History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/First/II:15

Chapter 15: Cordiality with EnglandEdit

February 4, 1801, one month before the inauguration of President Jefferson, Pitt suddenly retired from office, and was succeeded by a weak ministry, in which Mr. Addington, afterward Lord Sidmouth, took the post vacated by Pitt. No event could have been happier for the prospects of President Jefferson, who might fairly count upon Addington's weakness to prevent his interference in American affairs.

Knowing himself to be universally regarded as the friend and admirer of France, Jefferson was the more anxious not to be classed by the British government among the enemies of England. Even before he was inaugurated, he took occasion to request Edward Thornton, the British chargé,—

"With great earnestness, to assure his Majesty's government that it should experience during his administration as cordial and sincere acts of friendship as had ever been received under that of his predecessors. I am aware," said the President elect, "that I have been represented as hostile to Great Britain; but this has been done only for electioneering purposes, and I hope henceforward such language will be used no longer. I can appeal to all my past conduct that in everything in which I have been engaged relatively to England, I have always been guided by a liberal policy. I wish to be at the head of affairs no longer than while I am influenced by such sentiments of equal liberality toward all nations. There is nothing to which I have a greater repugnance than to establish distinctions in favor of one nation against another."

The day after his inauguration he returned to the subject:—

"There is nothing I have more, or I may say so much, at heart as to adjust happily all differences between us, and to cultivate the most cordial harmony and good understanding. The English government is too just, I am persuaded, to regard newspaper trash, and the assertions contained in them that I am a creature of France and an enemy of Great Britain. For republican France I may have felt some interest; but that is long over; and there is assuredly nothing in the present government of that country which could naturally incline me to show the smallest undue partiality to it at the expense of Great Britain, or indeed of any other country."[1]

Thornton felt no great confidence in the new President's protests, and thought it possible that Jefferson had "on this, as he seems to have done on many late public occasions, taxed his imagination to supply the deficiency of his feelings." All Englishmen were attached to the Federalist and New England interest; they could not understand that Virginia should be a safer friend than Massachusetts. Yet in truth Jefferson never was more serious than when he made these professions. The Southern republicans had nothing to gain from a quarrel with England; they neither wished for Canada, nor aspired to create shipping or manufactures: their chief antagonist was not England, but Spain. The only Power which could seriously injure them was Great Britain; and the only injury they could inflict in return was by conquering Canada for the benefit of Northern influence, or by building up manufactures which they disliked, or by cutting off their own markets for tobacco and cotton. Nothing warranted a belief that men like Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin would ever seek a quarrel with England.

The British Ministry soon laid aside any doubts they might have felt on the subject. Lord Grenville, who retired with Pitt, was succeeded as Foreign Secretary by Lord Hawkesbury, afterward better known as Lord Liverpool. The new Ministry negotiated for peace with Bonaparte. Oct. 1, 1801, the preliminaries were signed, and the world found itself again in a sort of repose, broken only by the bloody doings at St. Domingo and Guadeloupe. England returned, like France and Spain, to the rigor of the colonial system. The customs entries of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia rapidly diminished in number; American shipping declined; but Madison was relieved from the burden of belligerent disputes, which had been the chief anxiety of his predecessors in the State Department.

Yet peace did not put an end to all difficulties. Rufus King continued to negotiate in London in regard to the outstanding British debts, twice recognized by treaty, yet still unpaid by the United States; in regard to the boundary of Maine and that of the extreme northwest territory at the source of the Mississippi; and finally in regard to impressments; while Edward Thornton at Washington complained that, in spite of peace and the decline of American shipping, encouragement was still offered to the desertion of British seamen in every port of the United States,—in fact that this means was systematically used to prevent British shipping from entering American ports in competition with the shipping of America. When Madison alleged that the national government had no share in such unfriendly conduct, Thornton thrust under his eyes the law of Virginia,—a law enacted by President Jefferson's political friends in his political interests,—which forbade, under penalty of death, any magistrate of Virginia to be instrumental in surrendering deserters or criminals, even in cases where they were bound by treaty to do so. Madison could not deny that this legislation was contrary to a treaty right which the United States government was bound to enforce. He admitted that American shipmasters and consuls in British ports habitually asked the benefit of the British law, and received it; but he could hold out only a remote hope that mutual legislation might solve the difficulty by applying the merchant-seamen laws of the two countries reciprocally. In conversation with Thornton he lamented, with every appearance of sincerity and candor, the deficiency of the existing laws, and did not dispute that Great Britain could hardly be blamed for refusing the surrender of seamen on her side; but when Thornton asked him to order the return of a man who under aggravated circumstances had deserted from the British ship-of-war "Andromache" in the port of Norfolk, and had been immediately engaged on the United States revenue cutter there, Madison replied in a note coldly reiterating the fact, with which both parties were already acquainted, that neither the law of nations nor the provisions of any treaty enjoined the mutual restitution of seamen. This recognized formula, under which govenments commonly express a refusal to act, was understood by Thornton as equivalent to an avowal that the new Administration, controlled by Virginians, would not venture, even in the future emergency of a demand for extradition under treaty, to risk the displeasure of Virginia.[2] Desertion, therefore, received no discouragement from the United States government; on the contrary, deserters, known to be such, were received at once into the national service, and their surrender refused. Under such circumstances the British government was not likely to be more accommodating than the American.

As the summer of 1802 approached, President Jefferson drew into closer and more confidential relations with Thornton. During the Federalist rule the two countries were never on more affectionate terms. At London Rufus King and Christopher Gore received courteous attention from Lord Hawkesbury. At Washington, Thrornton's intimacy at the White House roused the jealousy and alarm of Pichon. As Bonaparte's projects against Louisiana disclosed themselves, and as Leclerc's first successes at St. Domingo opened the French path to New Orleans, Jefferson began to pay sudden and almost eager court to Thornton, who was a little embarrassed by the freedom with which the President denounced the First Consul. The preliminary articles of peace between France and England had been signed Oct. 1, 1801; but the treaty of Amiens, which made these articles definitive, was signed only March 25, 1802. Addington was naturally anxious that the peace should be maintained; indeed, no one could doubt that the existence of his Ministry depended on maintaining it. Thornton had no instructions which warranted him in intriguing against the First Consul, or in making preparations for a new war; and yet hardly was the treaty of Amiens made public, when President Jefferson began to talk as though England were still at war, and it were only a question of time when the United States must become her ally. The Louisiana question excited him. In April he wrote his letters to Dupont and Livingston. At about the same time he took Thornton into his confidence.
"I have had many occasions since it was first started," wrote Thornton,[3] "of conversing freely with Mr. Jefferson on this topic, which is indeed peculiarly interesting to him, and his reflections on which he utters with perhaps too little caution to persons who are not dispolsed to think very favorably of any change of sentiments with respect to France. He not only regards the cession of Louisiana and New Orleans as a certain cause of future war between the two countries, but makes no scruple to say that if the force of the United States should be unable to expel the French from those settlements, they must have recourse to the assistance of other Powers, meaning unquestionably Great Britain. With regard to France and the person who is at the head of its government, whether in consequence of the projected cession of Louisiana or of the little account which seems to be made of the United States as well at Paris as by French officers in other parts of the world, Mr. Jefferson speaks in very unqualified terms of the usurpation of Bonaparte, of the arbitrary nature and spirit of his government, of his love of flattery and vain pomp,—features, according to Mr. Jefferson, which indicate the frivolous character of his mind rather than a condescension to the taste of the French people. The presses in America devoted to the President's Administration make use of the same language; and without pretending to say that this party is cured of its bitterness against Great Britain, I can safely venture to assure your Lordship that its predilection for France scarcely exists even in name."

After the stoppage of the entrepôt at New Orleans, when public opinion seemed intent of driving Jefferson into the war with France which he had predicted, Thornton found himself and his government in favor at Washington. The Republicans were even better disposed than the Federalists. Jefferson was willing to abolish between England and America the discriminating duties on shipping which the New England Federalists had imposed, and which they still wished to maintain for use in the disputed West Indian trade. He told Thornton that he could no doubt carry the repeal of these countervailing duties through Congress over the heads of the opposition,[4] "but he wished it to be adopted in consequence of their own conviction, rather than by a contrary conduct to afford them the least ground for asserting that the Southern States were carrying into execution their scheme of ruin against the navigation and commerce of their Eastern brethren." Jefferson was rapidly becoming the friend and confidant of England. Thornton, naturally delighted with his own success, and with the mortification and anxieties of Yrujo and Pichon, went so far as to urge his government to help the views of the United States against Louisiana:[5]

"I should hope, my Lord, that by having some share in the delivery of this Island of New Orleans to the United States, which it will be impossible to keep from them whenever they choose to employ force, his Majesty's government may hereafter attach still more this country to our interests, and derive all the advantage possible from the intercourse with that important part of the world. A very great change has gradually taken place in the opinions of all ranks in this government in favor of Great Britain, which has struck observers more likely to be impartial than myself. A sense of common interest has a great share in the change; but the conduct of France in all her relations has not failed to produce its full effect; and I find men, formerly the most vehement in their politics, asserting in the most unqualified terms the necessity of a union among all the members of the civilized world to check her encroachments and to assure the general tranquillity."

A few days later the President nominated Monroe to act with Livingston and Pinckney in an attempt to purchase New Orleans. This step, which was openly avowed to be the alternative and perhaps the antecedent of war with France, brought Thornton into still more confidential relations with the Government. Finding that the Secretary of State was as cautious as the President was talkative, Thornton carried on an active intercourse with the latter. He first offered to detain the British government packet for Monroe's use; but it was found that a month or two of delay would be necessary. Then, without instructions from his Government, Thornton took a bolder step:[6]

"This state of things has naturally excited a sentiment of common interest, and has encouraged me to enter with more freedom into the subject, as well with the President as with Mr. Madison, than I should otherwise have thought right, without being acquainted with the views of his Majesty's government. Under this impression, I ventured, immediately after the nomination and before the first arrival of Mr. Monroe, to inquire of the President whether it was his intention to let him pass over to England, and hold any conversation with his Majesty's ministers upon the general question of the free navigation of the Mississippi. The inquiry was somewhat premature, and I made it with xome apology. Mr. Jefferson replied, however, unaffectedly, that at so early a stage of the business he had scarcely thought himself what it might be proper to do; . . . that, on the whole, he thought it very probable that Mr. Monroe might cross the Channel. . . . Some time after Mr. Monroe's arrival, actuated by the same view, I mentioned to Mr. Jefferson that it would give me pleasure to furnish the former with an introduction to his Majesty's ambassador at Paris, as it would afford me the occasion of making Lord Whitworth acquainted with the nature of the object in dispute between this country, France, and Spain, and would give to Mr. Monroe, if he were disposed of himself, or were instructed by his Government to seek it, a more ready pretext for opening himself to his Lordship, and of keeping him apprised of the progress and turn of the negotiation. Mr. Jefferson seemed pleased with this offer, and said he was sure Mr. Monroe would accept it with great thankfulness."

Madison talked less freely than his chief, and contented himself with explaining to the British representative that the views of the Government in sending Monroe to France were limited to the hope of inducing the First Consul by money, or other means of persuasion, to cede in Louisiana a place of deposit over which the United States might have absolute jurisdiction. He did not tell Thornton of the decision made by the Cabinet, and the instructions given to Monroe, April 18, 1803, to offer terms of alliance with England in case the First Consul should make war;[7] but the tone of cordiality in Government and people, both in public and private, in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, as in the South and West, was gratifying to British pride, and would have been still more so had not the community somewhat too openly avowed the intention of leaving England, if possible, to fight alone. At the first news of the approaching rupture between France and England, this wish began to appear so plainly that Thornton was staggered by it. The Americans took no trouble to conceal the hope that England would have to fight their battles for them.[8]

"The manifest advantage that such a state of things is calculated to give to their negotiation with France, and which is already sensibly felt in the altered tone and conduct of the French government, . . . will sufficiently account for their wishes and for this belief. But possessing the same opinion of the encroachments of France, and of the barrier which Great Britain alone places between her and the United States, and actuated, as I really believe they are, by sincere wishes for our success, I am afraid they begin to see more clearly that in a state of war we are effectually fighting their battles, without the necessity of their active interference; and they recur once more to the flattering prospect of peace and a lucrative neutrality."

In this state of doubt President Jefferson continued his intimate relations with Thornton.

"He expressed himself very freely," wrote Thornton, May 30, 1803, "on the contemptible and frivolous conduct, as he termed it, of a Government that could alter its language so entirely on the prospect of an approaching rupture with another nation,—which he acknowledged instantly, on my mention of it, had been the case toward Mr. Livingston."

Jefferson attributed Bonaparte's returning courtesy to fear rather than to foresight. Thornton himself began to feel the danger that Bonaparte, after all, might outwit him. He revised his opinion about Louisiana. England, he saw, had the strongest motives for wishing France to keep that province.

"The most desirable state of things," he wrote, "seems to be that France should become mistress of Louisiana, because her influence in the United States would be by that event lost forever, and she could only be dispossessed by a concert between Great Britain and America in a common cause, which would produce an indissoluble bond of union and amity between the two countries."

This cordiality between England and the United States lasted without interruption until midsummer. Pichon complained, as has been shown, of the attentions paid to Thornton by the President.[9] "I remarked at table that he redoubled his courtesies and attentions toward the British chargé." The dinner was in the month of January; in the following June Pichon wrote that the President had begun to accept the idea of seeing the British at New Orleans:[10]

"Mr. Jefferson told me a few days ago that he was engaged in letting that Power know that her presence there would be seen with regret; but I perceive that, little by little, people are familiarizing themselves with this eventuality, as their fears increase in regard to us. They are so convinced that England sees more and more her true interests in relation to the United States, and is resolved to conciliate them, that they have no doubt of her lending herself to some arrangement. What they fear most is that, as the price of this accommodation, she may require the United States to take an active part in the indispensable war; and this is what they ardently wish to avoid."
Until July 3, 1803, the relations between President Jefferson's government and that of Great Britain were so cordial as to raise a doubt whether the United States couild avoid becoming an ally of England, and taking part in the war with France. Suddenly came the new convulsion of Europe.
"It was on the third of this month," wrote Pichon July 7, 1803, "the eve of the anniversary of Independence, that we received two pieces of news of the deepest interest for this country,—that of the rupture between France and England, proclaimed by the latter on May 16, and that of the cession of Louisiana and New Orleans, made by us on April 30."[11]

The next day, when Pichon attended the usual reception at the White House, he found himself received in a manner very different from that to which he had been of late accustomed.

The two events, thus coming together, were sure to affect seriously the attitude of the United States toward England. Not only did Jefferson no longer need British aid, but he found himself in a position where he could afford with comparative freedom to insist upon his own terms of neutrality. He had always felt that Great Britain did not sufficiently respect this neutrality; he never failed to speak of Jay's treaty in terms of vehement dislike; and he freely avowed his intention of allowing all commercial treaties to expire. The relation between these treaties and the rights of neutrality was simple. Jefferson wanted no treaties which would prevent him from using commercial weapons against nations that violated American neutrality; and therefore he reserved to Congress the right to direct commerce in whatever paths the Government might prefer.
"On the subject of treaties," he wrote,[12] "our system is to have none with any nation, as far as can be avoided. The treaty with England has therefore not been renewed, and all overtures for treaty with other nations have been declined. We believe that with nations, as with individuals, dealings may be carried on as advantageously, perhaps more so, while their continuance depends on a voluntary good treatment, as if fixed by a contract, which, when it becomes injurious to either, is made by forced constructions to mean what suits them, and becomes a cause of war instead of a bond of peace."

Such a system was best suited to the strongest nations, and to those which could control their dealings to most advantage. The Administration believed that the United States stood in this position.

The President and Secretary Madison were inclined to assert authority in their relations with foreign Powers. Even so early as the preceding February, before Monroe sailed for Europe, Madison told Pichon of this intention.[13] "He added," wrote Pichon to Talleyrand, "that if war should be renewed, as seemed probable, the United States would be disposed to take a higher tone than heretofore, that Europe had put their spirit of moderation to proofs that would be no longer endured." Immediately after hearing of the Louisiana cession, Pichon wrote that the same spirit continued to animate the Government.[14] "It is certain that they propose to cause the neutrality of the United States to be more exactly respected by the belligerent Powers than in the last war. The Government has often shown its intentions in this respect, from the time when everything pointed to an infallible rupture between us and England." President Jefferson, while avowing a pacific policy, explained that his hopes of peace were founded on his power to affect the interests of the belligerents. At the same moment when Pichon wrote thus to Talleyrand, the President wrote to the Earl of Buchan:[15]

"My hope of preserving peace for our country is not founded in the Quaker principle of non-resistance under every wrong, but in the belief that a just and friendly conduct on our part will procure justice and friendship from others. In the existing contest, each of the combatants will find and interest in our friendship."

He was confident that he could control France and England:[16] "I do not believe we shall have as much to swallow from them as our predecessors had."

The Louisiana question being settled, the field was clear for the United States to take high ground in behalf of neutral rights; and inevitably the first step must be taken against England. No one denied that thus far the administration of Addington had behaved well toward the United States. Rufus King brought to America at the same time with news of the Louisiana treaty, or had sent shortly before, two conventions by which long-standing differences were settled. One of these conventions disposed the old subject of British debts,—the British government accepting a round sum of six hundred thousand pounds on behalf of the creditors.[17] The other created two commissions for running the boundary line between Maine and Nova Scotia, and between the Lake of the Woods and the Mississippi River.[18] King went so far as to express the opinion that had he not been on the eve of his departure, he might have succeeded in making some arrangement about impressments; and he assured Gallatin that the actual Administration in England was the most favorable that had existed or could exist for the interests of the United States; its only misfortune was its weakness.[19] The conduct of the British government in regard to Louisiana proved the truth of King's assertion. Not only did it offer no opposition to the sale, but it lent every possible assistance to the transfer; and under its eye, with its consent, Alexander Baring made the financial arrangements which were to furnish Bonaparte with ten million American dollars to pay the preliminary expenses of an invasion of England.

Nevertheless, if the United States government intended to take a high tone in regard to neutral rights, it must do so from the beginning of the war. Aware that success in regard to England, as in regard to Spain, depended on asserting at the outset, and maintaining with obstinacy, the principles intended to be established, the President and Secretary Madison lost no time in causing their attitude to be clearly understood. An opportunity of asserting this authoritative tone was given by the appearance of a new British minister at Washington; and thus it happened that at the time when the Secretary of State was preparing for his collision with the Marquis of Casa Yrujo and the Spanish empire, he took on his hands the more serious task of curbing the pretensions of Anthony Merry and the King of England.

  1. Thornton to Grenville, March 7, 1801; MSS. British Archives.
  2. Thornton to Hawkesbury, Oct. 25 and Nov. 26, 1802; MSS. British Archives.
  3. Thornton to Hawkesbury, July 3, 1802; MSS. British Archives.
  4. Thornton to Hawkesbury, Dec. 31, 1802; MSS. British Archives.
  5. Thornton to Hawkesbury, Jan 3, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  6. Thornton to Hawkesbury, Jan. 31, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  7. See p. 2.
  8. Thornton to Hawkesbury, May 30, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  9. Pichon to Talleyrand, 8 Pluviôse, An xi. (Jan. 28, 1803); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  10. Pichon to Talleyrand, 14 Prairial, An xii. (June 3, 1803); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  11. Pichon to Talleyrand, 18 Messidor, An xii. (July 7, 1803); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  12. Jefferson to Mazzei, July 18, 1804; Works, iv. 552.
  13. Pichon to Talleyrand, 1 Ventôse, An xi. (Feb. 20, 1803); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  14. Pichon to Talleyrand, 18 Messidor, An xii. (July 7, 1803); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  15. Jefferson to Earl of Buchan, July 10, 1803; Works, iv. 493.
  16. Jefferson to General Gates, July 11, 1803; Works, iv. 494.
  17. State Papers, ii. 382.
  18. State Papers, ii. 584.
  19. Gallatin to Jefferson, Aug. 18, 1803; Gallatin's Works, i. 140.