Front Page Titles (by Subject) the warning 1 - The Works of Alexander Hamilton, (Federal Edition), vol. 6
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
the warning 1 - Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, (Federal Edition), vol. 6 
The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. Vol. 6.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
January 27, 1797.
There are appearances too strong not to excite apprehension that the affairs of this country are drawing fast to an eventful crisis. Various circumstances, daily unfolding themselves, authorize a conclusion that France has adopted a system of conduct toward the neutral maritime nations generally, which amounts to little less than actual hostility. I mean the total interruption of their trade with the ports of her enemies; a pretension so violent, and at the same time so oppressive, humiliating, and ruinous to them, that they cannot submit to it, without not only thecomplete sacrifice of their commerce, but their absolute degradation from the rank of sovereign and independent states.
It seems to have become latterly a primary object in the policy of France to make the principal attack upon Great Britain through her commerce, in order, by extinguishing the sources of her revenue and credit, to disable her from continuing the war, and compel her to accept any conditions of peace which her antagonist may think fit to prescribe. It is to this plan we are to attribute the unjustifiable treatment of Tuscany, in the seizure of Leghorn, and shutting her ports against the English, contrary to the will of her own government. The same plan has dictated the attempts which are understood to have been made to oblige Naples to exclude Great Britain from her ports during the present war. And there have been indications of a design to effect a similar restraint on all the Italian states, and expel the British trade wholly from the Mediterranean. The same object of wounding Great Britain through her commerce, has been promoted by the war into which Spain has been drawn, and may be considered as the principal advantage expected from it; while it is likewise alleged to be the intention to force Portugal to suspend her commercial relations with Great Britain. The late decree forbidding the importation of British manufactures into France, is a further proof of the eagerness with which the policy of destroying the British commerce is pursued; since it is presumable, from the derangement of French manufactures by the war, that there must have been a convenience in the supply which that importation has afforded.
It is obviously to the same origin that we are to trace the decree lately communicated by the French minister to our government, with respect to the intended treatment of the trade of neutrals, and the spoliations which ours has for a long time past suffered. While neutral nations were permitted to enjoy securely their rights, besides the direct commerce between them and the British dominions, the commerce of Great Britain would be carried on in neutral bottoms, even with the countries where it was denied access in British bottoms. It follows, that the abridgment of neutral rights is essential to the scheme of destroying the British commerce. And here we find the true solution of those unfriendly proceedings, on the part of France toward this country, which are hypocritically charged to the account of the treaty with Great Britain, and other acts of pretended infidelity in our government.
Did we need a confirmation of this truth, we should find it in the intelligence lately received from Cadiz. We are informed, through a respectable channel,1 that Danish and Swedish, as well as American vessels, carried into that port by French cruisers, have, with their cargoes, been condemned and confiscated by the French consul or tribunal there, on the declared principle of intercepting the trade of neutrals with the ports of the enemies of France. This indiscriminate spoliation of the commerce of neutral powers is a clear proof that France is actuated, not by particular causes of discontent given by our government, but by a general plan of policy.
The practice upon the decree is a comment much broader than the text. The decree purports that France would observe toward neutrals the same conduct which they permitted her enemies to observe toward them. But the practice goes a great deal further. None of the enemies of France, even at the height of their power and presumption, ever pretended totally to cut off the trade of neutrals with her ports. This is a pretension reserved for her, to increase the catalogue of extraordinary examples, of which her revolution has been so fruitful.
The allegations of discontent with this country are evidently a mere coloring to the intended violation of its rights, by treaty as well as by the laws of nations. Some pretext was necessary, and this has been seized. It will probably appear hereafter that Denmark and Sweden have been mocked with a similar tale of grievances. It is, indeed, already understood that Sweden, outraged in the person of her representative, has been obliged to go the length of withdrawing her minister from Paris.
The complaints of France may be regarded principally as weapons furnished to her adherents to defend her cause, notwithstanding the blows she inflicts. Her aim has been, in every instance, to seduce the people from their government, and, by dividing, to conquer and oppress. Hitherto, happily, the potent spells of this political sorcery have, in most countries, been counteracted and dissipated by the sacred flame of patriotism. One melancholy exception serves as a warning to the rest of mankind to shun the fatal snare. It is, nevertheless, humiliating, that there are men among us depraved enough to make use of the arms she has furnished in her service, and to vindicate her aggressions as the effect of a just resentment, provoked by the ill conduct of our government. But the artifice will not succeed. The eyes of the people of this country are, every day, more and more opened to the true character of the politics of France; and the period is fast approaching when it will be seen in all its intrinsic deformity.
The desire of a power at war to destroy the commerce of its enemy, is a natural effect of the state of war, and while exercised within bounds, consistent with the rights of nations who are not engaged in the contest, is entirely justifiable; but when it manifestly overleaps these bounds, and indulges in palpable violations of neutral rights, without even the color of justification in the usages of war, it becomes an intolerable tyranny, wounds the sovereignty of nations, and calls them to resistance by every motive of self-preservation and self-respect.
The conduct of France, from the commencement of her successes, has, by gradual developments, betrayed a spirit of universal domination; an opinion that she had a right to be the legislatrix of nations; that they are all bound to submit to her mandates, to take from her their moral, political, and religious creeds; that her plastic and regenerating hand is to mould them into whatever shape she thinks fit; and that her interest is to be the sole measure of the rights of the rest of the world. The specious pretence of enlightening mankind, and reforming their civil institutions, is the varnish to the real design of subjugating them. The vast projects of a Louis XIV. dwindle into insignificance compared with the more gigantic schemes of his republican successors.
Men, well informed and unprejudiced, early discovered the symptoms of this spirit. Reasoning from human nature, they foresaw its growth with success; that from the love of dominion, inherent in the heart of man, the rulers of the most powerful nation in the world, whether a Committee of Safety or a Directory, will forever aim at an undue empire over other nations; and that this disposition, inflamed as it was by enthusiasm, if encouraged by a continuation of success, would be apt to exhibit itself, during the course of the French Revolution, in excesses of which there has been no example since the days of Roman greatness.
Every day confirms the justice of that anticipation. It is now indispensable that the disagreeable and menacing truth should be exposed in full day to the people of America; that they should contemplate it seriously, and prepare their minds for extremities, which nothing short of abject submission may be able to avert. This will serve them as an armor against the machinations of traitorous men, who may wish to make them instruments of the ambition of a foreign power, to persuade them to concur in forging chains for mankind, and to accept, as their award, the despicable privilege of wearing them a day later than others.
Already in certain circles is heard the debasing doctrine that France is determined to reduce us to the alternative of war with her enemies, or war with herself, and that it is our interest and safety to elect the former.
There was a time when it was believed that a similar alternative would be imposed by Great Britain. At this crisis there was but one sentiment. The firmest friends of moderation and peace, no less than the noisiest partisans of violence and war, resolved to elect war with that power which should drive us to the election. This resolution was the dictate of morality and honor, of a just regard to national dignity and independence. If any consideration, in any situation, should degrade us into a different resolution, we, that instant, shake hands with crime and infamy: we descend from the high ground of an independent people, and stoop to the ignominious level of vassals. I trust there are few Americans who would not cheerfully encounter the worst evils of a contest with any nation on earth rather than subscribe to so shameful an abdication of their rank as men and citizens.
February 7, 1797.
Independent of the commands of honor the coolest calculations of interest forbid our becoming the instruments of the ambition of France, by associating with her in the war. The question is no longer the establishment of liberty on the basis of republican government. This point the enemies of France have ceased to dispute. The question now is whether she shall be aggrandized by new acquisitions, and her enemies reduced by dismemberments, to a degree which may render her the mistress of Europe, and consequently, in a great measure, of America. This is truly the remaining subject of contention.
They who understood the real strength and resources of France before the present war, knew that she was intrinsically the most powerful nation of Europe. The incidents of the war have displayed this fact in a manner which is the astonishment of the world. If France can finally realize her present plan of aggrandizement, she will attain to a degree of greatness and power which, if not counteracted by internal disorder, will tend to make her the terror and the scourge of nations. The spirit of moderation in a state of overbearing power is a phenomenon which has not yet appeared, and which no wise man will expect ever to see. It is certain that a very different spirit has hitherto marked the career of the new republic; and it is due to truth to add, that the ardent, impetuous, and military genius of the French affords perhaps less prospect of such a spirit in them than in any other people.
‘T were therefore contrary to our true interest to assist in building up this colossus to the enormous size at which she aims. ‘T were a policy as shortsighted as mean to seek safety in a subserviency to her views as the price of her clemency. This at best would be but a temporary respite from the rod; if indeed that can be called a respite, which is of itself the sacrifice of a real to a nominal independence.
These reflections are not designed to rouse a spirit of hostility against France, or to inculcate the idea that we ought of choice to participate in the war against her. They are intended merely to fortify the motives of honor, which forbid our stooping to be compelled, either to submit without resistance to a virtual war on her part, or to avert her blows by engaging in the war on her side.
When it was the opinion, that France was defending the cause of liberty, it was a decisive argument against embarking with her in the contest, that it would expose us to hazards and evils infinitely disproportioned to the assistance we could render. Now the question plainly is, whether France shall give the law to mankind. The addition of our opposition to her plan could have too little influence upon the event to justify our willingly encountering the certain dangers and mischiefs of the enterprise. ‘T is our true policy to remain at peace if we can, to negotiate our subjects of complaint as long as they shall be at all negotiable, to defer and to wait.
When the indiscriminate seizure of our vessels by British cruisers, under the order of the sixth of November, 1793, had brought our affairs with Great Britain to a crisis, which led to the measure of sending a special envoy to that country to obtain relief and reparation, it was well understood that the issue of that mission was to determine the question of peace or war between the two nations. In like manmer, it is to be expected that our Executive will make a solemn and final appeal to the justice and interest of France, will insist in mild but explicit terms on the renunciation of the pretension to intercept the lawful commerce of neutrals with the enemies of France, and the institution of some equitable mode of ascertaining and retributing the losses which the exercise of it has inflicted upon our merchants. If the experiment shall fail, there will be nothing left but to repel aggression and defend our commerce and independence. The resolution to do this will then be imposed on the government by a painful but irresistible necessity, and it were an outrage to the American name and character to doubt that the people of the United States will approve the resolution, and will support it with a constancy worthy of the justice of their cause, and of the glory they have heretofore deserved and acquired.
No! let this never be doubted! the servile minions of France—those who have no sensibility to injury but when it comes from Great Britain, who are unconscious of any rights to be protected against France; who, at a moment when the public safety more than ever demands a strict union between the people and their government, traitorously labor to detach them from it, and to turn against the government, for pretended faults, the resentment which the real oppressions of France ought to inspire;—these wretched men will discover in the end, that they are as insignificant as they are unprincipled. They will find that they have vainly flattered themselves with the co-operation of the great body of those men with whom the spirit of party has hitherto associated them. In such an extremity the adventitious discriminations of party will be lost in the patriotism and pride of the American character. Good citizens of every political denomination will remember that they are Americans; that when their country is in danger, the merit or demerit of particular measures is no longer a question; that it is the duty of all to unite their efforts to guard the national rights, to avert national humiliation, and to withstand the imposition of a foreign yoke. The true and genuine spirit of 1776, not the vile counterfeits of it which so often disgust our eyes and our ears, will warm every truly American heart, and light up in it a noble emulation to maintain inviolate the rights and unsullied the honor of the American nation. It will be proved, to the confusion of all false patriots, that we did not break the fetters of one foreign tyranny to put on those of another. It will be again proved to the world that we understand our rights, and have the courage to defend them.
But there is still ground to hope that we shall not be driven to this disagreeable extremity. The more deliberate calculations of France will probably rescue us from the present embarrassment. If she perseveres in her plan, she must inevitably add all the neutral powers to the number of her enemies. How will this fulfil the purpose of destroying the commerce of Great Britain? The commerce of those powers with France will then entirely cease, and be turned more extensively into the channels of Great Britain, protected by her navy, with the co-operation of the maritime force of those powers. The result will be the reverse of what is projected by the measure. The commerce and revenue of Britain will, in all likelihood, be augmented rather than diminished; and her arms will receive an important reinforcement. Violent and unjust measures commonly defeat their own purpose. The plan of starving France was of this description, and operated against the views of its projectors. This plan now adopted by France, of cutting off the trade of neutrals with her enemies, alike violent and unjust, will no doubt end in similar disappointment. Let us hope that it will be abandoned, and that ultimate rupture will be avoided; but let us also contemplate the possibility of the contrary, and prepare our minds seriously for the unwelcome event.
February 21, 1797.
The Paris accounts inform us, that France has lately exercised toward Genoa an act of atrocious oppression, which is an additional and striking indication of the domineering and predatory spirit by which she is governed. This little republic, whose territory scarcely extends beyond the walls of her metropolis, has been compelled, it seems, to ransom herself from the talons of France by a contribution of nearly a million of dollars, a large sum for her contracted resources. For this boon, “the French Government engages on its part to renounce all claims upon Genoa, to forget what has passed during the present war, and to forbear any future demands.”
It would appear from this, that France, to color the odious exaction, besides the pretence of misconduct toward her in the present war, has not disdained to resort to the stale and pitiful device of reviving some antiquated claim upon the country itself. In vain did the signal hazards encountered by Genoa to preserve her neutrality, in defiance of the host of enemies originally leagued against France,—in vain did the character and title of republic plead for a more generous treatment. The attractions of plunder predominated. The spirit of rapine, callous to the touch of justice, blind to the evidence of truth, deaf to the voice of entreaty, had marked out, and devoted the mark. There was no alternative but to compound or perish.
If it be even supposed, though this has never appeared, that at some period of the war Genoa may be chargeable with acts of questionable propriety in relation to France, it is manifest, that it ought to be attributed to the necessity of a situation which must have obliged her to temporize. A very small and feeble state, in the midst of so many great conflicting powers, parts of her territories occupied by armies which she was unable to oppose, it were a miracle, indeed, if her conduct in every particular will bear the test of rigorous scrutiny. But if at any time the pressure of circumstances may have occasioned some slight deviation, there is, nevertheless, full evidence of a constant solicitude on the part of Genoa to maintain, to the utmost of her ability, a sincere neutrality. It is impossible to forget the glorious stand which she at one time made against the imperious efforts of Great Britain to force her from her neutral position. The magnanimous and exemplary fortitude which she displayed on that occasion excited in this country universal admiration, and must have made a deep impression. ‘T is only to recollect that instance to be satisfied that the treatment which she has just experienced from France merits the indignant execration of mankind. Unfortunate Genoa! how little didst thou imagine that thou wert destined so soon to be compelled to purchase thy safety from the crushing weight of that hand which ought to have been the first to rise in thy defence!
How fruitful at the same time of instruction to us is this painful example! The most infatuated partisans of France cannot but see in it an unequivocal proof of the rapacious and vindictive policy which dictates her measures. All men must see in it, that the flagrant injuries which we are now suffering from her, proceed from a general plan of domination and plunder; from a disposition to prostrate nations at her feet; to trample upon their necks; to ravish from them whatever her avidity or convenience may think fit to dedicate to her own use.
The last intelligence from France seems to dispel the doubt whether the depredations in the West Indies may not have resulted from misapprehension or abuse of the orders of the French Government. It is now understood to be a fact that the cruisers of France everywhere are authorized to capture and bring in all vessels bound to the ports of her enemies.
This plan is pregnant with the worst evils, which are to be dreaded from the declared and unqualified hostility of any foreign power. If France, after being properly called upon to renounce it, shall persevere in the measure, there cannot be a question but that open war will be preferable to such a state. By whatever name treachery or pusillanimity may attempt to disguise it, ‘t is in fact war of the worst kind, war on one side. If we can be induced to submit to it longer than is necessary to ascertain that it cannot be averted by negotiation, we are undone as a people. Whether our determination shall be to coop up our trade by embargoes, or to permit our commerce to continue to float an unprotected prey to French cruisers, our degradation and ruin will be equally complete. The destruction of our navigation and commerce, the annihilation of our mercantile capital, the dispersion and loss of our seamen—obliged to emigrate for subsistence,—the extinction of our revenue, the fall of public credit, the stagnation of every species of industry, the general impoverishment of our citizens,—these will be minor evils in the dreadful catalogue. Some years of security and exertion might repair them. But the humiliation of the American mind would be a lasting and a mortal disease in our social habit. Mental debasement is the greatest misfortune that can befall a people. The most pernicious of conquests which a state can experience is a conquest over that just and elevated sense of its own rights which inspires a due sensibility to insult and injury; over that virtuous and generous pride of character, which prefers any peril or sacrifice to a final submission to oppression, and which regards national ignominy as the greatest of national calamities.
The records of history contain numerous proofs of this truth. But an appeal to them is unnecessary. Holland and Italy present to our immediate observation, examples as decisive as they are deplorable. The former within the last ten years has undergone two revolutions by the intervention of foreign powers, without even a serious struggle. Mutilated of precious portions of its territory at home by pretended benefactors but real despoilers, its dominions abroad slide into the possession of its enemies rather as derelicts than as the acquisitions of victory. Its fleets surrender without a blow. Important only by the spoils which it offers no less to its friends than to its enemies, every symptom in its affairs is portentous of national annihilation. With regard to Italy, ‘t is sufficient to say that she is debased enough, not even to dare to take part in a contest, on which, at this moment, her destiny is suspended.
Moderation in every nation is a virtue. In weak or young nations, it is often wise to take every chance by patience and address to divert hostility, and in this view to hold parleywith insult and injury; but to capitulate with oppression, or rather to surrender to it at discretion, is, in any nation that has any power of resistance, at all times as foolish as it is contemptible. The honor of a nation is its life. Deliberately to abandon it, is to commit an act of political suicide. There is treason in the sentiment, avowed in the language of some, and betrayed by the conduct of others, that we ought to bear any thing from France, rather than go to war with her. The nation, which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a Master and deserves one.
February 27, 1797.
The emissaries of France when driven from every other expedient for extenuating her depredations, have a last refuge in the example of Great Britain. The treatment which we now receive from France (say they) is not worse than that which we have received from Great Britain. If this apology were founded in fact, it would still be a miserable subterfuge. For what excuse is it to France, or what consolation to us, that she, our boasted friend and benefactress, treats us only not worse than a power which is stigmatized as an envious rival and an implacable foe?
The conduct of Great Britain, appealed to in justification of France, was admitted by all to be inexcusable. Even Gallic faction thought it so extreme as to call for immediate reprisals. The real patriots differed from them only in thinking, that an armed negotiation, to end in reprisals, if unattended with success, was preferable to immediate hostility. How dare the men, who at that period were the clamorous champions of our national dignity,—how dare they (I ask) now to stand forth the preachers not of moderation (for in the propriety of this all unite) but of tame submission—of a servility abject enough to love and cherish the hand which despoils us, to kiss the rod which stings us with unprovoked lashes? What logic, what magic, can render innocent or venial in France that which was so criminal and odious in Great Britain?
The pretext (we know) of France is, that we have permitted Great Britain to treat us in the same manner, and her deluded or debauched adherents are mean or prostrate enough to re-echo the excuse.
Let us grant, for argument’s sake, all that can be pretended on this subject—namely, that through want of energy in our administration, or from the opinion which it entertained of the situation of the country, there has been too much patience under the oppressions of Great Britain. Is this really a justification to France? Is a defect of vigor in the government of one country, or an underestimate of its means for repelling injury, a sufficient cause for another government, lavish in profession of friendship, to imitate toward it the aggressions which it has suffered from an oppressor? What in private life would be said of that man, who called himself the friend of another, and because the last had too passively allowed a third, the enemy of both, to wrest from him a portion of his property, should deduce from this a pretext to strip him of the remainder? Has language epithets too severe for such a character? Is not the guilt of unjust violence in a case like this aggravated by that of hypocrisy and perfidy?
But this is not our only reply. The truth is (and a truth we may boldly proclaim) that we never did tolerate the aggressions of Great Britain; that we have steadily resisted them, and resisted them with success. In the respectable attitude of an armed negotiation, seconded by the self-denying and very influential measure of an embargo, we sent to demand a revocation of the orders under which we suffered, and retribution for the losses which we had sustained. The orders were revoked and the retribution has been stipulated, and the stipulation is in a course of honorable and liberal execution. The redress of ancient grievances, on the ground of a reciprocity, demanded by every principle of rectitude, has been superadded to that of more recent ones.
Our flags at this moment proudly wave on the ramparts which had been so long detained from us; and Indian butcheries along the whole extent of our vast frontier have been terminated. More than this—the redress obtained from Great Britain was a principal cause of the happy accommodation of our dispute with Spain, of the recognition of our right to navigate the Mississippi, and of the establishment of a southern boundary equal to our most sanguine wishes.1 These are the fruits (and immense fruits they are) of a vigorous though temperate resistance to the aggressions of Great Britain.
‘T is, therefore, in every sense false, that our government has permitted Great Britain to do as France is now doing. Except here and there the accidental irregularity of the commander of a particular ship, there is not one clear right which the law of nations entitles us to claim, that is not now respected by Great Britain, and to a degree unusual in the history of the treatment of neutral nations by great belligerent powers.
It follows that the suggestion on which France bottoms her ill-treatment of us is a frivolous and a colorless pretext. ‘T is to confound all just ideas, to consider a temporary forbearance as a permission or acquiescence—to pretend, above all, to retaliate that injury after it has passed, has ceased, and has been redressed. We are bound, then, to conclude that our real crime in the eyes of France is, that we had the temerity to think and to act for ourselves, and did not plunge headlong into war with Great Britain; that the principal streams of our commerce, from the natural relations of demand and supply, flow through the channels of her commerce; and that the booty which it offers to rapacity exceeds the organized means of protection.
But a country, containing five millions of people, the second in the number of its seamen, that prime sinew of maritime force, with a varied industry, and an export of sixty millions, understanding its rights, not deficient in spirit to vindicate them, if compelled against its will to exert its strength and resources, will, under the guidance of faithful and patriotic counsels, be at no loss to convince its despoilers that there is as much folly as wickedness in such a calculation. This reflection ought at once to console and to animate us; though the remembrance of former friendship and a spirit of virtuous moderation will induce us still to wish that there may be some error in appearances—that the views of France are not as violent and as hostile as they seem to be—that an amicable explanation may yet dispel the impending clouds, and brighten the political horizon with a happy reconciliation.
March 13, 1797.
I have asserted that the conduct of Great Britain toward us and other neutral powers has been at no period so exceptionable as that of France at the present juncture. A more distinct view of this truth may be useful, which will be assisted by a retrospect of the principal acts of violence on both sides.
Though the circumstances were contemporarily disclosed in all our newspapers, yet so blind and deaf were we rendered by our partiality for France, that few among us, till very lately, have been aware, that the first of those acts is fairly chargeable upon her. Such, notwithstanding, is the fact. The first in order of time is a decree of the National Convention of the 9th of May, 1793, which, reciting that neutral flags are not respected by the enemies of France, and enumerating some instances of alleged violation, proceeds to authorize the vessels of war and cruisers of France to arrest and conduct into her ports all neutral vessels which are found laden in whole or in part with provisions belonging to neutrals, or merchandises belonging to the enemies of France; the latter to be confiscated as prize for the benefit of the captors, the former to be detained, but paid for according to their value at the places for which they were destined.
The instances enumerated as the pretext for so direct and formal an attack upon the rights of neutral powers, except two, turn upon the pretensions to capture goods of an enemy in the ships of a friend. Of the remaining two, one is the case of an American vessel going from Falmouth to St. Maloes with a cargo of wheat, which the decree states was taken by an English frigate and carried into Guernsey, where the agents of the English Government detained the cargo, upon a promise to pay the value, as not being for French account; the other is the case of some French passengers going in a Genoese vessel from Cadiz to Bayonne, who were plundered on the passage by the crew of an English privateer.
There is no question but that Great Britain, from the beginning of the war, has claimed and exercised the right of capturing the property of her enemies found in neutral bottoms, and it has been unanswerably demonstrated, that for this she has the sanction of the general law of nations. But France, from the exercise of that right by Great Britain, when not forbidden by any treaty, can certainly derive no justification for the imitation of the practice, in opposition to the precise and peremptory stipulations of her treaties. Every treaty which established the rule of “free ships free goods,” must have contemplated the unequal operation of that rule to the contracting parties, when one was at peace, the other at war; looking for indemnification to the correspondent of taking friends’ property in enemies’ ships, and to the reciprocal effect of the rule when the state of peace and war should be reversed. To make its unequal operation in an existing war an excuse for disregarding the rule, is therefore a subterfuge for a breach of faith, which hardly seeks to save appearances. France, as she once was, would have blushed to use it. It is one, among many instances, of the attempts of revolutionary France to dogmatize mankind out of its reason, as if she expected to work a change in the faculties as well as in the habits and opinions of men.
The case of the American vessel carried to Guernsey is that of a clear infraction of neutral right. But standing singly, it was insufficient evidence of a plan of the British Government to pursue the principle. It countenanced suspicion of a secret order for the purpose; but it did not amount to proof of such an order. There might have been misapprehension or misrepresentation; or if neither was the case, the circumstance was resolvable into the mere irregularity of particular agents; it is unjustifiable to ascribe to a government, as the result of a premeditated plan, and to use as the ground of reprisals, a single case of irregularity happening in a detached portion of the dominions of that government. France was bound to have waited for more full evidence. There was no warrant in a solitary precedent for general retaliation; even if we could admit the detestable doctrine, that the injustice of one belligerent power towards neutral nations is a warrant for similar injustice in another.
The violation of the courtesy of war in the instance of the French passengers, however brutal in itself, was truly a frivolous pretext for the decree. The frequency of irregular conduct in the commanders and crews of privateers, even in contempt of the regulations of their own governments, naturally explains such a transaction into the cupidity of individuals, and forbids the imputation of it to their governments. There never was a war in which similar outrages did not occur in spite of the most sincere endeavors to prevent them.
The natural and plain conclusion is, that the decree in question was a wanton proceeding in the French Government, uncountenanced by the previous conduct either of its enemies, or of the neutral nations who were destined to punishment for their faults.
For, the first order of the British Government authorizing the seizure of provisions is dated the sixth of June, 1793, nearly a month posterior to the French decree. As there is not the least vestige of any prior order, the presumption is that none ever existed. If any had existed, the course of things has been such as to afford a moral certainty that it would have appeared. The subsequent date of the British order is a strong confirmation of the argument, that the affair of the vessel carried to Guernsey was nothing more than a particular irregularity.
The publicity of all the proceedings of the French Government, and the celerity of communication between Paris and London, leave no doubt that the decree of May the 9th was known in London before the order of June the 6th. It follows, that France herself furnished to Great Britain the example and the pretext for the most odious of the measures with which she is chargeable; and, that so far as precedent can justify crime, Great Britain may find in the conduct of France the vindication of her own.
An obvious reflection presents itself. How great was the infatuation of France thus to set the example of an interruption of neutral commerce in provisions, in the freedom of which she was so much more interested than her adversaries. If the detention of the cargo at Guernsey was a bait, we cannot but be astonished at the stupid levity with which it was swallowed.
We are no less struck with the eager precipitancy with which France seized the pretext for a formal and systematic invasion of the rights of neutral powers; equally regardless of the obligations of treaty and of the injunctions of the laws of nations. The presumption of the connivance of the neutral power in infractions of its rights is the only colorable ground for the French idea of retaliation on the sufferers. Here the yet early stage of the war and the recency of the facts alleged as motives to the decree, preclude the supposition of connivance. The unjust violence of France, consequently, in resorting to retaliation, stands without the slightest veil. From this prominent trait we may distinguish, without possibility of mistake, the real character of her system.
March 27, 1797.
It has been seen that the Government of France has an indisputable title to the culpable pre-eminence of having taken lead in the violation of neutral rights; and that the first instance on the part of the British Government, is nearly a month posterior to the commencement of the evil by France. But it was not only posterior, it was also less comprehensive: that of France extended to all provisions, that of Great Britain to certain kinds only—corn, flour, and meal.
The French decree, as to the United States, was repeatedly suspended and revived. As to other neutral nations, it continued a permanent precedent to sanction the practice of Great Britain.
This decretal versatility is alone complete evidence of want of principle. It is the more censurable, because it is ascertained that it proceeded, in part at least, from a corrupt source. The sacred power of law-making became the minister and the accomplice of private rapine. Decrees exacted by the solemn obligations of treaty were sacrificed to sea rovers—to enable them to enjoy the prey, for the seizure of which they ought to have been condignly punished.1
The next and most injurious of the acts of Great Britain is the order of the 6th of November, 1793, which instructs the commanders of ships of war and privateers to stop, detain, and carry in for adjudication all ships, laden with the produce of any French colony, or carrying provisions or other supplies for the use of such colony. It was under the cover of this order that were committed the numerous depredations on our commerce, which were the immediate cause of sending an envoy to Great Britain.
The terms of this order were ambiguous, warranting a suspicion that they were designed to admit of an oppressive interpretation, and yet to leave room for a disavowal of it. Whether this was really the case, or whether the order was in fact misconstrued by the British officers and tribunals in the West Indies, it is certain that the British Government, almost as soon as their construction was known in England, not only disclaimed it, but issued a new order, dated the first of January, 1794, revoking that of the sixth of November, and expressly restraining the power to detain and carry in vessels for adjudication to such as were laden with the produce of a French island going from a port in the island to a port in Europe, to such as were laden with the like produce belonging to subjects of France whithersoever bound, to such as were laden in whole or in part with naval or military stores bound to a French island.
This last order obviated in a great measure the mischief of the former; and though its principles were in some respect such as we ought never to recognize, yet were they conformable with the practice of the principal maritime powers in antecedent modern wars, especially of France and Great Britain.
These acts comprise the whole of those on which the British spoliations have been founded. Taken with all the latitude of construction adopted by the British officers and courts in the West Indies, they amount to this, and to no more: “the seizure and appropriations of our corn, flour, and meal, going to a French port, on the condition of paying for them, the seizure and confiscation of our vessels with their cargoes, when laden with the produce of a French colony, or in the act of carrying provisions or other supplies for the use of said colony.” Our trade with France herself, except in corn, flour, and meal, and in contraband articles, has in the worst of times remained unmolested, and has even been allowed to be carried on directly from British ports.
Iniquitous and oppressive as were the acts of Great Britain, how very far short do they fall of the more iniquitous and oppressive decrees of France, as these have been construed and acted upon, not only by the colonial administrations, but by some of its tribunals in Europe! The decree of the second of July, 1796, purports in substance, that France will treat the neutral powers as they have permitted her enemies to treat them. But under this masked battery the whole of our trade with the enemies of France has been assailed. The two edicts of her proconsuls in the West Indies1 proclaim the capture of all neutral vessels bound to or coming from English ports, and the uniform consequence is confiscation of vessel and cargo. We are now likewise officially informed that a French consular tribunal at Cadiz has condemned neutral vessels carried in there, on the same broad principle. The evil to us has been magnified by various aggravations. Our vessels going from one neutral port to another, even our vessels going from French ports, have been the victims of the piratical spirit which dictated those edicts. Outrage, imprisonment, fetters, disease, and death, inflicted or brought upon the commanders and crews of our vessels, cause the bitter cup of our sufferings to overflow, and leave the imagination at a loss for a parallel without seeking for it in the ferocious regions of Barbary.
The ambiguity of the British order of November was a just subject of reproach to its authors. What shall be said of the perfidious ambiguity of the French decree of the 2d of July, 1796? When retaliation of the partial injuries which neutral nations have suffered from the enemies of France was announced, who could have dreamt that a universal war on their trade was meditated? Who that has a spark of the American in his soul can refuse his utmost indignation, as well at the manner as at the matter of this atrocious proceeding? Not only the partisans of France, the advocates for the honor of republican government, but the friends of human nature, must desire that the final explanation may reject, as a criminal abuse, the practice upon that decree, and repair as far as possible the mischiefs which it has occasioned.
But the treaty with Great Britain (still exclaim the dupes or hirelings of France), that abominable instrument, is the Pandora’s box from which all our misfortunes issue. When that instrument was confirmed, who could have expected anything better?
Peace, ye seduced or seducing babblers! Had Denmark or Sweden any share in making that reprobated treaty? Besides the refutation of your flimsy pretence, by the ill-treatment in other shapes of several of the neutral powers in Europe—by the information from Cadiz of the indiscriminate seizure and condemnation of neutral vessels going to or coming from English ports,—do ye not read in the recent accounts from St. Bartholomews, a Swedish island, that not Americans only, that Danes, that Swedes, that all the neutral nations partake in the common calamity—alike the prey of a devouring rapacity? Will ye still then insist on the barefaced imposture of ascribing to the treaty grievances which are the mere effects of a spirit of oppression and rapine? Read the letter of Mr. Skipwith to Mr. Monroe, dated at Paris, the third of October, 1794, prior to the signature of the treaty by Mr. Jay. Remember that he is an American agent, acting under the eye of an American minister, and that both the minister and the agent are distinguished by a partiality for France, which exempts them from the suspicion of exaggerating her misdeeds. What does that letter tell us? Why, in express terms, that “innumerable embarrassments and difficulties had for a long time oppressed her commerce in different ports of the republic; that if the French Government did not soon remedy the incessant abuses and vexations practised daily upon our merchants, the trade of the United States with France must cease.” Hence may we learn, that long before our treaty with Great Britain, the vexations of our trade in the ports of France were so extreme as to have become intolerable; that “the indiscriminate capture of our vessels at sea by the vessels of war of the republic,”1 formed only one class of the injuries which our commerce has sustained: in a word, that the predatory system of France existed before the treaty, and has only of late acquired greater activity from the cravings of an exhausted treasury.
The man who, after this mass of evidence, shall be the apologist of France, and the calumniator of his own government, is not an American. The choice for him lies between being deemed a fool, a madman, or a traitor.
[1.]The Warning was in continuation of the line of argument pursued in France. Its purpose was to arouse the people against French influence, and to show that we ought to be independent of all foreigners, and not allow ourselves to be dragged by France into a war with England, but rather be prepared to withstand the more dangerous encroachments of the “Great Republic itself.”
[1.]Mr. Ignardi, our consul at Cadiz, lately arrived, who mentioned the fact as here stated, adding, without reserve, that the principle above mentioned is avowed in the correspondence of the French consul at Cadiz.
[1.]This consequence was foreseen and foretold. And the prediction is confirmed by that part of the declaration of war of Spain against Great Britain which makes it a charge against the latter, that in the treaty with the United States “she had no respect or consideration for the Known rights of Spain,” and in the sudden disappearance, after that treaty, of the obstacles which had so long impeded our negotiation with Spain.
[1.]The report of the Secretary of State mentions (as was known at the time) that one repeal was effected by the influence of the owners of a privateer, which had captured the valuable American ship Laurens, to give effect to her condemnation.
[1.]Santhonax & Co., November 27, 1796. Victor Hugues, 13th Pluviose, 5th year of the Republic.
[1.]This is also a passage verbatim from Mr. Skipwith’s letter—and he produces a long list of cases to support his assertions.