War of 1812 Bicentennial

Home > Historic Works > Books > History of the Late War... > History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 10

History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 10

Chapter X.

America evinces a still more hostile Attitude towards Great Britain—Letters of Marque and Reprisal issued by the American Government against British Property— Movement of a strong American Force towards Detroit; Perfidy of the French Government more manifest—The Repeal of the Orders in Council again consi­dered.

The United States government now began to exhibit that warlike disposition towards Great Britain, which had previously indicated itself in so many different ways, with much more violence than hitherto; and it was obvious that the final declaration of hostilities was close at hand; though it was evident that a degree of hesitation and fear was the only existing barrier against this last act of folly and madness. A resolution was presented to Congress, to seize all British merchandize in the United States; to detain all subjects of his Britannic majesty, and to grant letters of Marque and reprisal against British property in general; and it still became a matter of less doubt that these hostile measures of the government of America were but the precursor of resolutions of a more determined cast.

The next act of the American government was to station an army of eight thousand men at Detroit, under the command of a general. The purpose for which it was intended, namely, the conquest ot Canada, was no longer made a secret. Many respectable towns and cor­porate bodies, who had an interest in preserving peace with Great Britain, remonstrated strongly against this last measure; which probably aided not a little to subdue, for a time, the, ardent desire so plainly expressed by Mr. Madison and his partizans to accelerate the war.

During these hostile preparations on the part of America, a circumstance transpired which exhibited the political perfidy of the French government towards that of the United States, in bold relief; and if America had not been actuated by other motives than those which she had labored so assiduously to palm upon the world as the main spring of her actions, it would have completely changed the tenor of her policy towards England.

Despatches were received from Paris, by the United States minister in London, amongst which was the repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees by the French ruler, as far as related to the commerce of America; and however such a breach of faith might shock the feelings of an honest mind, this revocation, notwithstanding it was not received until May, 1812, was dated as far back as April, 1811. That the declaration of the British government, holding forth that as soon as the French decrees should be rescinded unconditionally, the British Orders in Council should from that moment be extinct, was the means of extorting the French repeal, there remained not the slightest shadow of a doubt; and in order to cover the deceit, antedated the repeal to 1811. For two years prior to this period had the French gov­ernment refused, in the most insulting manner, any explanation on the subject of her decrees, or of their repeal towards America; although, during that whole time, America, on her part, had been negotiating on the subject; and, strange to tell, Buonaparte now, in May, 1812, comes forward with his abrogation of those de­crees, antedated no less than thirteen months, and even having reference to 1810, a period of two years previous to its promulgation, when he pretended to have rescind­ed those decrees as far as America was concerned. Such a glaring insult on the honor and faith of nations was probably never offered by one government to another, and would not, perhaps, have been received by any other government than that of the United states, at that time—an opinion at which the president appears obliquely to have glanced.*

After closing a career of the most unwearied and assiduous inquiries into the Orders in Council, by the committee appointed for that purpose, Mr. Brougham, the original mover for inquiry into these orders, moved a second time that these orders should be repealed. No­thing new was adduced in argument on the subject, as in the previous debate all general topics had been exhausted, if we except the disclosures made in the late tedious investigation which was now presented to undergo the consideration of the House of Commons. Mr. Brougham, however, in moving the repeal, made an elaborate speech; he went on to state, that the Orders in Council had always been defended on the supposed necessity of affording relief to the commerce and industry of the country; yet the people had now come to implore parliament to abandon them to the hos­tilities, and spare them the merciless kindness under which they were groaning. Upon the vote of the House the destiny of thousands depended; and if the legislature should say no to the petitions against the Orders in Council, multitudes of hungry men must be let loose upon the country, who would either find food or perish. Commercial capital had been universally locked up; men of great nominal wealth were living without income, trading, or seeming to trade, without profit; numbers of workmen had been dismissed—those who remained were earning only the half or quarter of their wages; even parish rates were increasing, charita­ble supplies failing, from the reduced means of tha higher classes, and the augmented claims on their boun­ty. But the most prominent feature in this case, was the impending necessity of instantaneously disbanding those, who were now detained only in the hopes of a favorable decision of parliament.

The Orders in Council had an operation in producing distress, much more enlarged than many persons were willing to believe; the army in the Peninsula was fed from America; the embargo in that country had raised the price of flour in the Lisbon market above fifty per cent; and had occasioned, in one morning, an export from London of six thousand barrels to supply the Por­tuguese market. No attempt had been made by the supporters of the Orders in Council, to meet the evidence which so fully established the distresses of the country; that they had contented themselves with a reference to the custom-house books—a criterion that might be re­sorted to, when no better evidence could be had, but which is always suspicious, and, in the present instance, had been superceded by the most melancholy disclosures. But even the custom-house books indicated a great and unexampled depression of trade. Nor was there any reason for believing that, for the loss of the trade of the United States, compensation had been obtained in other quarters, since the custom-house books themselves exhibited a general falling off of the trade of the whole country. The market of South America, instead of having increased the valuable commerce of the country, had introduced a spirit of speculation which had brought ruin on all those who had ventured to indulge in it. It was a great fallacy to suppose that any considerable proportion of the goods imported into the United States from Great Britain, was re-exported to South America and the West Indies, since it had been proved by a respec­table witness before the committee that the re-exportation never exceeded one-thirteenth of the whole value; and, of course, that the losses of the trade to North America had not, in any way, been compensated by the supposed increase in the commerce carried on to the other parts of the world, the trade of which, we should at any rate have been able to command.

The home market had also suffered severely by the glut occasioned in all those articles which had formerly been destined for exportation; and that even of the home trade which still remained, the greatest part de­pended on the extravagant demands of that great and unprofitable consumer, the government. The repeal of the Orders in Council, so far from being injurious to the stability of our maritime rights, and of the naval power which protects them, seemed essential to their preservation. The paper blockades, as they were called, were contrary to law, and had never been recognised in any of the courts. Although the Orders in Council were repealed, and although England were to relin­quish for the present the rights on which they are founded, it would not follow that she could never again enforce them.

At the peace of Utrecht, after a war of unexampled success, and a series of uninterrupted triumphs, in which the power of England was extended and confirm­ed, and France and her allies humbled to the dust, we gave up for a time, the principle that free ships should not make free goods; and during the American war, we relinquished what is called the rule of the war, 1756, yet without ultimately abandoning either of these prin­ciples. Every right may be abandoned for the sake of expediency, and resumed when this reason ceases. The loss which was sustained by the obstinate exercise of this right, in the present instance, was enormous; and that the American market was at stake—a market which takes off about thirteen millions of our manufac­tures, and in steadiness and regularity is unrivalled. By refusing to the Americans the market of England from which to purchase, we were driving them to supply themselves; and there was no branch of their com­merce which had not now, to a certain degree, been improved; many branches of their manufactures had been created since 1807, and all were rapidly springing up to maturity. The dread of losing a market, such as that of America, was quite rational, while the fear en­tertained by the supporters of the Orders in Council, that the capital, industry and skill of England might be outdone by France, was altogether contemptible. There was no danger of any loss of honor by seeking to conciliate America; that Great Britain never stood so high as she now did, in point of military character; that she had it in abundance, and even to spare; that the events of the war had not merely sustained the ancient fame of the nation—they had done what seemed scarcely pos­sible—they had greatly increased it; they had covered the British arms with immortal renown; and the gov­ernment was bound to profit by the proud height on which Great Britain stood, for the purposes of peace and conciliation with America.

*Our affairs with France retain the posture which they held at my last communications to you. Notwithstanding the authorised expectation of an early as well as favorable issue to the discus­sions on foot, these have been procrastinated to the latest date. The only intervening occurrence meriting attention, is the promulgation of a French decree purporting to be a definitive repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees. This proceeding, although made the ground work of the British Orders in Council, is ren­dered, by the time and manner of it, liable to many objections.

President's Message, 4th Nov. 1812.

[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: This work was published in 1922 or earlier. It has therefore entered the public domain in the United States.