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History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 11

Chapter XI.

Discussions on the Orders in Council continued—Repeal of the Orders in Council officially promulgated under certain Conditions—Re-election of Mr. Madison as United States President.

Prior to this period, the British government had deter­mined upon some arrangement, on this subject, which would, at all events, impart tranquility, if not relief to the country from the distresses under which they suffered, and would at the same time evince the desire of ministers to accomplish that great object so ardently sought after. It was thought, therefore, unnecessary to enter into an en­larged debate on the merits of the question; a debate, which under existing circumstances would certainly have been superfluous; however, before going into any expla­nation in the House, as to the features of the arrange­ments in contemplation, Lord Castlereagh deemed it necessary, after so much had been said, to defend the principles upon which the Orders in Council had ori­ginally been established. He said "on such an important subject, he felt anxious to offer to the House the rea­sons which appeared to him conclusive against the address. He lamented the precipitation of the honorable and learned gentlemen in bringing forward this motion; a precipitation injurious to his own cause. This was the more to be regretted, as the evidence went to such a great extent. He was sorry that the honorable and learned gentleman, even for the sake of his own charac­ter, should have so much departed from all parliamentary practice, and should have pressed to a hasty discussion a subject, than which one more vital never came before par­liament. He deprecated any interference, on the part of the House, in a question of great national importance, involving unquestionably commercial considerations of the most serious native, but mixed up also with conside­rations of maritime right.

It was certainly not out of the absolute province of parliament to interfere on such an occasion; but it had always been extremely averse, pending a negotiation on a delicate subject, to dictate to the executive govern­ment the course which it ought to pursue. He admitted that the honorable and learned gentleman had made out a grave case of national distress, as affecting the manu­factures of the country. Nay, he further admitted that there existed a reasonable ground to believe, that if the American market was not opened within a limited period, the pressure would be increased. But, notwith­standing this admission, it is to be hoped that honorable members will not permit their imaginations to stray so widely with his learned and honorable friend, as to con­ceive that the general commerce and manufactures of the empire were in a state of decay and perishment. He felt acutely for the distresses, and he declared that he had never met with more fair and liberal men than the individuals sent by those manufacturers to repre­sent their case to parliament. He conceded to the honorable and learned gentleman, that if Great Britain repealed her Orders in Council, America might be dis­posed to abrogate her non-importation act: but he contended that, on a retrospect of the past, he was by no means prepared to say that it would have been wise to have kept possession of the American market, by abstaining from those measures; an abstinence which would have exposed the commerce of this country to all the evils with which it had been threatened by France. In justice, however, Great Britain ought to have retained possession of the American market, notwithstanding the system which she had adopted towards France—a system which he admitted was not justifiable on principles of commercial policy, but which was most completely jus­tifiable on the principle in which it originated, namely, the principle of coercing France, and driving her from the system of misrule which she had so extensively exercised. As directed against France, this system had obtained its object to a letter. Never was a country more commercially depressed than France. By the offi­cial documents of the French government, it appeared, that the whole extent of the manufactures and produce of that country, with her population of thirty-six mil­lions, consumed internally as well as exported, did not equal the simple exports of other nations. In the year before last, they did not exceed £54,000,000 sterling, while ours amounted to £66,000,000. Never, there­fore, would he cease to contend, that the system of his late right honorable friend originated as much in wisdom as in justice. Even with the loss of the American market, (which he maintained we ought not to have lost,) let the House compare the situation in which the British empire was, with that in which it might have been, but for the Orders in Council. This country (with the exception of the last year, the deficiency of which was occasioned by temporary causes,) exhibited to the world a spectacle of a nation struggling amidst the efforts of war, and rising in wealth and commercial prosperity and grandeur. Indeed, a great part of the deficiency of the last year was occasioned by the pre­ceding extraordinary and unnatural prosperity.

With that exception, the commerce of the country, all but that which related to America, had increased in an accumulating ratio, beyond what it bad ever been in times of peace. And even in continental Europe, our commerce, notwithstanding the efforts of the scourge of the continent, had grown to a considerable extent, par­ticularly since the issuing of the Orders in Council.

The average of our annual exports to the Continent, during the three years preceding the Orders in Council, was £17,000,000. The annual average of the three years subsequent to the Orders in Council, was £23,000,000, being an increase of six millions annually. Even the exports to America, prior to the last year, so far from decaying, had considerably increased. The average of the annual exports to America, including the West Indies, during the three years immediately preceding the last year, [1811] was £22,000,000; the annual ave­rage, during the three years preceding those three years, was only £19,500,000. The present distress of those manufacturing districts most connected with America, was in a great degree attributable to the benevolent feelings of the master manufacturers, who had expended their fortunes in keeping their men employed on the same scale during the last year as they had done during the three years preceding. He had always denied that the present system was adopted from any unworthy motive of national gain. It rested on the firm ground of national defence. It rented on the principle, that as the enemy wielded his utmost extent of power against the prosperity of the British empire, we had a right to wield the utmost extent of our power against the prosperity of France. He stated it in vindication of the character of the coun­try and of the government, that no councils had ever been more honorably and faithfully directed to apply the system of retaliation successfully to the enemy, but in a way as little obnoxious as possible to the neutral. Va­rious had been the modifications resorted to for this latter purpose; and particularly the order of 1809 limited the blockade to France and the countries immediately under the power of her arms.

Adverting to the system of licenses, he maintained that the honorable and learned gentleman had fallen into a great error on the subject. The licenses connected with the system of blockade, did not form a fifth of the license system of the country. We had a right, by our licenses, to avail ourselves of the relief which the enemy required; and we had never done this to the injury of neutrals, who had enjoyed as much facility in sailing from our ports as our own merchant vessels. But it was not with the license system that America quarrelled. We had expressed our readiness to return, if America wished it, to the strict measure of 1807, provided she rescinded the act prohibitory of our commerce.

He was anxious to call the attention of the House to some circumstances which had occurred since the last discussions on the subject, and since the issuing the Prince Regent's proclamation in April. It had been asked in that House, in what way he understood the French decree recently communicated to government by the American minister? He had no hesitation in reply­ing that, in his opinion, it by no means satisfied the regent's declaration, which required the unqualified and unconditional repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees, as the condition of rescinding the Orders in Council. The day on which he had received that decree, was the very day on which the House of Commons had been pleased, by its vote, virtually to dissolve the ad­ministration; and therefore it was not until the last three or four days, that the present government, consi­dering themselves as a government, had deliberated upon the subject. On the face of this instrument, however, he had no difficulty in repeating that it appeared insufficient, and was accompanied with circumstances of great distrust and suspicion. It was difficult also to say, whether this decree had not been completely revoked by the sweeping declaration of the Duke of Bassano, that the Berlin and Milan decrees would remain in full force until the maritime assumptions of this country should be abandoned. There, therefore, must exist considerable doubts on the subject. Nevertheless, it might not be unwise to put the country in a situation to receive explanations upon it.

If the American government should be found displayed to make representationg to France, to induce her to satisfy the just expectations contained in His Royal Highness the Prince Regent's Proclamation, Great Britain would be disposed to consent to the suspension, for a limited period, of the restrictive system of both countries; or, in other words, she would consent to suspend the Orders in Council, if America would consent to suspend her non-importation act. The experiment might then be tried of the practicability of restoring things to their ancient system. If by an act of temper and conciliation, not incompatible with the safety of the country, an inducement could be held out to France, in the paroxysm of her power, to return to that system, a departure from which, had been destructive of her own commerce, it would be an act redounding to our honor. Should the event be favora­ble, the advantage would be great to all parties. Should it be unfavorable, we must return to our present retalia­tory system, if this effort on our part were not met with a correspondent feeling on the part of America, opportu­nities would be afforded, in the absence of irritation, of fairly considering those circumstances which might re­store and cement that friendship which ought always to be maintained between the two countries; and which if was the curse of both had ever been interrupted.

If, by the fatal perseverance of France, Great Britain should be driven to re-adopt her retaliatory system, means might be adopted, without endangering its efficacy against the enemy, of rendering it less obnoxious to America. He concurred with the honorable and learned gentleman, that it would be a most unworthy and unwise policy in this country, to allow itself to be provoked by the irritation which America had evinced. Was it not the part of a great empire liko Great Britain to adopt a conciliatory course of conduct towards America, even at the time when her tone (although he trusted it would not lead to absolute war,) sufficiently marked the hos­tile disposition of her councils? Although he did not wish to be too sanguine as to the result of his experi­ment, yet, persuaded as he was that there had been moments of such great inconvenience to France, that had she not cherished hopes of final success from the occur­rence of certain circumstances in this country, she would willingly have abandoned her projects, he could not help entertaining an expectation that she might be indu­ced to return to the ancient system. Under all these circumstances, he trusted the House would not consent to the address. He would content himself with moving the order of the day. Were the documents illustrative of the negotiation between this country and America on the table, he should call for a distinct negative to the motion; but as they were not, so he did not wish to extract from the House any vote which would imply their approbation of the conduct of His Majesty's gov ernment in that negotiation.

On account of the information contained in the pre­ceding speech delivered by Lord Castlereah, the motion for rescinding the Orders in Council was withdrawn, on condition that in the next Gazette an official instrument on the subject should make its appearance.

In the next Gazette, according to promise, appeared the instrument alluded to, which went on to state that, by a previous declaration of the 1st of April, 1812, the repeal of the Orders in Council should take place so soon as a formal revocation of the French decrees was announced; that a communication had been made by the American charge des affairs to Lord Castlereah, of a copy of the alleged instrument of repeal by the French government; and although this revocation was not such as to satisfy the conditions required by His Royal High­ness, the Prince Regent's declaration, yet as Great Britain was anxious to replace on its ancient basis the commerce of neutral nations, the Orders in Council of 7th January, 1807, and of 26th April, 1809, were there­fore suspended as far as regarded American property, from the 1st of August following

But in consequence of the exclusion of British ships of war from the ports and harbors of the United States, while those of her enemy were freely admitted, and as all commercial intercourse between Great Britain and the United States of America was prohibited by the latter, while she pursued a trade with France and her dependencies, so far as the effects of the British Orders in Council could be eluded—it was declared that if the American government should not, after the regular communication of this document, alter its policy, then the repeal of the Orders in Council should not take effect. It was likewise provided in the same document, that all seizures of American vessels and property subse­quent to the date of the communication relative to the repeal of the French decrees, should not be condemned; and it was expressly reserved on the part of the British government, should circumstances require such a proce­dure, a revival of the Orders in Council and the adop­tion of such other measures of retaliation as the security of British commerce and of her maritime rights should appear from time to time to demand.

Such was the conciliatory conduct of the British government towards that of the United States, that the Orders in Council, which were undoubtedly of the greatest political importance to that country under exist­ing circumstances, were in a great measure abandoned; and notwithstanding, it was the general impression amongst the most enlightened part of community, that the desires of America were unbounded, so would also her demands be unbounded; and that, at each succeed­ing concession on the part of the British government, the demands of America would become doubly imperi­ous; yet it was expedient to manifest to those who were of the opinion that the Orders in Council were the sole cause of the commercial distresses of the country, an anxiety to go as far as the honor of the British na­tion and the security of her maritime rights would permit, to purchase their relief, or at least to tran­quilize their minds on the subject. It was strongly suspected too, that as regarded the non-importation act of the United States upon British commerce, that America would not be disposed to concede an inch of ground; although, on the other hand, it was thought that the repeal of the Orders in Council, to which America had as yet principally confined herself, would be but a pre­lude to claims of a more extraordinary nature, as America evidently was but a tool in the hands of the ruler of France for that purpose. However, it was the wish of all parties to make a fair trial; as the refusal of America to meet Great Britain upon honorable terms, would virtually of itself render the repeal of the Or­ders in Council invalid. Mr. Madison had by this time secured for four years longer the presidential chair, and the faction of which he was the head, had so far predom­inated over the more sensible part of that country, as to obtain the ends for which they so long and so ardently sought.

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