March 23 1812: News of French Sinking American Ships

On March 23, 18123, news arrives that France has sunk American ships carrying flour to British troops in Spain. Many in Congress  now call for war against France. The incident is seen by many as further proof that France has not repealed the Berlin and Milan Decrees. Henry Adams [1] describes the meeting between an angry American Secretary of State Monroe and the French Ambassador, Louis Charles Barbe Serurier, as a result of the news: 

"Serurier was in despair. "I am just from Mr. Monroe's office," he wrote March 23; [Serurier to Maret, March 23, 1812; Archives des Aff. tr] "I have never yet seen him more agitated, more discomposed. He addressed me abruptly : ' Well, sir, it is then decided that we are to receive nothing but outrages from France ! And at what a moment too ! At the very instant when we were going to war with her enemies.' " When the French minister tried to check his vehemence of reproach, Monroe broke out again : 

"Remember where we were two days ago. You know what warlike measures have been taken for three months past; adopted slowly, they have been progressively followed up. We have made use of Henry's documents as a last means of exciting (pour achever d'exalter) the nation and Congress; you have seen by all the use we have made of them whither we were aiming ; within a week we were going to propose the embargo, and the declaration of war was the immediate consequence of it. A ship has arrived from London, bringing us despatches to February 5, which contain nothing offering a hope of repeal of the orders; this was all that was needed to carry the declaration of war, which would have passed almost unanimously. It is at such a moment that your frigates come and burn our ships, destroy all our work, and put the Administration in the falsest and most terrible position in which a government can find itself placed." 

For the hundredth time Monroe repeated the old story that the repeal of the French Decrees was the foundation of the whole American system; "that should the Executive now propose the embargo or the declaration of war, the whole Federal party reinforced by the Clinton party, the Smith party, and the discontented Republicans would rise in mass and demand why we persist in making war on England for maintaining her Orders in Council when we have proofs so recent and terrible that the French Decrees are not withdrawn." He added that if the question were put at such a moment, he did not doubt that the Government would lose its majority.
Foster also attempted to interfere in this complicated quarrel:

"I took an occasion to wait on Mr. Monroe," wrote Foster April 1 , "to hear what he would say relative to this outrage. He seemed much struck with the enormity of it, and . . . admitted that there were some circumstances in this particular instance of peculiar violence, and calling for the highest expressions of resentment on the part of this government. He told me that M. Serurier in an interview he had with him on the subject stated, his disbelief in the fact."

Foster wrote an official note to Monroe, using the recent French outrages as new ground for demanding to see the instrument by which the decrees were said to be repealed." 

1. Henry Adams,  History of the United States 1809-17 (New York, Library of America, 1986), pages 426-427. 

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