James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Pinkney, 4 August 1808

London, August 4th. 1808.


The St. Michael arrived at Falmouth on Thursday the 14th. of last Month, after a Passage of eight Days ⟨f⟩rom L’Orient. Captain Kenyon delivered to ⟨m⟩e on Wednesday the 20th. (upon my Arrival ⟨in⟩ Town from Brighton, where I had been for a ⟨s⟩hort Time on Account of my Health) your ⟨L⟩etters of the 30th. of April, and your private ⟨Le⟩tter of the 8. of May, together with Newspapers, ⟨pr⟩inted Copies of the Embargo Act & its Supplements, ⟨an⟩d of Papers laid before Congress at their ⟨la⟩st Session. Mr. Hall brought me a Letter ⟨fro⟩m General Armstrong of the 26th. of June ⟨(of⟩ which I send an Extract) and Mr. Upson ⟨br⟩ought me a private Letter from him, with ⟨the⟩ following postscript of the 1st. of July, "An ⟨or⟩der has been received from Bayonne ⟨to⟩ condemn eight other of our Ships &c."

On Friday the 22d. of July I had an ⟨in⟩terview with Mr. Canning; and renewed ⟨my⟩ Efforts to obtain a Revocation of the ⟨Br⟩itish orders of January & November 1807, ⟨and⟩ of the other Orders dependent upon them.

I have already informed you, in my ⟨pr⟩ivate Letter of the 29th. of June, that on ⟨the⟩ Morning of its Date I had a long Con⟨ve⟩rsation with Mr. Canning, which had ⟨ren⟩dered it somewhat probable that the object mentioned in your Letter of the 30th. of April (of which I had received a Duplicate by the Packet) would be accomplished, if I should authorize the Expectation which that Letter suggests; but that some Days must elapse before I could speak with any Thing like Certainty on the Subject: and I have mentioned in another private Letter (of the 10th. of July) that it was understood between Mr. Canning & myself that another Interview should take place soon after the prorogation of Parliament. In Effect, however, Mr. Canning was not prepared to see me again until the 22d. of July, after I had been recalled to London by the Arrival of the St. Michael, and had in Consequence reminded him of our Arrangement by a private Note.

In the Interview of the 29th. of June I soon found it necessary to throw out an Intimation, that the Power vested in the President by Congress, to suspend the Embarg⟨o⟩ Act & its Supplements, would be exercised as regarded Great Britain, if their Orders were repealed, as regarded the United States. To have urged the Revocation upon the mer⟨e⟩ Ground of strict Right, or of general Policy and there to have left the Subject, when I was authorized to place it upon Grounds infinitely stronger; would have been, as it appeared to me, to stop short of my Duty. Your Letters to Mr. Erskine (which Mr. Cannning has read & considered) had exhausted the first of these Grounds, and endless Discussions here, in every Variety of Form, in and out of parliament, had exhausted the second. There was, besides, no Objection of any Force to my availing myself without Delay of the powerful Inducements, which the Intimation in Question was likely to furnish to Great Britain, to abandon her late System; ⟨a⟩nd it seemed to be certain that, by delaying, ⟨to⟩ present those Inducements to Mr. Canning’s ⟨Co⟩nsideration, I should not only lose much Time, but finally give to my Conduct ⟨a⟩ disingenuous Air, which, while it ⟨m⟩ust be foreign to the Views & Sentiments ⟨of⟩ the President, could hardly fail to ⟨m⟩ake a very unfavourable Impression ⟨u⟩pon the Minds of Mr. Canning and his ⟨Co⟩lleagues. I thought, moreover, that, ⟨if⟩ I should reserve the Suggestion for a late stage of our Discussions, it would be ⟨in o⟩rder to wear the Appearance of a Concession ⟨re⟩luctantly extorted, rather than of what it was, the spontaneous Result of the characterist⟨ic⟩ Frankness & honourable Policy of our Government.

The Intimation once made, a complete Development of its natural Consequences, if properly acted upon, followed of Course, and, taking advantage of the Latitude afforded by the informal Nature of a mere Conversation, I endeavoured to ma⟨ke⟩ that Developement as strong an Appea⟨l⟩ as consistently with Truth & Honour I could (and there was no Necessity to do more) to the Justice & the Prudenc⟨e⟩ of this Government. It was not possible however, that Mr. Canning could require to be assisted by my Explanations. It was plain, upon their own Principles that they could not equitably persever⟨e⟩ in their Orders in Council, upon the Foundation of an imputed Acquiesce⟨nce⟩ on our Part in French Invasions of our Neutral Rights, when it was become (if it was not always) apparent tha⟨t⟩ this Imputation was completely & in a⟨ll⟩ Respects an Error, when it was manif⟨est⟩ that those Orders, by letting loose up⟨on⟩ our Rights a more destructive & effec⟨tive⟩ persecution than it was in the power of France to maintain, interposed between us & France, furnished Answers to our Remonstrances against her Decrees & Pretexts for those Decrees, and stood in the Way of that very Resistance which Great Britain affected to inc⟨u⟩lcate as a Duty at the Moment when she was taking the most effectual Measures to embarrass & confound it, and when ⟨i⟩t was also manifest that a Revocation of those Orders would, if not attended or followed by ⟨a⟩ Revocation of the Decrees of France, place us ⟨a⟩t Issue with that Power, & result in a precise ⟨   ⟩tion, by the United States to such parts ⟨of⟩ her anti-commercial Edicts as it became ⟨u⟩s to repeal.

In a Prudential View my Explanations ⟨s⟩eemed still less to be required. Nothing ⟨co⟩uld be more clear than that, if Great Britain ⟨re⟩voked her Orders, & entitled herself to a ⟨Su⟩spension of the Embargo, her Object (if it ⟨w⟩ere any Thing short of the Establishment and ⟨   ⟩aclical Support of an exclusive Dominion ⟨o⟩ver the Seas) must in some Mode or other ⟨b⟩e a⟨ccom⟩plished, whether France followed ⟨h⟩er Example or not. In the first Case, ⟨th⟩e avowed Purpose of the British Orders would ⟨b⟩e fulfilled, and Commerce would resume ⟨it⟩s accustomed Prosperity & Expansion. In the ⟨la⟩st, the just Resistance of the United States (more efficaciou⟨s⟩ than that of the British Orders) to French Irregularities & Aggressions, would be left to its fair operation (and it was impossible to mistake the Consequences) while the Commercia⟨l⟩ Intercourse between the United States & Great Brita⟨in⟩ being revived, would open the Way for a Retur⟨n⟩ to good Understanding, and, in the End, for a Ajustme⟨nt⟩ of all the Differences.

These, and many other obvious Reflections of a similar Tend⟨ency⟩ which I forbear to repeat, could not have escaped the penetration of Mr. Canning, even if they had not been stated to him in considerable Detail. But, whatever might be their Influence upon his mind, he certainly did not pronounce any Opinion; and what he said consisted principally of Enquiries, with a View to a more accurate Comprehension of my Purpose. He asked if I thought of taking a more formal Course than that which I was now pursuing; but immediate⟨ly⟩ remarked that he presumed I did not; for that Course I had adopte⟨d⟩ was undoubtedly best suited to the Occasion. I told him that I was so entirely persuaded that the Freedom of Conversation was so much better adapted to the Nature of our Subject, & so much more likely to conduct us to a a beneficia⟨l⟩ Result, than the Constraint & Formality of written Communication, which usually grow into protracte⟨d⟩ Discussion, & always occasioned Embarrassment when there was any thing of Delicacy in the Topics that I had not intended to present any Note.

This Interview (in the progress of whi⟨ch⟩ some other points were incidentally touched upon, as mentioned in my private Letter of the 29th. of June) did not authorize any very confident Opinion that Mr. Canning approved of what had now for the first Time been suggested to him; and still less could ⟨i⟩t warrant any anticipation of the final opinion ⟨o⟩f his Government. But the Manner in which ⟨m⟩y Communication was received, and the Readiness shewn by Mr. Canning to present in that mode which was peculiarly favourable to my object, connected with the Reasonableness of the ⟨o⟩bject itself, induced me to think it r⟨at⟩her probable that the Issue would be satisfactory.

The Interview of the 22d. of July was far from producing any Thing of an unpromising Complexion. I urged again much of what ⟨h⟩ad been said at the last Conference, and ⟨s⟩uggested such farther Considerations as had ⟨si⟩nce occurred to me, in Support of my Demand. ⟨M⟩r. Canning was less decided & more reserved ⟨th⟩an I had hoped to find him, after so much ⟨Ti⟩me had been taken for Deliberation; but from ⟨a⟩ll that passed I was more than ever inclined ⟨to⟩ believe that the orders in Council would be ⟨re⟩linquished. He seemed now to be extremely ⟨de⟩sirous of ascertaining whether I was authorized ⟨a⟩nd disposed, with a View to a final Arrangement, ⟨to⟩ present what I had suggested, as to the ⟨su⟩spension of the Embargo, in a more precise ⟨   ⟩se. I told him, after some Conversation ⟨on⟩ this Point, that although I would prefer ⟨tha⟩t Mode which was the least formal, ⟨but⟩, if every Thing should be first matured, I might be able to combine with a written Dema⟨nd⟩ that their Orders should be repealed, such an assurance, as I had already mentioned, that the Embargo would be suspended; but that I would consider of this with Reference to the Manner & Terms. He then observed that I would, perhaps, allow him a little Time to reflect whether he would put me to the Necessity of presenting such a Paper, and, upo⟨n⟩ my assenting to this, he said that he would give me another appointment towards the End of the following Week. As I was on the Poi⟨nt⟩ of leaving him he asked me if I would endeavour to prepare before our next Interview such a Note as we had talked of; but he had scarcely made this Request before he added "but you will doubtless desire first to know what are our Idea and Intentions upon the whole Subject."

On the 29th. of July I met Mr. Canning again, and was soon apprized that our Discussions, if continued at all, must take ⟨a⟩ new Form. He began by enquiring if I had received any Intelligence of a late affa⟨ir⟩ upon the Lakes, which had caused great alar⟨m⟩ & anxiety to the British Traders, and of whi⟨ch⟩ an account had just been put into his Hands. He then read, very rapidly, from a Letter apparently written in Canada, ⟨a⟩ Complaint of an Attack upon some Briti⟨sh⟩ Boats in Violation of the 3d. Article of the Treaty of 1794; and observed that this w⟨as⟩ the more to be regretted as it followed some ⟨recent⟩ Misunderstandings in the Bay of Passamaquoddy. I told him that I had no Intelligence, official or private, of these Transactions, which he would perceive took place upon our Borders, a great Distance from the Seat of Government, and that, of course, I could only express my Conviction that the Government of the United States would disavow whatever was improper in the Conduct of its Agents, and would in other Respects act as good Faith & Honour required. This Matter being disposed of, Mr. Canning said, that he had thought long & anxiously upon what I had suggested to him at our late Conferences, that the ⟨S⟩ubject had at first struck him as much more ⟨s⟩imple & free of Difficulty than upon careful ⟨Ex⟩amination it was found to be, that in the actual State of the World it behoved both him & me to move in this Affair with every possible Degree of Circumspection (an Intimation which he did not explain), but without some explicit Proposal on my ⟨P⟩art in Writing, upon which the British ⟨Go⟩vernment could deliberate & act, ⟨no⟩thing could be done, and, finally, that he must leave me to consult my own Discretion whether I would make such ⟨a⟩ Proposal. I answered, that, with such a previous Understanding between us a⟨s⟩ I had counted upon, I should feel no Objection to take Occasion to say, in an official Note requiring the Revocation of their Orders in Council, that, the orders being rescinded as to us, it was the Intention of the President to suspen⟨d⟩ the Embargo as to Great Britain; but that I expected to be told, before my Note was presented, what would be the Reply to it, and what its Consequen⟨ces⟩ in every Direction, and that I could not conjecture, if it was really meant to acquiesce in my Demand (the exac⟨t⟩ Nature of it being in point of Fact understood by this Government just as well as if it had been made in Writing) or if more Time than had already been afford⟨ed⟩ were required for Deliberation, why it was necessary ⟨   ⟩ in the last Case ⟨   ⟩ at all, or in the first Case, without being frankly apprized of the Effect it would produce. Mr. Canning repl⟨ied⟩ that my Wish in this particular could not be acceded to⟨,⟩ that if I presented a Note they w⟨ere⟩ left at perfect Liberty to decide upon what it ⟨p⟩roposed, that he could not give me even an ⟨I⟩ntimation of the probable Consequences of it, ⟨a⟩nd in a Word that he would neither ⟨in⟩vite nor discourage such a proceeding. He observed, too, that there were Points belonging ⟨to⟩ the Subject, which it was necessary to discuss ⟨in⟩ Writing, that my Suggestions implied that ⟨the⟩ Embargo was produced by the British ⟨Or⟩ders in Council, that this could not be ⟨ad⟩mitted, and that there were other ⟨q⟩uestions necessarily incident to these ⟨   ⟩ Measures, with the Examination of ⟨wh⟩ich it was proper to begin upon an ⟨Oc⟩casion like the present. I remarked, ⟨in⟩ Answer, that with an actual Result ⟨in⟩ View, and with a Wish to arrive at ⟨tha⟩t Result without Delay, nothing could ⟨be⟩ worse imagined than to entangle ourselves ⟨in⟩ a written Correspondence, undefined ⟨as⟩ to its Scope & Duration, upon Topics on ⟨wh⟩ich we were not likely to agree, that ⟨if⟩ I were compelled to frame my Note ⟨wi⟩th a Knowledge that it was only to ⟨pr⟩ovoke Argument, instead of leading ⟨at⟩ this momentous Crisis to a salutary ⟨cha⟩nge in the State of the World, he must ⟨be⟩ aware that I too must argue, and ⟨tha⟩t I could not justify it to my Government to abstain from a complete Assertion of all its fair pretensions & a full Exposure of the true Character of those Acts, of which it complained as illegal & unjust ⟨   ⟩ And where would this End? To what wholesome Object would it lead? M⟨y⟩ Remarks having no Effect, I made a farther slight attempt to ascertain the Reception whi⟨ch⟩ my Note would meet with if I shoul⟨d⟩ determine to present one. This attem⟨pt⟩ failed; but I believed it to be quite apparent that, if any other Consequen⟨ce⟩ than mere Discussion should follow the Receipt of my Note, it would be very slow & at a great Distance. At the Close of the Interview I observed, that a⟨s the⟩ Footing upon which this Interview had placed the Subject made Delay of no Importance, I should take Time to prepare such farther Proceeding as might appear to me to be required ⟨by⟩ the Occasion.

I ought to mention th⟨at⟩ I give you in this Letter the Substa⟨nce⟩ only of the Conversations which it states, and that there was nothing ⟨in⟩ any Degree unfriendly in the Languag⟨e⟩ or Manner of Mr. Canning at either of our Conferences. I need not say that I ⟨th⟩ought it my Duty to adopt the same Tone ⟨and⟩ Manner.

My Desire to send a Duplicate ⟨of⟩ this hasty Letter by the Packet induces ⟨m⟩e to defer until another ⟨Op⟩portunity all Reflexions upon the Turn ⟨t⟩hat this Affair has taken.

You will find among the Enclosures Copy of my Representation to Mr. Canning ⟨in⟩ the Case of the Topaze &c and of his ⟨An⟩swer.

As there is now no Reason for detaining ⟨th⟩e St. Michael, she will be dispatched ⟨i⟩mmediately for L’orient. I have the Honour to be, with the highest Consideration & Esteem Sir, Your most obedient humble Servant

Wm: Pinkney

DNA: RG 59--DD-Diplomatic Despatches, Great Britain.

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