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History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 5

Chapter V.

Motion made in the House of Commons, by Mr. Whit­bread, for Copies of official correspondence between British and American Ministers, to be laid before the House—Charges in Mr. Whitbread's Speech against British Ministers, for Inattention and Incivility in their Intercourse with those of America—Mr. Whit­bread's Motion strenuously opposed in the House of Commons—The Charges against British Ministers by Mr. Whitbread rebutted—Mr. Whitbread's Motion in the House put and negatived.

In order, however, to avert the calamities naturally attendant on a state of hostilities with America, it was moved in the House of Commons on the 13th of Febru­ary, by Mr. Whitbread, "That a humble address be presented to the Prince Regent, praying that he would give directions to lay before the House copies of all cor­respondence which had passed between the British and American ministers, from the 1st of January, 1810, to the latest period, together with the documents referred to in the correspondence. It was urged by Mr. Whit­bread, In support of this measure, "That although the governments of both countries had, from the beginning, professed to be actuated by the most friendly and conciliatory dispositions towards each other, the breach between Great Britain and America had been widening from day to day, till it appeared that war between the two countries must be the inevitable consequence of the perseverance of England in her present system; that the information demanded by this motion was already before the whole world, with the exception of the two houses of parliament; that it had been the practice of the House, when she entertained suspicions that the busi­ness of the state was not well conducted, to require information from the executive power; and that the only ground upon which such information had ever been refused was that a disclosure might disturb or impede the impending negotiations; as the information required was already before the world, no such plea could in this case be offered."

"From a perusal of the papers, it appeared that the conduct of those who managed the negotiations had been very culpable, yet it was impossible to bring a charge against them until the documents were produced. The British ministers at home had behaved with the greatest inattention to the American envoy, and had shown a neglect amounting to diplomatic incivility, while our ministers in the United States have acted in a manner scarcely less repulsive. The conduct of Mr. Jackson and Mr. Foster, while in America, had not been conciliatory; while the correspondence of Marquis Wellesley with Mr. Pinkney, which commenced in January, 1809, and terminated in February, 1810, had been such as to raise the indignation of the American government. The behaviour of Mr. Pinkney, on the other hand, had been deserving of great praise. When he entered on the duties of his mission, a strong feeling existed in America in consequence of what had occurred in the course of Mr Jackson's embassy; and the Americans were naturally anxious as to the character of the person who was to be named by Great Britain to renew the negotiation. On the 2nd of January, 1809, Mr. Pinkney again wrote to the Marquis Wellesley on the subject, but no answer was given to this letter till the 14th of March. On the 15th, Mr. Pinkney again wrote to Lord Wellesley respecting the English system of blockade, a subject most interesting to America; but to this letter he did not receive an answer for more than a fortnight. On the 30th of April, Mr. Pinkney wrote to Lord Wellesley on the subject of the Berlin and Milan decrees, but to this letter he never received any answer at all; and a complaint which he made against the infa­mous practice of forging ships' papers in London, and making an open traffic of them, was treated with the same neglect. That many other instances had occurred in which the communications of the American minister had been treated in a manner not less contemptuous, and in particular to his letter of the 15th September to Lord Wellesley, on the subject of the blockade of Elsineur by Sir James Saumarez, and stating some circumstances relating to the seizure of four American seamen in the Viola, he received an imperfect answer only on the 6th of December, which noticed the letter so far as it rela­ted to the blockade, but said nothing at all on the subject of the impressment. That the latter subject was one of the greatest delicacy; and although the sea­men had afterwards been released by virtue of a judge­ment of Sir William Scott, yet the secretary of state had considered the original complaint as unworthy of his notice. Such had been the conciliatory spirit of the noble secretary, who permitted the sentence of a court of justice to answer the communication of a foreign minister, whom he himself would not take the trouble of satisfying on so interesting a point. Although Mr. Pink­ney had, on numerous occasions, addressed the British minister on the subject of the Berlin and Milan decrees, he had never received any satisfactory answer, and he accordingly demanded his audience of leave."

"Little appeared to have been afterwards done towards effecting the important objects which both governments professed to have at heart. Mr. Foster had been sent out with no new instructions; he went to offer what had been previously rejected, and to restate what had often before been stated in vain, so that his mission was only productive of disappointment. That it is of the utmost importance to conciliate America; this object might at one time have been thought unattainable, but from some measure recently adopted by Congress, for admitting. British manufactures into the ports of the United States, there was reason to believe that it was still the wish of the Americans to avoid a rupture. The prosperity of America contributed largely to the welfare of this coun­try; and that America had committed no fault, except that, as she was placed in an extraordinary situation as the only neutral in the world, she had endeavored to avail herself of the advantages her situation afforded. The intelligence which had so recently been received from America, made it more important than ever, tho­roughly to consider this subject; that the bill spoken of, as likely to pass through Congress, would give umbrage to France; and it was the duty of the British govern­ment to endeavor, by conciliation, to avail itself of any difference of this kind, which might arise."

Several members strongly opposed the motion of Mr. Whitbread for the production of the copies of the correspondence between the two governments, and he and his friends were highly censured for the allegations they had brought against the government of Great Britain, regarding their conduct towards America, and on their strict adherence to the Orders in Council. "The British government," said they, "instead of hav­ing acted unjustly towards America, had the strongest case against that power, that one nation ever had against another; no benefit could result from a premature agita­tion, in the House of Commons, of the differences be­tween the two countries; but, on the contrary, the greatest inconvenience and mischief might thus be produced. Government had uniformly expressed but one sentiment in regard to the dispute with America, and was sincerely desirous that a war with that country might be avoided, if that could be done without injury to the maritime rights of Great Britain, which never could be yielded to the pretensions of France. The prosperity of America was not so essential to the wel­fare of Great Britain as many persons affected to imagine; all the predilections of America closely united her to France; and partly from the influence of these feelings, partly from more sordid motives, she insisted that Eng­land should allow her to take up the whole carrying trade, nay, even the whole coasting trade of her enemies. It was for America to decide the question of peace or war; she had adopted a new system, and made new and unheard of pretentions, to which she knew well that Great Britain never would, nay, consistent with her honor, never could concede. By moving for papers, it must be intended to create a discussion on them when granted; yet any parliamentary discussion which could take place on the subject, must necessarily increase the irritation on both sides. The spirit of conciliation always professed in the diplomatic correspon­dence, between the two countries, had been most sincere on our side; but the British government would never abandon these maritime rights, which the country had so long maintained, and which were necessary to her greatness. The Marquis Wellesley had acted wisely in declining to go into details as to the principles of the blockade which we were called upon to abandon. The first letter of Mr. Pinkney, alluded to in the debate, had been written for the purpose merely of asking Lord Wellesley some questions on this point; but the British government was determined not to confound with the discussion on the Orders in Council, this question of blockade; and therefore it was absurd to suppose that England should stand ready to declare to France how much of her rights she would surrender, in order to purchase for the Americans a revocation of the tyranni­cal and obnoxious edicts of Buonaparte. As to the letter of Mr, Pinkney, on the subject of the recall of Mr. Jackson, which was said, with so much emphasis, not to have been answered by Lord Wellesley, the American minister himself had, in his correspondence with his own government, stated that he had had com­munications with Lord Wellesley on the subject, and repeated opportunities of personal intercourse; and that he had been informed by his lordship, and had no doubt of the fact, that a minister would be sent out to America without delay. If the letter had not been formally answered, therefore, the omission was fully explained, and the information desired by Mr, Pinkney had been communicated to him in another manner. The ostensible reason of Mr. Pinkney, for demanding his passport, was that no minister had been sent to America; yet he had been previously informed, that the delay in sending out a minister had been occasioned wholly from the situation in which the government found itself for the two months preceding, in consequence of His Majesty's illness. The Orders in Council did not originate with the present government, the system having been acted upon by those who now complained so loudly of it; no one, in the proper exercise of his reasoning faculties, could dispute the justice of these Orders in Council, who was not, at the same time, prepared to deny our right of retaliating upon the enemy its own excesses; & those who attributed the commercial distress­es of the country to the Orders in Council, must have forgotten that the continental system was of itself suf­ficient to account for the distress which had occurred." "The late repeal by France of her decrees, was a mere pretence, since the principles of the system were still preserved with vigour; for in a letter lately written by Tureau the French minister to the American govern­ment, he declared; That it is to be clearly understood, that France would not consent to alter that system of exclusion adopted by all Europe against the commerce of Great Britain, the wisdom and policy of which sys­tem was already clearly developed in its effects against the common enemy; that neutrality was entirely dis­regarded in every state over which France had any influence . Such was the language of France through her own minister, which openly declared that she had said to each state in succession, I must take away your liberty and independence in order to injure England: and could it be doubted, that Great Britain was thus entitled to call on neutral nations to assert and maintain their rights? The correspondence between this coun­try and America was not finally closed; and while a hope remained, how faint soever, it should be by all means cherished, and nothing should be done which might increase irritation." The question of Mr Whit­bread, for the production of the correspondence, was then put to vote and negatived by an overwhelm­ing majority.

Whatever might have been the inducements held out by France to America, for pursuing such a line of conduct as she did, does not here form a matter of discussion; but certain it was, that the most monstrous and egregious falsehoods and misstatements were invented, and indus­triously and indefatigably propagated throughout the United States, obviously intended to widen the breach already existing between the government of Great Britain and that country. It was said, and there were even members of the American congress found who alluded to it in their speeches, that Great Britain had actually demanded of the United States to pass a law authorizing the introduction of the produce and manufactures of the British Islands into the ports of America; and for com­pelling France to receive such goods as of American production. Mr. Foster, in a communication to Mr. Monroe, denied this statement in the most positive and unequivocal terms; and notwithstanding, Mr. Monroe in his answer to Mr. Foster (which, by the bye, was not sent for more than a month afterwards, still harped and talked of what he called "the novel and extraordinary claim of Great Britain, to trade in British articles with her enemy." How wilfully gross was such a misstate­ment, when made by the chief secretary of the govern­ment, and uniting it to the extraordinary demand which that country so often made upon Great Britain, that she should believe the vague declarations made by France, that she had abrogated her Berlin and Milan decrees, when every act of that government explicitly contra­dicted that declaration.* Mr. Munroe, the American secretary of state, urged a complaint, that ships' papers of America were counterfeited to a large extent in Great Britain, and in a way scarcely capable of detection. Mr. Forbes, in return, very justly complained of the great partiality the United States had ever shown to France and her commerce; that in all the diplomatic inter­course of America, she unerringly kept in view the interests of that nation; and even carried her partiality so far as to allow French ships of war to enter and clear from her ports, and permit them to expose for sale, in the ports of the United States, prizes taken from British merchants who had actually laded and cleared from those ports at which they were sold. But to this complaint, so well founded as he knew it was, of such base national treachery, Mr. Monroe never found time to reply. Such was the conduct of America, as a neutral nation—to allow the ships of war of one belligerent to take merchantmen, the property of the subjects of ano­ther belligerent, at the very mouths of their harbors, and tow them into their ports and sell as lawful prizes; and such was the manner in which the negotiation was carried on by the United States government, and on which Mr. Whitbread and his friends in the House of Commons, have been so lavish in their eulogiums.

*But the enemy has at length laid aside all dissimulation; he now publicly and solemnly declares, not only that those decrees still continue in force, but that they shall be rigidly executed until Great Britain shall comply with additional conditions equally extravagant; and he further announces the penalties of those decrees to be in force against all nations, which shall suffer their flag to be, as it is termed in this new code, "denationalized."

In addition to the disavowal of the blockade of May, 1806, and of the principles on which that blockade was established, and in addition to the repeal of the British Orders in Council, he de­mands an admission of the principles, that the goods of an enemy, carried under a neutral flag, shall be treated as neutral; that neutral property under the flag of an enemy shall be treated as hostile; that arms and warlike stores alone (to the exclusion of ship timber and other articles of naval equipment,) shall be re­garded as contraband of war; and that no ports shall be considered as lawfully blockaded, except such as are invested and besieged, in the presumption of their being taken [en prevention d'etre pris,] and into which a merchant ship cannot enter without danger.

By these and other demands, the enemy in fact requires, that Great Britain and all civili zed nations shall renounce, at his ar­bitrary pleasure, the ordinary and indisputable rights of maritime war; that Great Britain, in particular, shall forego the advanta­ges of her naval superiority, and allow the commercial property, as well as the produce and manufactures, of France and her con­federates, to pass the ocean in security, whilst the subjects of Great Britain are to be in effect proscribed from all commercial intercourse with other nations; and the produce and manufac­tures of these realms are to be excluded from every Country in the world to which the arms or the influence of the enemy can extend.

Extract from the Declaration of the Orders of Council, April 21, 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.