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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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The Republican War for Commercial Independence

The English and French Blockades.—In addition to bringing Louisiana to the United States, the reopening of the European War in 1803, after a short lull, renewed in an acute form the commercial difficulties that had plagued the country all during the administrations of Washington and Adams. The Republicans were now plunged into the hornets’ nest. The party whose ardent spirits had burned Jay in effigy, stoned Hamilton for defending his treaty, jeered Washington’s proclamation of neutrality, and spoken bitterly of “timid traders,” could no longer take refuge in criticism. It had to act.

Its troubles took a serious turn in 1806. England, in a determined effort to bring France to her knees by starvation, declared the coast of Europe blockaded from Brest to the mouth of the Elbe River. Napoleon retaliated by his Berlin Decree of November, 1806, blockading the British Isles—a measure terrifying to American ship owners whose vessels were liable to seizure by any French rover, though Napoleon had no navy to make good his proclamation. Great Britain countered with a still more irritating decree—the Orders in Council of 1807. It modified its blockade, but in so doing merely authorized American ships not carrying munitions of war to complete their voyage to the Continent, on condition of their stopping at a British port, securing a license, and paying a tax. This, responded Napoleon, was the height of insolence, and he denounced it as a gross violation of international law. He then closed the circle of American troubles by issuing his Milan Decree of December, 1807. This order declared that any ship which complied with the British rules would be subject to seizure and confiscation by French authorities.

The Impressment of Seamen.—That was not all. Great Britain, in dire need of men for her navy, adopted the practice of stopping American ships, searching them, and carrying away British-born sailors found on board. British sailors were so badly treated, so cruelly flogged for trivial causes, and so meanly fed that they fled in crowds to the American marine. In many cases it was difficult to tell whether seamen were English or American. They spoke the same language, so that language was no test. Rovers on the deep and stragglers in the ports of both countries, they frequently had no papers to show their nativity. Moreover, Great Britain held to the old rule—“Once an Englishman, always an Englishman”—a doctrine rejected by the United States in favor of the principle that a man could choose the nation to which he would give allegiance. British sea captains, sometimes by mistake, and often enough with reckless indifference, carried away into servitude in their own navy genuine American citizens. The process itself, even when executed with all the civilities of law, was painful enough, for it meant that American ships were forced to “come to,” and compelled to rest submissively under British guns until the searching party had pried into records, questioned seamen, seized and handcuffed victims. Saints could not have done this work without raising angry passions, and only saints could have endured it with patience and fortitude.

Had the enactment of the scenes been confined to the high seas and knowledge of them to rumors and newspaper stories, American resentment might not have been so intense; but many a search and seizure was made in sight of land. British and French vessels patrolled the coasts, firing on one another and chasing one another in American waters within the three-mile limit. When, in the summer of 1807, the American frigate Chesapeake refused to surrender men alleged to be deserters from King George’s navy, the British warship Leopard opened fire, killing three men and wounding eighteen more—an act which even the British ministry could hardly excuse. If the French were less frequently the offenders, it was not because of their tenderness about American rights but because so few of their ships escaped the hawk-eyed British navy to operate in American waters.

The Losses in American Commerce.—This high-handed conduct on the part of European belligerents was very injurious to American trade. By their enterprise, American shippers had become the foremost carriers on the Atlantic Ocean. In a decade they had doubled the tonnage of American merchant ships under the American flag, taking the place of the French marine when Britain swept that from the seas, and supplying Britain with the sinews of war for the contest with the Napoleonic empire. The American shipping engaged in foreign trade embraced 363,110 tons in 1791; 669,921 tons in 1800; and almost 1,000,000 tons in 1810. Such was the enterprise attacked by the British and French decrees. American ships bound for Great Britain were liable to be captured by French privateers which, in spite of the disasters of the Nile and Trafalgar, ranged the seas. American ships destined for the Continent, if they failed to stop at British ports and pay tribute, were in great danger of capture by the sleepless British navy and its swarm of auxiliaries. American sea captains who, in fear of British vengeance, heeded the Orders in Council and paid the tax were almost certain to fall a prey to French vengeance, for the French were vigorous in executing the Milan Decree.

Jefferson’s Policy.—The President’s dilemma was distressing. Both the belligerents in Europe were guilty of depredations on American commerce. War on both of them was out of the question. War on France was impossible because she had no territory on this side of the water which could be reached by American troops and her naval forces had been shattered at the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar. War on Great Britain, a power which Jefferson’s followers feared and distrusted, was possible but not inviting. Jefferson shrank from it. A man of peace, he disliked war’s brazen clamor; a man of kindly spirit, he was startled at the death and destruction which it brought in its train. So for the eight years Jefferson steered an even course, suggesting measure after measure with a view to avoiding bloodshed. He sent, it is true, Commodore Preble in 1803 to punish Mediterranean pirates preying upon American commerce; but a great war he evaded with passionate earnestness, trying in its place every other expedient to protect American rights.

The Embargo and Non-intercourse Acts.—In 1806, Congress passed and Jefferson approved a non-importation act closing American ports to certain products from British dominions—a measure intended as a club over the British government’s head. This law, failing in its purpose, Jefferson proposed and Congress adopted in December, 1807, the Embargo Act forbidding all vessels to leave American harbors for foreign ports. France and England were to be brought to terms by cutting off their supplies.

The result of the embargo was pathetic. England and France refused to give up search and seizure. American ship owners who, lured by huge profits, had formerly been willing to take the risk were now restrained by law to their home ports. Every section suffered. The South and West found their markets for cotton, rice, tobacco, corn, and bacon curtailed. Thus they learned by bitter experience the national significance of commerce. Ship masters, ship builders, longshoremen, and sailors were thrown out of employment while the prices of foreign goods doubled. Those who obeyed the law were ruined; violators of the law smuggled goods into Canada and Florida for shipment abroad.

Jefferson’s friends accepted the medicine with a wry face as the only alternative to supine submission or open war. His opponents, without offering any solution of their own, denounced it as a contemptible plan that brought neither relief nor honor. Beset by the clamor that arose on all sides, Congress, in the closing days of Jefferson’s administration, repealed the Embargo law and substituted a Non-intercourse act forbidding trade with England and France while permitting it with other countries—a measure equally futile in staying the depredations on American shipping.

Jefferson Retires in Favor of Madison.—Jefferson, exhausted by endless wrangling and wounded, as Washington had been, by savage criticism, welcomed March 4, 1809. His friends urged him to “stay by the ship” and accept a third term. He declined, saying that election for life might result from repeated reëlection. In following Washington’s course and defending it on principle, he set an example to all his successors, making the “third term doctrine” a part of American unwritten law.

His intimate friend, James Madison, to whom he turned over the burdens of his high office was, like himself, a man of peace. Madison had been a leader since the days of the Revolution, but in legislative halls and council chambers, not on the field of battle. Small in stature, sensitive in feelings, studious in habits, he was no man for the rough and tumble of practical politics. He had taken a prominent and distinguished part in the framing and the adoption of the Constitution. He had served in the first Congress as a friend of Hamilton’s measures. Later he attached himself to Jefferson’s fortunes and served for eight years as his first counselor, the Secretary of State. The principles of the Constitution, which he had helped to make and interpret, he was now as President called upon to apply in one of the most perplexing moments in all American history. In keeping with his own traditions and following in the footsteps of Jefferson, he vainly tried to solve the foreign problem by negotiation.

The Trend of Events.—Whatever difficulties Madison had in making up his mind on war and peace were settled by events beyond his own control. In the spring of 1811, a British frigate held up an American ship near the harbor of New York and impressed a seaman alleged to be an American citizen. Burning with resentment, the captain of the President, an American warship, acting under orders, poured several broadsides into the Little Belt, a British sloop, suspected of being the guilty party. The British also encouraged the Indian chief Tecumseh, who welded together the Indians of the Northwest under British protection and gave signs of restlessness presaging a revolt. This sent a note of alarm along the frontier that was not checked even when, in November, Tecumseh’s men were badly beaten at Tippecanoe by William Henry Harrison. The Indians stood in the way of the advancing frontier, and it seemed to the pioneers that, without support from the British in Canada, the Red Men would soon be subdued.

Clay and Calhoun.—While events were moving swiftly and rumors were flying thick and fast, the mastery of the government passed from the uncertain hands of Madison to a party of ardent young men in Congress, dubbed “Young Republicans,” under the leadership of two members destined to be mighty figures in American history: Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. The former contended, in a flair of folly, that “the militia of Kentucky alone are competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet.” The latter with a light heart spoke of conquering Canada in a four weeks’ campaign. “It must not be inferred,” says Channing, “that in advocating conquest, the Westerners were actuated merely by desire for land; they welcomed war because they thought it would be the easiest way to abate Indian troubles. The savages were supported by the fur-trading interests that centred at Quebec and London.... The Southerners on their part wished for Florida and they thought that the conquest of Canada would obviate some Northern opposition to this acquisition of slave territory.” While Clay and Calhoun, spokesmen of the West and South, were not unmindful of what Napoleon had done to American commerce, they knew that their followers still remembered with deep gratitude the aid of the French in the war for independence and that the embers of the old hatred for George III, still on the throne, could be readily blown into flame.

Madison Accepts War as Inevitable.—The conduct of the British ministers with whom Madison had to deal did little to encourage him in adhering to the policy of “watchful waiting.” One of them, a high Tory, believed that all Americans were alike “except that a few are less knaves than others” and his methods were colored by his belief. On the recall of this minister the British government selected another no less high and mighty in his principles and opinions. So Madison became thoroughly discouraged about the outcome of pacific measures. When the pressure from Congress upon him became too heavy, he gave way, signing on June 18, 1812, the declaration of war on Great Britain. In proclaiming hostilities, the administration set forth the causes which justified the declaration; namely, the British had been encouraging the Indians to attack American citizens on the frontier; they had ruined American trade by blockades; they had insulted the American flag by stopping and searching our ships; they had illegally seized American sailors and driven them into the British navy.

The Course of the War.—The war lasted for nearly three years without bringing victory to either side. The surrender of Detroit by General Hull to the British and the failure of the American invasion of Canada were offset by Perry’s victory on Lake Erie and a decisive blow administered to British designs for an invasion of New York by way of Plattsburgh. The triumph of Jackson at New Orleans helped to atone for the humiliation suffered in the burning of the Capitol by the British. The stirring deeds of the Constitution, the United States, and the Argus on the seas, the heroic death of Lawrence and the victories of a hundred privateers furnished consolation for those who suffered from the iron blockade finally established by the British government when it came to appreciate the gravity of the situation. While men love the annals of the sea, they will turn to the running battles, the narrow escapes, and the reckless daring of American sailors in that naval contest with Great Britain.

All this was exciting but it was inconclusive. In fact, never was a government less prepared than was that of the United States in 1812. It had neither the disciplined troops, the ships of war, nor the supplies required by the magnitude of the military task. It was fortune that favored the American cause. Great Britain, harassed, worn, and financially embarrassed by nearly twenty years of fighting in Europe, was in no mood to gather her forces for a titanic effort in America even after Napoleon was overthrown and sent into exile at Elba in the spring of 1814. War clouds still hung on the European horizon and the conflict temporarily halted did again break out. To be rid of American anxieties and free for European eventualities, England was ready to settle with the United States, especially as that could be done without conceding anything or surrendering any claims.

The Treaty of Peace.—Both countries were in truth sick of a war that offered neither glory nor profit. Having indulged in the usual diplomatic skirmishing, they sent representatives to Ghent to discuss terms of peace. After long negotiations an agreement was reached on Christmas eve, 1814, a few days before Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. When the treaty reached America the people were surprised to find that it said nothing about the seizure of American sailors, the destruction of American trade, the searching of American ships, or the support of Indians on the frontier. Nevertheless, we are told, the people “passed from gloom to glory” when the news of peace arrived. The bells were rung; schools were closed; flags were displayed; and many a rousing toast was drunk in tavern and private home. The rejoicing could continue. With Napoleon definitely beaten at Waterloo in June, 1815, Great Britain had no need to impress sailors, search ships, and confiscate American goods bound to the Continent. Once more the terrible sea power sank into the background and the ocean was again white with the sails of merchantmen.

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