March of 1812. He arrived to find that the estate did not exist. Henry ultimately fell largely into obscurity following his return to France. There are reports of him working for King George IV as a spy on George’s wife in order to obtain a divorce, but details are few.

So, what came of the report President Madison purchased for a sum that could have built a US navy ship? Well, the report included Sir James Craig’s instructions to John Henry, copies of Henry’s letters to Craig, and a few other unimportant documents. It turned out that Henry had doctored up his original papers to create a false narrative on the New England Federalists. The Madison administration initially used this as pro-war propaganda, but they later discovered that much of what Henry had included in the report was made on backless claims. When the public found out that the papers were useless, and the entire budget for secret services had been used to purchase the documents, the government was heavily criticized. Federalists in New England garnished more support than before and anti-war feelings were temporarily increased.

Closing Thoughts

The Henry Papers turned out to be fraudulent and a complete failure on the part of the Madison administration. What began as a promise for a payout for Henry, derailed partially by a French con man, and an acquisition of priceless information for the US government quickly manifested into quite a debacle. President Madison and fellow Republicans did not achieve the pro-war sentiments they desired to rouse from the papers, and Henry did not get his promised estate. Whether or not this chain of events constitutes scandal status is up to interpretation, but one fact remains — the purchase of John Henry’s Papers did not achieve their desired effect.

Grant Fuerstenau is a Medical Student at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and the editor of The Biographical Historian.

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