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Almost at the beginning of his second term, Jefferson found himself in troubled waters, as the United States was drawn slowly but surely into the vortex of European war. The carrying trade at home and abroad had fallen very much into the hands of Americans, and this became the root of bitterness. The tonnage of their vessels employed in foreign trade and entered at the custom-houses of the United States was equal to nearly four fifths of the tonnage of British vessels engaged in the same traffic and entered at home. But there was this difference: the foreign commerce of Great Britain was almost all carried on from her own ports, and the returns, therefore, showed its full volume. On the other hand, the American ships were largely the carriers between the ports of the belligerents and of other powers in Europe, and there were no entries at the American custom-houses of their employment, or that they were employed at all. As early as 1804-5, the aggregate value of this foreign trade in the hands of Americans was probably much larger than that controlled by English merchants; and the former increased[255] to the time of the promulgation of the Berlin decree of 1806, and the British orders in council of the next year. Nor was it only that wealth flowed into the country as the immediate return from this trade abroad. It stimulated enterprise and industry at home by the increase of capital; and there was not only more money to work with, but more to spend. Consequently the increase in exports and in imports grew steadily. In 1805, 1806, and 1807, about one half the average total exports, something over the value of twenty million dollars, went to Great Britain alone; and the value of the imports from that country for the same period was about sixty million dollars a year. Nor did this disproportion, though increasing with the growing prosperity, represent a general balance of trade against the United States, as one school of political economists would insist it must have done. For the imports were small from other European countries in exchange for American products; and the difference, together with the profits of the carrying trade abroad, was remitted in English manufactures. In other words, the imports from England represented the returns for all exports to Europe, and the returns also—available in the first instance through bills of exchange—of the trade which had been gained by Americans, and lost by those nations whose ships the war had driven from the ocean.

The British manufacturer had no reason for discontent with this state of things. The best market[256] for his goods was constantly improving, and he did not much care who took them to America. But the English government, and the English merchants who owned ships, looked on with neither pleasure nor patience. It was impossible not to see that the United States was fast becoming a great commercial rival. This in itself was bad enough; but it was the harder to bear when it was remembered—and it could not be forgotten—that the rivalry came from States so lately in revolt against England, and that their President at that moment was one of the most obnoxious of the rebels. Then what did it avail that England was mistress of the seas, if her formidable enemy could laugh at any effort of hers to destroy the commerce of France, so long as that commerce could be carried on in safety under a neutral flag? If that flag must be respected, English naval vessels and privateers would cruise in vain for prizes, for the merchant ships of any belligerent, not strong enough to protect them, stayed in port. It had not yet come to be the acknowledged law of nations that free ships make free goods. But nearly the same purpose was answered if the property of belligerents could be safely carried in neutral ships under the pretense of being owned by neutrals. The products of the French colonies, for example, could be loaded on board of American vessels, taken to the United States and reshipped there for France as American property. England looked upon this as an evasion of the recognized public[257] law that property of belligerents was good prize. Accordingly, when she saw that French commerce was thus put out of her reach, and that the rival she most dreaded was growing rich and powerful in the possession of it, she sought a remedy and was not long in finding one.

It was denied that neutrals could take advantage of a state of war to enter upon a trade which had not existed in time of peace; and American ships were seized on the high seas, taken into port, and condemned in the admiralty courts for carrying enemy's goods in such a trade. The exercise of that right, if it were one by the recognized law of nations, would be of great injury to American commerce, unless it could be successfully resisted. To show that it was not good law, Mr. Madison wrote his "Examination of the British Doctrine which Subjects to Capture a Neutral Trade not Open in the Time of Peace." The essay was a careful and thorough discussion of the whole question, and showed by citations from the most eminent writers on international law, by the terms of treaties, and by the conduct of nations in the past, that the British doctrine was erroneous and would lead to other infringements of the rights of neutrals. But argument, however unanswerable, has never yet brought the British government to reason, unless there was something behind it not so easy to disregard. The appropriation for Mr. Jefferson's gunboats could not get that naval arm ready for effective service much before the year 1815, even[258] if it could then be of use; and there was, moreover, this further difficulty in the way of its efficiency at the time,—that, as it could not go to the enemy, it must wait for the enemy to come to it; the conflagration would have to be brought to the fire-engines. A war with England must be a naval war; and the United States not only had no navy of any consequence, but it was a part of Mr. Jefferson's policy, in contrast with the policy of the preceding administrations, that there should be none, except these gunboats kept on wheels and under cover in readiness to repel an invasion. But there was no fear of invasion, for by that England could gain nothing. "She is renewing," Madison wrote in the autumn of 1805, "her depredations on our commerce in the most ruinous shapes, and has kindled a more general indignation among our merchants than was ever before expressed."

These depredations were not confined to the seizing and confiscating American ships under the pretense that their cargoes were contraband. Seamen were taken out of them on the charge of being British subjects and deserters, not only on the high seas in larger numbers than ever before, but within the waters of the United States. No doubt these seamen were often British subjects and their seizure was justifiable, provided England could rightfully extend to all parts of the globe and to the ships of all nations the merciless system of impressment to which her own people were compelled to submit at home. Monroe, in a note[259] to Madison, said that the British minister had informed him that "great abuses were committed in granting protections" in America, and acknowledged that "he gave me some examples which were most shameful." But even if it could be granted that English naval officers might seize such men without recourse to law, wherever they should be found and without respect for the flag of another nation, it was a national insult and outrage, calling for resentment and resistance, to impress American citizens under the pretense that they were British subjects. But what was the remedy? As a last resort in such cases, nations have but one. Diplomacy and legislation may be first tried, but, if these fail, war must be the final ordeal. For this the administration made no preparation, and the more evident the unreadiness the less was the chance of redress in any other way. Immediate war would, of course, have been unwise; for what could a nation almost without a ship hope from a contest with a power having the largest and most efficient navy in the world? If this, however, was true from 1805 to 1807, it was not less true in 1812. But it need not have been true when war was actually resorted to, had the intervening years been years of preparation. The fact was, however, that the party which supported the administration was no more in favor of war at the earlier period than the administration itself was; and meanwhile, till a war party had come into existence and gained the ascendency, the[260] country had been growing every year less and less in a condition to appeal to war.

The first measure adopted to meet the aggressions of the English was an act prohibiting the importation of certain British products. This had always been a favorite policy with Madison. He had advanced and upheld it in former years, when a member of Congress, and when Great Britain had first violated the rights and dignity of the United States by interference with her foreign trade and by impressing her citizens. Non-intercourse had been an effective measure thirty years before, and had a kind of prestige as an American policy. It was not seen, perhaps could not be seen without experience, that a measure suited to the colonial condition was not sufficient for an independent nation. But the President and secretary were in perfect accord; for Jefferson preferred anything to war, and Madison was persuaded that England would be brought to terms by the loss of the best market for her manufactures. Others, and notably John Randolph, saw in the measure only the first step which, if persisted in, must lead to war; while, in the mean time, to interfere with importations would be quite as great an injury to the United States as to Great Britain. Randolph was apt to blurt out a good deal of truth when it happened to suit him. Impressment, he said, was an old grievance which had been thought a sufficient provocation for war when the nation was not prepared; and it was no more ready to resort to[261] that desperate remedy now than it had been in the past. Without a navy it would be impossible to prevent the blockading of all the principal American ports by English squadrons. The United States would need an ally, and he was not willing she should throw herself into the arms of that power which was seeking universal conquest. France, he said, would be the tyrant of the ocean if the British navy should be driven from it. The commerce, moreover, which it was proposed to protect, was not the "honest trade of America," but "a mushroom, a fungus of war,—a trade which, so soon as the nations of Europe are at peace, will no longer exist." It was only "a carrying trade which covers enemy's property;" and he did not believe in plunging a great agricultural country into war for the benefit of the shipping merchants of a few seaports. There were many who agreed with him; for it was one of the cardinal principles of the Jeffersonian school of politics that between commerce and agriculture there was a natural antagonism.

But the administration did not rely upon legislation alone in this emergency. The President followed up the act prohibiting the introduction of British goods by sending William Pinkney to England in the spring of 1806 to join Monroe, the resident minister, in an attempt at negotiation. These commissioners soon wrote that there was good reason for hoping that a treaty would be concluded, and thereupon the non-importation act [262]was for a time suspended. In December came the news that a treaty was agreed upon, and soon after it was received by the President. The most serious difficulty in the way of negotiation had been the question of impressment. The British government claimed the right to arrest deserters from its service anywhere outside the jurisdiction of other nations, and that jurisdiction, it was maintained, could not extend beyond the coast limit over the open sea, the highway of all nations. There was an evident disposition, however, to come to some compromise. The English commissioners proposed that their government should prohibit, under penalty, the seizure of American citizens anywhere, and that the United States should forbid, on her part, the granting of certificates of citizenship to British subjects, of which deserters took advantage. But as this would be an acknowledgment virtually of the right of search on board American ships, and the denial of citizenship in the United States to foreigners, the American commissioners could not entertain that proposition. They were willing, however, if the assumed right to board American ships were given up, to agree, on behalf of their government, to aid in the arrest and return of British deserters when seeking a refuge in the United States. But to this the British commissioners would not accede.

Monroe and Pinkney were enjoined, in the instructions written by the secretary of state, to make the abandonment of impressment the first condition of a treaty. A treaty, nevertheless, was agreed[263] upon, without this provision. But when it was sent to the President, the ministers explained:—

"That, although this government [the British] did not feel at liberty to relinquish, formally, by treaty, its claim to search our merchant vessels for British seamen, its practice would nevertheless be essentially, if not completely, abandoned. That opinion has since been confirmed by frequent conferences on the subject with the British commissioners, who have repeatedly assured us that, in their judgment, we were made as sure against the exercise of their pretension by the policy which their government had adopted in regard to that very delicate and important question, as we could have been made by treaty."

These assurances did not satisfy the President. Without consulting the Senate, though Congress was in session when the treaty was received, and although the Senate had been previously informed that one had been agreed upon, the President rejected it. On several other points it was not acceptable; but, as Mr. Madison wrote to a friend, "the case of impressments particularly having been brought to a formal issue, and having been the primary object of an extraordinary mission, a treaty could not be closed which was silent on that subject." The commissioners, therefore, were ordered to renew negotiations. This they faithfully tried to do for a year, but were finally told by the British minister that a treaty once concluded and signed, but afterward rejected in part by one of the contracting powers, could not again be taken[264] up for consideration. The opponents of the administration made the most of this action of Mr. Jefferson. The country was not permitted to forget, even were forgetfulness possible, that thousands of seamen had been taken from American vessels, and that the larger proportion of these were native-born citizens of the United States. Not that these opponents wanted war; that, they believed, would be ruinous without a navy, and therefore some reasonable compromise was all that could be hoped for. But what was to be thought of an administration that would not go to war because it was not prepared; would not prepare in the hope that some future conjunction of circumstances would stave off that last resort; and, meanwhile, would accept no terms which might at least mitigate the injuries visited upon the sea-faring people of the United States, and possibly relieve the nation from an insolent exercise of power which it was not strong enough to resent?

As England's need of seamen increased, the captains of her cruisers, encouraged by the failure of negotiation, grew bolder in overhauling American ships and taking out as many men as they believed, or pretended to believe, were deserters. In the summer of 1807 an outrage was perpetrated on the frigate Chesapeake, as if to emphasize the contempt with which a nation must be looked upon which only screamed like a woman at wrongs which it wanted the courage and strength to resent, or the wisdom to compound for. The Chesapeake[265] was followed out of the harbor of Norfolk by the British man-of-war Leopard, and when a few miles at sea, the Chesapeake being brought to under the pretense that the English captain wished to put some dispatches on board for Europe, a demand was made for certain deserters supposed to be on the American frigate. Commodore Barron replied that he knew of no deserters on his ship, and that he could permit no search to be made, even if there were. After some further altercation the Englishman fired a broadside, killing and wounding a number of the Chesapeake's crew. Commodore Barron could do nothing else but surrender, for he had only a single gun in readiness for use, and that was fired only once and then with a coal from the cook's galley. The ship was then boarded, the crew mustered, and four men arrested as deserters. Three of them were negroes,—two natives of the United States, the other of South America. The fourth man, probably, was an Englishman. They were all deserters from English men-of-war lying off Norfolk; but the three negroes declared that they had been kidnaped, and their right to escape could not be justly questioned; indeed, the English afterward took this view of it apparently, for the men were released on the arrival of the Leopard at Halifax. But the fourth man was hanged.

For this direct national insult, explanation, apology, and reparation were demanded, and at the same time the President put forth a proclamation forbidding all British ships of war to remain in[266] American waters. Of how much use the latter was we learn from a letter of Madison to Monroe: "They continue to defy it," he wrote, "not only by remaining within our waters, but by chasing merchant vessels arriving and departing." Some preparation was made for war, but it was only to call upon the militia to be in readiness, and to order Mr. Jefferson's gunboats to the most exposed ports. Great Britain was not alarmed. The captain of the Leopard, indeed, was removed from his command, as having exceeded his duty; but a proclamation on that side was also issued, requiring all ships of war to seize British seamen on board foreign merchantmen, to demand them from foreign ships of war, and if the demand was refused to report the fact to the admiral of the fleet. It was not till after four years of irritating controversy that any settlement was reached in regard to the affair of the Chesapeake.

New perils all the while were besetting American commerce. In November, 1806, Napoleon's Berlin decree was promulgated, forbidding the introduction into France of the products of Great Britain and her colonies, whether in her own ships or those of other nations. This was in violation of the convention between France and the United States, if it was meant that American vessels should come under the prohibition; but for a time there was some hope that they might be excepted. In the course of the year, however, it was officially declared in Paris that the treaty would not be[267] allowed to weaken the force of a war measure aimed at Great Britain. Under this decision, cargoes already seized were confiscated and the trade of the United States faced a new calamity. The decree, it was declared, was a rightful retaliation of a British order in council of six months before, which had established a partial blockade of a portion of the French coast. In the kidnaping business, France could not, of course, compete with England; for there were few of her citizens to be found on board of American vessels, and to seize a Yankee sailor, under the pretense that he was a Frenchman, was an absurdity never thought of. But hundreds of Americans, the crews of ships seized for violation of the terms of the Berlin decree, were thrown into French prisons. So far, therefore, as the United States had good ground of complaint on any score against either power, there was little to choose between them. Mr. Jefferson's repugnance to war was sufficient to hold him back from one with England, though he might have had France for an ally; still more unwilling was he, by a war with France, to make a friend of England, whom he still looked upon as the natural enemy of the United States; for, notwithstanding all that had come and gone, he still regarded France with something of the old affection. In the autumn of 1807 he called a special session of Congress in consideration of the increasing aggressions of Great Britain, especially in the attack upon the Chesapeake, and the injury done by the interdiction of[268] neutral trade with any country with which that power was at war. But he had no recommendations to offer of resistance nor even of defense, except that some additions be made to the gunboats, and that sailors on shore be enrolled as a sort of gunboat militia. The probable real purpose of calling the extra session, however, appeared in about two weeks, when he sent a special message to the Senate recommending an embargo.

An act was almost immediately passed which, if anything more was needed to complete the ruin of American commerce, supplied that deficiency. A month before this time the English ministry had issued a new order in council—the news of which reached Jefferson as he was about to send in his message—proclaiming a blockade of pretty much all Europe, and forbidding any trade in neutral vessels unless they had first gone into some British port and paid duties on their cargoes; and within twenty-four hours of the President's message recommending the embargo, Napoleon proclaimed a new decree from Milan, by which it was declared that any ship was lawful prize that had anything whatever to do with Great Britain,—that should pay it tribute, that should carry its merchandise, that should be bound either to or from any of its ports. All that these powers could do to shut every trading vessel out of all European ports was now done; and at this opportune moment Mr. Jefferson came to their aid by compelling all American vessels to stay at home. It is not easy[269] in our time to conceive of a President proposing, or of a party accepting, or of the people submitting to, such a measure as this. But Mr. Jefferson's followers were very obedient, and there was, undoubtedly, a very general belief that trade with the United States was so important to the nations at war that for the sake of its renewal the obnoxious decrees and orders in council would soon be repealed. But, except upon certain manufacturers in England, little influence was visible. General Armstrong, the American minister in France, wrote: "Here it is not felt; and in England, amid the more recent and interesting events of the day, it is forgotten." When, however, the effect was evident at home of a law forbidding any American vessels from going to sea, even to catch fish, and prohibiting the export of any of the products of the United States, either in their own ships or those of any other country, then there arose a popular clamor for the abandonment of a policy so ruinous. Within four months of its enactment, Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts declared, in a debate in Congress, that "an experiment such as is now making was never before—I will not say tried—it never before entered into the human imagination. There is nothing like it in the narrations of history or in the tales of fiction. All the habits of a mighty nation are at once counteracted. All their property depreciated. All their external connections violated. Five millions of people are engaged. They cannot go beyond the[270] limits of that once free country; now they are not even permitted to thrust their own property through the grates." While American ships at home were kept there, those which had remained abroad to escape the embargo were met by a new peril. Some of them were in French ports awaiting a turn in affairs; others ventured to load with English goods in English ports, to be landed in France under the pretense, supported by fraudulent papers, that they were direct from the United States or other neutral country. The fraud was too transparent to escape detection long, and Napoleon thereupon issued, in the spring of 1808, the Bayonne decree authorizing the seizure and confiscation of all American vessels. They were either English or American, he said; if the former, they were enemy's ships and liable to capture; but if the latter, they should be at home, and he was only enforcing the embargo law of the United States, which she ought to thank him for.

The prosperity and tranquillity which marked the earlier years of Jefferson's administration disappeared in its last year. Congress, both in its spring and winter sessions, could talk of little else but the disastrous embargo; proposing, on the one hand, to make it the more stringent by an enforcement act, and, on the other, to substitute for it non-intercourse with England and France, restoring trade with the rest of the world, and leaving the question of decrees and orders in council open for future consideration. The President no longer[271] held his party under perfect control. The mischievous results of the embargo policy were evident enough to a sufficient number of Republicans to secure in February, 1809, the repeal of that measure, to take effect the next month as to all countries except England and France, and, with regard to them, at the adjournment of the next Congress. But the prohibition of importation from both these latter countries was continued till the obnoxious orders in council and the decrees should be repealed.


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