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History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 12

Chapter XII.

Declaration of War against Great Britain by the Gov­ernment of the United States—Extract from the Presi­dent's Message, approving of the Measure—Several State Legislatures remonstrate against it—Means em­ployed by the Governor in Chief of Canada for the Defence of the Provinces under his Command.

While the government and people of England were anx­iously looking forward to the pacific effect the repeat of the Orders in Council would have on America, notwithstand­ing the unfavourable predictions to the contrary, the news arrived that the President had approved of an act of con­gress formally declaring war against Great Britain. This act had been preceded by a most inflammatory message from the President, in which the British government was accused of numberless atrocities against the U. States; that since the year 1803, says that message, has that gov­ernment persisted in a series of acts hostile to the U. States, as an independent nation. It declared, that British cruisers had violated the honor of the American flag, and seized persons sailing under it; that the seizure even of British subjects, without trial or inquiry, was contrary to the law of nations. That British citizens had violated the rights and the peace of the American coast; and that the blood of American citizens had been wantonly spilt in the very harbors of the United States; And instead of punishment, the highest rewards had been bestowed by the British government on the persons who had committed such atrocities. That by means of a nominal blockade, without the presence of an adequate force, the commerce of America had been plundered on every sea; that the orders issued by the British govern­ment had been tyrannically executed from their date, and before American vessels could be aware of their existence; and that Great Britain had at length resorted to a sweeping system, under the name of Orders in Council, which had been so contrived as to suit the political views and commercial jealousies of England, and satisfy the avidity of her citizens. That the pre­tence of retaliation which had been used in defence of these orders, was altogether groundless; that edicts exe­cuted against American property, could not be a retaliation on those decrees of France, which it was manifestly impossible to execute; and that retaliation, to be just, should fall only on the guilty. That the government of Great Britain had recently declared its determination to insist on these measures until the markets of its enemy should be laid open to British commerce; that England had demanded a formality in the revocation of the French decrees, by no means exemplified even by her own usage; and had declared that she would not rest satisfied with the repeal of the decrees, merely as they affected America, unless they were wholly and uncondi­tionally revoked.

It proceeded to state, that the object of the measures adopted by England, had not been so much to destroy the resources of her enemies as to confirm her own mo­nopoly; and although every effort had been tried by the United States to obtain an alteration of this iniquitous system—although an offer had been made to interrupt all commercial intercourse with France so long as she per­severed in her injustice, yet the British government had been deaf to every remonstrance. That in the year 1810, the American minister in London had offered to the British government a fair opportunity for concilia­tion; that he merely requested to know, whether the British blockade of 1806 was still considered in force; and as this measure had afforded the pretence for the decree of the French government, it was expected that the disavowal of it, by Great Britain, would have imme­diately led to the rescinding of the French edicts, and the restoration of neutral commerce; but the British government had persisted in refusing all explanation. That a fair prospect appeared again to present itself for the adjustment of all differences; but the acts of the British minister in America, who might have accomplish­ed this desirable object, were all disavowed by his government; and at the very moment when these ami­cable proceedings were going forward, a secret agent of Great Britain was employed to cherish disaffection in the citizens of the United States, and to dissolve the happy Union.

Mr. Madison, in the plenitude of his malignant vitu­peration, ventured to charge the British government, though only as matter of suspicion, of inciting the Indian nations to carry on their atrocious warfare against the people of the United States.

"We perceive, in fine," proceeds Mr .Madison, "on the side of Great Britain, a state of war towards the United States; and, on the side of the United States, a state of peace towards Great Britain."

Such was the lofty tone of recital contained in this American state paper, of the aggressions and atrocities committed by Great Britain. But as regarded France, and the conduct of her ruler, what was the President's language? He admitted, in a brief paragraph at the end of the message, that the most atrocious violation of neutral rights had been committed by order of the French government, against the citizens of the United States; but although he was ready to recommend, in the most emphatic terms, a declaration of war against Great Britain, he merely hinted that he hoped an ami­cable adjustment might yet be effected with her enemies, who had carried the spirit of outrage to such extre­mities.

But the President's message did not convey the sen­timents of the whole Union by any means; nor is it to be believed that whole states did not dissent from such a tirade of falsehoods* We are warranted indeed in believing the latter supposition to be the case, from the language breathed in the declaration of the general assembly of the state of Connecticut, at their special session on the 25th August, 1812, and that of the legislature of Maryland on the, 24th of December of the same year, which are fully corroborated by the dec­larations of the legislatures and messages of governors of several other states of that nation.

The legislature of Connecticut proceeds to state, that the aggressions of both nations ought to have been met at the outset by a system of defensive protection com­mensurate to our means, and adapted to the crisis. That other councils prevailed, and that system of commercial restrictions which before had distressed the people of Europe, was extended to our country. That we became parties to the continental system of the French emperor. That whatever its pressure may have been elsewhere, on our citizens it had operated with intolerable severity and hardship.

That in the midst of these sufferings war is declared, and that nation of the two is selected for a foe which is capable of inflicting the greatest injury. And that in this selection we view with the deepest solicitude a tendency to entangle us in an alliance with a nation whose ruler has subverted every republic in Europe, and whose connections, wherever formed, have been fatal to civil liberty.

That of the operation of his decrees on American commerce, it is not necessary here to remark, that the repeal of them, [the French decrees,] promulgated in this country since the declaration of war, virtually declares that the American government was not to be trusted. Insult is thus added to injury.*

That should a continuance of this war exclude our seafaring and mercantile citizens from the use of the ocean, and our invaluable institutions be sacrificed by an alliance with the French despot, the measure of our degradation and wretchednes would be full.

The accusations, however, contained in the President's message formed the ground work on which the United States legislature declared war against Great Britain; and such was the astonishment of the government and people of England that they were for a time before they could persuade themselves that the United States were in ear­nest in the hazardous enterprize they had undertaken, as no conduct of the British government towards that coun­try could have prompted them to such a rash and desperate step. The causes of the war so, emphatically insisted on in the President's message, as now appear, were ridiculous and absurd; complaints, some of which Were only imaginary, and the rest had been redressed, accusations which had long been refuted and a thousand and one other things, if possible, still more absurd and preposterous, were all laid under contribution for the service of this manifesto of Mr. Madison's, in order to meet the views and feelings of the turbulent faction by whom he had been once more raised to the head of the government.

A curious circumstance is also connected with the declaration of war by the United States, which probably tended more to exhibit the entire dependence under which the acts of America government lay to those of the French ruler, and to shew the extreme partiality of America towards France, than any other circum­stance which transpired.

Immediately after the communication of the French minister, declaring the principles of the French decrees to form the fundamental law of the empire, followed the declaration of war by the United States. Whether, therefore, Great Britain considered the pretensions set up and avowed by the American government, or the circumstances attending the declaration of war, the conclusion was the same—that a determination had long been formed by the United States to oppose the just claims of Great Britain, and with a view to embarrass that country in her contest with France for the indepen­dence of Europe, she had determined to unite her resources and exertions.

The news of the declaration of war, at this time, how­ever, completely astounded the people of England. Even those who had advocated the enquiry into the Orders in Council, were convinced that America ought to have been satisfied with the abrogation of those edicts; and they further added, that should America urge any fur­ther claims upon Great Britain, that they should now be the first and most strenuous opposers of any further concession being made to that country.

It was frequently remarked in the public journals of the United States, that in all their intercourse with the governments of Great Britain and France, a studied and implacable hostility towards the interests of the former was universasally evinced; while, notwithstand­ing the reiterated insults and indignities daily offered by the latter to the American flag, yet the government of that republic was decidedly favorable to her views and wishes.

Matters, however, had now arisen to a crisis between Great Britain and the United States, that indicated war to be inevitably at hand; in view of which, and under the impression that in such an event Canada would be in­vaded, the governor in chief of those provinces immediately employed means to strengthen the public works, fortify the most important avenues into the country, and more effectually to organize the provincial militia; for should a war be the result, on the militia forces alone could the country depend for her defence, as only a sufficient regu­lar force was retained in the country to perform garrison duty under a peace establishment; and, under existing circumstances with the mother country, employed as her armies were on the European peninsula, little aid from that quarter could be expected.

*1st. Resolved, That the war with Great Britain, in which, the present administration has plunged the United States, was in­expedient, ill timed and most dangerously impolitic...sacrificing at once countless blessings, and incurring all the hazards and loss­es, of men and treasure, necessarily resulting from a contest with a nation possessing so many means to annoy and distress us.

2d. Resolved, That, as the war was improvidently commenced, so has the conduct of it proved wasteful and disastrous. The administration being evidently chargeable with the multiplied dis­asters which have attended our arms, and consigned to captivity or death so many thousands of brave men, without the attain­ment of a single object.

3d. Resolved, That we view with inexpressible concern the course of that destructive policy which leads to a connexion with the military despotism of France; and if it should so happen, as our fears suggest, that a convention or confederacy with that pow­er either exists or is intended, we do not hesitate to declare, that such an event will be considered by us more dangerous than the war itself and as tending, in its consequences, to a dissolution of the United States.

6th. Lastly, Resolved, That finding in the answer of the President of the United States, to a proposed armistice, that the principal object of the war is to obtain redress against the British practice of impressment...and finding, further, in an answer from the British Government, to another proposed armistice, that their claim does not extend beyond what it calls its ancient and accus­tomed practice of impressing British seamen from the merchant vessels of a foreign state...we do hereby declare our solemn con­viction, that a war, at the expence of American blood and treasure. to protect British subjects on the high seas from their due alle­giance to their country, would be unjust; and that the abuse of this practice, in regard to American seamen, may be guarded against by an arrangement between the two governments; and therefore that a negotiation for a treaty of peace should be imme­diately opened.

Extracts from the Declaration of the general Assem­bley of the Legislature of the State of New Jersey, 1812.

*See also the note under page 79.

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