James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Congress, 15 June 1812 (Abstract)

§ To Congress

15 June 1812. “I transmit for the information of Congress copies of letters which have passed between the Secretary of State and the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of Great Britain.”1

RC and enclosures, two copies (DNA: RG 233, President’s Messages, 12A-D1; and DNA: RG 46, Legislative Proceedings, 12A-E2). Each RC 1 p.; in the hand of Edward Coles, signed by JM. For enclosures, see n. 1.

1JM enclosed copies of three letters: Foster to Monroe, 10 June (9 pp.) and 14 June 1812 (8 pp.); and Monroe to Foster, 13 June 1812 (4 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, 3:468–70). In his first letter the British minister responded to Monroe’s 6 June letter to him (see JM to Congress, 8 June 1812, and n. 1), stating yet again his demand for the U.S. to produce “any public act” on the part of France that would prove that the Berlin and Milan decrees really had been repealed. Foster reminded the secretary of state that he had sent him notes on this subject as much as three months earlier, adding that he had the right to expect “a written reply.” Expressing some relief that “the door was not absolutely shut to a continuation of our discussions,” Foster then declared to Monroe that Great Britain had never undertaken to “repeal her orders as affecting America alone leaving them in force against other States upon condition that France would except singly and specially America from the operation of her decrees.” He further argued that the British orders were “measures of defense” against the French decrees and that the distinction drawn by the U.S. between those decrees and French “municipal regulations” was untenable, as the French government itself regarded those regulations as the “main engines in [its] novel and monstrous system.”

The British minister then challenged Monroe’s insinuation that Great Britain should have repealed the orders in council on the basis of the evidence of the lifting of the French decrees that was available before the duc de Bassano’s 10 Mar. report on the Continental System. Here Foster contrasted the Cadore letter—which he dismissed as “offering a mere provisional repeal of the decrees upon conditions utterly inadmissable”—with the more recent report by Bassano, which he described as “a very different instrument.” Implying that the latter document was the more important and the more official of the two, Foster continued: “The principles advanced in that report are general; there is no exception made in favour of America; and in the Correspondence of Mr. Barlow, as officially published, he seems to allow that he had no explanation respecting it. How can it therefore be considered in any other light than as a republication of the decrees themselves, which … expressly advances a doctrine that can only be put in practice on the high seas, namely, ‘that free ships shall make free goods,’ since the application of such a principle to vessels in port is absolutely rejected under his Continental system.” On that basis Foster concluded that the U.S. had no case for demanding the repeal of the orders in council, but he mentioned that he was prepared to discuss ways in which Great Britain might “manage their exercise so as to alleviate as much as possible the pressure upon America.”

In his 13 June reply Monroe denied that he had been tardy in any of his diplomatic correspondence or that he had ever failed to explain to Foster “informally” the reasons for U.S. policies. The secretary of state expressed his surprise, however, that the minister should have continued to demand proof of the repeal of the French decrees, the more so since Foster, at the same time that he made this demand, also conceded that such proof “in the extent to which we have a right to claim the Repeal, would not, if afforded, obtain a corresponding repeal of the orders in Council.” Monroe also pointed out that since the repeal of the French decrees as they respected the U.S., the British government had “enlarged its pretensions, as to the Conditions on which the Orders in Council should be repealed, and even invigorated its practice under them.” Monroe therefore understood Great Britain’s conditions for the repeal of the orders to mean that the removal of the French decrees “must be absolute and unconditional, not as to the United States only, but as to all other Neutral nations; nor as far as they affect neutral commerce only, but as they operate internally and affect the trade in British manufactures with the Enemies of Great Britain.” It was therefore impossible for the U.S. to conceive that any arrangement could be made with Great Britain consistent with its rights, honor, and interests. The secretary of state added that the president did wish to terminate the differences with Great Britain and that, despite the unpromising circumstances, he was ready to receive any communications from Foster that had that goal in mind. These communications, he advised, “should be done in writing, as most susceptible of the requisite precision, and least liable to misapprehension.”

On 14 June Foster protested that Monroe still seemed not to understand the real issues in dispute. To clarify further the contents of his 10 June letter, he stated: “It is not the operation of the French decrees upon the British trade with the enemies of Great Britain that has ever formed a subject of discussion between us, and … it is the operation of those decrees upon Great Britain thro’ neutral commerce only which has really been the point at issue. Had America resisted the effect of those decrees in their full extent upon her neutral rights we should never have had a difference upon the subject, but while French Cruizers continued to capture her ships under their operation she seems to have been satisfied if those ships were released by special Imperial mandates issued as the occasion arose, and she has chosen to call municipal an unexampled assumption of authority by France in Countries not under French jurisdiction and expressly invaded for the purpose of preventing their trade with England upon Principles directly applicable to, if they could be enforced against, America.”

Foster then blamed France and the U.S. for causing the Anglo-American impasse by linking the repeal of the orders in council to “the question relative to the right of blockade.” Had these two questions not been so united, Foster claimed, the orders in council would have been repealed in 1810, but Great Britain could not afford not to contend for “a full and absolute Repeal of the French decrees” when it saw that the U.S. “would not renounce her demand for a surrender with the Orders in Council of some of our most important maritime rights.” Complaining that the U.S. had neither explicitly renounced its demand for a repeal of the blockade of May 1806 nor yet disclaimed the pretensions of France “to impose upon the world the new maritime code promulgated … in the late republication of her decrees,” Foster then went on to announce that if the U.S. could produce “a full and unconditional” repeal of the French decrees as it had “a right to demand … in [its] character of a neutral nation,… we shall be ready to meet you with a revocation of the Orders in Council.”

In his final paragraph Foster regretted that Monroe seemed incapable of thinking of any way in which the effects on America of the orders in council might be lessened, as his government sincerely wished that the U.S. might “suffer as little as possible from the incidental effect” of the conflict with France. Claiming that British policies had forced Napoleon “to yield in some degree from his hostile decrees,” Foster stated that the problem for the British government was whether to “push those measures rigorously on until they complete the breaking up of it altogether (the main object of our retaliatory system) or to take advantage of the partial and progressive retractions of it produced by the necessities of the enemy.” On this point Great Britain had wished to consult the interests of America, but under the present circumstances Foster had “not felt encouraged to make [Monroe] any written proposal, arising out of this state of things.” His government, however, would still prefer to find some arrangement that would have “so desirable an effect.”

In reporting JM’s sending of these letters to Congress, the National Intelligencer remarked on 16 June 1812 that their contents presented “no change in the actual posture of our affairs with Great Britain; and afford a most hopeless prospect of any thing to be expected from that quarter.”

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