THE ORIGIN OF THE WAR
BY JOHN QUINCY ADAMS1
In the first wars of the French revolution Great Britain had begun by straining the claim of belligerent, as against neutral rights, beyond all the theories of international jurisprudence, and even beyond her own ordinary practise. There is in all war a conflict between the belligerent and the neutral right, which can in its nature be settled only by convention. And in addition to all the ordinary asperities of dissension between the nation at war and the nation at peace, she had asserted a right of man-stealing from the vessels of the United States. The claim of right was to take by force all sea-faring men, her own subjects, wherever they were found by her naval officers, to serve their king in his wars. And under color of this tyrant's right, her naval officers, down to the most beardless midshipman, actually took from the American merchant vessels which they visited, any seaman whom they chose to take for a British subject. After the Treaty of November, 1794, she had relaxed all her pretensions against the neutral rights, and had gradually abandoned the practise of impressment till she was on the point of renouncing it by a formal treaty stipulation.2
At the renewal of the war, after the Peace of Amiens, it was at first urged with much respect for the rights of neutrality, but the practise of impressment was soon renewed with aggravated severity, and the commerce of neutral nations with the colonies of the adverse belligerent was wholly interdicted on the pretense of justification, because it had been forbidden by the enemy herself in the time of peace. This pretension had been first raised by Great Britain in the Seven Years' War, but she had been overawed by the armed neutrality from maintaining it in the war of the American revolution.
In the midst of this war with Napoleon, she suddenly reasserted the principle, and by a secret order in Council, swept the ocean of nearly the whole mass of neutral commerce. Her war with France spread itself all over Europe, successively involving Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Denmark, and Sweden. Not a single neutral power remained in Europeand Great Britain, after annihilating at Trafalgar the united naval power of France and Spain, ruling thenceforth with undisputed dominion upon the ocean, conceived the project of engrossing even the commerce with her enemy by intercepting all neutral navigation. These measures were met by corresponding acts of violence, and sophistical principles of national law, promulgated by Napoleon, rising to the summit of his greatness, and preparing his downfall by the abuse of his elevation.
Through this fiery ordeal the administration of Mr. Jefferson was to pass, and the severest of its tests were to be applied to Mr. Madison. His correspondence with the ministers of Great Britain, France and Spain, and with the ministers of the United States to those nations during the remainder of Mr. Jefferson's administration, constitute the most important and most valuable materials of its history. His examination of the British doctrines relating to neutral trade will hereafter be considered a standard treatise on the Law of Nations; not inferior to the works of any writer upon those subjects since the days of Grotius, and every way worthy of the author of Publius and Helvidius. There is indeed, in all the diplomatic papers of American statesmen, justly celebrated as they have been, nothing superior to this dissertation, which was not strictly official. It was composed amid the duties of the Department of State, never more arduous than at that timein the summer of 1806. It was published inofficially, and a copy of it was laid on the table of each member of Congress at the commencement of the session in December, 1806.
The controversies of conflicting neutral and belligerent rights continued through the whole of Mr. Jefferson's administration, during the latter part of which they were verging rapidly to war. He had carried the policy of peace perhaps to an extreme. His system of defense by commercial restrictions, dry-docks, gunboats and embargoes, was stretched to its last hair's breadth of endurance. Far be it from me to speak of this system or of its motives with disrespect. If there be a duty, binding in chains more adamantine than all the rest the conscience of a Chief Magistrate of this Union, it is that of preserving peace with all mankindpeace with the other nations of the earth&151;peace among the several States of this Unionpeace in the hearts and temper of our own people. Yet must a President of the United States never cease to feel that his charge is to maintain the rights, the interests and the honor no less than the peace of his countrynor will he be permitted to forget that peace must be the oftspring of two concurring wills; that to seek peace is not always to ensure it.
He must remember too, that a reliance upon the operation of measures, from their effect on the interests, however clear and unequivocal of nations, can not be safe against a counter-current of their passions; that nations, like individuals, sacrifice their peace to their pride, to their hatred, to their envy, to their jealousy, and even to the craft, which the cunning of hackneyed politicians not unfrequently mistakes for policy; that nations, like individuals, have sometimes the misfortune of losing their senses, and that lunatic communities, which can not be confined in hospitals, must be resisted in arms, as a single maniac is sometimes restored to reason by the scourge; that national madness is infectious, and that a paroxysm of it in one people, especially when generated by the Furies that preside over war produces a counterparoxysm in their adverse party. Such is the melancholy condition as yet of associated man. And while in the wise but mysterious dispensations of an overruling Providence, man shall so continue, the peace of every nation must depend not alone upon its own will, but upon that concurrently with the will of all others.
And such was the condition of the two mightiest nations of the earth during the administration of Mr. Jefferson. Frantic, in fits of mutual hatred, envy and jealousy against each other; meditating mutual invasion and conquest, and forcing the other nations of the four quarters of the globe to the alternative of joining them as allies or encountering them as foes. Mr. Jefferson met them with moral philosophy and commercial restrictions, with dry-docks and gunboatswith non-intercourses, and embargoes, till the American nation were told that they could not be kicked into a war, and till they were taunted by a British statesman in the Imperial Parliament of England, with their five fir frigates and their striped bunting.
Mr. Jefferson pursued his policy of peace till it brought the nation to the borders of internal war. An embargo of fourteen months' duration was at last reluctantly abandoned by him, when it had ceased to be obeyed by the people, and State courts were ready to pronounce it unconstitutional. A non-intercourse was then substituted in its place, and the helm of State passed from the hands of Mr. Jefferson to those of Mr. Madison, precisely at the moment of this perturbation of earth and sea threatened with war from abroad and at home, but with the principle definitively settled that in our intercourse with foreign nations, reason, justice and commercial restrictions require live oak hearts and iron or brazen mouths to speak, that they may be distinctly heard, or attentively listened to, by the distant ear of foreigners, whether French or British, monarchical or republican.
The administration of Mr. Madison was, with regard to its most essential principles, a continuation of that of Mr. Jefferson. He, too, was the friend of peace, and earnestly desirous of maintaining it. As a last resource for the preservation of it, an act of Congress prohibited all commercial intercourse with both belligerents, the prohibition to be withdrawn from either or both in the event of a repeal by either of the orders and decrees in violation of neutral rights. France ungraciously and equivocally withdrew hers. Britain refused, hesitated, and at last conditionally withdrew hers when it was too lateafter a formal declaration of war had been issued by Congress at the recommendation of President Madison himself.
Of the necessity, the policy or even the justice of this war, there were conflicting opinions, not yet, perhaps never to be, harmonized. This is not the time or the place to discuss them. The passions, the prejudices and the partialities of that day have passed away. That it was emphatically a popular war, having reference to the whole people of the United States, will, I think, not be denied. That it was in a high degree unpopular in our own section of the Union, is no doubt equally true; and that it was so, constituted the greatest difficulties and prepared the most mortifying disasters in its prosecution.
Party spirit and party feeling ran high throughout the Union, and the declaration of war was very differently received in different sections of the Union. In the city of Boston, in full view of the old Temple of Liberty, the flags of the shipping were hoisted at half-mast, in token of mourning; while at Baltimore, a federal editor was mobbed, his office in great part demolished, one of his friends killed, and he, with others, including Henry Lee, a distinguished officer of the Revolution, but a most bitter and vindictive federal partizan, seriously injured, for having the hardihood to utter his sentiments through the columns of his paper.
In the Eastern States the opposition to the war was marked and virulent. Every one who dared to speak in defense of the administration was denounced in the most unmeasured terms, and curses and anathemas were liberally hurled from the pulpit on the heads of all those who aided, directly or indirectly, in carrying on the war. In the Middle and Southern States, public opinion was divided, tho a large majority approved the measures adopted by Congress. But in the West there was only one sentiment: love of country sparkled in every eye, and animated every heart. The importing merchants, the lawyers in the principal cities, some planters, and the clergy for the most part, were numbered in the ranks of the opposition; and the war found its most ardent and enthusiastic advocates among the farmers and planters, the mechanics, the mariners, and the laboring men.
The war itself was an ordeal through which the Constitution of the United States, as the Government of a great nation, was to pass. Its trial in that respect was short but severe. In the intention of its founders, and particularly of Mr. Madison, it was a constitution essentially pacific in its character, and for a nation, above all others, the lover of peaceyet its great and most vigorous energies, and all its most formidable powers, are reserved for the state of warand war is the condition in which the functions allotted to the separate States sink into impotence compared with those of the general Government.
The war was brought to a close without any definitive adjustment of the controverted principles in which it had originated. It left the questions of neutral commerce with an enemy and his colonies, of bottom and cargo, of blockade and contraband of war, and even of impressment, precisely as they had been before the war. With the European war all the conflicts between belligerent and neutral rights had ceased. Great Britain, triumphant as she was after a struggle of more than twenty years' durationagainst revolutionary, republican and imperial France, was in no temper to yield the principles for which in the heat of her contest she had defied the power of neutrality and the voice of justice. As little were the Government or people of the United States disposed to yield principles in the defense of the rights of neutrality, and of conceding too much to the lawless pretensions of naval war.
The extreme solicitude of the American Government for the perpetuity of peace, especially with Great Britain, induced Mr. Madison to institute with her negotiations after the peace of Ghent, for the adjustment of all these questions of maritime collisions between the warlike and the pacific nation.
1 From Adams's "Life of James Madison."
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2 Carl Schurz, in his "Life of Henry Clay," says: "Truly, there were American grievances enough." Over 900 American ships "had been seized by the British and more than 550 by the French," while the number of American citizens imprest as British seamen, or kept in prison if they refused to serve, "was reported to exceed 6,000," and it was estimated that "as many had been imprest of whom no information had been obtained." Remonstrances made by the American Government "had been treated with haughty disdain." Mr. Schurz adds that "by both belligerents the United States had been kicked and cuffed like a mere interIoper among the nations of the earth."
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THE BATTLE BETWEEN THE "CONSTITUTION" AND THE "GUERRIÈRE"
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© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman