James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Joel Barlow, 2 May 1812

From Joel Barlow

Paris 2nd. May 1812

Dear Sir

It is impossible to form a satisfactory opinion at this time as to the result of the propositions contained in my letter of yesterday to the minister, a copy of which I herewith send to the Secretary of State.1

You will have perceived that the polestar from which I have all along graduated my compass was to remove the cause of war with England. The object of this government being directly contrary, you will easily discern at least one of the causes of the delays they have practised not only in completing the arrangements I had prepared, but in answering official letters on pressing subjects, in giving up ships which they really meant to give up, in explaining themselves distinc[t]ly on any point that could bear upon our relations with England, & finally in the studied omission of the United States on the occasion of the Duke’s report of the 10th. of March,2 of which I took notice in my letter to the Secy. of State, of the 16th. of that month. The only chance of arriving at my object was to conceal it, & whenever I alluded to our impending war with England it was necessary to assume that it was inevitable. As this however was not very apparent I could not push the minister for an explicit declaration & solemn promulgation as to the repeal of the decrees. To have asked him for it would have done more harm than good; until the prince regent’s declaration has luckily come to my aid.3This has enabled me to raise a strong demand founded on facts that cannot be denied, nor with decency overlooked.

I think it will now appear pretty plain, as far as this government can judge of our affairs, that the war is so positively decided on by the British, as that the French would run no risk of preventing it by agreeing to my demand. And I have put it on the double footing of undeniable justice to us, & of producing a unanimity in our country in war measures.

RC (DLC). In a clerk’s hand; unsigned. Marked “Duplicate” by Barlow and docketed by him, “private to the president.”

1Barlow’s 1 May letter to the duc de Bassano, a copy of which was enclosed in his 2 May dispatch to Monroe (DNA: RG 59, DD, France; extracts 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, 3:602–3), challenged the French government to respond to British allegations that the Berlin and Milan decrees were “unrevoked.” In particular, Barlow drew Bassano’s attention to a 10 Mar. report on neutral rights made by the French foreign minister in which no mention was made either of the repeal of France’s maritime decrees or of the fact that they were not supposed to be in force against the U.S. (see n. 2, below). The American minister conceded that the decrees were not being applied to the U.S., but, he added, it would have been better for France to have stated the fact explicitly in order to have denied the prince regent and his ministers any pretext for adhering to the orders in council. Barlow then requested that France “publish an authentic act declaring the Berlin and Milan decrees, as relative to the United States, to have ceased in November, 1810; declaring that they have not been applied in any instance since that time, and they shall not be applied in future.”

Barlow gave three reasons why France should comply with his request. The first was to embarrass Great Britain by forcing its government to rely on less plausible reasons for maintaining the orders in council and possibly provoking “such loud complaints” in that country as might produce changes that would not otherwise take place. The second was to rally public opinion in the U.S. behind the administration in order to sustain the prosecution of a just but difficult war. In this context Barlow reminded Bassano that “great doubts” existed in the U.S. about the repeal of the French decrees which had only been increased by the contents of Bassano’s 10 Mar. report. The third was that Napoleon owed it to his own dignity and sincerity to remove all doubts about his measures. Moreover, Barlow argued, a formal statement of French policy would be a fair equivalent to the openly declared U.S. policy of nonintercourse against Great Britain.

The American minister linked this request with two additional suggestions, namely that France provide indemnity for American spoliation claims and that it sign the treaty of commerce he had been advocating for some months. These three acts together, he maintained, would “produce a great and salutary sensation” in the U.S. which would redound to the benefit of France. He concluded by telling Bassano that he was detaining a vessel to take such news back to America.

2Barlow’s 16 Mar. 1812 dispatch to Monroe had enclosed a copy of that day’s issue of the Moniteur universel, which in turn had published the duc de Bassano’s 10 Mar. report on the state of French foreign relations after it had been presented to the French Senate. The report justified French policy toward neutrals as consistent with the law of nations as based on the provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht. Bassano’s report further asserted that the Berlin and Milan decrees were in force all over Europe and that their enforcement was successful, as could be seen by the extent of the distress in Great Britain and the reliance of that nation on the license trade with Europe. The report made no mention of the status of American trade, nor was there any reference to a repeal of the French decrees on the terms defined in the Cadore letter to American minister John Armstrong of 5 Aug. 1810.

3Barlow was referring to a 21 Apr. 1812 “Declaration on the Orders in Council,” which had cited Bassano’s 10 Mar. report as proof, the claims of the U.S. notwithstanding, that the Berlin and Milan decrees were still in force. After justifying Great Britain’s continuing adherence to the orders in council on that basis, however, the prince regent stated that if “at any time hereafter the Berlin and Milan Decrees shall, by some authentic act of the French government, publicly promulgated, be expressly and unconditionally repealed, then, and from thenceforth, the Order in Council of the 7th day of January, 1807, and the Order in Council of the 26th day of April, 1809, shall, without any further order, be, and the same, hereby are declared from thenceforth, to be wholly and absolutely revoked” (The Annual Register, or A View of the History, Politics, and Literature, for the Year 1812 [London, 1813], p. 341). This declaration proved to be the first step toward the repeal of the orders in council, but at the time it was made it was widely regarded as evidence that Great Britain would persevere with its antineutral policies irrespective of the consequences (see James Maury to JM, 20 Apr. 1812, and n. 2).

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