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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

Chapter One

 p15  "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights"

On March 4, 1805, Thomas Jefferson delivered his second inaugural address and embarked upon another four years as President of the United States. Looking back over his first term in office he had more than a little reason to be gratified with his achievements.

The country had, on the whole, enjoyed a period of comparative peace and prosperity. After a truce of a year, Great Britain and France were again at each other's throats and Europe was in turmoil; but Jefferson might pride himself upon the fact that, thanks to the policy of no entangling alliances with foreign powers proclaimed in his first inaugural, the United States thus far had kept out of the conflict. The Barbary pirates had given trouble. They had, however, been severely dealt with by the infant United States Navy and temporarily subdued. Though Jefferson shared his fellow Republicans' prejudice against the Navy he would have been less than human had he not experienced a feeling of profound admiration for the boldness and courage of Commodore Preble's officers and men. A young nation had stepped in, and won, where the ancient powers of Europe feared to tread.​a

Far more important than this were the success­ful diplomatic negotiations which culminated in the purchase of Louisiana. Lesser men might quibble over both the constitutional right and the practical wisdom of laying out $15,000,000 on a wilderness. Was there not already more than enough land east of the Appalachians for a modest population of 7,000,000 souls; and was not $15,000,000 a lot of money to risk on a single speculation? Jefferson reflected less upon the past than he planned for the future. If he had had any doubt about his course he was reassured by the reports brought back by his explorers of the vast expanses of territory, the natural resources,  p16 and the infinite variety of the flora and fauna included in his recent purchase. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who crossed the continent from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River; Zebulon M. Pike, who discovered the peak that bears his name, and others drew aside the curtain that hitherto had concealed the true immensity and the potential wealth of the new dominions.

Where others looked toward the West and saw only endless forests and barren prairies Jefferson, with prophetic vision, saw prosperous towns and cities, rich farmlands planted to wheat and corn and other crops, the whole connected by good roads and peopled by men and women dwelling in peace and plenty and, through the aid of public education, striving after higher standards of living and culture.

When he bought Louisiana Jefferson sacrificed much of his theory of the limited powers and duties of government to political expediency. Having strayed that far might he not, without too great violence to his conscience, take another forward step to develop the nation which promised to be the outcome of his first transgression? His second inaugural revealed his decision when it spoke of an amendment to the Constitution to permit the setting aside of an annual fund to be spent on "rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education and other great objects within each state."

More to the point, these were not the idle dreams of a philosopher. The funds for such improvements were within sight. In spite of the cost of the war with Tripoli and of the Louisiana purchase, Jefferson's astute Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, could assure him that revenues were running well ahead of expenditures; and that, if the nation continued to prosper, the whole of the public debt would be resolved by the year 1817. Better still, Gallatin, whose calculations were generally reliable, estimated that by 1809 the principal of the debt would be so reduced that $3,000,000 could be safely allocated every year to the noble program of internal improvements already taking definite shape in the President's mind.

With these great achievements to his credit and such brilliant prospects ahead Mr. Jefferson need pay little heed to the New England orator who declaimed from the rostrum that "We have a country governed by blockheads and knaves," or the slanders of the Federalist press or the sneering comments on his literary style. He  p17 could well forget Alexander Hamilton's denunciation of him as "a hypocrite." To the taunts of his enemies whose stronghold was New England he had but to reply "Res ipsa loquitur." To all appearances his philosophic theories, so scornfully treated in some quarters, were paying off handsomely.

As impatient as Jefferson was to keep his gaze fixed on the West and its brilliant future, other forces beyond his control demanded his attention in the opposite direction where lay the old and degenerate past. There was, for example, the matter of the Floridas which were then in the possession of Spain. Jefferson perceived that his new empire was not entirely secure so long as a foreign power was entrenched on its flank. Spain herself was too weak to be greatly feared, yet her very weakness denied the assurance that her property would not pass into the hands of a more dangerous owner. However, Jefferson's diplomatic agents were at work at the court of His Catholic Majesty; and, though the negotiations were being subjected to all the tedious delays that Spanish cunning could devise, something positive might yet come out of them.

There was still another annoying matter that demanded immediate attention. Though the nation's treasury was full to overflowing, this happy circumstance was not due to the application of Mr. Jefferson's philosophic theories. A more direct and practical reason rested in the carrying trade of the Atlantic and the world events which had suddenly converted it into a gold mine for the vigorous young American republic. Since 1795 Great Britain had been pretty well occupied with her wars against revolutionary France, with the result that the Stars and Stripes had begun to replace the Union Jack to an alarming extent on the high seas. In the course of eleven years Britain had seen American foreign trade almost treble, jumping from $26,000,000 in 1795 to $60,000,000 in 1806, and the end was not yet in sight. American trade was continuing to increase at the rate of 700,000 tons a year. American merchants and shipowners were growing fabulously wealthy and British seamen, who should be fighting their country's battles, were deserting to benefit by the better living conditions and higher pay prevailing in the American merchant marine.

Furthermore, to add insult to injury, this state of affairs was due in large part to Britain's own Admiralty. There was a law known as  p18 the "Rule of 1756," accepted by all nations, which held that no ship could, during time of war, engage in trade forbidden to it in time of peace. Now in time of peace France reserved to herself the exclusive right of trading with her colonies. But, with the outbreak of hostilities, France found it convenient to grant this right to American ships in direct violation of the Rule of 1756, and the British Admiralty acquiesced. In the test case of the Polly the Admiralty ruled that an American vessel which sailed from the French colonies and stopped at an American port, unloaded her cargo and reloaded it before proceeding to a European port, was not actually engaged in direct trade, and hence did not violate the Rule.

So the British traders stormed the Admiralty with their protests and with such good effect that the learned Sir William Scott, who had rendered the decision in the case of the Polly, looked into his law books again and, with all the solemnity peculiar to courts of justice, reversed the Admiralty's position. In the test case of the Essex in 1805 he handed down the opinion that the broken voyage no longer met the requirements of the rule, and that an American vessel engaged in trade between the French colonies and the mother country would hereafter be subject to seizure and confiscation, just as though she had been an enemy vessel.

It was now the turn of the American merchants to grow alarmed. They appealed to Congress; and Congress, after giving the matter due study and consideration, determined upon a commission to settle all points of dispute existing between the two countries. Pursuant to the wishes of Congress and the merchants the President appointed the Honorable William Pinkney, an eminent Maryland lawyer, as High Commissioner to assist the American Minister, James Monroe, in the negotiations with the British Government. Mr. Pinkney set sail in May, 1806.

Pinkney's departure caused concern in several quarters. Friends of Mr. Pinkney were concerned because Mr. Pinkney was a Federalist and, in the eyes of his fellow Federalists, he was committing an unforgivable sin in accepting an appointment from the high priest of the despised Republican party. Friends of Monroe were concerned because they saw in the dispatch of Mr. Pinkney to serve as joint commissioner with Monroe the sordid hand of politics. Though three years more remained of Mr. Jefferson's second term, as is the  p19 American way, thoughts already were turning to his successor. Little James Madison, Secretary of State, was nearest the throne and a prime favorite of the President. His most dangerous competitor was Monroe. Now if, by hook or crook, the innumerable difficulties between Great Britain and the United States were settled and Mr. Monroe were to return home with a treaty in his pocket which he alone had negotiated, even the power and prestige of Jefferson might prove too little to offset Monroe's appeal to the electorate. Thus Mr. Madison might lose the succession in what jealous New England Federalists were already dubbing "The Virginia Dynasty." On the other hand, if Mr. Pinkney were to share the laurels, Mr. Monroe would to that extent be reduced in the public estimation. If the treaty were to fail, then of course little was to be feared from Mr. Monroe. That is what Monroe's friends thought.

As for Pinkney, his conscience was at rest. For how could he, a loyal citizen, refuse his talents to his country, even though they were sought by a Republican? Had he not proved his worth already as commissioner in the negotiation of Jay's treaty? Had he not within the year returned to Maryland from London after having extracted no less than $500,000 in claims for his native state from the haughty government of England? Pinkney was at home in London. An orator of no mean ability who, his enemies charged, practiced daily before his mirror, he could not have failed to jump at the opportunity of going daily to Westminster to see and hear the world's greatest exponents of the art. These same enemies gossiped that the Pinkney wore corsets and blacked beneath the eyes to enhance the tragic effect of his presence. They added that the words he spoke were, unfortunately, hardly equal to the manner in which he spoke them. But then among these enemies were rival lawyers at the Maryland bar and competition for practice was keen. Some political commentators of the day went so far as to insinuate that Jefferson intended the mission to fail so that, having offered American friendship to Great Britain, and being refused, he might proceed with a French alliance which was closer to his heart.

There was, however, another question at issue, important or unimportant according to one's political views and condition of life. That was the matter of impressment. Great Britain, in endeavoring to round up deserters from her navy, had long been making a practice  p20 of searching American merchant vessels and hauling off what sailors suited her. It did no good for sailors so seized to protest that they were native-born Americans or had become naturalized. They were impressed into the British service just the same. As for those who claimed to be American-born, Great Britain held that the burden of proof rested with them. When others claimed naturalization, Great Britain maintained there was no such thing. Once a Briton always a Briton. Of course if a foreigner wanted to become a naturalized Briton that was quite another matter. The British courts had so ruled. Little James Madison with admirable logic had pointed out to the British the inconsistency of their position. But the British refused to be persuaded. It was conceivable to them that others might want to become Britons. It was altogether inconceivable that a Briton would voluntarily to be anything else, or could be if he wanted to.

In the confusion that resulted from this difference of opinion, the sailors themselves were not helpful. It was suggested that each American sailor carry on his person a "protection," issued by the mayor of a town, a consul or other official, giving the sailor's description and the place of his birth. This was done, but not infrequently sailors lost their protections. Furthermore, they paid some official a dollar for a protection; but then, when they came up with a British deserter who answered the description on the protection, they sold it to him for from ten to twenty dollars, thus earning a neat profit and doing a good turn to a fellow tar into the bargain. And who could stop officials from making money on the side by issuing protections to sailors who did not qualify for them? Obviously every protection was under suspicion, a useless piece of paper to display to a press gang.

American shipowners cultivated a tolerant attitude toward impressment. Seizure of American vessels and goods was an outrage which must be corrected; but the taking of a few American sailors, while it might be regretted, was nothing about which to lose one's head. After all, they maintained, it merely put the sailors to a temporary inconvenience. The United States Government retained an officer in London and another in the West Indies to receive complaints from Americans who alleged they had been impressed. The vast majority found their way home. As the wealthy New Englander  p21 and Federalist leader, Timothy Pickering, saw it, the whole matter of impressment was grossly exaggerated. True enough another New Englander, John Quincy Adams, asserted that there had been several thousand cases and every one of them "was on a par with murder." But then, all the Adamses were peculiar. And what could you expect of John Quincy who had only recently given proof positive of his mental instability by deserting the Federalist for the Republican party? Why bring up this annoying question of impressment when trade was so good?

Nonetheless, petitions asking for redress of the evil began to flow to Congress from the seaport towns. They could not be ignored. So Congress asked the Secretary of State to furnish it with a report on impressments. Mr. Madison complied, reporting that since the resumption of hostilities between Great Britain and France in 1803 there had been no less than 2,273 cases of American sailors being impressed. Public reaction to the announcement was immediate and unfavorable. Republican papers, such as the Philadelphia Aurora, the Boston Patriot and the Baltimore Whig, demanded action, while Federalist papers contended that the impressment issue was merely a Republican method of arousing antagonism against Great Britain in order to play the game of France.

These protests were too numerous to be ignored, even had Jefferson cared to disregard them. Furthermore, they came from persons loyal to the Republican cause; while, on the other hand, it was chiefly the wealthy Federalists who preferred to gloss over the injustice done. As a mission was about to engage in the settlement of difficulties existing between Great Britain and the United States it was only natural that Jefferson should include the delicate subject of impressment in the agenda. He went even further than that. He demanded that Great Britain relinquish her claim to impressment if any treaty was to be made at all.

To demand that Great Britain give up impressment was an order of considerable proportions. Here she was in a struggle of life and death with Napoleon and not only were the Yankee upstarts growing rich and impudent on her trade, but they were demanding that she abandon a time-honored practice that would make it virtually impossible to recapture deserters. Why, it was rumored, as many as twenty thousand deserters were already in the American merchant  p22 marine! As a man of discernment and one who had had considerable experience with England, Mr. Pinkney must have realized the immensity of the task that lay before him. Possibly he put a few extra hours into practicing eloquence before his mirror.

Jefferson, it must be admitted in justice to him, was peculiarly oblivious to the obstacle he had placed in the way of his commissioners. He wrote optimistically to Monroe in London: "No two countries upon earth have so many points of common interest and friendship; and their rulers must be great bunglers, indeed, if with such dispositions they break asunder." Gracefully over­looking the fear and contempt the Republicans felt for a navy, which had led them to lay down not a single capital ship and to put their trust in less than two hundred gunboats too top‑heavy to go to sea, he proceeded to deliver a threat: "We have the seamen and materials for fifty ships of the line and half that number of frigates; and were France to give us the money and England the dispositions to equip them; they would give to England serious proofs of the stock from which they are sprung and the school in which they have been taught. Were, on the other hand, England to give the money and France the dispositions to place us on the sea in all our force, the whole world out of the continent of Europe, might be our joint monopoly." As though the British Navy were nonexistent, as though her frigates were not now lying off our coasts, intercepting and searching our merchantmen, and as though he had at his command squadrons of ships of the line and frigates to drive them off he concluded: "We begin to broach the idea that we consider the whole Gulf Stream as of our waters, in which hostilities and cruising are to be frowned on for the present, and prohibited as soon as either consent or force will permit us."

Let England accept the terms dictated, or else the United States would ask France for money to build 75 warships; and, having received the money and built the ships, the United States would proceed to punish England for her arrogance. That, in substance, was what Jefferson said to Monroe. It was so easy, if Great Britain could only be made to understand.

Jefferson's confidence was not the only ammunition with which the commissioners were supplied. Congress had debated the issue involved in the Essex case at length and had considered several plans  p23 of action. The United States might go to war with Great Britain. But war was not a Republican weapon. An embargo might be declared. But some argued that an embargo was too drastic; that, in fact, it was the equivalent of war. Then there was negotiation. The time was favorable. For Pitt, who in his later years had proved none too kindly toward American traders, was dead. His ministry had been succeeded by Lord Grenville's so‑called "Ministry of all the Talents." And of all the talent ninety per cent rested in the person of Charles James Fox who assumed the portfolio of Foreign Secretary. The liberal Fox had always shown himself a sympathetic friend of the United States. No better man could be found for negotiation. And upon negotiation Congress had decided. But this was not enough to satisfy the more hot‑blooded tempers. There must be a threat, and one which Great Britain could understand. So Congress proposed a non‑importation act declaring, in effect, that unless Great Britain gave satisfaction in the negotiations to be conducted, in the following November she would be forbidden to import into the United States certain of her products. The bill was passed while the acid John Randolph of Roanoke jeered: "What is it? A milk and water bill. A dose of chicken broth, to be taken six months hence."

Still, William Pinkney might view the situation with satisfaction. As much as he loved his native Maryland, he was about to make another entrance upon a greater stage. Here would be a test of his abilities more worthy of them than the petty legal squabbles of his neighbors. And, above all, there was a sense of fulfilling a duty to his country. He had been success­ful before in bringing home $500,000. Might he not follow up that success by bringing home this time a treaty? For an ambitious man the situation was interesting, to say the least.

Thayer's Note:

a A truly superlative account of the naval war against Tripoli is given in Adm. George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, chs. 4 and 5.

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