James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Joel Barlow, 12 May 1812

From Joel Barlow

Paris 12th May 1812

Dear Sir

Since the date of my last letter1 I have by dint of scolding, got the answer which I communicate by this occasion to the Secretary of State.2 The evasions used on this occasion were curious. In the notes to the prince Regents declaration, which I enclose herewith in the Moniteur of the 8th.,3 you will see the only answer they intended to give to my demand of the 1st. of May. The reference made in these notes to a decree of the 28th. of April 1811, gave me occasion to ask for that decree, which I did in a conference with the Duke on the 9th. I told him I never had seen or heard of such a decree; he brought it forth & read it to me, declaring that it had been communicated to Mr. Russell & Mr Serurier last year. It is not in the papers of this legation, & if you have no knowledge of it, the suspicion I have will be confirmed, that it was created last week expressly for this occasion.4

I know not, in State ethics, by what name such management is called. It was still intended not to give me a copy of the decree, & to make the notes in the Moniteur serve as the declaration I required. I told him at last that I must be frank with him. The occasion required it. That as to the notes in the Moniteur, they would be very good if signed by him. That taken as the simple speculations of an editor they would do neither good nor hurt, but given as an answer to an official note on so solemn a subject they would only serve in America to show how the French government could play with the feelings of a foreign agent; that as to arguments in favour of my demand, I could use no more, they were all found in my note; but I must declare to him one fact, which was that on the answer to my demand would depend the question of a vigorous war or a shameful accommodation with England; that I could not tell indeed what the Emperors wish might be on that subject, but he might depend upon what I now said, that without such a declaration on his part, & acts conformable to it, a war against England was impracticable; but with it, it might be regarded as infallible. He then promised the answer, & gave it as you see.5

I shall write so soon by the Wasp that I add no more at present. With great respect & attachment

J. Barlow

RC (DLC); duplicate (DLC: Rives Collection, Madison Papers). Both copies in a clerk’s hand, corrected and signed by Barlow. Duplicate marked with Barlow’s notation: “Original by England. Covered to Mr. Russell.” Minor differences between the copies have not been noted.

2In his 12 May dispatch to Monroe (DNA: RG 59, DD, France; extract 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, 3:603), Barlow described “a pretty sharp conversation with the Duke of Bassano” over the French minister’s reluctance to respond to Barlow’s note of 1 May 1812 (see Barlow to JM, 2 May 1812, and n. 1). Barlow reported that he finally received, on the evening of 11 May, a note from Bassano dated 10 May, the contents of which the American minister considered to be “so important in the present crisis of our affairs with England” that he sent a copy by the Wasp to Jonathan Russell in London. As Barlow explained in his dispatch, the reason for this action was Bassano’s production of the decree of 28 Apr. 1811 (see n. 3, below). The American minister made no comment to the French foreign minister “on the strange manner in which [the decree] had so long been concealed from [him],” but he was clearly skeptical about Bassano’s claim that copies of this document had previously been sent both to Sérurier in Washington and to Russell prior to his departure from Paris for London. Barlow therefore requested Bassano to send him officially a copy of this decree, along with any other documents, in order “to prove to the incredulous of my Country (not to me) that the Decrees of Berlin & Milan were in good faith and unconditionally repealed with regard to the United States.”

Barlow doubted that the tactic of sending a copy of the 28 Apr. 1811 decree to London would compel Great Britain to withdraw the orders in council—that, he added, “would be too great a triumph”—but he believed nonetheless that his attempt to prevent a war by such means was “laudable.” The remainder of the dispatch reported that Napoleon and Bassano had recently left Paris for the commencement of the campaign against Russia, and Barlow surmised that the war with Russia might last longer than he had previously predicted, even to the extent that it could develop into “a national war” similar to the struggle currently taking place in Spain. Barlow mentioned that during Bassano’s absence from Paris he would be corresponding with the duc de Dalberg, “an amiable and intelligent man” with whom he yet hoped to negotiate an acceptable treaty of commerce. Barlow anticipated that such a treaty would be ready by the time the Wasp had returned from Great Britain.

3The 8 May 1812 issue of the Paris Moniteur universel reprinted from the London Courier a translation of the prince regent’s 21 Apr. 1812 declaration on the orders in council (see Barlow to JM, 2 May 1812, and n. 3). Appended to this translation was a set of thirteen notes, the fifth of which countered the prince regent’s skepticism about the alleged repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees with the claim that those decrees had indeed been repealed without reservation with respect to the U.S. The proof of the repeal was adduced by reference to three documents, none of the contents of which was actually cited by the Moniteur: a letter of the grand judge of the Council of Prizes said to be dated 2 Nov. 1810; a similar letter of the same date by the French minister of finance; and a decree of 28 Apr. 1811. The Moniteur then alluded to the results following the revocation, namely the release of American vessels previously detained under the Berlin and Milan decrees, and for further proof of the matter the paper referred its readers to the published diplomatic correspondence of Pinkney and Monroe as well as to the U.S. policy of nonintercourse against Great Britain. The note concluded with the statement that as of that moment there existed no instance of the application of the Berlin and Milan decrees.

4The duplicate has an additional clause here: “& in consequence of my note of the 1st. of May.”

5In his 10 May 1812 letter to Barlow (DNA: RG 59, DD, France, filed at August 1812; translation 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, 3:603), Bassano expressed surprise at the American minister’s demand for proof of the removal of the Berlin and Milan decrees. That revocation, the French foreign minister stated, had been “proven by many official acts,” by Bassano’s correspondence with Barlow’s predecessors and with Barlow himself, and “by the decisions in favor of American vessels.” Bassano enclosed copies of the 25 Dec. 1810 letters of the grand judge of the Council of Prizes and the minister of finance (translations printed ibid., 3:393), to which he added a copy of a decree issued at St. Cloud on 28 Apr. 1811. In this last document Napoleon, after examining the U.S. law of 2 Mar. 1811 enforcing nonintercourse against Great Britain, declared that the policy was “an act of resistance to the arbitrary pretensions consecrated by the British orders in council, and a formal refusal to adhere to a system invading the independence of neutral Powers, and their flag.” On that basis the emperor announced that “the decrees of Berlin and Milan are definitively, and to date from the 1st day of November last, considered as not having existed (non avenus) in regard to American vessels” (translation printed ibid., 3:603).

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