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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
The Pacifists of 1807
by Johnson, Allen


It is one of the strange paradoxes of our time that the author of the Declaration of Independence, to whose principle of self-determination the world seems again to be turning, should now be regarded as a self-confessed pacifist, with all the derogatory implications that lurk in that epithet. The circumstances which made him a revolutionist in 1776 and a passionate advocate of peace in 1807 deserve some consideration. The charge made by contemporaries of Jefferson that his aversion to war sprang from personal cowardice may be dismissed at once, as it was by him, with contempt. Nor was his hatred of war merely an instinctive abhorrence of bloodshed. He had not hesitated to wage naval war on the Barbary Corsairs. It is true that he was temperamentally averse to the use of force under ordinary circumstances. He did not belong to that type of full-blooded men who find self-expression in adventurous activity. Mere physical effort without conscious purpose never appealed to him. He was at the opposite pole of life from a man like Aaron Burr. He never, so far as history records, had an affair of honor; he never fought a duel; he never performed active military service; he never took human life. Yet he was not a non-resistant. "My hope of preserving peace for our country," he wrote on one occasion, "is not founded in the Quaker principle of nonresistance under every wrong."

The true sources of Jefferson's pacifism must be sought in his rationalistic philosophy, which accorded the widest scope to the principle of self-direction and self determination, whether on the part of the individual or of groups of individuals. To impose one's will upon another was to enslave, according to his notion; to coerce by war was to enslave a community; and to enslave a community was to provoke revolution. Jefferson's thought gravitated inevitably to the center of his rational universe--to the principle of enlightened self-interest. Men and women are not to be permanently moved by force but by appeals to their interests. He completed his thought as follows in the letter already quoted: "But [my hope of preserving peace is founded] 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 an interest in our friendship."

It was a chaotic world in which this philosopher-statesman was called upon to act--a world in which international law and neutral rights had been well-nigh submerged in twelve years of almost continuous war. Yet with amazing self-assurance President Jefferson believed that he held in his hand a master-key which would unlock all doors that had been shut to the commerce of neutrals. He called this master-key "peaceable coercion," and he explained its magic potency in this wise:

"Our commerce is so valuable to them [the European belligerents] that they will be glad to purchase it when the only price we ask is to do us justice. I believe that we have in our hands the means of peaceable coercion; and that the moment they see our government so united as that they can make use of it, they will for their own interest be disposed to do us justice."

The idea of using commercial restrictions as a weapon to secure recognition of rights was of course not original with Jefferson, but it was now to be given a trial without parallel in the history of the nation. Non-importation agreements had proved efficacious in the struggle of the colonies with the mother country; it seemed not unreasonable to suppose that a well-sustained refusal to traffic in English goods would meet the emergency of 1807, when the ruling of British admiralty courts threatened to cut off the lucrative commerce between Europe and the West Indies. With this theory in view, the President and his Secretary of State advocated the NonImportation Bill of April 18, 1806, which forbade the entry of certain specified goods of British manufacture. The opposition found a leader in Randolph, who now broke once and for all with the Administration. "Never in the course of my life," he exclaimed, "have I witnessed such a scene of indignity and inefficiency as this measure holds forth to the world. What is it? A milk-and-water bill! A dose of chicken-broth to be taken nine months hence! . . . It is too contemptible to be the object of consideration, or to excite the feelings of the pettiest state in Europe." The Administration carried the bill through Congress, but Randolph had the satisfaction of seeing his characterisation of the measure amply justified by the course of events.

With the Non-Importation Act as a weapon, the President was confident that Monroe, who had once more returned to his post in London, could force a settlement of all outstanding differences with Great Britain. To his annoyance, and to Monroe's chagrin, however, he was obliged to send a special envoy to act with Monroe. Factious opposition in the Senate forced the President to placate the Federalists by appointing William Pinkney of Maryland. The American commissioners were instructed to insist upon three concessions in the treaty which they were to negotiate: restoration of trade with enemies' colonies, indemnity for captures made since the Essex decision, and express repudiation of the right of impressment. In return for these concessions, they might hold out the possible repeal of the Non-Importation Act! Only confirmed optimists could believe that the mistress of the seas, flushed with the victory of Trafalgar, would consent to yield these points for so slight a compensation. The mission was, indeed, doomed from the outset, and nothing more need be said of it than that in the end, to secure any treaty at all, Monroe and Pinkney broke their instructions and set aside the three ultimata. What they obtained in return seemed so insignificant and doubtful, and what they paid for even these slender compensations seemed so exorbitant, that the President would not even submit the treaty to the Senate. The first application of the theory of peaceable coercion thus ended in humiliating failure. Jefferson thought it best "to let the negotiation take a friendly nap"; but Madison, who felt that his political future depended on a diplomatic triumph over England, drafted new instructions for the two commissioners, hoping that the treaty might yet be put into acceptable form. It was while these new instructions were crossing the ocean that the Chesapeake struck her colors.

James Monroe is one of the most unlucky diplomats in American history. From those early days when he had received the fraternal embraces of the Jacobins in Paris and had been recalled by President Washington, to the ill-fated Spanish mission, circumstances seem to have conspired against him. The honor of negotiating the purchase of Louisiana should have been his alone, but he arrived just a day too late and was obliged to divide the glory with Livingston. On this mission to England he was not permitted to conduct negotiations alone but was associated with William Pinkney, a Federalist. No wonder he suspected Madison, or at least Madison's friends, of wishing to discredit him. And now another impossible task was laid upon him. He was instructed to demand not only disavowal. and reparation for the attack on the Chesapeake and the restoration of the American seamen, but also as "an indispensable part of the satisfaction" "an entire abolition of impressments." If the Secretary of State had deliberately contrived to deliver Monroe into the hands of George Canning, he could not have been more successful, for Monroe had already protested against the Chesapeake outrage as an act of aggression which should be promptly disavowed without reference to the larger question of impressment. He was now obliged to eat his own words and inject into the discussion, as Canning put it, the irrelevant matters which they had agreed to separate from the present controversy. Canning was quick to see his opportunity. Mr. Monroe must be aware, said he, that on several recent occasions His Majesty had firmly declined to waive "the ancient and prescriptive usages of Great Britain, founded on the soundest principles of natural law," simply because they might come in contact with the interests or the feelings of the American people. If Mr. Monroe's instructions left him powerless to adjust this regrettable incident of the Leopard and the Chesapeake, without raising the other question of the right of search and impressment, then His Majesty could only send a special envoy to the United States to terminate the controversy in a manner satisfactory to both countries. "But," added Canning with sarcasm which was not lost on Monroe, "in order to avoid the inconvenience which has arisen from the mixed nature of your instructions, that minister will not be empowered to entertain . . . any proposition respecting the search of merchant vessels."

One more humiliating experience was reserved for Monroe before his diplomatic career closed. Following Madison's new set of instructions, he and Pinkney attempted to reopen negotiations for the revision of the discredited treaty of the preceding year. But Canning had reasons of his own for wishing to be rid of a treaty which had been drawn by the late Whig Ministry. He informed the American commissioners arrogantly that "the proposal of the President of the United States for proceeding to negotiate anew upon the basis of a treaty already solemnly concluded and signed, is a proposal wholly inadmissible." His Majesty could therefore only acquiesce in the refusal of the President to ratify the treaty. One week later, James Monroe departed from London, never again to set foot on British soil, leaving Pinkney to assume the duties of Minister at the Court of St. James. For the second time Monroe returned to his own country discredited by the President who had appointed him. In both instances he felt himself the victim of injustice. In spite of his friendship for Jefferson, he was embittered against the Administration and in this mood lent himself all too readily to the schemes of John Randolph, who had already picked him as the one candidate who could beat Madison in the next presidential election.

>From the point of view of George Canning and the Tory squirearchy whose mouthpiece he was, the Chesapeake affair was but an incident--an unhappy incident, to be sure, but still only an incident--in the world-wide struggle with Napoleon. What was at stake was nothing less than the commercial supremacy of Great Britain. The astounding growth of Napoleon's empire was a standing menace to British trade. The overthrow of Prussia in the fall of 1806 left the Corsican in control of Central Europe and in a position to deal his long premeditated blow. A fortnight after the battle of Jena, he entered Berlin and there issued the famous decree which was his answer to the British blockade of the French channel ports. Since England does not recognize the system of international law universally observed by all civilized nations--so the preamble read--but by a monstrous abuse of the right of blockade has determined to destroy neutral trade and to raise her commerce and industry upon the ruins of that of the continent, and since "whoever deals on the continent in English goods thereby favors and renders himself an accomplice of her designs," therefore the British Isles are declared to be in a state of blockade. Henceforth all English goods were to be lawful prize in any territory held by the troops of France or her allies; and all vessels which had come from English ports or from English colonies were to be confiscated, together with their cargoes. This challenge was too much for the moral equilibrium of the squires, the shipowners, and the merchants who dominated Parliament. It dulled their sense of justice and made them impatient under the pinpricks which came from the United States. "A few short months of war," declared the Morning Post truculently, "would convince these desperate [American] politicians of the folly of measuring the strength of a rising, but still infant and puny, nation with the colossal power of the British Empire." "Right," said the Times, another organ of the Tory Government, "is power sanctioned by usage." Concession to Americans at this crisis was not to be entertained for a moment, for after all, said the Times, they "possess all the vices of their Indian neighbors without their virtues."

In this temper the British Government was prepared to ignore the United States and deal Napoleon blow for blow. An order-in-council of January 7, 1807, asserted the right of retaliation and declared that "no vessel shall be permitted to trade from one port to another, both which ports shall belong to, or be in possession of France or her allies." The peculiar hardship of this order for American shipowners is revealed by the papers of Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, whose shrewdness and enterprise were making him one of the merchant princes of his time. One of his ships, the Liberty, of some 250 tons, was sent to Lisbon with a cargo of 2052 barrels and 220 half-barrels of flour which cost the owner $10.68 a barrel. Her captain, on entering port, learned that flour commanded a better price at Cadiz. To Cadiz, accordingly, he set sail and sold his cargo for $22.50 a barrel, winning for the owner a goodly profit of $25,000, less commission. It was such trading ventures as this that the British order-in-council doomed.

What American shipmasters had now to fear from both belligerents was made startlingly clear by the fate of the ship Horizon, which had sailed from Charleston, South Carolina, with a cargo for Zanzibar. On the way she touched at various South American ports and disposed of most of her cargo. Then changing her destination, and taking on a cargo for the English market, she set sail for London. On the way she was forced to put in at Lisbon to refit. As she left to resume her voyage she was seized by an English frigate and brought in as a fair prize, since --according to the Rule of 1756--she had been apprehended in an illegal traffic between an enemy country and its colony. The British prize court condemned the cargo but released the ship. The unlucky Horizon then loaded with an English cargo and sailed again to Lisbon, but misfortune overtook her and she was wrecked off the French coast. Her cargo was salvaged, however, and what was not of English origin was restored to her owners by decree of a French prize court; the rest of her cargo was confiscated under the terms of the Berlin decree. When the American Minister protested at this decision, he was told that "since America suffers her ships to be searched, she adopts the principle that the flag does not cover the goods. Since she recognizes the absurd blockades laid by England, consents to having her vessels incessantly stopped, sent to England, and so turned aside from their course, why should the Americans not suffer the blockade laid by France? Certainly France recognizes that these measures are unjust, illegal, and subversive of national sovereignty; but it is the duty of nations to resort to force, and to declare themselves against things which dishonor them and disgrace their independence."[*] But an invitation to enter the European maelstrom and battle for neutral rights made no impression upon the mild-tempered President.

[* Henry Adams, History of the United States, IV, p. 110.]

It is as clear as day that the British Government was now determined, under pretense of retaliating upon France, to promote British trade with the continent by every means and at the expense of neutrals. Another order-in-council, November 17, 1807, closed to neutrals all European ports under French control, "as if the same were actually blockaded," but permitted vessels which first entered a British port and obtained a British license to sail to any continental port. It was an order which, as Henry Adams has said, could have but one purpose--to make American commerce English. This was precisely the contemporary opinion of the historian's grandfather, who declared that the "orders-in-council, if submitted to, would have degraded us to the condition of colonists."

Only one more blow was needed, it would seem, to complete the ruin of American commerce. It fell a month later, when Napoleon, having overrun the Spanish peninsula and occupied Portugal, issued his Milan decree of December 17, 1807. Henceforth any vessel which submitted to search by English cruisers, or paid any tonnage duty or tax to the English Government, or sailed to or from any English port, would be captured and condemned as lawful prize. Such was to be the maritime code of France "until England should return to the principles of international law which are also those of justice and honor."

Never was a commercial nation less prepared to defend itself against depredations than the United States of America in this year 1807. For this unpreparedness many must bear the blame, but President Jefferson has become the scapegoat. This Virginia farmer and landsman was not only ignorant and distrustful of all the implements of war, but utterly unfamiliar with the ways of the sea and with the first principles of sea-power. The Tripolitan War seems to have inspired him with a single fixed idea--that for defensive purposes gunboats were superior to frigates and less costly. He set forth this idea in a special message to Congress (February 10, 1807), claiming to have the support of "professional men," among whom he mentioned Generals Wilkinson and Gates! He proposed the construction of two hundred of these gunboats, which would be distributed among the various exposed harbors, where in time of peace they would be hauled up on shore under sheds, for protection against sun and storm. As emergency arose these floating batteries were to be manned by the seamen and militia of the port. What appealed particularly to the President in this programme was the immunity it offered from "an excitement to engage in offensive maritime war." Gallatin would have modified even this plan for economy's sake. He would have constructed only one-half of the proposed fleet since the large seaports could probably build thirty gunboats in as many days, if an emergency arose. In extenuation of Gallatin's shortsightedness, it should be remembered that he was a native of Switzerland, whose navy has never ploughed many seas. It is less easy to excuse the rest of the President's advisers and the Congress which was beguiled into accepting this naive project. Nor did the Chesapeake outrage teach either Congress or the Administration a salutary lesson. On the contrary, when in October the news of the bombardment of Copenhagen had shattered the nerves of statesmen in all neutral countries, and while the differences with England were still unsettled, Jefferson and his colleagues decided to hold four of the best frigates in port and use them "as receptacles for enlisting seamen to fill the gunboats occasionally." Whom the gods would punish they first make mad!

The 17th of December was a memorable day in the annals of this Administration. Favorable tradewinds had brought into American ports a number of packets with news from Europe. The Revenge had arrived in New York with Armstrong's dispatches announcing Napoleon's purpose to enforce the Berlin decree; the Edward had reached Boston with British newspapers forecasting the order-in-council of the 11th of November. This news burst like a bomb in Washington where the genial President was observing with scientific detachment the operation of his policy of commercial coercion. The Non-Importation Act had just gone into effect. Jefferson immediately called his Cabinet together. All were of one mind. The impending order-in-council, it was agreed, left but one alternative. Commerce must be totally suspended until the full scope of these new aggressions could be ascertained. The President took a loose sheet of paper and drafted hastily a message to Congress, recommending an embargo in anticipation of the offensive British order. But the prudent Madison urged that it was better not to refer explicitly to the order and proposed a substitute which simply recommended "an immediate inhibition of the departure of our vessels from the ports of the United States," on the ground that shipping was likely to be exposed to greater dangers. Only Gallatin demurred: he would have preferred an embargo for a limited time. "I prefer war to a permanent embargo," he wrote next day. "Government prohibitions," he added significantly, "do always more mischief than had been calculated." But Gallatin was overruled and the message, in Madison's form, was sent to Congress on the following day. The Senate immediately passed the desired bill through three readings in a single day; the House confirmed this action after only two days of debate; and on the 22d of December, the President signed the Embargo Act.

What was this measure which was passed by Congress almost without discussion? Ostensibly it was an act for the protection of American ships, merchandise, and seamen. It forbade the departure of all ships for foreign ports, except vessels under the immediate direction of the President and vessels in ballast or already loaded with goods. Foreign armed vessels were exempted also as a matter of course. Coasting ships were to give bonds double the value of vessel and cargo to reland their freight in some port of the United States. Historians have discovered a degree of duplicity in the alleged motives for this act. How, it is asked, could protection of ships and seamen be the motive when all of Jefferson's private letters disclose his determination to put his theory of peaceable coercion to a practical test by this measure? The criticism is not altogether fair, for, as Jefferson would himself have replied, peaceable coercion was designed to force the withdrawal of orders-in-council and decrees that menaced the safety of ships and cargoes. The policy might entail some incidental hardships, to be sure, but the end in view was protection of American lives and property. Madison was not quite candid, nevertheless, when he assured the British Minister that the embargo was a precautionary measure only and not conceived with hostile intent.

Chimerical this policy seemed to many contemporaries; chimerical it has seemed to historians, and to us who have passed through the World War. Yet in the World War it was the possession of food stuffs and raw materials by the United States which gave her a dominating position in the councils of the Allies. Had her commerce in 1807 been as necessary to England and France as it was "at the very peak" of the World War, Thomas Jefferson might have proved that peaceable coercion is an effective alternative to war; but he overestimated the magnitude and importance of the carrying trade of the United States, and erred still more grievously in assuming that a public conscience existed which would prove superior to the temptation to evade the law. Jefferson dreaded war quite as much because of its concomitants as because of its inevitable brutality, quite as much because it tended to exalt government and to produce corruption as because it maimed bodies and sacrificed human lives. Yet he never took fully into account the possible accompaniments of his alternative to war. That the embargo would debauch public morals and make government arbitrary, he was to learn only by bitter experience and personal humiliation.

Just after the passage of this momentous act, Canning's special envoy, George Rose, arrived in the United States. A British diplomat of the better sort, with much dignity of manner and suave courtesy, he was received with more than ordinary consideration by the Administration. He was commissioned, every one supposed, to offer reparation for the Chesapeake affair. Even after he had notified Madison that his instructions bade him insist, as an indispensable preliminary, on the recall of the President's Chesapeake proclamation, he was treated with deference and assured that the President was prepared to comply, if he could do so without incurring the charge of inconsistency and disregard of national honor. Madison proposed to put a proclamation of recall in Rose's hands, duly signed by the President and dated so as to correspond with the day on which all differences should be adjusted. Rose consented to this course and the proclamation was delivered into his hands. He then divulged little by little his further instructions, which were such as no self-respecting administration could listen to with composure. Canning demanded a formal disavowal of Commodore Barron's conduct in encouraging deserters from His Majesty's service and harboring them on board his ship. "You will state," read Rose's instructions, "that such disavowals, solemnly expressed, would afford to His Majesty a satisfactory pledge on the part of the American Government that the recurrence of similar causes will not on any occasion impose on His Majesty the necessity of authorizing those means of force to which Admiral Berkeley has resorted without authority, but which the continued repetition of such provocations as unfortunately led to the attack upon the Chesapeake might render necessary, as a just reprisal on the part of His Majesty." No doubt Rose did his best to soften the tone of these instructions, but he could not fail to make them clear; and Madison, who had conducted these informal interviews, slowly awoke to the real nature of what he was asked to do. He closed further negotiations with the comment that the United States could not be expected "to make, as it were, an expiatory sacrifice to obtain redress, or beg for reparation." The Administration determined to let the disavowal of Berkeley suffice for the present and to allow the matter of reparation to await further developments. The coercive policy on which the Administration had now launched would, it was confidently believed, bring His Majesty's Government to terms.

The very suggestion of an embargo had an unexpected effect upon American shipmasters. To avoid being shut up in port, fleets of ships put out to sea half-manned, half-laden, and often without clearance papers. With freight rates soaring to unheard-of altitudes, ship-owners were willing to assume all the risks of the sea--British frigates included. So little did they appreciate the protection offered by a benevolent government that they assumed an attitude of hostility to authority and evaded the exactions of the law in every conceivable way. Under guise of engaging in the coasting trade, many a ship landed her cargo in a foreign port; a brisk traffic also sprang up across the Canadian border; and Amelia Island in St. Mary's River, Florida, became a notorious mart for illicit commerce. Almost at once Congress was forced to pass supplementary acts, conferring upon collectors of ports powers of inspection and regulation which Gallatin unhesitatingly pronounced both odious and dangerous. The President affixed his signature ruefully to acts which increased the army, multiplied the number of gunboats under construction, and appropriated a million and a quarter dollars to the construction of coast defenses and the equipment of militia. "This embargo act," he confessed, "is certainly the most embarrassing we ever had to execute. I did not expect a crop of so sudden and rank growth of fraud and open opposition by force could have grown up in the United States."

The worst feature of the experiment was its ineffectiveness. The inhibition of commerce had so slight an effect upon England that when Pinkney approached Canning with the proposal of a quid pro quo-- the United States to rescind the embargo, England to revoke her orders-in-council--he was told with biting sarcasm that "if it were possible to make any sacrifice for the repeal of the embargo without appearing to deprecate it as a measure of hostility, he would gladly have facilitated its removal "as a measure of inconvenient restriction upon the American people." By licensing American vessels, indeed, which had either slipped out of port before the embargo or evaded the collectors, the British Government was even profiting by this measure of restriction. It was these vagrant vessels which gave Napoleon his excuse for the Bayonne decree of April 17, 1808, when with a stroke of the pen he ordered the seizure of all American ships in French ports and swept property to the value of ten million dollars into the imperial exchequer. Since these vessels were abroad in violation of the embargo, he argued, they could not be American craft but must be British ships in disguise. General Armstrong, writing from Paris, warned the Secretary of State not to expect that the embargo would do more than keep the United States at peace with the belligerents. As a coercive measure, its effect was nil. "Here it is not felt, and in England . . . it is forgotten."

Before the end of the year the failure of the embargo was patent to every fair-minded observer. Men might differ ever so much as to the harm wrought by the embargo abroad; but all agreed that it was not bringing either France or England to terms, and that it was working real hardship at home. Federalists in New England, where nearly one-third of the ships in the carrying trade were owned, pointed to the schooners "rotting at their wharves," to the empty shipyards and warehouses, to the idle sailors wandering in the streets of port towns, and asked passionately how long they must be sacrificed to the theories of this charlatan in the White House. Even Southern Republicans were asking uneasily when the President would realize that the embargo was ruining planters who could not market their cotton and tobacco. And Republicans whose pockets were not touched were soberly questioning whether a policy that reduced the annual value of exports from $108,000,000 to $22,000,000, and cut the national revenue in half, had not been tested long enough.

Indications multiplied that "the dictatorship of Mr. Jefferson" was drawing to a close. In 1808, after the election of Madison as his successor, he practically abdicated as leader of his party, partly out of an honest conviction that he ought not to commit the President-elect by any positive course of action, and partly no doubt out of a less praiseworthy desire not to admit the defeat of his cherished principle. His abdication left the party without resolute leadership at a critical moment. Madison and Gallatin tried to persuade their party associates to continue the embargo until June, and then, if concessions were not forthcoming, to declare war; but they were powerless to hold the Republican majority together on this programme. Setting aside the embargo and returning to the earlier policy of non-intercourse, Congress adopted a measure which excluded all English and French vessels and imports, but which authorized the President to renew trade with either country if it should mend its ways. On March 1, 1809, with much bitterness of spirit, Thomas Jefferson signed the bill which ended his great experiment. Martha Jefferson once said of her father that he never gave up a friend or an opinion. A few months before his death, he alluded to the embargo, with the pathetic insistence of old age, as "a measure, which, persevered in a little longer . . . would have effected its object completely."

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