December 21, 1808 was the day before the premiere of Beethoven's Fifth. Probably the most dramatic thing to happen that day was a battle: the Battle of Sahagún, in which the 15th Hussars of Great Britain (also known as the 15th Light Dragoons) defeated the 1st provisional Chasseurs à cheval and the 8th Dragoons of Napoleon's army at the town of Sahagún, in northern Spain. British forces, under the command of Sir John Moore, had crossed into Spain in order to boost Spanish insurrection against French occupation. The Corunna Campaign, as it came to be known, resulted in some initial successes for the British, but, unknown to them at the time, Sahagún would be the high point of the campaign; Napoleon had already slipped into Spain at the head of another army ("I start at once," he wrote Josephine, "to outmaneuver the English"), and the British were soon engaged in a disastrous wintertime retreat to the coast, only escaping after being forced to fight one more skirmish as they waited for their ships to arrive. Moore was casualty of that last fight, remaining alive long enough to know that the French had been driven back and that his remaining troops had finally set sail.

The retreat did net the British one more prize: Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, commander of Napoleon's IV Corps. Napoleon reported to Josephine:
[Lefebvre] took part in a skirmish with 300 of his chasseurs; these idiots crossed a river by swimming and threw themselves in the midst of the English cavalry; they killed several, but on their return Lefebvre had his horse wounded; it was swimming, the current took him to the bank where the English were; he was taken. Console his wife.
Lefebvre, who escaped from Britain in 1811, returned to Napoleon, remaining in his service through the Hundred Days; he was wounded at Waterloo. After the Bourbon Restoration, he went into exile in, of all places, Alabama—the Vine and Olive Colony, a short-lived and ill-fated attempt by a group of former Bonapartists to create a small plot of French agriculture in the midst of the American south. In 1822, Lefebvre was finally allowed to return to France, but his ship sank off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of all aboard.

Also on December 21, 1808, the United States Senate passed the Enforcement Bill. The bill gave the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, sweeping (and, in the opinion of the bill's opponents, unconstitutional) powers to enforce the embargo on French and British ships that had been imposed the previous December. This, too, was a result of the Napoleonic Wars, with both France and Britain trying to interdict American shipping to each other, and the U.S. trying to maintain neutrality. A series of provocations—primarily by the British Royal Navy, who had taken to boarding American ships and pressing American sailors into British service, and, in the case of the Chesapeake affair, actually firing upon an American ship—had led to calls for military action. Jefferson, riding a wave of popularity and legislative control, preferred and pushed through the "peaceful coercion" of an embargo.

But Jefferson's implementation of the embargo was widely regarded as heavy-handed and a violation of the spirit of small government espoused by his own Republican party. His opposition, the Federalist party, was primarily based in New York and New England, the states most burdened by the embargo. As a result of the embargo's unpopularity, Federalists had made substantial gains in the 1808 elections, even as Jefferson's fellow Republican James Madison won the presidency.

The lame-duck session's passage of the Enforcement Bill was, for the Federalists, the final straw; as Henry Adams put it: "Hitherto the tone of remonstrance had been respectful; under cover of the Enforcement Act it rapidly became revolutionary." Thomas Pinckney, the Massachusetts senator who was the party's hard-line standard-bearer, promptly began to try and organize a confederation of New England states to resist the embargo—a confederation that would have amounted to a de facto dissolution of the union. The pressure eventually got to Jefferson and his administration, and the outgoing president signed a bill lifting the embargo. It was hardly a balm; in fact, replacing the embargo with a policy of strict non-intervention did little to appease the Federalists—New England states would continue to periodically consider secession throughout Madison's presidency—and, by upping the ante from embargo, it began an acceleration of tensions that would result in the War of 1812.

The same day the Senate voted on the Enforcement Bill, Jefferson welcomed a delegation of Native Americans—Miamis, Potawatomis, Delawares, and Chippewas—to the White House. It was one of a series of such meetings Jefferson held over the last months of his presidency in order to try and convince the Native Americans not to turn back to the British (who, after all, still controlled Canada) as allies. But Jefferson's December 21 message to Captain Hendrick, chief of the Delawares, made the power asymmetry and the condescension the tribes were faced with particularly blunt:
The picture which you have drawn, my son, of the increase of our numbers and the decrease of yours is just, the causes are very plain, and the remedy depends on yourselves alone. You have lived by hunting the deer and buffalo—all these have been driven westward; you have sold out on the sea-board and moved westwardly in pursuit of them. As they became scarce there, your food has failed you; you have been a part of every year without food, except the roots and other unwholesome things you could find in the forest. Scanty and unwholesome food produce diseases and death among your children, and hence you have raised few and your numbers have decreased. Frequent wars, too, and the abuse of spirituous liquors, have assisted in lessening your numbers. The whites, on the other hand, are in the habit of cultivating the earth, of raising stocks of cattle, hogs, and other domestic animals, in much greater numbers than they could kill of deer and buffalo. Having always a plenty of food and clothing they raise abundance of children, they double their numbers every twenty years, the new swarms are continually advancing upon the country like flocks of pigeons, and so they will continue to do. Now, my children, if we wanted to diminish our numbers, we would give up the culture of the earth, pursue the deer and buffalo, and be always at war; this would soon reduce us to be as few as you are, and if you wish to increase your numbers you must give up the deer and buffalo, live in peace, and cultivate the earth. You see then, my children, that it depends on yourselves alone to become a numerous and great people.
In New York City, the original Grace Church, at the corner of Broadway and Rector, was consecrated on December 21, 1808. (The current church, at Broadway and 10th, would not be consecrated until 1846.) That evening, at the New-York Theatre, the pioneering American impresario William Dunlap presented his adaptation of August von Kotzebue's Die Versöhnung, called Fraternal Discord, as a benefit for distressed seamen (much of the the distress, one can surmise, resulting from Jefferson's embargo). Despite poor weather, Dunlap reported receipts of $1177. Kotzebue was the most popular—and critically-reviled—German-language playwright of the time. Beethoven wrote incidental music for two of his plays, King Stephen and The Ruins of Athens, and composer and writer, at one point, briefly considered collaborating on an opera about Attila the Hun.

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