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Chapter 1

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 3

Chapter Two

 p24  "Great Bunglers, Indeed"

Monroe, having spent nine months in Spain endeavoring without success to effect the purchase of the East Florida, returned to London in January, 1806. During his previous sojourn in England, when the Tories were in power, he had not been altogether happy in his position. He was known as a friend of France. He also was a friend of Jefferson, and Jefferson, whether by thoughtlessness or design, had greatly offended England's Minister to the United States. Anthony Merry was a punctilious person, very conscious of his own importance and of the respect due an emissary of King George III. He and Mrs. Merry had resented bitterly the President's introduction of the system of pell-mell at White House functions, according to which guests pushed forward into the President's drawing room with no regard for precedence. As the rules of precedence would have put them at the top of the list, he and Mrs. Merry had protested the slight, but without success. Nor did Minister Merry consider it proper that, on less formal occasions, Mr. Jefferson should receive His Majesty's servant, wearing a dressing gown and bedroom slippers, and providing a door for Merry's exit so situated that he virtually had to bow himself out.

Jefferson had decidedly got the better of Merry, but Merry had returned home with a full report on his treatment. In retaliation, Merry's friends gratified their spite on the unoffending Monroe. The American Minister, serious of mind and slow to comprehend subtlety, was no match for the English wits of the dinner table who knew how to insult his country while maintaining an appearance of amiability and politeness. His only defense was silence.

From Fox, however, he could count at least upon unfailing courtesy and consideration. And with Fox now in the Foreign Office it  p25 was not impossible that he might obtain concessions for his country that Pitt had refused to yield. Yet there was a vast difference between what Fox would have liked to do, and what he was capable of doing. At the very moment when Great Britain needed all of her energies to combat Napoleon, her domestic situation was in a state of chaos. George III, the old king, passed successively from sanity to insanity; and unfortunately, nobody could tell when he would return to sanity again. Meanwhile his son, George, having scandalized the country by divorcing his unprepossessing German wife, Caroline, amused himself with his mistresses, wrangled with his father and intrigued with the politicians. Ministers were at a loss to know whose favors to curry; which of the royal personages to follow. Those who were in power today might, through a turn in the King's condition, be out on the streets tomorrow. The Grenville ministry held office by a slender thread and no one was more conscious of it than its members.

With the best intentions in the world toward the United States, Fox hesitated to make a move for fear of bringing down upon his head the wrath of the mercantile interests and the country Tories. To make matters worse, news was reaching England of the acrimonious debates in Congress on the non‑importation act. The bill was obviously intended as a threat, but it was a threat that was not backed by force. A nation whose fleet had acquired unchallenged mastery of the sea through the victory at Trafalgar was not to be browbeaten by a nation brandishing a few top‑heavy gunboats. English manufacturers, who did a prosperous business with the United States, might have been counted upon to show concern; but they, too, were silent. When news of the passage of the bill reached England it did not frighten, it merely irritated. Fox complained bitterly to Monroe that it made negotiations considerably more difficult.

However, Fox had aroused Monroe's hopes that something would be done and he was as good as his word. But how make concessions to American shippers without playing into the hands of the opposition and risking the fall of the ministry. An ingenious fellow, Fox at last hit upon what seemed at the time an excellent plan that would be satisfactory to all parties. At his instigation an order in council was issued declaring the coast of France blockaded from  p26 Brest to the River Elbe, adding that a strict blockade would be maintained only between the River Seine and Ostend. The virtue of the order lay in the fact that while it gave the appearance of further restricting neutral commerce, which satisfied the British mercantile interests, actually it allowed greater freedom to American ships. Its weakness was that it established a paper blockade, a principle to which the United States had never before been willing to agree. At the time, though the proposal was a subterfuge, it seemed innocent enough. Fox never dreamed that harm would come of it, and when he explained it to Monroe, the latter was completely satisfied. Monroe immediately wrote home to his government pointing out the advantage American trade was to derive.

The order in council was issued on May 6, 1806. About the same time Monroe learned of Mr. Pinkney's appointment and that the negotiations were to pass from his individual hands to that of a commission. He at once comprehended that he had ceased to enjoy Jefferson's full confidence. It was a blow to his pride that he could not fully conceal. On June 24 Commissioner Pinkney landed in England, and his reception by Monroe was distinctly cold. But both were intelligent men, and it was not long before Monroe had recovered from his pique and was working on cordial terms with his fellow commissioner. Simultaneously Fox was taken seriously ill and the physicians announced that his condition was hopeless. Further delay ensued while the British Government looked about for new negotiators. Eventually Lord Holland, Fox's nephew, and Lord Auckland were selected.

The new British commissioners, both of them Whigs, treated Monroe and Pinkney with the greatest courtesy and consideration, a treatment in marked contrast to that accorded by the Tory friends of Anthony Merry. But, like Fox, they were restrained by their fear of the Tory opposition. It was late summer when the negotiations were started. Jefferson had directed his representatives to make three demands. Great Britain must abandon the right to search American merchant ships, she must return to the United States the right to trade with the French and Spanish colonies upon the terms enjoyed prior to the Essex decision. She must pay indemnity for goods seized as a result of that decision. These demands must be yielded before a treaty was even to be considered.

 p27  No sooner had the commissioners met than the matter of impressment at once became a stumbling block. The British commissioners offered for consideration a situation that might arise if Great Britain were formally to abandon her right of search. Suppose, said they, a British man-of‑war and an American merchant ship were lying in the same harbor. Suppose sailors from the British man-of‑war were to desert to the American ship. Was the commander of the man-of‑war to stand idly by and allow the American ship to sail out of the harbor with the deserters aboard? Yet such an instance might occur if the right of search were surrendered. Obviously His Majesty's Government would not hear of such a thing.

On the other hand, the British commissioners acknowledged that there were times when mistakes were made and Americans, erroneously taken for deserters, were impressed into the British service. Nobody more than His Majesty's commissioners realized the injustice thus done to Americans, and nobody regretted it more. Surely this was a matter that could be settled without the formality of a treaty. This seemed fair enough to Monroe and Pinkney and so, in violation of the strict orders of Jefferson, they agreed to accept a note to be attached to the treaty in lieu of a formal surrender of the right of search, which read:

"That His Majesty's Government, animated by an earnest desire to remove every cause of dissatisfaction, has directed His Majesty's Commissioners to give to Mr. Monroe and to Mr. Pinkney the most positive assurance that instructions have been given, and shall be repeated and enforced, for the observance of the greatest caution in the impressing of British seamen, and that the strictest care shall be taken to preserve the citizens of the United States from any molestation or injury and that immediate and prompt redress shall be offered upon any representation of injury sustained by them."

Fox breathed his last on September 13 and was succeeded in the Foreign Office by Lord Howick. Holland and Auckland were not affected by the change. With impressment out of the way, the negotiations proceeded to what Monroe and Pinkney imagined to be a favorable conclusion. As Monroe later pointed out to Jefferson, no less than eleven of the articles in the treaty of 1794 were included in the new treaty. It would perhaps have been better had Monroe and Pinkney been dealing with the most unsympathetic and reactionary  p28 Tories, for then they might have been on their guard. As it was they were charmed by the kindliness of Lords Holland and Auckland. Fully conscious of the difficulties under which the latter were working the American commissioners seemed to go out of their way to be accommodating. Desirous of obtaining the treaty for which they had been commissioned, they over­looked the fact that the treaty to which they agreed contained none of the three principal stipulations Jefferson had made a sine qua non. Right of search was not abandoned. No promise was made to pay damages arising out of the Essex decision. The theory of the broken voyage as defined in the case of Polly was not resumed. Instead, American trade between French and Spanish colonies and their mother countries was to be permitted only when American vessels so engaged paid to the United States Customs a tax of not less than two per cent ad valorem. In other words, Great Britain was undertaking to dictate to the United States what duties she should demand of her own vessels, a purely domestic matter. An astounding proposal, yet Monroe and Pinkney accepted it.

Furthermore, the treaty did not mention trade with the British West Indies, with Canada, Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. It permitted trade with the East Indies only by ships going directly to and fro, and which did not put into a European port on the way. Critics declared it worse than the treaty negotiated by John Jay. Monroe and Pinkney defended it as the best that could be obtained under existing circumstances, when Great Britain was still exulting in her triumphs on the seas and everybody knew that the United States had neither the power nor the will to fight.

The last and most telling blow was yet to fall. In the autumn of 1806, while the British and American negotiators were at work in London, events of great moment were taking place on the continent. On October 14 the battles of Jena and Auerstädt were fought, crushing the last opposition to the French invasion of Prussia. On October 27 Napoleon entered Berlin in triumph. In the whole of Europe Russia and Great Britain alone remained to be conquered. Almost exactly a year before the Emperor's army had camped on the sands facing Dover, ready at a moment's notice to cross the Channel. Only in the nick of time had Nelson returned from his wild goose chase across the Atlantic to destroy the French fleet at Trafalgar  p29 and thus deny to Napoleon the few hours' mastery of the sea he needed to land his army on the English shore. If the conquest of Britain by arms was denied him there was another means by which Napoleon could accomplish the same end, a means particularly fitting for a "nation of shopkeepers." He would strike at her trade. Fox, now lying cold in his grave, unwittingly had given Napoleon a model to follow.

On November 21 Napoleon issued his Berlin Decree. Fox's order in council of May had laid down a paper blockade of the French coast. The Berlin Decree laid down a paper blockade of the whole of Great Britain. It prohibited all commerce and correspondence with the British Isles, adding that no vessel coming directly from England or from the English colonies should be received in any French port, and that any vessel contravening the order should be seized. Here was a paper blockade, indeed; a blockade that violated the generally accepted laws of the nations. For justification Napoleon had only to point to Fox's order in council of the previous May.

When news of the Berlin Decree reached England, the commissioners were putting the finishing touches on the treaty. The Berlin Decree furnished the last touch. For the British commissioners announced then and there that, unless the United States refused to recognize the decree, Great Britain would not ratify the treaty. So determined were Monroe and Pinkney to complete their task that they accepted even this provision. The treaty was signed by the commissioners on December 31.

On January 3 Monroe wrote to Jefferson announcing the signing of the treaty. His letter crossed one from the Secretary of State in which Madison advised him that Jefferson was of the opinion that, if impressment were not included, it would be better to sign no treaty at all. Early in March Jefferson received a copy of the treaty. Having read it he did not even take the trouble to submit it to the Senate. He simply filed it away. Nine months of negotiation had gone for naught. The differences between the United States and Great Britain were as far from solution as ever, and Monroe farther from the Presidency. Diplomacy involving such great names as those of Charles James Fox, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe had ignominiously failed.

 p30  "No two countries upon earth have so many points of common interest," Jefferson had written, "and their rulers must be great bunglers, indeed, if with such dispositions they break asunder." Who were the bunglers? It may be assumed that Jefferson did not include himself among them.

Page updated: 24 Jun 13