Ackermann’s Repository of Arts/Series 1/Volume 1/January 1809/Retrospect of Politics for 1808


In the present eventful period of the history of the world, there has been scarcely any year more productive of important occurrences, than the year which has just elapsed. Nothing could have been more gloomy than the prospects of the Continent and of Great Britain at the close of the year 1807. As Austria had shewn herself too weak ever to attempt a diversion, while the common enemy was breaking down the power of Prussia, and humbling Russia, it was impossible for those who wished most ardently for the deliverance of Europe to conceive by what power, or combination of powers, it could hereafter be effected. Prussia appeared not only to have been conquered, but even (as Mr. Burke once said of France) to be blotted out from the list of nations and from the map of Europe. Her great military power was not only taken away from the strength of Europe, but the greater part of her celebrated army was incorporated with the armies of those vassal states, which the common enemy had created for the purpose of forwarding his views to universal empire. The pride of Russia has been completely humbled at the battle of Friedland, and by the disgraceful treaty of Tilsit. The Emperor Alexander convinced the world, that no hopes were to be formed from any thing of firmness or vigour, which had hitherto been supposed to belong to his private character. Before his territories had been invaded, or the energies of his country tried, he accepted such a peace as a sovereign who possessed any portion of the spirit of Peter the Great would not have signed if the French army had been before Petersburgh. By this treaty he agreed to give up Moldavia and Wallachia, which he had conquered from the Turks: he also agreed to give up the mouths of the Cattaro, the Russian forts in Dalmatia, and the island of Corfu; by this means surrendering the claims and views which Russia had so long entertained for the dismemberment of Turkey, to the French Emperor, who had professed to take that country under his high protection. If it was degrading to the sovereign of forty millions of people to purchase security from attack by such great sacrifices, the Emperor Alexander was still more degraded by what he was obliged to take from his conqueror, than in what he gave up. He accepted of a part of the dominions of his ally the King of Prussia; a part which was too small to give any sensible increase to the strength of Russia, but sufficiently large to shew the world that he was no more restrained by any feelings of honour or of principle, than the French Emperor. Having consented to share in the spoils of his ally, he was admitted into Bonaparte’s legion of honour, and consented to receive, as French ambassador, Caulincourt, the murderer of the Duke D'Enghien, a worthy representative of his master. When it is recollected, that the murder of the Duke D'Enghien was the circumstance which first induced the Emperor of Russia to take up arms against France, it is hardly possible to conceive a greater personal humiliation than to be obliged to receive in the honourable character of ambassador, the man who was the principal instrument in that scene. It would have been a less humiliation to have been obliged publicly, and in the face of Europe, to beg pardon of Bonaparte for having expressed grief at the death of that unfortunate prince, than to be obliged to hold daily conferences with one of his murderers. It was necessary, however, for the policy of Bonaparte, that Alexander should always feel his inferiority; that his mind should be fully impressed with the idea, that it was only by following the system which France should dictate, that he could entertain any hopes of gratifying his own private ambition. While he continued to act as an obedient vassal, Bonaparte allowed him to pursue some of his favourite schemes of ambition.

Although France had stipulated at the treaty of Tilsit, that Moldavia and Wallachia should be restored lo the Porte, she allowed the Russian armies still to occupy them, and pointed out a new object of ambition to Alexander in the conquest of Sweden. In consideration of those advantages, Alexander was obliged to enter completely into that system of vassalage which is called by Bonaparte, the system of the Continent; to cut off all commercial relations with Great Britain, and afterwards to declare war formally against this country. The Russian declaration of war is one of the feeblest state papers that we have ever seen. The attack of Copenhagen, and the not assisting her allies in the war, were the principal grounds of reproach against this country. His majesty’s answer to this declaration completely refuted the frivolous accusations which formed the substance of it, referred to the state papers published at the time, which justified the expedition on ground of necessary self-defence, and treated the Russian declaration as merely dictated by France. It concluded by declaring, that his majesty had no hostility to Russia, and that as soon as that power should emancipate herself from her dependance on France, the old relations of peace and friendship between the two countries might be immediately restored.

As to the attack of Copenhagen, it has been completely justified upon the principle of absolute necessity, in as much as not only the known character of Bonaparte, but positive information from Portugal, left our ministers no room to doubt, but that it was the full intention of the French ruler to unite all the fleets of the continental powers in an attack upon these islands. The opposition in parliament condemned the measure violently, on the ground of its being inconsistent with that morality for which the British nation had always been so justly distinguished. It retorted upon them by ministers, that (when in power) they did not seem to be guided by that new morality, when they attacked Constantinople, and endeavoured to carry off the Turkish fleet, nor when they seized Alexandria, nor yet when they gave instructions to Lord St. Vincent with respect to the Portuguese fleet. These recriminations were not otherwise important than as tending to shew, that the arguments employed by opposition in the course of debate, were not the principles which had governed them when in power. The only doubt that now exists of the measure being perfectly justifiable, is, with respect to the extent and degree of danger to this country from allowing the Danish fleet to be armed and equipped; for if the capture or destruction of that fleet was essential to the security of this country, all the world must acknowledge the measure to be justified by the necessity in which it originated: self-defence, which is the first law of nature, is also the first principle of morality, and there is no maxim in politics more universally assented to, than that "salus populi suprema lex est.” As to the other reproach which was thrown out against this country by Russia, and in the justice of which all Europe agreed, that we were the first to stimulate others to war, and the last to expose ourselves to the dangers of it, this reproach appeared but too well founded. It was certainly impossible for England to send armies to the defence of the Continent equal to those which France could pour forth for its subjugation; but it by no means followed, that because we could not be principals in a continental war, we should therefore give no military assistance to those who were fighting the battles of Europe; nor does it seem to be a necessary consequence, that because we were unable to do every thing, that therefore we should do nothing. It was utterly inconceivable to the people of the Continent, that this united kingdom, with its population of sixteen millions, with an immense army upon paper, and having abundant means to equip and ships to convey her armies, should yet see nation after nation overthrown without making the slightest effort to save them. Bonaparte took advantage of this feeling upon the Continent, to calumniate the British nation, to describe them as worthless and dangerous allies, and to make all other nations at least indifferent about the fate of this country. On the 17th of December, 1807, he published his celebrated decree at Milan, declaring the British islands in a state of blockade, and denationalizing the ships of any neutral power which submitted to be searched at sea by British ships of war. At this time there was not a spot of the Continent of Europe open to British commerce except Sweden; and the United States of America had, by their 1 non-importation and embargo laws, entered into the views of Bonaparte. This country was threatened not only with the loss of its commerce, with famine in the case of a bad harvest, but with the physical force of all Europe, combined and directed by the genius and energy of the ruler of France.

Such was the situation of the country at the conclusion of the year 1807. On the first day of the year 1808, the Austrian ambassador, Count Stahremburgh, presented a note to Mr. Canning, the secretary for foreign affairs, stating that he was authorized (but not mentioning whether by his own master or Bonaparte), to propose that this country should send plenipotentiaries to Paris to treat for peace. The answer of our government was, that we were also disposed for peace, but that before plenipotentiaries were appointed, it was necessary to know on what terms France was willing to treat. A few days after receiving this answer, Count Stahremburgh applied for his passport and left the country. In both the overture of Count Stahremburgh and the offer of Russia to mediate after the treaty of Tilsit (in which a month was the time specified for England to express her assent), Bonaparte seemed to adopt a tone more resembling a summons to the garrison of a besieged city, than a proposal of sincere peace to a great and equal power. If ministers had discovered an eagerness to welcome proposals offered in such a tone, they would have compromised the honour and security of the country; for every Briton must feel, that there could be neither honour nor security in any treaty which implied a superiority in our enemy. He had some grounds for assuming a tone of superiority over those continental nations which he had conquered, but certainly not towards this country, over which no triumph had been obtained. The conduct of ministers on these occasions was arraigned in parliament by some of their opponents, who seemed to think peace upon any terms desirable, and who appeared to be so dazzled with the genius of Bonaparte, and the splendour of his successes, as to consider him invincible. The present ministers, however, in this most alarming crisis, did not despair of the fortunes of their country, and the result has already justified their hopes. There can be no doubt that the prospects of this country and of Europe are brighter than they were at the close of the year 1807, or than they would have been if England had condescended to accept what Bonaparte had been pleased to dictate under the name of peace.

The principal events which mark the history of they year 1808, are the attempts made by the Emperor of Russia (under the dictation of Bonaparte) to subjugate Sweden, the attempts of Bonaparte to make himself absolute master of Spain, the expulsion of the French troops from Portugal, the incorporation of the Papal territories and Tuscany with the French empire, the armaments in Austria, and the revolutions in Turkey. The general result of these operations has been, that Russia in a whole year has not been able to conquer Sweden, or advance beyond the province of Finland; while, on the other hand, she has lost a fleet at Lisbon, and has been defeated in a naval action in the Baltic. The French Emperor, who governed Spain completely by his influence, has put every thing to hazard in order to obtain the appearance only of a more complete and absolute dominion over that country: in this attempt he has experienced great losses, and whatever may be the final issue of it, it appears almost certain, that Spanish America, and probably the Spanish navy, will be withdrawn from his influence; while Spain will, for many years, whether victorious or beaten, employ a considerable portion of his armies. On the side of Austria and Turkey, Europe appears to have gained considerably in strength during the year. Austria has at length learned in the school of adversity, that regular armies are not sufficient to save a country from such an enemy as Bonaparte. The Emperor of Austria has appealed to the spirit of his people, and they have answered his utmost wishes. By the immense levies which have been made, and the organization of their national militia, the defensive force of Austria has been nearly doubled in the course of the present year. The Turkish empire, which appeared sunk to the lowest degree of weakness, has gained considerably in strength by its last revolution; and by the energy and talents displayed by its grand vizier, Mustapha Bairactar, it is no longer that feeble country over which a French army might march without opposition to the conquest of Persia and India. Turkey, like Austria, now presents to view a great nation preparing itself for an important crisis. The prejudices of ages have yielded to the necessity of the times, and Eastern Europe may yet present a formidable barrier against the universal empire to which Bonaparte aspires. To these events we must also add, the experiment which the United States of America have made, of starring Europe into compliance with their terms, by the operation of their embargo act: an experiment which, however, has completely failed; for, besides that they have been the principal, if not the only sufferers, they have taught our West India planters to appreciate their own resources, and have lent a fostering hand to the more extended cultivation of our own Transatlantic dominions. From these considerations it will appear, that the prospects of the world are somewhat brighter now than they were at the close of the year 1807.

The war which the Emperor of Russia commenced against Sweden in the beginning of 1808, was not preceded by any provocation or cause of complaint on the part of the King of Sweden. The Emperor Alexander (under the dictation of Bonaparte) invited him to join in a confederacy against England: he refused to do so, and the emperor immediately published a declaration of war against him, on the ground, that “the relations between Russia and Sweden must be no longer uncertain.” The court of Denmark also about the same time published a declaration of war against Sweden, containing the same expression. This phrase was evidently of French origin, and meant that Sweden must resign its own independence, and act in the same manner that Bonaparte prescribed to his other vassals. The King of Sweden answered the Russian manifesto with great firmness, and stated that he had resisted an offer made to him in the last year by Bonaparte, of recovering all the provinces which Charles XII. had lost to Russia, if he would join the continental confederacy against England. Formidable preparations of war were made both by Russia and Denmark. A very considerable Russian army entered Swedish Finland in the month of February, and threatened nothing less than to march to Stockholm in the course of the campaign; a combined French and Danish army threatened to cross the Sound, and invade Sweden in that quarter: fortunately, however, for the King of Sweden, the capture of the Danish fleet in the preceding year rendered this measure impracticable. He, on his side, made vigorous preparations for carrying on the war against both Russia and Denmark: he sent a considerable army into Finland, and another force to invade Norway. On the side of Norway, the Swedish troops had at the commencement of the campaign considerable advantages, but were afterwards obliged to return lo tbeir old positions. On the side of Finland, the Swedish armies have fought with considerable spirit, and have often defeated the Russian armies; but they were never able to repair the losses that had been sustained in the first irruption of the Russian army, which advancing unexpectedly, and with an immense superiority of force, occupied the whole of Southern Finland, and captured the strong town of Sweaburgh, in the first two months of the war. The Swedish troops have, however, shewn the most distinguished bravery, and the Russians appear unequal to the execution of their threat of marching to Stockholm. When it was known in England, that the Emperor of Russia had thus unexpectedly declared war against our ally, and that Sweden Mas threatened on all sides by enemies, no time was lost by the present ministers to send a considerable force to his assistance. Alexander had chosen the season of winter for his attack, both because the morasses of Finland are then frozen over and present no obstacles to the march of an army, and because at that season of the year no British auxiliary force could enter the Baltic. The fortress of Sweaburgh for the same reasons was unable to offer any effectual resistance, and the grand Swedish flotilla, which was locked up in the harbour by frost, fell into the hands of the Russians. No sooner, however, was the Baltic open to a British fleet, than it was entered, not only by a considerable naval force, but an expedition consisting of near 1500 men, under the command of Sir John Moore, arrived at Gottenburgh. This force was sent unasked for, but the danger of Sweden appeared to require it. At the time of their arrival a great difference of opinion arose between the King of Sweden and the British general about the mode of employing these troops: all that is publicly known of the that the King of Sweden, considering his frontiers safe on the side of Norway, and not fearing an invasion from Copenhagen, wished to employ the British troops in Finland, upon expeditions which appeared to Sir John Moore to be very imprudent. The King of Sweden was irritated at the opposition to his views, and the British army returned. It has never been publicly stated what were the proposed expeditions of which Sir John Moore disapproved, but it was evident, that upon the arrival of the British force at Gottenburgh, Sweden was not on that side exposed to so much danger as was apprehended, and that the continuance of a British force in that neighbourhood would be unnecessary. The return of the British expedition did not, however, alter the disposition of the King of Sweden, who continued the war with great firmness, and accepted with thankfulness the naval assistance which this country afforded him.

The great event, however, which marks the history of the year 1808, and which (if Providence so wills it) may form a new æra in the history of the world, is, the rising of the Spanish nation against Bonaparte. Although the French troops have a second time entered Madrid, the final issue of that struggle has not been yet determined; and if the just cause of Spain should ultimately prevail, the independence of the other nations of Europe may yet be secured, ami ultimately be freed from the apprehension of falling under the degrading yoke of an upstart military adventurer, an who boldly and without disguise avows his intention of reducing all nations to an obedience to his will. The principal events of the Spanish revolution are so fresh in the recollection of our readers, that it will be unnecessary to repeat them, and it would much exceed our limits to dwell upon the events which have recently taken place in that country. There can be no doubt but that there has tor many years existed among the grandees of Spain an ardent feeling for the honour of their country, and a deep-rooted indignation against that upstart favourite, the Prince of the Peace, whose base polity had reduced Spain so low as to be considered by Bonaparte as a part of his federative empire. The marching of French armies through Spain under pretence of occupying Portugal, and afterwards the treacherous occupation of Barcelona and Pampeluna by the French, opened the eyes of the Spanish nation. The tumult at Aranjuez made the old king think it prudent to abdicate his crown, and his son was welcomed to the throne and proclaimed with the greatest enthusiasm all over Spain. The treachery by which Bonaparte persuaded the royal family of Spain to meet him at Bayonne, their forced abdication, and subsequent imprisonment, the entrance of the French into Madrid, and the massacre of the 2d of May, are events fresh in the recollection of every body. The consequence has been, the simultaneous rising of all the provinces of Spain, the capture of Dupont, the defeat of Moncey, the noble defence of Saragossa, and the struggle which Spain is now maintaining against the whole power of Bonaparte.

The great success which the Spaniards had in the beginning of the war, and the defeats and losses whicb the French armies sustained in Spain, raised the public feeling in this country to the highest enthusiasm, and to a confident hope that the time had at length arrived, that would witness the overthrow of the gigantic power of Bonaparte. He was considered as already conquered, and our politicians argued, with considerable shew of reason, that if the Spanish people were able to do so much unorganized, undisciplined, and unarmed, they would be infinitely stronger after they had had six months time to be armed, equipped, and organized. They also thought, that Bonaparte had been quite intoxicated with his former successes, and that he had committed a capital error in endeavouring to conquer by force a country which he before ruled completely by his influence. Whether this last opinion be well or ill founded, must be determined by the result; but there is no doubt, that having taken the resolution absolutely to Conquer Spain, he took his measures with great craft and ability. Under the shew of marching through Spain to Portugal, he took care to seize the strong fortresses of Barcelona and Pampeluna. By fraud and treachery he got the whole royal family of Spain in his hands, and prevailed on them to abdicate their rights to the throne. He also got a number of the first personages in Spain to agree to the constitution which was settled at Bayonne, and which was certainly better than the wretched form of government before subsisting in Spain. He offered this constitution with his brother Joseph for their king, and threatened them with subjugation in the event of their refusal. The army which he had in Spain was either not sufficiently numerous, or sufficiently well directed, to crash a general rising of the Spanish nation, but ha was conscious of the great reserves which he could bring up.

Austria was in the mean time making the most formidable preparations. The destruction of the Papal power, the seizing the persons of the royal family of Spain, and the avowed intention of conquering that country, made Austria clearly see the danger which awaited her if she continued any longer inert. Bonaparte perceived how formidable a diversion the Emperor of Austria was capable of making, and what a chance there was of the rest of Europe following the example of Spain: he therefore left the frontiers of Spain, and went to Erfort in Saxony, to meet the Emperor of Russia. In these conferences he established his ascendency over Alexander, and all Europe were informed that the two emperors acted in the most perfect concert. Their imperial majesties, however, chose to act the farce of offering peace to England; but the terms of it were to be, that the Spanish nation (whom they were pleased to designate as insurgents) should be abandoned. His majesty’s ministers, however, very properly rejected such an overture: and a declaration has been issued, stating that the engagements which his majesty had contracted with the Spanish nation were notorious to all Europe, and that he should not depart from them. He spoke with great indignation of the indecorum of calling the whole Spanish nation insurgents, and expressed surprise at finding the Emperor of Russia so blindly led by the French Emperor, as to sanction the most monstrous usurpation which had ever been known in the history of the world. Such a declaration certainly did great credit to the feelings of the government, and might be productive of great benefit to the cause of Spain, if that cause is not already too far gone. Bonaparte advanced rapidly from Erfort to the frontiers of Spain, and took the command of the great army which had been marching to that country while he was holding conferences with the Emperor of Russia. His campaign has hitherto been brilliant: he has defeated the armies of Blake and Castanos, entered Madrid as a conqueror. Whether his armies are sufficiently numerous to occupy all Spain, or whether the Spanish nation has sufficient spirit and resources to expel his armies a second time, remains yet to be decided.

The grand question now with respect to British politics is this: Has the country done its duty? or have ministers done their duty in giving adequate support to the cause of Spain? There is no doubt but that we have been liberal in granting all manner of supplies, of money, arms, and ammunition: Spain has acknowledged this service with the sincerest gratitude. As to our armies, the Spaniards did not in the first instance wish for their co-operation. The junta politely refused the offered co-operation of General Spencer’s corps with that of Castanos in the attack of Dupont; and the junta of Gallicia, even after the unfortunate battle of Rio Seco, did not wish Sir Arthur Wellesley to co-operate with their army under Blake. Neither the great Northern nor the great Southern army of Spain wished our direct co-operation, and each of them pointed out, that the most effectual service we could rentier Spain, was to expel the French from Portugal. This service has been rendered, but not in a manner to satisfy the first expectations of the nation. A public inquiry has been instituted into the causes of the convention by which the French were allowed to evacuate Portugal with their arms and baggage; and as far as public opinion can judge, on the evidence which has been laid before the Court of Inquiry, its result must be, that Sir Arthur Wellesley would have made the victory of Vemiera most glorious and decisive, if he had not been restrained by Sir Harry Burrard; and that by the favourable opportunity being lost, the situation of the French was so much improved, that, in the opinion of all the other lieutenant- generals, as well as Sir Hew Dalrymple, they were entitled to the favourable terms of the convention. As far as the question relates to ministers, it is now reduced to this: who was it that recommended Sir Harry Burrard to be employed, and thereby superseded Sir Arthur Wellesley in the command of our army in Portugal? Whether there has been any unnecessary delay in marching the British army from Portugal into Spain, does not as yet appear. The feeling of this nation for the cause of Spain is so general and so strong, that we may venture to say, the point upon which the merits of any administration could be now considered to turn, is, whether they had done enough for Spain? or whether it was not possible for them to have done something more than they have done? On these questions, the opinions of the ablest men in the nation will be pronounced in the approaching parliament, and in our next publication we shall be able to enter more fully into the consideration of them.