James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Congress, 16 January 1812 (Abstract)

§ To Congress

16 January 1812. Communicates a letter from the envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of Great Britain to the secretary of state,1 with the answer of the latter.2 “The continued evidence afforded in this correspondence, of the hostile policy of the British Government against our national rights, strengthens the considerations recommending and urging the preparations of adequate means for maintaining them.”

RC and enclosures (DNA: RG 233, President’s Messages, 12A-D1); RC (DNA: RG 46, Legislative Proceedings, 12A-E2). Each RC 1 p.; in the hand of Edward Coles, signed by JM. For enclosures (22 pp.; printed in ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Foreign Relations, 3:451–53), see nn.

1Foster’s 17 Dec. 1811 letter to Monroe was a complaint about “statements, circulated from highly respectable sources,” which tended to misrepresent the position of the British government in its disputes with the U.S., namely that the British minister had “demanded that the United States Government should pass a law for the introduction of British goods into the American ports, and also that the United States should undertake to force France to receive into her harbors British manufactures.” Foster denied that his correspondence with Monroe could be so construed. With respect to the admission of British goods into American ports, the minister declared that Great Britain was entitled to consider the administration’s policies of admitting French imports and armed vessels while excluding those of British origin as unneutral and “unfriendly.” If the policies were continued, Foster added, Great Britain might retaliate “with similar restrictions on her part” and would, moreover, be justified in refusing to enter into any discussions about the repeal of the orders in council until the U.S. fulfilled its obligations as a neutral nation.

The claim that “America should force the entry of British manufactures into France” Foster dismissed as a “total misconception.” He defended the orders in council as fair retaliation for France’s “extraordinary blockade” of Great Britain and conceded that it was “melancholy” that such retaliation should “unavoidably” operate on the U.S. Great Britain’s real objection, however, was that American trade with France under the terms of the Berlin and Milan decrees amounted to unneutral conduct: if the U.S. chose not to demand to be treated as a neutral by France, “all that we ask is, that she should abstain from lending her assistance to the trade of France, and not allow her commerce to be a medium of undermining the resources of Great Britain.”

As for the Berlin and Milan decrees, Foster stated that his government had seen no satisfactory proof of their repeal, and he hinted that the existence of the license trade was, in fact, evidence that the decrees were still in force. France had produced no instrument of repeal, nor had Russell seen any, and France had continued to seize American vessels after 1 Nov. 1810.

2In his 14 Jan. 1812 response to Foster’s letter, Monroe expressed regret that the president failed to find in its contents “proof of a disposition in the British Government to put an end to the differences subsisting between our countries” but saw “a new proof only of its determination to adhere to the policy to which they are imputable.” Monroe then defended the Nonimportation Act as legitimate retaliation for Great Britain’s refusal to repeal the orders in council, adding that “if a distinction is thus produced between Great Britain and the other belligerent, it must be referred to the difference in the conduct of the two parties.” He also maintained that neither the French “blockade of England against the trade of the United States” nor France’s prohibition of “all trade in english articles on the high seas” existed any longer, while British blockades and prohibitions continued in violation of American neutral rights. The secretary of state therefore regarded Foster’s complaint as unsatisfactory, as it amounted to Great Britain’s requiring “that France shall change her internal regulations against English trade, before England will change her external regulations against the trade of the United States.” As proof of the repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees, Monroe argued that any vessels taken under the French decrees after 1 Nov. 1810 had since been released and that if vessels were still seized or detained, it could only be for reasons other than the decrees themselves. Furthermore, “the practice of counterfeiting American papers in England, which is well known to the continent, has, by impairing the faith due to American documents, done to the United States essential injury” by contributing to the very French policies of which Great Britain was now unreasonably complaining.

The existence of the license trade Monroe declined to admit as evidence that the Berlin and Milan decrees had not been repealed. The licenses might even be seen “in part, at least, as a security against the simulated papers, the forgery of which was not suppressed in England.” These remarks were not to be regarded as evidence that the U.S. was satisfied with the license trade, but their objections to it were not those which had been mentioned by Foster. Monroe expressed surprise that the British government had not accepted the correspondence he had forwarded on 17 Oct. 1811 as proof of the repeal of the French decrees, and he described the “declaration of the french Government” as a “solemn and obligatory act and as such entitled to the notice and respect of other Governments.” For that reason, Great Britain was obliged to remove its orders in council and was not entitled to continue their enforcement until it received “satisfaction of the practical compliance of France.” And even if there could be questions about whether the French decrees had been repealed on 1 Nov. 1810, “it cannot be alledged that the Decrees have not ceased to operate since the 2nd. of Feby. last.” And as the cessation of the decrees is “the only essential fact in the case,” Great Britain, “according to its own principles and pledges,” ought to have long since removed the orders in council.

Regarding this conduct of the British government, Monroe concluded, “it is impossible to see in it any thing short of a spirit of determined hostility to the rights and interests of the United States.” Great Britain “issued the orders in Council on a principle of retaliation on France, at a time, when it admitted the French decrees to be ineffectual, it has sustained those orders in full force since, notwithstanding the pretext for them has been removed, and latterly it has added a new condition of their repeal to be performed by France, to which the United States in their neutral character have no claim, and could not demand without departing from their neutrality; a condition which in respect to the commerce of other nations with Great Britain is repugnant to her own policy, and prohibited by her own laws and which can never be enforced on any nation without a subversion of its sovereignty and independence.”

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