On the 16th this letter was answered by the secretary of state, who, after acknowledging its receipt by the President, added, "I am desired to observe to you that it is not the established course for the diplomatic characters residing here to have any direct correspondence with him. The secretary of state is the organ through which their communications should pass.
"The President does not conceive it to be within the line of propriety or duty, for him to bear evidence against a declaration, which, whether made to him or others, is perhaps immaterial; he therefore declines interfering in the case."
Seldom has more conclusive testimony been offered of the ascendency which, in the conflicts of party, the passions maintain over reason, than was exhibited, on this occasion, by the zealous partisans of the French minister. It might have been expected that, content with questioning the fact, or with diverting the obloquy attending it from the French nation, no American would have been found hardy enough to justify it; and but few, to condemn those gentlemen by whose means it had reached the public ear. Nothing could be farther removed from this expectation, than the conduct that was actually observed. The censure merited by the expressions themselves fell, not upon the person who had used them, but upon those who had communicated them to the public. Writers of considerable political eminence, charged them as being members of a powerful faction who were desirous of separating America from France, and connecting her with England, for the purpose of introducing the British constitution.
As if no sin could equal the crime of disclosing to the people a truth which, by inducing reflection, might check the flood of that passion for France which was deemed the surest test of patriotism, the darkest motives were assigned for the disclosure, and the reputation of those who made it has scarcely been rescued by a lapse of years, and by a change of the subjects of controversy, from the peculiar party odium with which they were at the time overwhelmed.
Sentiments of a still more extraordinary nature were openly avowed. In a republican country, it was said, the people alone were the basis of government. All powers being derived from them, might, by them, be withdrawn at pleasure. They alone were the authors of the law, and to them alone, must the ultimate decision on the interpretation belong. From these delicate and popular truths, it was inferred, that the doctrine that the sovereignty of the nation resided in the departments of government was incompatible with the principles of liberty; and that, if Mr. Genet dissented from the interpretation given by the President to existing treaties, he might rightfully appeal to the real sovereign whose agent the President was, and to whom he was responsible for his conduct. Is the President, it was asked, a consecrated character, that an appeal from his decisions must be considered criminal? or are the people in such a state of monarchical degradation, that to speak of consulting them is an offence as great, as if America groaned under a dominion equally tyrannical with the old monarchy of France?
It was soon ascertained that Mr. Dallas, to whom this threat of appealing to the people had been delivered, did not admit that the precise words had been used. Mr. Genet then, in the coarsest terms, averred the falsehood of the certificate which had been published, and demanded from the attorney general, and from the government, that Mr. Jay and Mr. King should be indicted for a libel upon himself and his nation. That officer accompanied his refusal to institute this information with the declaration that any other gentleman of the profession, who might approve and advise the attempt, could be at no loss to point out a mode which would not require his intervention.
While the minister of the French republic thus loudly complained of the unparalleled injury he received from being charged with employing a particular exceptionable phrase, he seized every fair occasion to carry into full execution the threat which he denied having made. His letters, written for the purpose of publication, and actually published by himself, accused the executive, before the tribunal of the people, on those specific points, from its decisions respecting which he was said to have threatened the appeal. As if the offence lay, not in perpetrating the act, but in avowing an intention to perpetrate it, this demonstration of his designs did not render his advocates the less vehement in his support, nor the less acrimonious in reproaching the administration, as well as Mr. Jay and Mr. King.
Whilst insult was thus added to insult, the utmost vigilance of the executive officers was scarcely sufficient to maintain an observance of the rules which had been established for preserving neutrality in the American ports. Mr. Genet persisted in refusing to acquiesce in those rules; and fresh instances of attempts to violate them were continually recurring. Among these, was an outrage committed in Boston, too flagrant to be overlooked.
A schooner, brought as a prize into the port of Boston by a French privateer, was claimed by the British owner; who instituted proceedings at law against her, for the purpose of obtaining a decision on the validity of her capture. She was rescued from the possession of the marshal, by an armed force acting under the authority of Mr. Duplaine, the French consul, which was detached from a frigate then lying in port. Until the frigate sailed, she was guarded by a part of the crew; and, notwithstanding the determination of the American government that the consular courts should not exercise a prize jurisdiction within the territories of the United States, Mr. Duplaine declared his purpose to take cognizance of the case.
To this act of open defiance, it was impossible for the President to submit. The facts being well attested, the exequatur which had been granted to Mr. Duplaine was revoked, and he was forbidden further to exercise the consular functions. It will excite surprise that even this necessary measure could not escape censure. The self-proclaimed champions of liberty discovered in it a violation of the constitution, and a new indignity to France.
Mr. Genet did not confine his attempts to employ the force of America against the enemies of his country to maritime enterprises. On his first arrival, he is understood to have planned an expedition against the Floridas, to be carried on from Georgia; and another against Louisiana, to be carried on from the western parts of the United States. Intelligence was received that the principal officers were engaged; and the temper of the people inhabiting the western country was such as to furnish some ground for the apprehension, that the restraints which the executive was capable of imposing, would be found too feeble to prevent the execution of this plan. The remonstrances of the Spanish commissioners on this subject, however, were answered with explicit assurances that the government would effectually interpose to defeat any expedition from the territories of the United States against those of Spain; and the governor of Kentucky was requested to co-operate in frustrating this improper application of the military resources of his state.
It was not by the machinations of the French minister alone that the neutrality of the United States was endangered. The party which, under different pretexts, urged measures the inevitable tendency of which was war, derived considerable aid, in their exertions to influence the passions of the people, from the conduct of others of the belligerent powers. The course pursued both by Britain and Spain rendered the task of the executive still more arduous, by furnishing weapons to the enemies of neutrality, capable of being wielded with great effect.
The resentment excited by the rigour with which the maritime powers of Europe retained the monopoly of their colonial commerce, had, without the aid of those powerful causes which had lately been brought into operation, been directed peculiarly against Great Britain. These resentments had been greatly increased. That nation had not mitigated the vexations and inconveniences which war necessarily inflicts on neutral trade, by any relaxations in her colonial policy.
[Sidenote: Decree of the national convention relative to neutral commerce.]
To this rigid and repulsive system, that of France presented a perfect contrast. Either influenced by the politics of the moment, or suspecting that, in a contest with the great maritime nations of Europe, her commerce must search for security in other bottoms than her own, she opened the ports of her colonies to every neutral flag, and offered to the United States a new treaty, in which it was understood that every mercantile distinction between Americans and Frenchmen should be totally abolished.
With that hasty credulity which, obedient to the wishes, can not await the sober and deliberate decisions of the judgment, the Americans ascribed this change, and these propositions, to the liberal genius of freedom; and expected the new commercial and political systems to be equally durable. As if, in the term REPUBLIC, the avaricious spirit of commercial monopoly would lose its influence over men; as if the passions were to withdraw from the management of human affairs, and leave the helm to the guidance of reason, and of disinterested philanthropy; a vast proportion of the American people believed this novel system to be the genuine offspring of new-born liberty; and consequently expected that, from the success of the republican arms, a flood of untried good was to rush upon the world.
The avidity with which the neutral merchants pressed forward to reap the rich and tempting harvest offered to them by the regulations and the wants of France, presented a harvest not less rich and tempting to the cruisers of her enemies. Captures to a great extent were made, some with, others without, justifiable cause; and the irritations inseparable from disappointment in gathering the fruits of a gainful traffic, were extensively communicated to the agricultural part of society.
The vexations on the ocean to which neutrals are commonly exposed during war, were aggravated by a measure of the British cabinet, which war was not admitted to justify.
[Sidenote: British order of 1793.]
The vast military exertions of the French republic had carried many hands from their usual occupations, to the field; and the measures of government, added to the internal commotions, had discouraged labour by rendering its profits insecure. These causes, aided perhaps by unfavourable seasons, had produced a scarcity which threatened famine. This state of things suggested to their enemies the policy of increasing the internal distress, by cutting off the external supply. In execution of this plan, the British cruisers were instructed "to stop all vessels loaded wholly or in part with corn, flour, or meal, bound to any port in France, or any port occupied by the armies of France, and to send them to such ports as shall be most convenient, in order that such corn, meal, or flour, may be purchased on behalf of his majesty's government, and the ships be relieved after such purchase, and after a due allowance for freight; or that the masters of such ships on giving due security, to be approved by the court of admiralty, be permitted to proceed to dispose of their cargoes of corn, meal, or flour, in the ports of any country in amity with his majesty."
In the particular character of the war, and in the general expressions of some approved modern writers on the law of nations, the British government sought a justification of this strong measure. But by neutrals generally, it was deemed an unwarrantable invasion of their rights; and the remonstrances made against it by the American government in particular, were serious and earnest. This attempt to make a principle, which was understood to be applicable only to blockaded places, subservient to the impracticable plan of starving an immense agricultural nation, was resisted with great strength of reasoning by the administration; and added, not inconsiderably, to the resentment felt by the body of the people.
[Footnote 11: See note No. VI. at the end of the volume.]
Hostilities on the ocean disclosed still another source of irritation, which added its copious stream to the impetuous torrent which threatened to sweep America into the war that desolated Europe.
The British government had long been accustomed to resort to the practice of manning their fleet by impressment. The exercise of this prerogative had not been confined to the land. Merchantmen in their ports, and even at sea, were visited, and mariners were taken out of them, to be employed in the royal navy. The profits of trade enabling neutral merchants to give high wages, British sailors were tempted, in great numbers, to enter their service; but the neutral ship furnished no protection. Disregarding the bottom in which they sailed, the officers of the navy impressed them wherever found, often leaving scarcely hands enough to navigate the vessel into port.
The Americans were peculiarly exposed to the abuse to which such usages are liable. Descended from the same ancestors and speaking the same language, the distinction between them and the English, though in general sufficiently marked, was not always so visible as to prevent unintentional error; nor were the captains of ships of war, at all times, very solicitous to avoid mistake. Native Americans, therefore, were frequently impressed, and compelled to serve against the French republic.
The British cabinet disclaimed all pretensions to the impressment of real American citizens, and declared officially a willingness to discharge them, on the establishment of their citizenship. But time was necessary to procure the requisite testimonials; and those officers who had notoriously offended in this respect, were not so discountenanced by their government as to be deterred from a repetition of the offence. There was too, one class of citizens, concerning whose rights a difference of opinion prevailed, which has not even yet been adjusted. These were British subjects who had migrated to, and been adopted by, the United States.
The continuance of the Indian war added still another item to this catalogue of discontents.
The efforts of the United States to make a treaty with the savages of the Miamis had proved abortive. The Indians insisted on the Ohio as the boundary between them and the whites; and, although the American commissioners expressed a willingness to relinquish some of the lands purchased at the treaty of fort Harmar, and pressed them to propose some line between the boundary established by that treaty and the Ohio, they adhered inflexibly to their original demand.
It was extensively believed in America, and information collected from the Indians countenanced the opinion, that they were encouraged by the government of Canada to persevere in this claim, and that the treaty was defeated by British influence. The conviction was universal that this influence would continue so long as the posts south of the lakes should be occupied by British troops; and the uneasiness which the detention of those posts created, daily acquired strength. Unfortunately, the original pretext for detaining them was not yet removed. The courts of the United States had not yet declared that British debts contracted before the war, were recoverable. In one of the circuits, a decision had been recently made, partly favourable, and partly unfavourable, to the claim of the creditor. To this decision writs of error had been brought, and the case was pending before the supreme court. The motives therefore originally assigned for holding the posts on the lakes still remained; and, as it was a maxim with the executive "to place an adversary clearly in the wrong," and it was expected that the existing impediments to the fulfilment of the treaty on the part of the United States would soon be done away, it was thought unadviseable, had the military force of the union been equal to the object, to seize those posts, until their surrender could be required in consequence of a complete execution of the treaty. In the mean time, the British minister was earnestly pressed upon the subject.
This prudent conduct was far from being satisfactory to the people. Estimating at nothing, infractions made by themselves, and rating highly those committed by the opposite party, they would, in any state of things, have complained loudly of this act of the British government. But, agitated as they were by the various causes which were perpetually acting on their passions, it is not wonderful that an increased influence was given to this measure; that it should be considered as conclusive testimony of British hostility, and should add to the bitterness with which the government was reproached for attempting a system "alike friendly and impartial to the belligerent powers."
The causes of discontent which were furnished by Spain, though less the theme of public declamation, continued to be considerable.
The American ministers at Madrid could make no progress in their negotiation. The question of limits remained unsettled, and the Mississippi was still closed against the Americans. In addition to these subjects of disquiet, the southern states were threatened with war from the Creeks and Cherokees, who were, with good reason, believed to be excited to hostility by the Spanish government. Of these irritating differences, that which related to the Mississippi was far the most operative, and embarrassing. The imagination, especially when warmed by discontent, bestows on a good which is withheld, advantages much greater than the reality will justify; and the people of the western country were easily persuaded to believe that the navigation of the Mississippi was a mine of wealth which would at once enrich them. That jealousy which men so readily entertain of the views of those with whom they do not associate, had favoured the efforts made by the enemies of the administration, to circulate the opinion that an opposition of interests existed between the eastern and the western people, and that the endeavours of the executive to open their great river were feeble and insincere. At a meeting of the Democratic Society in Lexington, in Kentucky, this sentiment was unanimously avowed in terms of peculiar disrespect to the government; and a committee was appointed to open a correspondence with the inhabitants of the whole western country, for the purpose of uniting them on this all important subject, and of preparing on it a remonstrance to the President and congress of the United States, to be expressed "in the bold, decent and determined language, proper to be used by injured freemen when they address the servants of the people." They claimed much merit for their moderation in having thus long, out of regard to their government, and affection for their fellow citizens on the Atlantic, abstained from the use of those means which they possessed for the assertion of what they termed a natural and unalienable right; and seemed to indicate the opinion that this forbearance could not be long continued. Without regarding the determination of Spain in the case or the poverty of the means placed in the hands of the executive for inducing a change in this determination, they demanded from the government the free use of the Mississippi, as if only an act of the will was necessary to insure it to them. Not even the probability that the public and intemperate expression of these dangerous dispositions would perpetuate the evil, could moderate them. This restless uneasy temper gave additional importance to the project of an expedition against Louisiana, which had been formed by Mr. Genet.
These public causes for apprehending hostilities with Spain, were strengthened by private communications. The government had received intelligence from their ministers in Europe that propositions had been made by the cabinet of Madrid to that of London, the object of which was the United States. The precise nature of these propositions was not ascertained, but it was understood generally, that their tendency was hostile.
[Footnote 12: The state of affairs was so inauspicious to the continuance of peace that in a letter written in the month of June, to the secretary of war, the President thus expressed himself: "It is of great importance that this government should be fully informed of the Spanish force in the Floridas, the troops which have lately arrived, the number of their posts, and the strength and situation of each; together with such other circumstances as would enable it to adopt correspondent measures, in case we should, in spite of our endeavours to avoid it, get embroiled with that nation. It would be too improvident, might be too late, and certainly would be disgraceful, to have this information to obtain when our plans ought to be formed." After suggesting the propriety of making the proper inquiries in a particular channel, he added, "I point you to the above as one source only of information. My desire to obtain knowledge of these facts leads me to request with equal earnestness, that you would improve every other to ascertain them with certainty. No reasonable expense should be spared to accomplish objects of such magnitude in times so critical."]
Thus unfavourable to the pacific views of the executive were the circumstances under which congress was to assemble.
Meeting of congress.... President's speech.... His message on the foreign relations of the United States.... Report of the Secretary of State on the commerce of the United States.... He resigns.... Is succeeded by Mr. Randolph.... Mr. Madison's resolutions founded on the above report.... Debate thereon.... Debates on the subject of a navy.... An embargo law.... Mission of Mr. Jay to Great Britain.... Inquiry into the conduct of the Secretary of the Treasury, terminates honourably to him.... Internal taxes.... Congress adjourns.
[Sidenote: Meeting of Congress.]
A malignant fever, believed to be infectious, had, through part of the summer and autumn, severely afflicted the city of Philadelphia, and dispersed the officers of the executive government. Although the fear of contagion was not entirely dispelled when the time for the meeting of congress arrived, yet, such was the active zeal of parties, and such the universal expectation that important executive communications would be made, and that legislative measures not less important would be founded on them, that both houses were full on the first day, and a joint committee waited on the President with the usual information that they were ready to receive his communications.
On the fourth of December, at twelve, the President met both houses in the senate chamber. His speech was moderate, firm, dignified, and interesting. It commenced with his own re-election, his feelings at which were thus expressed—
[Sidenote: President's speech.]
"Since the commencement of the term for which I have been again called into office, no fit occasion has arisen for expressing to my fellow-citizens at large, the deep and respectful sense which I feel of the renewed testimony of public approbation. While on the one hand, it awakened my gratitude for all those instances of affectionate partiality with which I have been honoured by my country; on the other, it could not prevent an earnest wish for that retirement, from which no private consideration could ever have torn me. But, influenced by the belief that my conduct would be estimated according to its real motives, and that the people, and the authorities derived from them, would support exertions having nothing personal for their object, I have obeyed the suffrage which commanded me to resume the executive power; and I humbly implore that Being on whose will the fate of nations depends, to crown with success our mutual endeavours for the general happiness."
Passing to those measures which had been adopted by the executive for the regulation of its conduct towards the belligerent nations, he observed, "as soon as the war in Europe had embraced those powers with whom the United States have the most extensive relations, there was reason to apprehend that our intercourse with them might be interrupted, and our disposition for peace drawn into question by suspicions too often entertained by belligerent nations. It seemed therefore to be my duty to admonish our citizens of the consequence of a contraband trade, and of hostile acts to any of the parties; and to obtain, by a declaration of the existing state of things, an easier admission of our rights to the immunities belonging to our situation. Under these impressions the proclamation which will be laid before you was issued.
"In this posture of affairs, both new and delicate, I resolved to adopt general rules which should conform to the treaties, and assert the privileges of the United States. These were reduced into a system, which shall be communicated to you."
After suggesting those legislative provisions on this subject, the necessity of which had been pointed out by experience, he proceeded to say,
"I can not recommend to your notice measures for the fulfilment of our duties to the rest of the world, without again pressing upon you the necessity of placing ourselves in a condition of complete defence, and of exacting from them the fulfilment of their duties towards us. The United States ought not to indulge a persuasion that, contrary to the order of human events, they will forever keep at a distance those painful appeals to arms with which the history of every nation abounds. There is a rank due to the United States among nations which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness. If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace—one of the most powerful instruments of our prosperity—it must be known that we are, at all times, ready for war."
These observations were followed by a recommendation to augment the supply of arms and ammunition in the magazines, and to improve the militia establishment.
After referring to a communication to be subsequently made for occurrences relative to the connexion of the United States with Europe, which had, he said, become extremely interesting; and after reviewing Indian affairs, he particularly addressed the house of representatives. Having presented to them in detail some subjects of which it was proper they should be informed, he added;—"no pecuniary consideration is more urgent than the regular redemption and discharge of the public debt; on none can delay be more injurious, or an economy of time more valuable.
"The productiveness of the public revenues hitherto has continued to be equal to the anticipations which were formed of it; but it is not expected to prove commensurate with all the objects which have been suggested. Some auxiliary provisions will therefore, it is presumed, be requisite; and it is hoped that these may be made consistently with a due regard to the convenience of our citizens, who can not but be sensible of the true wisdom of encountering a small present addition to their contributions, to obviate a future accumulation of burdens."
The speech was concluded with the following impressive exhortation:
"The several subjects to which I have now referred, open a wide range to your deliberations, and involve some of the choicest interests of our common country. Permit me to bring to your remembrance the magnitude of your task. Without an unprejudiced coolness, the welfare of the government may be hazarded; without harmony, as far as consists with freedom of sentiment, its dignity may be lost. But, as the legislative proceedings of the United States will never, I trust, be reproached for the want of temper, or of candour, so shall not the public happiness languish from the want of my strenuous and warmest co-operation."
[Sidenote: His message on the subject of the foreign relations of the United States.]
The day succeeding that on which this speech was delivered, a special message was sent to both houses, containing some of the promised communications relative to the connexion of the United States with foreign powers.
After suggesting as a motive for this communication that it not only disclosed "matter of interesting inquiry to the legislature," but, "might indeed give rise to deliberations to which they alone were competent;" the President added—"the representative and executive bodies of France have manifested generally a friendly attachment to this country; have given advantages to our commerce and navigation; and have made overtures for placing these advantages on permanent ground. A decree, however, of the national assembly, subjecting vessels laden with provisions to be carried into their ports, and making enemy goods lawful prize in the vessel of a friend, contrary to our treaty, though revoked at one time as to the United States, has been since extended to their vessels also, as has been recently stated to us. Representations on the subject will be immediately given in charge to our minister there, and the result shall be communicated to the legislature.
"It is with extreme concern I have to inform you that the person whom they have unfortunately appointed their minister plenipotentiary here, has breathed nothing of the friendly spirit of the nation which sent him. Their tendency on the contrary has been to involve us in a war abroad and discord and anarchy at home. So far as his acts, or those of his agents, have threatened an immediate commitment in the war, or flagrant insult to the authority of the laws, their effect has been counteracted by the ordinary cognizance of the laws, and by an exertion of the powers confided to me. Where their danger was not imminent, they have been borne with, from sentiments of regard to his nation, from a sense of their friendship towards us, from a conviction that they would not suffer us to remain long exposed to the actions of a person who has so little respected our mutual dispositions, and, I will add, from a reliance on the firmness of my fellow-citizens in their principles of peace and order. In the mean time I have respected and pursued the stipulations of our treaties, according to what I judged their true sense; and have withheld no act of friendship which their affairs have called for from us, and which justice to others left us free to perform. I have gone further. Rather than employ force for the restitution of certain vessels which I deemed the United States bound to restore, I thought it more adviseable to satisfy the parties by avowing it to be my opinion, that, if restitution were not made, it would be incumbent on the United States to make compensation."
The message next proceeded to state that inquiries had been instituted respecting the vexations and spoliations committed on the commerce of the United States, the result of which when received would be communicated.
The order issued by the British government on the 8th of June, and the measures taken by the executive of the United States in consequence thereof, were briefly noticed; and the discussions which had taken place in relation to the non-execution of the treaty of peace were also mentioned. The message was then concluded with a reference to the negotiations with Spain. "The public good," it was said, "requiring that the present state of these should be made known to the legislature in confidence only, they would be the subject of a separate and subsequent communication."
This message was accompanied with copies of the correspondence between the secretary of state and the French minister, on the points of difference which subsisted between the two governments, together with several documents necessary for the establishment of particular facts; and with the letter written by Mr. Jefferson to Mr. Morris, which justified the conduct of the United States by arguments too clear to be misunderstood, and too strong ever to be encountered.
The extensive discussions which had taken place relative to the non-execution of the treaty of peace, and the correspondence produced by the objectionable measures which had been adopted by the British government during the existing war, were also laid before the legislature.
In a popular government, the representatives of the people may generally be considered as a mirror, reflecting truly the passions and feelings which govern their constituents. In the late elections, the strength of parties had been tried; and the opposition had derived so much aid from associating the cause of France with its own principles, as to furnish much reason to suspect that, in one branch of the legislature at least, it had become the majority. The first act of the house of representatives served to strengthen this suspicion. By each party a candidate for the chair was brought forward; and Mr. Muhlenberg, who was supported by the opposition, was elected by a majority of ten votes, against Mr. Sedgewick, whom the federalists supported.
The answer, however, to the speech of the President, wore no tinge of that malignant and furious spirit which had infused itself into the publications of the day. Breathing the same affectionate attachment to his person and character which had been professed in other times, and being approved by every part of the house, it indicated that the leaders, at least, still venerated their chief magistrate, and that no general intention as yet existed, to involve him in the obloquy directed against his measures.
Noticing that unanimous suffrage by which he had been again called to his present station, "it was," they said, "with equal sincerity and promptitude they embraced the occasion for expressing to him their congratulations on so distinguished a testimony of public approbation, and their entire confidence in the purity and patriotism of the motives which had produced this obedience to the voice of his country. It is," proceeded the address, "to virtues which have commanded long and universal reverence, and services from which have flowed great and lasting benefits that the tribute of praise may be paid without the reproach of flattery; and it is from the same sources that the fairest anticipations may be derived in favour of the public happiness."
The proclamation of neutrality was approved in guarded terms, and the topics of the speech were noticed in a manner which indicated dispositions cordially to co-operate with the executive.
On the part of the senate also, the answer to the speech was unfeignedly affectionate. In warm terms they expressed the pleasure which the re-election of the President gave them. "In the unanimity," they added, "which a second time marks this important national act, we trace with particular satisfaction, besides the distinguished tribute paid to the virtues and abilities which it recognizes, another proof of that discernment, and constancy of sentiments and views, which have hitherto characterized the citizens of the United States." Speaking of the proclamation, they declared it to be "a measure well timed and wise, manifesting a watchful solicitude for the welfare of the nation, and calculated to promote it."
In a few days, a confidential message was delivered, communicating the critical situation of affairs with Spain. The negotiations attempted with that power in regard to the interesting objects of boundary, navigation, and commerce, had been exposed to much delay and embarrassment, in consequence of the changes which the French revolution had effected in the political state of Europe. Meanwhile, the neighborhood of the Spanish colonies to the United States had given rise to various other subjects of discussion, one of which had assumed a very serious aspect.
Having the best reason to suppose that the hostility of the southern Indians was excited by the agents of Spain, the President had directed the American commissioners at Madrid to make the proper representations on the subject, and to propose that each nation should, with good faith, promote the peace of the other with their savage neighbours.
About the same time, the Spanish government entertained, or affected to entertain, corresponding suspicions of like hostile excitements by the agents of the United States, to disturb their peace with the same nations. The representations which were induced by these real or affected suspicions, were accompanied with pretensions, and made in a style, to which the American executive could not be inattentive. His Catholic Majesty asserted these claims as a patron and protector of those Indians. He assumed a right to mediate between them and the United States, and to interfere in the establishment of their boundaries. At length, in the very moment when those savages were committing daily inroads on the American frontier, at the instigation of Spain, as was believed, the representatives of that power, complaining of the aggressions of American citizens on the Indians, declared "that the continuation of the peace, good harmony, and perfect friendship of the two nations, was very problematical for the future, unless the United States should take more convenient measures, and of greater energy than those adopted for a long time past."
Notwithstanding the zeal and enthusiasm with which the pretensions of the French republic, as asserted by their minister, continued to be supported out of doors, they found no open advocate in either branch of the legislature. That this circumstance is, in a great measure, to be ascribed to the temperate conduct of the executive, and to the convincing arguments with which its decisions were supported, ought not to be doubted. But when it is recollected that the odium which these decisions excited, sustained no diminution; that the accusation of hostility to France and to liberty, which originated in them, was not retracted; that, when afterwards many of the controverted claims were renewed by France, her former advocates still adhered to her; it is not unreasonable to suppose that other considerations mingled themselves with the conviction which the correspondence laid before the legislature was calculated to produce.
An attack on the administration could be placed on no ground more disadvantageous than on its controversy with Mr. Genet. The conduct and language of that minister were offensive to reflecting men of all parties. The President had himself taken so decisive a part in favour of the measures which had been adopted, that they must be ascribed to him, not to his cabinet; and, of consequence, the whole weight of his personal character must be directly encountered, in an attempt to censure those measures. From this censure it would have been difficult to extricate the person who was contemplated by the party in opposition as its chief; for the secretary of state had urged the arguments of the administration with a degree of ability and earnestness, which ought to have silenced the suspicion that he might not feel their force.
The expression of a legislative opinion, in favour of the points insisted on by the French minister, would probably have involved the nation in a calamitous war, the whole responsibility for which would rest on them.
To these considerations was added another which could not be disregarded. The party in France, to which Mr. Genet owed his appointment, had lost its power; and his fall was the inevitable consequence of the fall of his patrons. That he would probably be recalled was known in America; and that his conduct had been disapproved by his government was generally believed. The future system of the French republic, with regard to the United States, could not be foreseen; and it would be committing something to hazard, not to wait its development.
These objections did not exist to an indulgence of the partialities and prejudices of the nation towards the belligerent powers, in measures suggested by its resentment against Great Britain. But, independent of these considerations, it is scarcely possible to doubt that congress really approved the conduct of the executive with regard to France, and was also convinced that a course of hostility had been pursued by Great Britain, which the national interest and the national honour required them to repel. In the irritable state of the public temper, it was not difficult to produce this opinion.
In addition to the causes of dissatisfaction with Great Britain which have already been suggested, others soon occurred. Under her auspices, a truce for one year had been lately negotiated between Portugal and the Regency of Algiers, which, by withdrawing a small squadron stationed during the war, by the former power, in the Streights, opened a passage into the Atlantic to the cruisers of the latter. The capture of American merchantmen, which was the immediate consequence of this measure, was believed, in the United States, to have been its motive. Not admitting the possibility that a desire to extricate Portugal from a war unproductive of any advantages, and to leave her maritime force free to act elsewhere, could have induced this interposition of England, the Americans ascribed it, exclusively, to that enmity to their commerce, and to that jealousy of its prosperity, which had, as they conceived, long marked the conduct of those who administered the affairs of that nation.
This transaction was afterwards explained by England, and was ascribed to her desire to serve an ally, and to enable that ally to act more efficaciously in a common cause.
[Illustration: George Washington
From the painting by Charles Willson Peale.
In June, 1783, Washington spent some time in Princeton, New Jersey, whither the Continental Congress had adjourned from Philadelphia in consequence of a mutiny among the unpaid troops stationed there. On leaving Princeton the American Commander-in-Chief donated 50 guineas to the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. The trustees spent the money on this portrait and had it put in the frame formerly occupied by a picture of King George III, which was destroyed by a cannon ball in the Battle of Princeton. This canvas still hangs in the Princeton Faculty room.
By Courtesy of Princeton University]
From governments accustomed to trust rather to artifice, than to force or to reason, and influenced by vindictive passions which they have not strength or courage to gratify, hostility may be expected to exert itself in a cruel insidious policy, which unfeelingly dooms individuals to chains, and involves them in ruin, without having a tendency to effect any national object. But the British character rather wounds by its pride, and offends by its haughtiness, and open violence, than injures by the secret indulgence of a malignant, but a paltry and unprofitable revenge: and, certainly, such unworthy motives ought not lightly to be imputed to a great and magnanimous nation, which dares to encounter a world, and risk its existence, for the preservation of its station in the scale of empires, of its real independence, and of its liberty.
But, in believing the views of the British cabinet to be unfriendly to the United States, America was perhaps not entirely mistaken. Indeed, dispositions of a different nature could not reasonably have been expected. It may be denied, but can not be disguised, that the sentiments openly expressed by a great majority of the American people, warranted the opinion that, notwithstanding the exertions of the administration, they were about to arrange themselves, in the war, on the side of France. In a government like that of the United States, no firmness on the part of the chief magistrate can long resist the current of popular opinion; and that opinion, without professing it, unquestionably led to war.
If the character of the British minister at Philadelphia is to be collected from his intercourse with the executive of the country to which he was deputed, there is reason to suppose that his communications to his own government did not diminish the impression which the evidence furnished on this subject, by the American people themselves, was calculated to make. It is therefore not improbable, whatever may be the permanent views of England respecting the commercial prosperity of the United States, that the measures of the British cabinet, about this time, were taken in the belief that war between the two nations was a probable event.
[Sidenote: Report of the secretary of state in relation to the commerce of the United States.]
Early in the session a report was made by the secretary of state, in pursuance of a resolution of the house of representatives passed on the 23d of February, 1791, requiring him "to report to congress the nature and extent of the privileges and restrictions of the commercial intercourse of the United States with foreign nations, and the measures which he should think proper to be adopted for the improvement of the commerce and navigation of the same."
This report stated the exports of the United States in articles of their own produce and manufacture at nineteen millions, five hundred and eighty-seven thousand, and fifty-five dollars; and the imports at nineteen millions, eight hundred and twenty-three thousand, and sixty dollars.
Of the exports, nearly one-half was carried to the kingdom of Great Britain and its dominions; of the imports, about four-fifths were brought from the same countries. The American shipping amounted to two hundred and seventy-seven thousand, five hundred and nineteen tons, of which not quite one-sixth was employed in the trade with Great Britain and its dominions.
In all the nations of Europe, most of the articles produced in the United States were subjected to heavy duties, and some of them were prohibited. In England, the trade of the United States was in the general on as good a footing as the trade of other countries; and several articles were more favoured than the same articles of the growth of other countries.
The statements and arguments of this report tended to enforce the policy of making discriminations which might favour the commerce of the United States with France, and discourage that with England; and which might promote the increase of American navigation as a branch of industry, and a resource of defence.
This was the last official act of the secretary of state. Early in the preceding summer, he had signified to the President his intention to retire in September from the public service; and had, with some reluctance, consented to postpone the execution of this intention to the close of the year. Retaining his purpose, he resigned his office on the last day of December.
[Sidenote: He resigns.]
This gentleman withdrew from political station at a moment when he stood particularly high in the esteem of his countrymen. His determined opposition to the financial schemes which had been proposed by the secretary of the treasury, and approved by the legislative and executive departments of the government; his ardent and undisguised attachment to the revolutionary party in France; the dispositions which he was declared to possess in regard to Great Britain; and the popularity of his opinions respecting the constitution of the United States; had devoted to him that immense party whose sentiments were supposed to comport with his, on most, or all of these interesting subjects. To the opposite party he had, of course, become particularly unacceptable. But the publication of his correspondence with Mr. Genet dissipated much of the prejudice which had been excited against him. He had, in that correspondence, maintained with great ability the opinions embraced by the federalists on those points of difference which had arisen between the two republics; and which, having become universally the subjects of discussion, had in some measure displaced those topics on which parties were previously divided. The partiality for France that was conspicuous through the whole of it, detracted nothing from its merit in the opinion of the friends of the administration, because, however decided their determination to support their own government in a controversy with any nation whatever, they felt all the partialities for that republic which the correspondence expressed. The hostility of his enemies therefore was, for a time, considerably lessened, without a corresponding diminution of the attachment of his friends. It would have been impracticable, in office, long to preserve these dispositions. And it would have been difficult to maintain that ascendency which he held over the minds of those who had supported, and probably would continue to support, every pretension of the French republic, without departing from principles and measures which he had openly and ably defended.
[Sidenote: Is succeeded by Mr. Randolph.]
He was immediately succeeded by Mr. Edmund Randolph; and the office of attorney general was filled by Mr. William Bradford, a gentleman of considerable eminence in Pennsylvania.
On the fourth of January, the house resolved itself into a committee of the whole, on the report of the secretary of state, relative to the privileges and restrictions of the commerce of the United States; when Mr. Madison, after some prefatory observations, laid on the table a series of resolutions for the consideration of the members.
[Footnote 13: See note No. VII. at the end of the volume.]
[Sidenote: Mr. Madison's resolutions founded on the above report.]
These memorable resolutions embraced almost completely the idea of the report. They imposed an additional duty on the manufactures, and on the tonnage of vessels, of nations having no commercial treaty with the United States; while they reduced the duties already imposed by law, on the tonnage of vessels belonging to nations having such commercial treaty: and they reciprocated the restrictions which were imposed on American navigation.
[Sidenote: Debate thereon.]
On the 13th of January they were taken into consideration, when the debate was opened by Mr. Smith of South Carolina.
After noticing the importance of the subject to the best interests of the United States, he observed that, being purely commercial in its nature, he would exclude from the view he should take of it, those political considerations which some might think connected with it. He imagined it would be right to dismiss, for the present, all questions respecting the Indians, Algerines, and western posts. There would be a time for these questions; and then he should give his opinion upon them with firmness, and according to what he conceived to be the true interests of his country. The regulation of commerce gave of itself sufficient scope for argument, without mixing it with extraneous matter.
After some general observations on the delicacy of the crisis, and on the claims of the resolutions to dispassionate investigation, he proceeded to consider the report on which they were founded.
The great object of that report being to establish a contrast between France and Britain, he would request the attention of the committee to an accurate statement of facts, which, being compared with the report, would enable them to decide on the justness of its inferences.
In the opinion that any late relaxations of the French republic were produced by interests too momentary and fluctuating to be taken as the basis of calculations for a permanent system, he should present a comparative view of the commerce of the United States to those countries, as it stood anterior to the revolution of France. For this purpose, he produced a table which had been formed by a person whose commercial information was highly respectable, from which he said it would appear, notwithstanding the plaudits so generally bestowed on the justice and liberality of the one nation, and the reproaches uttered against the other, that, with the exception of the trifling article of fish oil, the commerce of the United States was not more favoured in France than in Great Britain, and was, in many important articles, more favoured by the latter power, than that of other nations.
Mr. Smith then reviewed, in detail, the advantages and disadvantages attending the sale of the great products of America in the ports of each nation, which, he conceived, were more encouraged by the British than by the French market.
A comparative statement, he added, of the value of the exports of the two countries, would assist in confirming this opinion.
The value of the exports to Great Britain, at the close of the year ending with September, 1789, was nearly double those made to France in the same period: and even the average of the years 1790, 1791 and 1792, gave an annual excess to the exports to Great Britain of three millions, seven hundred and fifty-two thousand, seven hundred and sixty dollars.
The great amount of merchandise imported from Britain, instead of being a grievance, demonstrated, in the opinion of Mr. Smith, the utility of the trade with that country. For the extent of the intercourse between the two nations, several obvious reasons might be assigned. Britain was the first manufacturing country in the world, and was more able, than any other, to supply an assortment of those articles which were required in the United States. She entitled herself, too, to the preference which was given her, by the extensive credit she afforded. To a young country wanting capital, credit was of immense advantage. It enabled them to flourish by the aid of foreign capital, the use of which had, more than any other circumstance, nourished the industry of America.
By the advocates for forcing a trade with France, it was asserted that she could supply the wants of America on better terms than Great Britain. To do this, she must not only sell cheaper, but give credit, which, it was known her merchants either could not, or would not give.
The very necessity of laying a duty on British manufactures, in order to find a sale for those of other countries, was a proof that the first could be purchased on better terms, or were better adapted to the market.
If the object of the resolutions were the encouragement of domestic manufactures, there might be some semblance of argument in their favour. But this is not contemplated. Their avowed object is to turn the course of trade from one nation to another, by means which would subject the citizens of the United States to great inconvenience.
Mr. Smith next proceeded to consider the subject with a view to navigation.
The trade of the United States to Great Britain, for the transportation of their own produce, was as free in American as in British bottoms, a few trifling port charges excepted. In France, they enjoyed the advantages granted to the most favoured nation. Thus far the comparison was in favour of Great Britain. In the West Indies, he admitted the existence of a different state of things. All American bottoms were excluded from the British islands, with the exception of Turks island. In the French islands, vessels under sixty tons were admitted, but this advantage was common to all other nations.
The effect of the difference in the regulations of the two rival nations in respect of navigation, was not so considerable as the secretary of state had supposed. He had stated the tonnage employed in the intercourse with France and her colonies, at 116,410 tons; and that employed in the commerce with Great Britain at 43,580 tons. The secretary was led into this miscalculation by taking for his guide, the actual entries of American bottoms from the dominions of each country in the year. As four voyages are made to the West Indies, while only two are made to Europe, the vessels employed in the former traffic will be counted four times in the year, and those employed in the latter will be counted only twice in the same period. The deceptiveness of the calculations made from these data had induced a call on the secretary of the treasury for an account of the actual tonnage employed in trade with foreign nations for one year. This account shows that France employs 82,510 tons, and Great Britain 66,582 tons, of American shipping; leaving in favour of France, an excess of 15,928, instead of 72,830 tons, as reported by the secretary of state.
From this comparative view taken of the regulations of the two nations, Mr. Smith conceived himself justified in saying, that the commercial system of Great Britain towards the United States, far from being hostile, was friendly; and that she made many discriminations in their favour. France, on the contrary, placed them on a better situation than her rival, only in one solitary instance, the unimportant article of fish oil.
If this be a true picture of the existing state of things, and he could not perceive in what it was defective, was it not time, he asked, that the deceptions practised on the people by the eulogists of France and the revilers of Great Britain, should be removed?
The resolutions were supported by Mr. Madison, Mr. Findley, Mr. Nicholas, Mr. Clarke, Mr. Smiley, Mr. Moore, and Mr. Giles.
They admitted the subject before the committee to be of a commercial nature, but conceived it to be impracticable to do justice to the interests of the United States, without some allusions to politics. The question was in some measure general. They were to inquire how far it was the interest of this country by commercial regulations to vary the state of commerce now existing. They were of opinion that most of the injuries proceeding from Great Britain were inflicted for the promotion of her commercial objects, and were to be remedied by commercial resistance. The Indian war, and the Algerine attack, originated both in commercial views, or Great Britain must stand without excuse for instigating the most horrid cruelties. The propositions before the committee were the strongest weapon America possessed, and would, more probably than any other, restore her to all her political and commercial rights. They professed themselves the friends of free trade, and declared the opinion that it would be to the general advantage, if all commerce was free. But this rule was not without its exceptions. The navigation act of Great Britain was a proof of the effect of one exception on the prosperity of national commerce. The effect produced by that act was equally rapid and extensive.
There is another exception to the advantages of a free trade, where the situation of a country is such with respect to another, that by duties on the commodities of that other, it shall not only invigorate its own means of rivalship, but draw from that other the hands employed in the production of those commodities. When such an effect can be produced, it is so much clear gain, and is consistent with the general theory of national rights.
The effect of leaving commerce to regulate itself is to submit it to the regulation of other nations. If the United States had a commercial intercourse with one nation only, and should permit a free trade, while that nation proceeded on a monopolizing system, would not the carrying trade be transferred to that nation, and with it, the maritime strength it confers be heaped upon a rival? Then, in the same proportion to the freedom granted to the vessels of other nations in the United States, and to the burdens other nations impose on American vessels, will be the transfer of those maritime resources.
The propositions before the committee should be examined as they concern navigation, manufactures, and the just principles of discrimination that ought to prevail in their policy to nations having treaties with them.
With respect to navigation, it was conceded that they were not placed upon the same footing by the two nations with whom they had the greatest commercial intercourse. British vessels could bring the produce of all countries into any port of the United States; while American vessels could carry to the ports of Britain only their own commodities, and those only to a part of her dominions. From her ports in the West Indies they were entirely excluded.
To exhibit at a glance the effect of the British navigation act, it was sufficient to compare the quantity of American and British tonnage employed in their intercourse with each other. The former in 1790 amounted to 43,000 tons, and the latter to 240,000 tons. The effect of British policy would be further shown by showing the proportion of domestic tonnage employed at the same time in the intercourse with other European nations. With Spain the American was to the Spanish as five to one, with Portugal six to one, Netherlands fifteen to one, Denmark twelve to one, France five to one, Great Britain one to five. This ratio had by particular circumstances been somewhat changed. From calculations founded on the documents last introduced into the house, it appeared that, at present, the proportion of American to foreign tonnage employed in the American trade was, with Spain as sixteen to one, Portugal seventeen to one, Netherlands twenty-six to one, Denmark fifteen to one, Russia fourteen to one, France between four and five to one, and Great Britain one to three.
The situation of American commerce was the more mortifying when the nature and amount of their exports came to be considered. They were not only necessaries of life, or necessaries for manufactures, and therefore of life to the manufacturer, but their bulkiness gave them an advantage over the exports of every other country. If America, to increase her maritime strength, should secure to herself the transportation of her own commodities, leaving to other nations the transportation of theirs, it would greatly augment the proportion of her shipping and of her sailors.
In relation to manufactures, the regulations existing between the United States and Great Britain were not more equal. Out of the whole amount of manufactured articles imported into this country, which was stated in round numbers at fifteen millions, two hundred and ninety thousand dollars, Great Britain furnished thirteen millions, nine hundred and sixty thousand. In the same period, in the year 1789-90, the articles which the United States received from France, a country which actually consumed more of their produce, amounted only to one hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars. The balance of trade, at the same epoch, was greatly in favour of the United States with every other nation, and greatly against them with Britain. Although it might happen in some cases, that other advantages might be derived from an intercourse with a particular nation, which might compensate for an unfavourable balance of trade, it was impossible that this could happen in the intercourse with Great Britain. Other nations, however, viewed a balance of trade against them as a real evil; and Great Britain, in particular, was careful to prevent it. What then must be the feelings of a nation, between whom and the United States the most friendly relations existed, when she saw, not only the balance of trade against her, but that what was thus obtained from her, flowed in the same manner into the coffers of one of her most jealous rivals, and inveterate enemies?
The propriety of discriminating between nations having treaties with the United States, and those having none, was admitted in some states before the establishment of the present government, and was sanctioned by that house during their sittings in New York. It was the practice of nations to make such a discrimination. It was necessary to give value to treaties.
The disadvantages of depending on a single nation for articles of necessary consumption was strongly pressed; and it was added as an evil of most serious magnitude, more truly alarming than any other of its features, that this commercial dependence produced an influence in their councils which enabled it, the more inconvenient it became by its constant growth, to throw the more obstacles in the way of a necessary remedy.
They entertained no apprehensions of injurious consequences from adopting the proposed resolutions. The interests of Great Britain would not suffer her to retaliate: and the intercourse between the two countries would not be interrupted further than was required by the convenience and the interests of the United States. But if Great Britain should retaliate, the effects of a commercial conflict would be felt by her, much more sensibly, than by the United States. Its effects would be felt in the shipping business, by the merchants, and above all by the manufacturer.
Calculations were offered, by comparing the total amount of British exports with those to the United States, to prove, that three hundred thousand British manufacturers would be suddenly thrown out of employment, by withdrawing the trade carried on between America and that country. In the complication of distress to which such a measure would reduce them, they would consider the United States as a natural asylum from wretchedness. But whether they remained in discontent at home, or sought their fortune abroad, the evil would be considered and felt by the British government as equally great, and they would surely beware of taking any step that might provoke it.
On the advantages of America in such a contest with a populous and manufacturing country, they dwelt with peculiar earnestness. She produced all the necessaries of life within herself, and could dispense with the articles received from others. But Great Britain, not producing them in sufficient abundance, was dependent on the United States for the supply of her most essential wants. Again, the manufacturer of that country was dependent on this for the sale of his merchandise which was to purchase his bread. Thus was produced a double dependence of Great Britain on the United States. She was also dependent on them for the raw materials which formed the basis of her manufactures. Her West Indies were almost completely dependent. This country furnished the best market for their productions, and was almost the only one which could supply them with the necessaries of life. The regulation excluding the provisions of other foreign countries was entitled to no consideration. It was of ancient date, and had remained untouched because there was no other foreign country by which provisions could be supplied.
That the commercial regulations of Great Britain were as favourable to the United States as to other nations, ought not to satisfy America. If other nations were willing to bear impositions, or were unable to retaliate, their examples were not worthy of imitation. America was in a condition to insist, and ought to insist, on perfect commercial equality.
It was denied that any real advantage was derived from the extensive credit given by the merchants of Great Britain. On the contrary, the use made of British capital was pronounced a great political evil. It increased the unfavourable balance of trade, discouraged domestic manufactures, and promoted luxury. But its greatest mischief was, that it favoured a system of British influence, which was dangerous to their political security.
As the debate advanced, the expressions of exasperation against Britain became stronger; and occasionally allusions were made to those party questions which had long agitated the public mind, with a bitterness which marked their intimate connexion with the conduct of the United States to foreign countries.
It was said to be proper in deciding the question under debate, to take into view political, as well as commercial considerations. Ill will and jealousy had at all times been the predominant features of the conduct of England to the United States. That government had grossly violated the treaty of peace, had declined a commercial treaty, had instigated the Indians to raise the tomahawk and scalping knife against American citizens, had let loose the Algerines upon their unprotected commerce, and had insulted their flag, and pillaged their trade in every quarter of the world. These facts being notorious, it was astonishing to hear gentlemen ask how had Britain injured their commerce?
The conduct of France, on the contrary, had been warm and friendly. That nation respected American rights, and had offered to enter into commercial arrangements on the liberal basis of perfect reciprocity.
The period which Mr. Smith had taken as that at which the systems of the two nations should be compared with each other, was reprobated with peculiar severity. It was insinuated to proceed from a wish that the United States should directly countenance the restoration of despotism; and much regret was expressed that a distrust of the permanency of the French revolution should be avowed. It was hoped and believed that the present was the settled state of things; and that the old order of things was unsettled for ever: that the French revolution was as much more permanent than had been the French despotism, as was the great fabric of nature, than the petty plastic productions of art. To exclude the period since the revolution, would be to exclude some of the strongest evidences of the friendship of one nation, and the enmity of the other.
The animadversions which had been made on the report of the secretary of state were retorted with acrimony. It was declared that he would not suffer by a comparison in point of intelligence, accuracy, and patriotism, either with the laborious compiler of the table produced by Mr. Smith, or with the gentleman who had been judiciously selected for its interpreter. Some explanations were given of the inaccuracies which had been alleged; and the facts omitted were declared to be immaterial circumstances, which, if inserted, would have swelled the report, without adding to the information it communicated.
In reply to the argument which stated that Great Britain did not, in common years, raise a sufficient quantity of grain for her own consumption, and would consequently afford an increasing market for American wheat and flour, it was remarked that this not only established the all important position of the dependence of that country on this, but suggested a very interesting reflection. It was that the continual increase of debt and paper machinery, will not produce a correspondent increase of ability in the nation to feed itself. That an infinity of paper will not produce an infinity of food.
In contrasting the ability of the two nations to support a commercial conflict, it was said, "Great Britain, tottering under the weight of a king, a court, a nobility, a priesthood, armies, navies, debts, and all the complicated machinery of oppression which serves to increase the number of unproductive, and lessen the number of productive hands; at this moment engaged in a foreign war; taxation already carried to the ultimatum of financial device; the ability of the people already displayed in the payment of taxes, constituting a political phenomenon; all prove the debility of the system, and the decreptitude of old age. On the other hand, the United States, in the flower of youth; increasing in hands; increasing in wealth; and, although an imitative policy had unfortunately prevailed in the erection of a funded debt, in the establishment of an army, the anticipation of a navy, and all the paper machinery for increasing the number of unproductive, and lessening the number of productive hands; yet the operation of natural causes has, as yet, in some degree, countervailed their influence, and still furnish a great superiority in comparison with Great Britain."
An attempt was made to liken the present situation of America to that in which she stood at the commencement of her revolutionary war; and the arguments drawn from the inconvenience to which a privation of British manufactures would expose the people at large were answered by observing—"This was not the language of America at the time of the non-importation association; this was not her language at the time of the declaration of independence. Whence then this change of American sentiment? Has America less ability than she then had? Is she less prepared for a national trial than she then was? This can not be pretended. There is, it is true, one great change in her political situation. America has now a funded debt: she had no funded debt at those glorious epochs. May not this change of sentiment, therefore, be looked for in her change of situation in this respect? May it not be looked for in the imitative sympathetic organization of our funds with the British funds? May it not be looked for in the indiscriminate participation of citizens and foreigners in the emoluments of the funds? May it not be looked for in the wishes of some to assimilate the government of the United States to that of Great Britain? or at least, in wishes for a more intimate connexion?
[Footnote 14: Resolutions had been offered for the creation of a small navy to be employed in the Mediterranean.]
"If these causes exist, it is not difficult to find the source of the national debility. It is not difficult to see that the interests of the few, who receive and disburse the public contributions, are more respected than the interest of the great majority of the society, who furnish the contributions. It is not difficult to see that the government, instead of legislating for a few millions, is legislating for a few thousands; and that the sacredness of their rights is the great obstacle to a great national exertion."
In addition to Mr. Smith, of South Carolina, the resolutions were opposed by Mr. Smith, of Maryland, Mr. Goodhue, Mr. Lea, Mr. Dexter, Mr. Ames, Mr. Dayton, Mr. Hartley, Mr. Tracy, Mr. Hillhouse, Mr. Forest, Mr. Fitzsimmons, and Mr. Foster.
If, it was said, the United States had sustained political wrongs from Great Britain, they should feel as keenly as any persons for the prostrated honour of their country; but this was not the mode of redressing them. When that subject should be brought before congress, they would not be slow in taking such measures as the actual state of things might require. But they did not approve of retaliating injuries under the cloak of commercial regulations. Independent of other objections, it would derogate from the dignity of the American character.
The resolutions, it was said, ought to be contemplated commercially; and the influence they would probably have on the United States, deliberately weighed. If they were adopted, it ought to be because they would promote the interests of America, not because they would benefit one foreign nation, and injure another. It was an old adage that there was no friendship in trade. Neither ought there to be any hatred. These maxims should not be forgotten in forming a judgment on the propositions before the committee. Their avowed objects were to favour the navigation and the manufactures of the United States, and their probable operation on these objects ought to be considered.
It had been said that the American tonnage ought to bear the same proportion to the foreign tonnage employed in her trade, as exists between the bulk of her exports and imports. But the correctness of this principle was not admitted. The fact was otherwise, and it was not believed to be an evil.
Great Britain carries for other nations from necessity. Her situation is calculated for navigation. Her country is fully peopled, so full that the ground is not sufficient to furnish bread for the whole. Instead, therefore, of ploughing the earth for subsistence, her subjects are obliged to plough the ocean. The defence of their coasts has been another cause which obliges them to abandon the more lucrative pursuits of agriculture, to provide for their defence. They have been compelled to sacrifice profit to safety.
The United States possessed a fertile, extensive, and unsettled country; and it might well be questioned how far their real interests would be promoted by forcing a further acceleration of the growth of their marine, by impelling their citizens from the cultivation of the soil to the navigation of the ocean. The measures already adopted had been very operative; and it was by no means certain that an additional stimulus would be advantageous. The increased duty on foreign tonnage, and on goods imported in foreign bottoms, had already been attended with sensible effects. In 1790, the American tonnage was one-half the whole tonnage employed in their trade: in 1791, it was three-fifths: in 1792, it had increased to two-thirds. This growth was believed to be sufficiently rapid. It was more rapid than the growth of British tonnage had ever been under the fostering care of their celebrated navigation act. Let the existing system be left to its natural operation, and it was believed that it would give to the United States that share in the carriage of their commodities, which it was their interest to take.
But if a different opinion prevailed, and it was conceived that additional encouragement ought to be given to navigation, then let the duty on all foreign bottoms be increased, and let the particular disabilities to which American vessels are subjected in any country, be precisely retaliated. The discriminations proposed, instead of increasing American navigation, were calculated to encourage the navigation of one foreign nation at the expense of another.
The United States did not yet possess shipping sufficient for the exportation of their produce. The residue must reach a market in foreign bottoms, or rot upon their hands. They were advancing to a different state of things; but, in the mean time, they ought to pursue their interest, and employ those vessels which would best answer their purpose. The attempt to make it their interest to employ the vessels of France rather than those of Britain, by discriminating duties which must enhance the price of freight, was a premium to the vessels of the favourite nation, paid by American agriculture.
The navigation act of Great Britain had been made a subject of heavy complaint. But that act was not particularly directed against the United States. It had been brought into operation while they were yet colonies, and was not more unfavourable to them than to others. To its regulations, Great Britain was strongly attached; and it was not probable that America could compel her to relinquish them. Calculations were made on the proportion of British manufactures consumed in America, from which it was inferred that her trade, though important, was not sufficiently important to force that nation to abandon a system which she considered as the basis of her grandeur. In the contest, considerable injury would be unquestionably sustained; and nothing was perceived in the situation of the United States, which should induce them to stand forth the champions of the whole commercial world, in order to compel the change of a system, in which all other nations had acquiesced. But if they were to engage in such a contest, it was by a similar act, by opposing disabilities to disabilities, that it ought to be carried on. Upon this point, several members who were opposed to the resolutions, avowed an opinion favourable to an American navigation act, and expressed their willingness to concur in framing regulations which meet the prohibitions imposed on their vessels with corresponding prohibitions. Thus far they were ready to go; but they were not ready to engage in a contest injurious to themselves, for the benefit of a foreign nation.
Another avowed object of the resolutions was to favour the manufactures of the United States. But certainly it was not by discriminating duties, by endeavouring to shift commerce from one channel to another, that American manufactures were to be promoted. This was to be done by pursuing the course already adopted, by laying protecting duties on selected articles, in the manufacture of which America had made some progress; and by a prohibitory duty on others, of which a sufficient domestic supply could be afforded. But the proposed measure only went to the imposition of a tax on their own citizens, for the benefit of a foreign nation.
If the British market afforded an assortment of goods best suited to their consumption, and could give them cheaper, a prohibitory duty imposed upon those goods would only drive their citizens to seek them in another market, less able to supply their wants, and at a dearer rate. There was nothing in this tending to encourage manufactures.
If the United States were prepared to manufacture to the whole amount of their wants, the importation of all rival articles might be prohibited. But this they were not prepared to do. Their manufactures must advance by slow degrees; and they were not to enter into a measure of this kind, for the purpose of retaliating on a nation which had not commercially injured them.
The resolutions then were adapted to the encouragement neither of the navigation, nor the manufactures of the United States, but of a foreign nation. Their effect would obviously be to force trade to change its natural course, by discriminations against a nation which had in no instance discriminated against the United States, but had favoured them in many points of real importance. By what commercial considerations could such a system be recommended?
That it would be attended with great immediate inconveniences must be admitted; but for these, ample compensation, it had been said, was to be found in its remote advantages. These were, a diminution of American commerce with one nation, by its proportional augmentation with another; and a repeal of the navigation act, and of the colonial system of Great Britain.
On the subject of forcing trade from one nation to another, which is, of necessity, so complicated in principle, so various and invisible in consequence, the legislature should never act but with the utmost caution. They should constantly keep in view, that trade will seek its own markets, find its own level, and regulate itself much better than it could be regulated by law. Although the government might embarrass it, and injure their own citizens, and even foreign nations, for a while, it would eventually rise above all the regulations they could make. Merchants, if left to themselves, would always find the best markets. They would buy as cheap and sell as dear as possible. Why drive them from those markets into others which were less advantageous? If trade with Britain was less free, or less profitable, than with France, the employment of coercive means to force it into French channels would be unnecessary. It would voluntarily run in them. That violence must be used in order to change its course, demonstrated that it was in its natural course.
It was extraordinary to hear gentlemen complaining of British restrictions on American commerce, and at the same time stating her proportion of that commerce as a national grievance, and that the trade was so free as to become an injury. The very circumstance that she retained so large a share of it, was evidence that it did not experience in her ports unusual burdens. Whenever greater advantages were offered by other countries, there would be no need of legislative interference to induce the merchants to embrace them. That portion of trade would go to each country, for which the circumstances of each were calculated. If Great Britain purchased more American produce than she consumed, it was because, all circumstances considered, it was the interest of America to sell her more than she consumed. While this interest continued, no mischief could result from the fact; when the cause should cease, the effect would cease also, without the intervention of the legislature.
It was very improbable that the resolutions under consideration would effect their other avowed object, a repeal of the British navigation act.
The season, it was said, was peculiarly unfavourable to such experiments. The internal convulsions of France had laid her manufactures in ruins. She was not in a condition to supply her own wants, much less those of the United States. The superb column erected at Lyons could furnish no stimulus to the industry of her manufacturers.
But the attempt to stop the natural intercourse between the United States and Great Britain, though incapable of producing on the latter the full effect which was desired, might inflict deep and lasting wounds on the most essential interests of the former. The injuries which their agriculture would sustain from the measure, might be long and severely felt.
It had been proudly stated, that while America received articles which might be dispensed with, she furnished in return the absolute necessaries of life; she furnished bread, and raw materials for manufactures. "One would think," said Mr. Tracy, "to hear the declarations in this house, that all men were fed at the opening of our hand; and, if we shut that hand, the nations starve, and if we but shake the fist after it is shut, they die." And yet one great objection to the conduct of Britain was, her prohibitory duty on the importation of bread stuff while it was under a certain price.
Nothing could be more deceptive than the argument founded on the nature of American exports. What, it was asked, would be done with the surplus produce of the United States? Was it to remain in the country, and rot upon the hands of those who raised it? If not, if it was to be exported, it would find its way to the place of demand. Food would search out those who needed it; and the raw material would be carried to the manufacturer whose labour could give it value.
But there was a much more serious aspect in which this subject ought to be placed. The products of America grew in other soils than hers. The demands for them might be supplied by other countries. Indeed, in some instances, articles usually obtained from the United States would be excluded by a fair competition with the same articles furnished by other countries. The discriminations made in their favour enabled them to obtain a preference in the British market. By withholding those which were of the growth of the United States, Great Britain would not lose the article, but America would lose the market; and a formidable rival would be raised up, who would last much longer than the resolutions under consideration. It is easy by commercial regulations to do much mischief, and difficult to retrieve losses. It is impossible to foresee all evils which may arise out of such measures; and their effects may last after the cause is removed.
The opponents of the resolutions persisted to consider the credit given by British merchants, as a solid advantage to any country which, like the United States, was defective in commercial capital; but they denied that, from that source, any political influence had arisen. "If," said Mr. Tracy, "we may argue from a great state, Virginia, to the union, this is not true; for although that state owes immense debts, her representatives come forward with great spirit to bring Great Britain to her feet. The people to the eastward do not owe the English merchants, and are very generally opposed to these regulations. These facts must convince us that the credit given by Great Britain, does not operate to produce a fear, and a dependence, which can be alarming to government."
"If," said Mr. Dexter, "I have a predilection for any country besides my own, that bias is in favour of France, the place of my father's sepulture. No one, more than myself, laments the spasm of patriotism which convulses that nation, and hazards the cause of freedom; but I shall not suffer the torrent of love or hatred to sweep me from my post. I am sent neither to plead the cause of France nor England, but am delegated as a guardian of the rights and interests of America."
The speakers against the resolutions universally laboured to exclude from all weight in the decision on them, considerations which were foreign to the interests of the United States. "The discussion of this subject," said Mr. Tracy, "has assumed an appearance which must be surprising to a stranger, and painful in the extreme to ourselves. The supreme legislature of the United States is seriously deliberating, not upon the welfare of our own citizens, but upon the relative circumstances of two European nations; and this deliberation has not for its object, the relative benefits of their markets to us, but which form of government is best and most like our own, which people feel the greatest affection for us, and what measures we can adopt which will best humble one and exalt the other.
"The primary motive of these resolutions, as acknowledged by their defenders, is, not the increase of our agriculture, manufactures, or navigation, but to humble Great Britain and build up France; and although it is said our manufactures and navigation may receive some advantage, it is only mentioned as a substitute in case of failure as to the great object.
"The discussion in favour of these resolutions has breathed nothing but hostility and revenge against the English; and yet they put on the mild garb of commercial regulations. Legislatures, always cautious of attempting to force trade from its own channels and habits, should certainly be peculiarly cautious, when they do undertake such business, to set about it with temperance and coolness; but in this debate, we are told of the inexecution of a former treaty, withholding western posts, insults and dominations of a haughty people, that through the agency of Great Britain the savages are upon us on one side, and the Algerines on the other. The mind is roused by a group of evils, and then called upon to consider a statement of duties on goods imported from foreign countries. If the subject is commercial, why not treat it commercially, and attend to it with coolness? if it is a question of political hostility, or of war, a firmer tone may be adopted."
On this side of the question, the conduct of Great Britain, if as hostile as it was represented to be, was spoken of with high indignation. "If," said Mr. Tracy, "these statements are founded in fact, I can not justify myself to my constituents, or my conscience, in saying the adoption of the regulations of commerce, a navigation act, or the whole parade of shutting ports, and freeing trade from its shackles, is in any degree calculated to meet or remedy the evil.
"Although I deprecate war as the worst of calamities for my country, yet I would inquire seriously whether we had on our part, fulfilled the treaty with Great Britain, and would do complete justice to them first. I would negotiate as long and as far as patience ought to go; and, if I found an obstinate denial of justice, I would then lay the hand of force upon the western posts, and would teach the world that the United States were no less prompt in commanding justice to be done them, than they had been patient and industrious in attempting to obtain it by fair and peaceable means. In this view of the subject I should be led to say, away with your milk and water regulations; they are too trifling to effect objects of such importance. Are the Algerines to be frightened with paper resolves, or the Indians to be subdued, or the western posts taken, by commercial regulations? when we consider the subject merely as a commercial one, it goes too far, and attempts too much; but when considered as a war establishment, it falls infinitely short of the mark, and does too little."
This earnest and interesting debate was protracted to a great length, and was conducted on both sides with great spirit and eloquence. At length, on the third of February, the question was taken on the first resolution, which was carried by a majority of five. The further consideration of the resolutions was then postponed until the first Monday in March.