NEITHER WAR NOR PEACE: UNCLE SAM AND THE LITTLE CORPORAL
Historian Donald Hickey has rightfully labeled the War of 1812 as America’s “forgotten” conflict. The Anglo-American clash over rights and honor, impressment and expansion, reestablished Yankee pride and yielded the occasional hero, but produced no meaningful changes on the map of North America. Moreover, nettlesome Federalist dissent and the burning of Washington has done little to place the struggle in the forefront of patriotic lore. If the encounter with Britain has taken an historical back seat, contemporary relations with the France of Napoleon Bonaparte have been relegated to the trunk of the vehicle. With the exception of Clifford Egan’s pioneering modern study, Neither Peace Nor War: Franco-American Relations, 1803-1812 (1983), scholars addressing the era have focused upon John Bull and not the Little Corporal. Peter Hill’s earlier volumes, William Vans Murray and French Perceptions of the Early American Republic, 1783-1793 positions him perfectly to explore Franco-American relations in the Jefferson and Madison presidencies. Hill brings not only an expertise in the field to the topic, but offers a marvelous balance of primary sources and secondary works that indicates a thoroughness of scholarship old and new.
While academics acknowledge that relations with France proved annoying following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, few emphasize the declining state of affairs that led the Senate to come within two votes of a virtual state of war with France in 1812. The author gets to the root of the crisis. Why did Americans think that Napoleon treated them so badly? And, if he behaved callously, why did the Emperor believe the Americans deserved such treatment? In answering these questions, Hill carefully examines the roles played by leaders and diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic. In an era lacking in rapid transoceanic communication, their energy, subtlety, personality, intelligence, and language skills could help or hinder critical negotiations.
After the disastrous defeat of the French navy at Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon decided the British Lion would be brought to its knees by the implementation of a “Continental System” that denied European markets to English goods. Obviously, the control of neutral commerce by both sides became critical to the success of this policy. The United States, which hoped to advance the naïve notion of “free ships, free goods” in the midst of this titanic struggle, found itself whipsawed between the Emperor’s Berlin and Milan Decrees and the Crown’s Orders-in-Council. Both great powers repeatedly offended the United States, but fortunately for the French, the Royal Navy’s aggressive impressment of American sailors and the attack on the U.S.S. Chesapeake in 1807 opened the door for more intimate Franco-American relations.
Lurking in the shadows, too, particularly during the Jefferson presidency, remained the question of Florida. A new bonding with France might produce a cession of the Spanish-held peninsula. Jefferson hoped to use Napoleon as an agent to “persuade” Madrid to cede the Floridas-for a price, of course. The Emperor in turn seemed willing to cooperate in the scheme, but wanted an alliance with the Americans as partial payment for his facilitation. The plan, often considered between 1805 and 1808, broke down for a variety of reasons. Even so, Napoleon periodically held out the Florida carrot to encourage an American partnership.
The Emperor realized, as Hill stresses, that American foreign policy was driven not by principle, but by territorial and commercial self interest. Fully expecting the United States to declare war against Britain by 1808 for repeated violations of neutral rights, the perplexed Napoleon stood by and watched as the president and Congress passed numerous feeble, even humiliating, laws intended to rein in the Royal Navy. Perhaps worse, American merchants compromised his Continental System by shipping goods to Europe–in violation of both their own embargo and Napoleon’s edicts. The actions of both Washington and the merchants sent Napoleon’s estimation of the American character plummeting.
Franco-American relations suffered, too, from the weakness of their respective ministers. Louis Turreau seemed particularly ill-informed, while John Armstrong, obtuse and difficult at times, was labeled “an imbecile” by the Emperor. The personable Louis Serurier and intelligent, French-speaking Joel Barlow eventually brought new light to the diplomatic parlors in 1811. Unfortunately, a deliberate fuzziness initiated by the Cadore Letter of 1810 (did Napoleon ever formally revoke the Berlin and Milan Decrees?) dominated talks and frustrated Americans on both sides of the ocean. This subject assumed greater import as French vessels continued into 1812 to seize and/or burn at sea Yankee sail while Paris continued to reject indemnities and deny any legal responsibility. French foot-dragging frayed ties and doomed a possible treaty drawn up by Barlow, even as relations with Britain continued a downward slide towards war.
Importantly, Hill’s narrative reflects a legacy of mutual mistrust, suspicion, and lack of respect. Franco-American relations, which arguably should have grown warmer as both nations shared a common foe, never moved beyond tepid. Napoleon, arrogant and disdainful, delayed and shifted his policies and set unrealistic expectations for American behavior. Likewise, Congress must bear “a major share of the responsibility” for worsening French relations. Self-absorbed, Washington passed legislation aimed at restoring American commerce, not punishing the British Crown. Accordingly, the author argues that Napoleon’s “conduct was not altogether unjustified.”
Hill’s scholarship is impressive and his arguments are persuasive. He makes extensive use of French archival sources and provides a balanced interpretation that recognizes Washington’s culpability in Franco-American tensions. Quibbles, should they appear, will likely come from omissions, rather than commissions. The text rarely moves beyond the scene of formal relations between the two nations. Save the Savannah riots (1811), we hear little of the views of Americans beyond Washington and Paris. Likewise the personal attitudes of leading American politicians in and out of the administration are subdued. The period of the War of 1812 appears almost as an afterthought. Even so, this well-written, well-researched effort will deservedly take its place as the standard monograph on diplomatic relations between the two nations in the early republic.
John M. Belohlavek teaches nineteenth-century U. S. history at the University of South Florida and is the author of: George Mifflin Dallas: Jacksonian Patrician and “Let the Eagle Soar!”: The Foreign Policy of Andrew Jackson. His forthcoming book is entitled Broken Glass: Caleb Cushing and the Shattering of the Union.