Britain had yet to respect the new nation as anything other than a collection of former colonies that needed to be disciplined. Napoleon’s war machine required Britain to respond with a Royal Navy that was nothing less than combat ready. So, in order to keep her ships adequately staffed, England often boarded American vessels and forced US sailors to serve in the British Navy.
The practice of impressment was more than exasperating and Madison’s administration instituted embargoes against England in order to try and discourage her from doing so. While the effect of the embargoes was questionable in terms of Britain’s disposition, it was both obvious and dramatic in the minds of those in New England.
Those in the northern part of the new nation depended upon a healthy amount of trade between themselves and England. Madison’s embargoes, however needful in order to respond to Britain’s actions without going to war, were nevertheless condemned as evidence of shortsightedness and bad leadership on the part of the Oval Office.
Madison had to maintain a firm resolve in order to perpetuate the economic pain he hoped to inflict upon England. But the scene in Europe would change. Whereas the embargoes were a logical strategy given England’s inability to trade with very few nations in light of Napoleon’s rule over much of the continent, once Napoleon was defeated, England now had access to any one of a number of opportunities.
It was then that Madison changed course and repealed the embargo. Some were surprised by his change in policy and were quick to criticize him for being inconsistent. It was Congressman John Calhoun who came to Madison’s defense. While Calhoun was no fan of the embargo, he recognized Madison’s wisdom and said “Men cannot always go straightforward, but must regard the obstacles which impede their course. Inconsistency consists in a change of conduct where there is no change of circumstances which justify it.”1 In other words, it’s not a lack of courage, but a presence of judgment that allows a man to change his position when the circumstance warrants it.
In the workplace, especially when you’re functioning in a leadership position, it’s important to be consistent. Nothing inspires a lack of confidence in a person’s ability to lead than the appearance of uncertainty and inconsistency. But there’s a difference between being wise and being opinionated, just like there’s a difference between consistency and stubbornness. And it’s the wisdom that comes from above that makes all the difference. Not just in terms of the substance of your policy, but also in how to implement it and when to adjust it.
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. Jas 1:5
1. “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” Lynne Cheney, Viking Publishers, New York, NY, 2014, p396