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History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 4

Chapter IV.

An extremely hostile Disposition manifested towards Great Britain by the President and Congress of the United States—Affectation of Impartiality in the Discussions of the American Congress, on the Conduct of Great Britain and France—Effect pro­duced on the public Mind in England, in Consequence of the hostile Attitude America had assumed—Seri­ous affair between the crews of two French Privateers & American Seamen at the Port of Savannah—Vaunt­ing Language of America—Implicit Confidence of the British Government in the Loyalty and firm Attach­ment of the People of Canada—That Confidence confirmed—Various Discussions in England on the Propriety or impropriety of going to War with America.

Although the question arising out of the Orders in Council formed, at first, the chief subject of dispute between Great Britain and America, yet many other points, in the course of discussion, were introduced, scarcely less dfficult of arrangement. At the meeting of the American congress, in the end of the preceding year, the speech delivered by the president gave evident indications of a very hostile spirit towards Great Britain; and as this speech was followed by a report of the select com­mittee of congress for foreign affairs, which was no less warlike, the hopes which had been entertained of an amicable arrangement seemed to vanish. The com­mittee, with a wonderful affectation of impartiality, began by a general complaint as to the wrongs which America had sustained, both from France and England, in the seizure of the property of the citizens of the United States, when peaceably pursuing their lawful commerce on the high seas; and reprobated the defence which had been offered by each party, that its acts of violence were merely retaliatory, on similar acts committed by its antagonist. The Americans, it was said, violently assailed, by both these European States, withdrew their citizens and property from the ocean, expecting redress from the justice of the belligerents; but having failed in this object, they had recourse to the non-intercourse and non-importation laws. To in­duce the European powers to return to a system of justice, they had offered commercial advantages to the belligerent which should first revoke its commercial edicts; and had to impose more severe restrictions on the other. But here did the mask fall to the ground; here did all sem­blance of impartiality cease, from the report; which pro­ceeded to announce that France, profiting by the friendly offers of the United States, had, on the 1st November, 1810, declared the repeal of the decree of Berlin; that the British were thus bound to have revoked their Orders in Council, but instead of this, they had advanced still bolder pretensions; they had affected to deny the practi­cal extinction of the French decrees, and had insisted that France should renounce the whole system of her commercial warfare against Great Britain, of which these decrees originally formed a part. That the exclu­sion of British produce and manufactures from France and the states in alliance with her, was a means of com­mercial warfare with which the United States had no concern; and that France would never concede to the unauthorised demands of America, those rights which she considered as the most powerful engine of the war; that the outrages of England had not been confined to the commerce alone of the United states; that by the seizure of American seamen, which was still carried on with unabated rigor and severity, the greatest insult was offered to America; and that the only question now was, whether the Americans should tamely submit, or resist by those means which circumstances had placed within their reach. That it had now become the sacred duty of Congress to call forth the patriotism and re­sources of the country; and the committee, therefore, earnestly recommended, "That the United States be immediately put in an armour and attitude demanded by the crisis, and corresponding with the national spirit and expectations."

As soon as the accounts of the warlike preparations in America were made known in Great Britain, it be­came an universal opinion that war with that country was now inevitable. The report of the committee of Congress certainly breathed an uncommonly hostile spirit towards England, and left no room to expect an amica­ble or conciliatory arrangement. Its reasonings were wholly founded on the assumption that the prohibitory decrees of France had really been repealed, whilst the daily conduct of that power, and the experience of the government of America, positively and peremptorily contradicted that assumption.* The committee attempted to avail themselves of a captious and quibbling distinc­tion between the international law asserted by France, and the municipal regulations established for the govern­ment of the commerce of that country; still the French government continued to declare that no British goods should be admitted into French ports, notwithstanding that these goods may have become the property of neutrals; thus were the Americans completely shut out from a branch of commerce, of the peaceful enjoyment of which they had long been in possession, and in which, of course, they had an undoubted right to engage. Even though the Berlin and Milan decrees had, as far as re­garded their practical operation on the great high way of nations, been fairly revoked, yet their principle was still retained, to a degree which not only called upon neutrals generally to protest against them, but on account of their practical bearing on America, particularly, de­manded from them a firm and decided resistance. The British government did not insist, as was vainly affected to be believed by the committee, that America should at any time interfere with the domestic regulations of France; but she certainly insisted that America should not, by lending herself to tho enemy, or by passively submitting to conditions which had never until now been imposed upon any neutral nation on earth. Nothing could, probably, more forcibly exhibit the hostile disposition of America towards Great Britain, and her servile duplicity towards the ruler of France, than her submis­sion to the blockade of the British Islands—an act of the French emperor which America herself had declared to be an open violation of the public law of nations, and when France did not employ a single vessel to enforce it. Even though the decrees of France had therefore been rescinded, that repeal must have been totally nugatory, since, by a municipal regulation which America strenuously defended, a palpable violation of the rights of neutral nations was still committed; neu­trals were still compelled to comply with the measures of France, to the injury of British commerce; thus proclaiming to the world a principle of a description altogether new and extravagant. From all these it may be fairly seen that America had no grounds whatever, except her base traffic with the French ruler, for declaring war against Great Britain; nor were they warranted by an exposition of their finances to hazard a proceeding so violent and unjust.

During the time that the American legislature was engaged denouncing in the severest terms the injustice of Great Britain, and apologizing for the outrages of France, an affair of a very serious nature occurred at Savannah, which had nearly opened the eyes of America to the insolence of the French towards a nation which had so completely debased itself by its servile compliance to the measures of that government. One evening, about the middle of November, 1811, as two French privateers were lying in the port abovemention­ed, a rencontre took place between a party of American seamen and a party of the crews of the French priva­teers, in which three of the Americans were stabbed and severely wounded. The American seamen then in the port, being highly exasperated at the conduct of the French, rose, en masse, with a full determination to revenge themselves by the destruction of the privateers; they, therefore, in pursuance of this design, seized and set fire to one of them and burnt her to the water's edge. The other privateer was immediately taken pos­session of, by a party of the Savannah volunteers, who protected her until between eleven and twelve o'clock at night, at which time the American sailors procured a lighter-boat, filled her with tar and various combustible materials, towed her along-side the remaining privateer to which they made her fast, and then set her on fire, which soon forced the guard to abandon their charge, which was speedily destroyed. In this instance, amongst many others, the French were unquestionably the ag­gressors; their arrogance and insolence towards America on every occasion became absolutely past endurance; yet had not the spirit of the people urged them here to redress their own wrongs, it is more than probable that the government, as in circumstances of a similar nature, would never have thought of interfering.

The sentiments which were contained in the report of the committee of the legislature, before alluded to, were violently supported in the House of Representatives; and it was actually declared by one speaker in that house, to be the unanimous opinion of that committee, "That the encroachments of Great Britain were such as to de­mand war, as the only alternative by which to obtain justice." Others of the members dilated largely on the power which America possessed to harass and annoy Great Britain both by sea and land; that it was in their power completely to exhaust her colonies, and to annihi­late her trade by an active system of privateering. Their vanity even carried them so far as to boast of the easy conquest would be made of Canada—a threat which at all times excited ridicule in Great Britain, knowing well how strongly the people were attached to the laws and institutions of the mother country. Indeed so well were the British government aware af the loyalty and valor of the brave yeomanry of Canada, that she actually risked the salvation of the country from the grasp of the enemy into their hands; and well was that confidence repaid, for they actually appeared to rejoice in suffering every description of privation, to afford them an oppor­tunity of harassing and finally repelling the proud inva­der in every incursion he made. There were, however, still to be found, in England, many persons who highly deprecated a war with America, as one of the greatest evils which could befal that country; and who, notwith­standing the length to which the vanity of America had carried her in her unreasonable demands, still entertained a hope that hostilities might yet be averted. No person could certainly have felt a desire of having a war with America, merely on its own account; but at this period it was impossible to discover by what means the calami­ties of a war could be avoided, consistent with the honor of the British nation, when the absurd pretensions of the government of America were taken into con­sideration.

They had, at various periods, made use of the language of defiance, daily boasting of the ability they possessed of utterly destroying the commerce of Great Britain, and of their power of conquering Canada; all considerations were therefore set aside, and on war they were fully resolved. Under such circumstances, for Great Bri­tain to have succumbed would have been a sacrifice of her honor, inasmuch as it would have been yielding to menace and insult of the most degrading kind. It would have been no better than cowardice of the most dastardly description, for Great Britain to have rescinded her Orders in Council at this period; and it was a fact proved to a demonstration, that America never intended to stop here, or the French emperor did not intend to allow her to rest satisfied with this concession. The ministers of the British nation therefore determined to act upon the principle so elegantly unfolded by Mr.. Burke: "That in small, weakly states, a timely com­promise has often been the means, and the only means, of drawing out their puny existence. But a great state is too much envied, too much dreaded, to find safety in humiliation. To be secure, it must be respected Power, and eminence, and consideration, are things not to be begged; they must be commanded; and they who supplicate for mercy from others, can never hope for justice through themselves." The conduct of the British ministers, however, in this affair, was not altogether undeserving of reprehension: they had determined, through the semblance of fear, to make no concession to America, and thereby cast on that country the odium of first having recourse to arms. Yet after that nation had declared her unalterable resolution for war, and adding that, notwithstanding this, she was determined to wait until her preparations were complete, for Britain to allow her time for such preparations, and not strike the blow at an enemy whom, from the most palpable evidence, she had ever suspected of the basest political treachery, in all the diplomatic relations which occurred between the two countries, and whom she knew to be irreconcilably bitter and rancorous, was honorable to a fault. To have attacked them at such a time and under such circumstances, would have been a policy both wise and vigorous.

*The justice and fairness which have been evinced on the part of the United States towards France, both before and since the revocation of her decrees, authorised an expectation that her government would have followed up that measure by all such others as were due to our reasonable claims, as well as dictated by its amicable professions. No proof, however, is yet given of an intention to repair the wrongs done to the United States; and particularly to restore the great amount of American property seized and condemned under edicts, which, though not affecting our neutral relations, and therefore not entering into the question between the United States and other belligerents, were neverthe­less founded in such unjust principles that the reparation ought to have been prompt and ample.

In addition to this, and other demands of strict right, on that nation, the United States have much reason to be dissatisfied with the rigorous and unexpected restrictions to which their trade with the French dominions had been subjected.

President's Message to Congress, 5th Nov. 1811.

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