Macon and the Invisibles Were Major Actors in Early U.S. History

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

From 1809-12, Nathaniel Macon criticized the political machinations of a few members of Congress, mainly senators, whom he called “Invisibles.” Far from being superheroes swooping in to rescue ordinary Americans, the Invisibles, in Macon’s mind, acted unconstitutionally and harmed the nation.

The North Carolina statesman coined the term Invisibles, according to historian John Pancake, “to designate a rather nebulous group of Washington politicos who frequently opposed the policies of the Madison administration.” Although many politicians declared independence from the Invisibles, Macon wondered why on votes “they never fail to have a majority.” Macon also believed they “managed … to prevent any bill passing which they did not approve.”

The Invisibles were led by Gen. Samuel Smith, a U.S. senator from Maryland. The senator’s brother, Robert Smith — Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of the navy and James Madison’s secretary of state — was also an “Invisible.” Other prominent members included Wilson Cary Nicholas and William Giles Branch, both of Virginia. At times, Vice President George Clinton and Macon’s longtime friend John Randolph of Roanoke voted with the group. Individual Invisibles — if they were an actual cabal — often disagreed with each other.

During Madison’s first term, the Invisibles opposed the president and worked to unseat Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. Macon wrote: “He — G — I am afraid is not enough on his guard as to these people.” The Warhawks, led by Henry Clay, working with the Invisibles, “forced Madison toward war,” writes Pancake, and the idea of war for Madison became “less and less distasteful.”

The political infighting intensified in 1807. For some time, France and Great Britain disrupted American commerce, and Americans debated the necessity of embargo acts. After British sailors from the HMS Leopard fired at and then boarded the USS Chesapeake, the Invisibles, mainly Nicholas and Branch, pushed for more aggressive American action against Great Britain.

Macon opposed such action and submitted Macon’s Bill No. 1, terminating embargoes when the current session of Congress adjourned. Macon feared the existence of a standing army, which he thought could be used to encroach on individual Americans’ liberties. He also opposed the buildup of the Navy for fiscal reasons.

Perhaps Macon overestimated the influence of the Invisibles because he doubted his abilities. Confiding in Rep. Joseph Nicholson of Maryland, Macon drew up a list of men he hoped would run for Congress, so they would be poised to defeat his opponents. Macon feared that his “talents [were] not equal to the task.”

Apparently, his opponents thought differently. To deter Gallatin and Macon from thwarting the Invisibles’ agenda, the Invisibles planted vicious attacks in the press. In 1810, Macon wrote: “The same men who have been at work on Gallatin, have done me the honor of notice; what effect their notice may have in Carolina, I know not, but this they may rely on, it will have no effect on me here [Washington, D.C.].” In his unassuming way, Macon considered the media attention as a result of an overestimation of his political influence. “I, like Gallatin, want nothing,” wrote Macon. “It is not an easy thing I believe to put down one or more honest men who want nothing.” (Macon expressed more than once that Gallatin was the most capable man available to be president of the United States; however, the Constitution prevented the Swiss immigrant from seeking the office.) Although Macon disliked the negative media attention, he did not care about the stories printed outside of North Carolina. Macon was resolved to vote his conscience.

There is much more to this fascinating story of political infighting. It appears that both the nebulous Invisibles and Nathaniel Macon were more powerful than historians have realized. I look forward to learning more.