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If Only Mr. Madison Had Waited—
Gambling on a diplomatic coup with a wily Napoleon, he maneuvered America into the needless War of 1812
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
The Napoleonic Wars became a gigantic trade war, and the Americans, both strategically and as a trading people, were an object of ferocious interest to both the great belligerents. Each demanded their allegiance, and the measures which each concerted for the destruction of the other gradually enmeshed the United States. Jefferson’s great Embargo Act of 1807 was essentially a response to these siege tactics. When the Embargo failed in 1809, a sortie en masse—to which Madison desperately resorted or was forced to resort in 1812—was always a possibility.
Madison’s failure in statesmanship—if failure it was, and not a yielding to intolerable pressures at home and abroad—must be examined in the setting of these tactics. They cannot be summarized with precision. Even the Rule of 1756, which the British revived in 1803, and which said that an enemy’s colonies were closed to neutral trade in time of war if such trade had been forbidden in time of peace, bristles with perplexities. But after Trafalgar in 1805 the two systems take on a fairly intelligible shape. In May, 1806, the British issued an Order-in-Council, declaring the coast of Europe to be under blockade from Brest to the Elbe. A portion of this coast, namely from Ostend to the Seine, was under rigorous blockade and was forbidden to neutral shipping; but neutrals might trade with the remainder (for example, with the ports of Brest, Emden, and Amsterdam) under certain conditions which appeared to relax the Rule of 1756.
The United States had replied to the Rule of 1756 and its extensions with a Non-Importation Act, closing its ports to a long list of British goods, but this act had been suspended and held in abeyance as a threat. Negotiations appeared to be the next step. Monroe and Pinkney in London contrived a treaty with the British which was so unfavorable that Jefferson could not bring himself to submit it to the Senate. Monroe then returned to America in a fit of the sulks which was not very becoming to his honest and loyal nature.
The British Order of May, 1806, was somewhat conciliatory; but it was a “paper blockade,” just as easily enforced outside the harbor of New York as along the coast of Europe. It was the sort of pretension which Europeans and Americans had already challenged in the Armed Neutrality of 1800 and the Model Plan of 1776. Napoleon, therefore, was not without support when he issued the first of two famous decrees, the Berlin Decree, on November 21, 1806, denouncing the British blockades as illegal and intolerable.
But with Austerlitz and Jena behind him, he was capable of something more than denunciations. He declared the British Isles themselves to be in a state of blockade, prohibited all commerce with them and all trade in British goods, and closed the ports of Europe to any vessel coming from Great Britain or from her colonies. Napoleon announced that he would withdraw his Decree if the British would withdraw their Order. Actually, it was the only way in which he could bring the British to their knees.
The British were traditionally not backward at this kind of warfare. By the middle of 1807, moreover, their government had drifted into the hands of a set ol Tories who, while not indisposed to quarrel among themselves, were united in representing the thoughts of the country gentlemen, the Navy, the shipping magnates—of entities, that is, which had always found some difficulty in remembering what century they were in.
The nominal head of this government was the Duke of Portland, who was sinking into imbecility; the actual head was Spencer Perceval, chancellor of the exchequer, a lawyer who could, almost in consecutive sentences, condemn the sin of Sunday travel and defend the bombardment of Copenhagen. The spokesman was George Canning, the foreign secretary, temporarily deprived of ideas but well furnished with a vocabulary of injurious epithets. The personnel of this Cabinet was changed from time to time—by death (Portland), by assassination (Perceval), by intrigue (Canning)—but not its character.
On November 11, 1807, this government issued a set of Orders-in-Council, announcing that all trade between Europe and the colonies of France and her allies must, even in neutral ships, go through the ports of Great Britain and subject itself to British license and toll. This was something more than retaliation. It was a deliberate attempt to use the war as a means of monopolizing the colonial trade.
Napoleon’s answer to this inexcusable measure was the Decree of Milan of December 17, 1807. He decreed that any ship which allowed itself to be searched by a British vessel, or made a voyage to Great Britain, or paid any duty to the British government, had denationalized itself and was fair prize. To his mind, which would always rather astound the reason than satisfy it, the absurdity of this doctrine was particularly pleasing.
And now the two structures were complete, and the Americans were fairly caught between them. If they submitted to the Orders, their trade would become English and liable to confiscation in every port under Napoleon’s control; if they bowed to the Decrees, they would have no merchant fleet at all. “As for France and England,” wrote Jefferson in 1812, “the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates.” In the hierarchy of crime, piracy stands higher than robbery.