James Madison Papers

To James Madison from John Armstrong, 10 August 1805

From John Armstrong

August 10th. 1805 Paris.


I have had the honor of receiving your letters of the 23d. of May and 6th. of June1 and shall loose no time in attending to the injunctions they convey. One of these, in relation to Gen. Ferrand’s proclamation, has been anticipated, as you will perceive by my answer to Mr. Tallyrand’s note of the 21st. of July.2 The other, with respect to the claim upon the Batavian Government, must necessarily be suspended ’till Mr. Brantzan’s arrival at Paris; the suspension of the Neapolitan business (were it in the power or disposition of His Sicilian M. to execute it on the principles we wish) would arise from a similar cause—the absence of Mr. de Gallo. Mr. Lewis’s claim has been put into the hands of Mr. Skipwith who is charged with the prosecution of it in the Council of Prizes. The claimants ought to know, that whatever may be the Decision of this tribunal, the present state of the Treasury, with the multiplying demands of the war upon it, admits of no payments to foriegn creditors; and that unless we were in condition, and it had become our policy as well as duty to enforce the demands of our citizens, there is no use and some disadvantage, even to them, in pressing their claims. There is a degree of importunity that not only sours the temper but impairs the justice of a debtor, and it is not improbable that an error of this sort may be at the bottom of that indifference which has been shewn here to the reclamations of Denmark &c. for ten years past. In the last conversation I had with the Minister of the Treasury on the subject of Le Clerc’s bills and other debts of similar character & standing, he assured me, there was no prospect of immediate payment, and recommended good humor & patience as the means best calculated for obtaining it eventually. What is true with respect to these, will be equally so with regard to debts arising from capture.

The first fruits of the late incorporation of the Ligurian Republic with France will in all probability be a war with Russia. The note, a copy of which is enclosed, though not acknowledged here, may be received as genuine, and will shew very clearly the temper & views of Russia.3 It is conjectured, that the language of this note would have been more guarded had not the Power employing it ⟨,⟩; pre-concerted with other powers, a system of hostility calculated on the continuance of what they call, French encroachment;4 a conjecture which takes additional probability from the encreased military activity & preparations of Austria, and from the new influences which the late Russian acquisition of Swedish Pomerania,5 is so obviously calculated to produce upon Prussia. A few days will however put an end to conjecture & we shall then know whether this war with Russia, like that with England, is to consist only of angry words and impotent menaces, or whether, embracing the several Powers, it is destined to rivive all the calamities of Europe?

The Emperor is now at Bologne and looking towards England. If the explanations, which have been demanded, from Austria be satisfactory, it is probable that he will continue to look that way—but should they be hostile or even equivocal, he will instantly set his face towards Germany. In war, the first blow is sometimes decisive and of all men living he will perhaps be the last either to over:look an advantage, or to forbear to use it. The nearest column of the Russian Army (120,000) is in Polhenia—twenty six days march from Trieste; another heavy corps is forming on the borders of the Black Sea, whence they may be readily thrown into lower Italy or brought up to the head of the Adriatic; a third in Swedish Pomerania; a fourth of 45,000 already exists in Albania, and a fifth of 25,000, at Corfu. These are preparations worthy of an Alexander and when seen in connexion with those of Austria which has 300,000 men ready to take the field at a moment’s warning, would appal any man but Bonaparte and any nation but France. To this extraordinary man and more extraordinary people, they but appear as sources of new atchievements, new glories and a wider range of spoil and domination; nor are there wanting among them, men otherwise sober and enlightened, who consider the contest on which they are about to enter, as destined to verify all the dreams of Lewis the 14, and to render Bonaparte as absolute over every part of Europe, as he now is in the city of Paris. A fact highly propitious to this ambition, is, that every frenchman identifies his chief and himself, and feels as proud under any new circumstance of agrandizement to his Emperor, as if he himself were loaded with crowns & laurels. I am not sure however but that this vanity has in itself the principle of a counter-action, which only waits a change of fortune to shew itself.

The English papers mention the capture of an American armed vessel off Giberaltar by the Spaniards.6 This report has not reached us through any other channel—it is therefore to be doubted—but of their general disposition to injustice & insolence with regard to us, I have no doubt, and I now transmit the copy of a letter from Mr. Lee of Bourdeaux, which exhibits both under a new & very offensive shape.7 I have not failed to remonstrate freely on the subject and am well enough assured, that the particular injury will be redressed—but whether this will be done in a way that will prevent a repitition of the offense, is very uncertain. For this purpose, our own endeavors would serve us best. Hints of this kind have so frequently escaped me, that you may perhaps begin to suspect, that I have caught a little of the influenza of Europe. This however is far from being the fact. It is here that a man of any tolerable degree of sense & soberness will soonest perceive how little is the good conferred, and how great & lasting are the mischiefs inflicted by war; but it is also here that he best discovers that in nine cases out of ten of national insult or injury, the motives to their perpetration have partaken more of the cowardice that believes it has nothing to fear, than of the intrepidity that fears nothing—& he will hence conclude that national, like personal spirit, is not only our best support under actual hostility, but our most substantial protection against it. With the highest possible respect, I am Sir, Your most Obedt. humb. Servant

John Armstrong

RC and enclosures (DNA: RG 59, DD, France, vol. 10). RC in a clerk’s hand, signed by Armstrong; marked “⟨(⟩;Duplicate).” For enclosures, see nn. 2 and 7.

1See PJM-SS 9:378–79, 432–36.

2The enclosures are (1) Talleyrand to Armstrong (3 pp.; undated; in French; printed in ASP, Foreign Relations, 2:726–27), protesting American trade with rebel-occupied ports of Haiti; stating that although these might be private ventures, the U.S. government was required to end them because the obligations of countries in a state of peace with each other meant that no such government could “second the spirit of revolt of the subjects of another power”; complaining that the U.S. government could no longer ignore this scandalously public trade in which merchant vessels were supported by armed ships, and the captains publicly feted on their return by dinners at which “the principles of the government of Haiti were celebrated” and “vows are made of its duration”; enclosing an extract from an American newspaper detailing such a dinner and listing the toasts; and stating that he gave this information to Armstrong so the latter could transmit it to his government, which Talleyrand had no doubt would take prompt and effectual measures to end the trade; and (2) Armstrong’s undated reply (3 pp.) to Talleyrand’s “of yesterday,” stating that he was enclosing a second copy of the U.S. act of 3 Mar. 1805, which Talleyrand would find answered his demands and showed the U.S. government’s respect and friendship for Napoleon; he noted that although national law only required leaving citizens engaged in illicit trade to the penalties attached to such trade, in this case the government had added new regulations prohibiting certain articles of trade. Armstrong asked Talleyrand to note that the commercial trip to which he referred had occurred before passage of the new law, and the public dinner, no matter how indecent and offensive to the U.S. and French governments, must be left to the mercies of public opinion, which, he further stated, could be seen in the new law. Armstrong decried General Ferrand’s recent fiat ordering those who traded with Haiti to be treated like pirates as contrary to international law, and he was sure that Talleyrand would immediately overturn such an outrageous decree. For the 3 Mar. 1805 law forbidding the departure of armed merchant ships for the West Indies, see U.S. Statutes at Large, 2:342–43. For Ferrand’s decree, see PJM-SS 9:134 n. 2.

3For the 10 July 1805 note from Count Nikolai Novosiltsov to Baron Karl August von Hardenberg, see John M. Forbes to JM, 16 July 1805, and n. 2.

4For the coalition against France, see PJM-SS 9:362 n. 1.

5Prussian threats to invade Swedish Pomerania throughout the fall and early winter of 1804–5 culminated in a Russo-Swedish convention of 14 Jan. 1805 “to guarantee the independence of Germany” in which Russia agreed to send troops to Swedish Pomerania. During the summer of 1805 rumors spread through Europe concerning the sale of Swedish Pomerania, which the Swedish minister at Ratisbon denied, and Russian troops did not arrive in Pomerania until the fall of 1805 (John Holland Rose, ed., Select Despatches from the British Foreign Office Archives Relating to the Formation of the Third Coalition against France, 1804–1805 [London, 1904], 52, 59, 86, 97 n. 2, 99, 103–4; Times [London], 9 Sept. and 22 Oct. 1805).

6The 16 July 1805 edition of the London Times contains an extract of a 15 June letter from Gibraltar, describing the Spanish seizure of an American gunboat as a hostile act against the United States. For this incident, see PJM-SS 9:495 n. 3.

7The enclosure is a copy of William Lee to Armstrong, 3 Aug. 1805 (1 p.), describing a recent “very serious dispute” he had had with the commissary of marine and the Spanish consul about eight American seamen who had deserted their ships to sign on with a Spanish privateer. The commissary refused to order the men returned to their ships without permission from the Spanish consul, which the latter refused to give. Lee predicted similar difficulties in the future because there were several French privateers fitting out under the Spanish flag, “no doubt to capture American Vessels.” Lee added that he could not remedy the evil and asked for Armstrong’s advice. He said the commissary had promised to write to the minister of marine and added “doubtless he and the Span. Consul understand each other in the business.”

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