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History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 2

Chapter II.

Conciliatory Disposition of the British Government tow­ards America—Reasons for the same—An uncommonly hostile Disposition manifested by the American Govern­ment towards Great Britain—Reasons for the same—Grand commercial Treaty between Great Britain and France, before the Revolution—Commercial Treaty completely overthrown on the Accession of Buonaparte—The unrivalled commercial Greatness of Great Britain, cause of bitter mortification to France.*

It seems to be a general opinion that the Americans, whether right or wrong on the principles of public law on which they so obstinately insisted, (a point which shall be afterwards examined,) might have brought matters to an amicable arrangement, without any material sacrifice even of the doubtful maxims for which they contended; for never was the spirit of conciliation car­ried farther than by the British government in its intercourse with the ministers of the United States.

England had many obvious reasons for endeavoring to avert the calamities of an American war at this period: she was engaged in a very arduous contest in Europe; she had the most numerous and formidable enemies to contend with; she had the interests of her commerce to maintain, which are always dependent, in some degree, on a friendly connection with America; and she had, moreover a natural and generous aversion to conquer, be­fore she could bring herself to draw the sword against a people connected with her by a resemblance of lan­guage, laws and institutions. These were motives suffi­ciently powerful to have restrained English ministers, even if they had not been otherwise remarkable for mildness and forbearance. Had the principles of inter­national law, which were invariably advanced by the Americans, been as sound as an impartial examination of them may perhaps shew that they were unreasonable, still it would have been in the power of America, had she sincerely desired peace, to have preserved it by an honorable compromise on those points which had created the greatest difference of opinion, or almost by any thing short of an absolute surrender of the rights and honour of Great Britain, which it was rather too much in any people to expect. But if there be any one point in re­cent history which even the arts of faction cannot involve in doubt, it is this: that the government of America was not sincerely desirous of peace with Great Britain; that it took all possible means to disturb the moderation and provoke the anger of the British ministers; and that upon all occasions it betrayed symptoms of the most un­accountable partiality to the despotism of France; those who studied the history of American affairs for three or four years immediately preceding the declaration of war against Great Britain, are well aware of the grounds on which this opinion is formed; and a very singular inquiry thus suggests itself, how it should have happened, that the only republican government in the world, should, at the greatest crisis of affairs, have combined with the most odious of despotisms against a country which had always been recognised as an illustrious model of practical free­dom, and which was, at this very moment, engaged in a grand effort to vindicate the independence of nations.

In attempting to account for this singular political phenomenon, something undoubtedly must be allowed for the yet unextinguished spirit of animosity produced by our unfortunate colonial war. It may probably be supposed that such antiquated prejudices had long ere the period at which the war commenced, become the exclusive property of the vulgar; and must have given way in the minds of enlightened men, to considerations more recent in point of time, and more important in their practical influence on American affairs. It is an un­deniable fact however, that the government of the United States is, to a more than ordinary degree, under the dis­cipline and control of the rabble; and if indeed there be any truth in the common speculation as to the motives of their hostility towards Great Britain, it must be very far gone in vulgar absurdity. National prejudices so discri­minating and so mischievous, are every where but in America confined to the lowest order of men; they have long been banished out of the more respectable circles even of private life, and could never find their way into the councils of a great European state, without devoting it to the supreme and unsparing contempt, and ridicule of its neighbors.

With the narrow contracted prejudices of the Ameri­can democracy, other causes undoubtedly conspired to accelerate a rupture with England. The commercial system, that miserable tissue of blunders, which had so long and so effectually kept down the growing prosperity of Europe, had been wisely exploded by the most enlight­ened European nations before the revolution of France. The enlarged views and superior talents of those political philosophers who diffused a radiance round the close of the last century, had completely triumphed over every obstacle which ignorance and prejudice could op­pose; and England and France at last discovered that they had a mutual interest in the commercial greatness of each other. They did more than this; they reduced their principles to practice, and embodied them in a treaty, which, if not unexceptionable in all respects, was at least, a great step towards the triumph of genuine phi­losophy over the errors and absurdities of the old political school. The French revolution, however, deranged all the plans of enlightened men; it engendered a rancour and animosity between the nations more violent and pernicious than the ancient jealousies of the commercial system, and terminated at last in a despotism, which threw France and her dependencies far back in the scale of improvement.

The commercial system was revived by the new French government, with a barbarous and destructive fury, which had never been contemplated at any former pe­riod; the refined and generous principles which so many eminent men had contributed to establish, were forgotten; their works were neglected or proscribed; the progress of human improvement was arrested, all seemed about to be sacrificed to the rude genius of an over­whelming despotism. As a truce with that crafty and despotic usurper who had now gained such an absolute ascendancy over the destinies of the French nation, was never any thing more than his passive submission to necessity, until he could recover himself from some untoward dilemma into which his folly and ambition had brought him; so was it soon discovered to be the case with the peace of Amiens. His invincibles had been driven, by the British troops, from the shores of Egypt; his fleets had been either taken or locked up in French ports by the immortal Nelson and his compa­triots; and, in order to recover himself, he is induced to accept of the terms of what is called the Treaty of Amiens; but reckless of all good faith, it was scarcely promulgated to the world, until every term of that treaty was violated, and Europe again convulsed by a relentless war. But even during the short interval of repose which succeeded the treaty of Amiens, the maxims of the new government were sufficiently indica­ted in the impolitic restraints and prohibitions by which the commercial intercourse of the countries was fettered. England, however, in all this, never pretended that such measures afforded a legitimate ground for hostilities since every nation being supreme within itself, has a right to determine whether it shall or shall not receive the commodities of foreign states; but if the commercial animosity of France could not have justified England in declaring war, it certainly afforded her a just and solid ground for entertaining jealousy against a power thus hostile to her interests, and called upon her to watch all the proceedings of that power with the most scrupulous vigilance. The unrivalled commercial greatness, to which England had arisen, at this time, surpassing all that history had ever recorded at any preceding period, and all that even the most flattering visions of her statesmen had ever contemplated, was an object of bitter and increasing mortification to the politi­cians of France; her naval supremacy, which was founded on the prosperity of her commerce, and promised for it an indefinite duration, filled their minds with jeal­ousy and apprehension. These feelings rose to the highest pitch after the peace of Amiens. Europe seem­ed to learn, for the first time, that the commercial grandeur of England possessed a stability which had never been supposed to belong to this species of power. It had with­stood the shock of the most extended and desolating warfare; and at the close of a contest of long duration and unparalleled fury, in which the empire had some­times contend with the combined energies of Europe, it not only remained untouched but had mightily extended itself during every year of hostility. The war had ter­minated in the establishment of a naval power, which had gathered strength by all the efforts made to weaken it; and had now risen to that proud eminence, which bid defiance to all rivalry. The rulers of France reflected on these matters with bitterness corresponding to the disap­pointment of their hopes; they despaired of being able for this enormous power by any ordinary efforts; and could think of no way by which its further growth might be checked, but, by the entire sacrifice of their commerce and resources. They hoped that by excluding the productions of British industry from their ports, and by prohibiting the use of British commodities throughout France and her dependencies, they might gradually undermine this overgrown power; while their depraved policy at the same time sought to inculcate a belief among their subjects, that such measures would promote the industry of France. Thus was a system established, (if indeed so rude and impolitic a thing deserve the name,) in direct opposition to all the views of modern science; a system, which was in truth but a barbarous extension of the old theories, that so many enlightened men had endeavored to banish for ever from the world.

* In order to preclude the necessity of referring to notes for the authorities from whence the following, on the events of the war, has been chiefly collected, which in such a work (especially) is eminently calculated to confuse an ordinary reader; it is con­ ceived most proper in this place to state, that amongst the British and American periodicals and other publications of the day in which the occurrences noticed transpired, the Annual Register, Niles' Weekly Register, &c. &c. &c. have largely contributed their portion. ­

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