On refusal to negotiate with France

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On refusal to negotiate with France  (1800) 
by Charles James Fox
The speech given by Charles James Fox MP in response to William Pitt the Younger's speech rejecting Overtures of Peace with France. Given in the House of Commons on 3 February 1800. This speech is abridged.

AT so late an hour of the night, I am sure you will do me the justice to believe that I do not mean to go at length into the discussion of this great question. Exhausted as the attention of the House must be, and unaccustomed as I have been of late to attend in my place, nothing but a deep sense of my duty could have induced me to trouble you at all, and particularly to request your indulgence at such an hour.

Sir, my honorable and learned friend [Mr. Erskine] has truly said, ‘that the present is a new era in the war, and the right honorable gentleman opposite to me [Mr. Pitt] feels the justice of the remark; for, by traveling back to the commencement of the war, and referring again to all the topics and arguments which he has so often and so successfully urged upon the House, and by which he has drawn them on to the support of his measures, he is forced to acknowledge that, at the end of a seven years’ conflict, we are come but to a new era in the war, at which he thinks it necessary only to press all his former arguments to induce us to persevere. All the topics which have so often misled us—all the reasoning which has so invariably failed—all the lofty predictions which have so constantly been falsified by events—all the hopes which have amused the sanguine, and all the assurances of the distress and weakness of the enemy which have satisfied the unthinking, are again enumerated and advanced as arguments for our continuing the war. What! at the end of seven years of the most burdensome and the most calamitous struggle in which this country ever was engaged, are we again to be amused with notions of finance, and calculations of the exhausted resources of the enemy, as a ground of confidence and of hope?

Gracious God! Were we not told five years ago that France was not only on the brink and in the jaws of ruin, but that she was actually sunk into the gulf of bankruptcy? Were we not told, as an unanswerable argument against treating, “that she could not hold out another campaign—that nothing but peace could save her—that she wanted only time to recruit her exhausted finances—that to grant her repose was to grant her the means of again molesting this country, and that we had nothing to do but persevere for a short time, in order to save ourselves forever from the consequences of her ambition and her Jacobinism?” What! after having gone on from year to year upon assurances like these, and after having seen the repeated refutations of every prediction, are we again to be gravely and seriously assured, that we have the same prospect of success on the same identical grounds? And, withoughut any other argument or security, are we invited, at this new era of the war, to conduct it upon principles which, if adopted and acted upon, may make it eternal? If the right honorable gentleman shall succeed in prevailing on Parliament and the country to adopt the principles which he has advanced this night, I see no possible termination to the contest. No man can see an end to it; and upon the assurances and predictions which have so uniformly failed, we are called upon not merely to refuse all negotiations, but to countenance principles and views as distant from wisdom and justice, as they are in their nature wild and impracticable.

I must lament that the right honorable gentleman [Mr. Pitt] has thoughught proper to go at such length, and with such severity of minute investigation, into all the early circumstances of the war, which (whatever they were) are nothing to the present purpose, and ought not to influence the present feelings of the House. I certainly shall not follow him through the whole of this tedious detail, though I do not agree with him in many of his assertions. I do not know what impression his narrative may make on other gentlemen; but I will tell him fairly and candidly, he has not convinced me. I continue to think, and until I see better grounds for changing my opinion than any that the right honorable gentleman has this night produced, I shall continue to think, and to say, plainly and explicitly, “that this country was the aggressor in the war.” But with regard to Austria and Prussia—is there a man who, for one moment, can dispute that they were the aggressors? It will be vain for the right honorable gentleman to enter into long and plausible reasoning against the evidence of documents so clear, so decisive—so frequently, so thoughroughly investigated. The unfortunate monarch, Louis XVI., himself, as well as thoughse who were in his confidence, has borne decisive testimony to the fact, that between him and the emperor [Leopold of Austria] there were an intimate correspondence and a perfect understanding. Do I mean by this that a positive treaty was entered into for the dismemberment of France? Certainly not. But no man can read the declarations which were made at Mantua as well as at Pilnitz, as they are given by M. Bertrand de Molville, withoughut acknowledging that this was not merely an intention, but a declaration of an intention, on the part of the great powers of Germany, to interfere in the internal affairs of France, for the purpose of regulating the government against the opinion of the people. This, though not a plan for the partition of France, was, in the eye of reason and common sense, an aggression against France.

Let us suppose the case to be that of Great Britain. Will any gentleman say that if two of the great powers should make a public declaration that they were determined to make an attack on this kingdom as soon as circumstances should favor their intention; that they only waited for this occasion, and that in the meantime they would keep their forces ready for the purpose, it would not be considered by the Parliament and people of this country as a hostile aggression? And is there any Englishman in existence who is such a friend to peace as to say that the nation could retain its honor and dignity if it should sit down under such a menace? I know too well what is due to the national character of England to believe that there would be two opinions on the case, if thus put home to our own feelings and understandings. We must, then, respect in others the indignation which such an act would excite in ourselves; and when we see it established on the most indisputable testimony, that both at Pilnitz and at Mantua declarations were made to this effect, it is idle to say that, as far as the emperor and the king of Prussia were concerned, they were not the aggressors in the war.

I really, sir, can not think it necessary to follow the right honorable gentleman into all the minute details which he has thought proper to give us respecting the first aggression; but that Austria and Prussia were the aggressors, not a man in any country, who has ever given himself the trouble to think at all on the subject, can doubt. Nothing could be more hostile than their whole proceedings. Did they not declare to France that it was her internal concerns, not her external proceedings, which provoked them to confederate against her? Look back to the proclamations with which they set out. Read the declarations which they made themselves to justify their appeal to arms. They did not pretend to fear her ambition—her conquests—her troubling her neighbours; but they accused her of new-modeling her own government. They said nothing of her aggressions abroad. They spoke only of her clubs and societies at Paris.

Sir, in all this, I am not justifying the French; I am not trying to absolve them from blame, either in their internal or external policy. I think, on the contrary, that their successive rulers have been as bad and as execrable, in various instances, as any of the most despotic and unprincipled governments that the world ever saw. I think it impossible, sir, that it should have been otherwise. It was not to be expected that the French, when once engaged in foreign wars, should not endeavor to spread destruction around them, and to form plans of aggrandizement and plunder on every side. Men bred in the school of the house of Bourbon could not be expected to act otherwise. They could not have lived so long under their ancient masters withoughut imbibing the restless ambition, the perfidy, and the insatiable spirit of the race. They have imitated the practise of their great prototype, and, through their whole career of mischiefs and of crimes, have done no more than servilely trace the steps of their own Louis XIV. If they have overrun countries and ravaged them, they have done it upon Bourbon principles; if they have ruined and dethroned sovereigns, it is entirely after the Bourbon manner; if they have even fraternized with the people of foreign countries, and pretended to make their cause their own, they have only faithfully followed the Bourbon example. They have constantly had Louis, the Grand Monarch, in their eye.

But it ‘may be said that this example was long ago, and that we ought not to refer to a period so distant. True, it is a remote period applied to the man, but not so of the principle. The principle was never extinct; nor has its operation been suspended in France, except, perhaps, for a short interval, during the administration of Cardinal Fleury; and my complaint against the Republic of France is, not that she has generated new crimes—not that she has promulgated new mischief—but that she has adopted and acted upon the principles which have been so fatal to Europe under the practise of the House of Bourbon. It is said, that whereever the French have gone they have introduced revolution—they have sought for the means of disturbing neighbouring states, and have not been content with mere conquest. What is this but adopting the ingenious scheme of Louis XIV? He was not content with merely overrunning a state. Whenever he came into a new territory, he established what he called his chamber of claims, a most convenient device, by which he inquired whether the conquered country or province had any dormant or disputed claims—any cause of complaint—any unsettled demand upon any other state or province—upon which he might wage war upon such state, thereby discover again ground for new devastation, and gratify his ambition by new acquisitions. What have the republicans done more atrocious, more Jacobinical than this? Louis went to war with Holland. His pretext was, that Holland had not treated him with sufficient respect. A very just and proper cause for war, indeed!

Surely sir, if we must be thus rigid in scrutinizing the conduct of an enemy, we ought to be equally careful in not committing ourselves, our honor, and our safety, with an ally who has manifested the same want of respect for the rights of other nations. Surely, if it is material to know the character of a power with whom you are about only to treat for peace, it is more material to know the character of allies with whom you are about to enter into the closest connection of friendship, and for whose exertions you are about to pay. Now, sir, what was the conduct of your own allies to Poland? Is there a single atrocity of the French, in Italy, in Switzerland, in Egypt, if you please, more unprincipled and inhuman than that of Russia, Austria, and Prussia, in Poland? What has there been in the conduct of the French to foreign powers; what in the violation of solemn treaties; what in the plunder, devastation, and dismemberment of unoffending countries; what in the horrors and murders perpetrated upon the subdued victims of their rage in any district which they have overrun, worse than the conduct of those three great powers in the miserable, devoted, and trampled-on Kingdom of Poland, and who have been, or are, our allies in this war for religion and social order, and the rights of nations?

“Oh, but you regretted the partition of Poland!” Yes, regretted! you regretted the violence, and that is all you did. You united yourselves with the actors; you, in fact, by your acquiescence, confirmed the atrocity. But they are your allies; and though they overran and divided Poland, there was nothing, perhaps, in the manner of doing it which stamped it with peculiar infamy and disgrace. The hero of Poland [Suvarof], perhaps, was merciful and mild! He was “as much superior to Bonaparte in bravery, and in the discipline which he maintained, as he was superior in virtue and humanity!” He was animated by the purest principles of Christianity, and was restrained in his career by the benevolent precepts which it inculcates. Was he? Let unfortunate Warsaw, and the miserable inhabitants of the suburb of Praga in particular tell! What do we understand to have been the conduct of this magnanimous hero, with whom, it seems, Bonaparte is not to be compared? He entered the suburb of Praga, the most populous suburb of Warsaw; and there he let his soldiery loose on the miserable, unarmed, and unresisting people. Men, women, and children, nay, infants at the breast, were doomed to one indiscriminate massacre! thousands of them were inhumanly, wantonly butchered, and for what? Because they have dared to join in a wish to ameliorate their own condition as a people, and to improve their Constitution, which had been confessed by their own sovereign to be in want of amendment. And such is the hero upon whom the cause of religion and social order is to repose! And such is the man whom we praise for his discipline and his virtue, and whom we hold out as our boast and our dependence; while the conduct of Bonaparte unfits him to be even treated with as an enemy?

“But France,” it seems, “has roused all the nations of Europe against her”; and the long catalog has been read to you, to prove that she must have been atrocious to provoke them all. Is it true, sir, that she has roused them all? It does not say much for the address of his majesty’s ministers, if this be the case. What, sir! have all your negotiations, all your declamations all your money, been squandered in vain? Have you not succeeded in stirring the indignation, and engaging the assistance, of a single power? But you do yourselves injustice. Between the crimes of France and your money the rage has been excited, and full as much is due to your seductions as to her atrocities. My honorable and learned friend [Mr. Erskine] was correct, therefore, in his argument; for you can not take both sides of the case; you can not accuse France of having provoked all Europe, and at the same time claim the merit of having roused all Europe to join you.

No man regrets, sir, more than I do, the enormities that France has committed; but how do they bear upon the question as it at present stands? Are we for ever to deprive ourselves of the benefits of peace because France has perpetrated acts of injustice? Sir, we can not acquit ourselves upon such ground. We have negotiated. With the knowledge of these acts of injustice and disorder, we have treated with them twice; yet the right honorable gentleman can not enter into negotiation with them again; and it is worth while to attend to the reasons that he gives for refusing their offer. The Revolution itself is no more an objection now than it was in the year 1796, when he did negotiate. For the government of France at that time was surely as unstable as it is at present.

The right honorable gentleman, however, thinks otherwise; and he points out four distinct possible cases, besides the reestablishment of the Bourbon family, in which he would agree to treat with the French:

(1) “If Bonaparte shall conduct himself so as to convince him that he has abandoned the principles which were objectionable in his predecessors, and that he will be actuated by a more moderate system.” I ask you, sir, if this is likely to be ascertained in war? It is the nature of war not to allay, but to inflame the passions; and it is not by the invective and abuse which have been thrown upon him and his government, nor by the continued irritations which war is sure to give, that the virtues of moderation and forbearance are to be nourished.

(2) “If, contrary to the expectations of ministers, the people of France shall show a disposition to acquiesce in the government of Bonaparte.” Does the right honorable gentleman mean to say, that because it is a usurpation on the part of the present chief, that therefore the people are not likely to acquiesce in it? I have not time, sir, to discuss the question of this usurpation, or whether it is likely to be permanent; but I certainly have not so good an opinion of the French, nor of any people, as to believe that it will be short-lived, merely because it was a usurpation, and because it is a system of military despotism. Cromwell was a usurper; and in many points there may be found a resemblance between him and the present chief consul of France. There is no doubt but that, on several occasions of his life, Cromwell’s sincerity may be questioned, particularly in his self-denying ordinance, in his affected piety, and other things; but would it not have been insanity in France and Spain to refuse to treat with him because he was a usurper or wanted candor? No, sir, these are not the maxims by which governments are actuated. They do not inquire so much into the means by which power may have been acquired, as into the fact of where the power resides. The people did acquiesce in the government of Cromwell.

But it may be said that the splendor of his talents, the vigor of his administration, the high tone with which he spoke to foreign nations, the success of his arms, and the character, which he gave to the English name, induced the nation to acquiesce in his usurpation; and that we must not try Bonaparte by his example. Will it be said that Bonaparte is not a man of great abilities? Will it be said that he has not, by his victories, thrown a splendor over even the violence of the Revolution, and that he does not conciliate the French people by the high and lofty tone in which he speaks to foreign nations? Are not the French, then, as likely as the English in the case of Cromwell, to acquiesce in his government? If they should do so, the right honorable gentleman may find that this possible predicament may fail him. He may find that though one power may make war, it requires two to make peace.

(3) “If the allies of this country shall be less successful than they have every reason to expect they will be in stirring up the people of France against Bonaparte, and in the further prosecution of the war.” And

(4) “If the pressure of the war should be heavier upon us than it would be convenient for us to continue to bear.” These are the other two possible emergencies in which the right honorable gentleman would treat even with Bonaparte. Sir, I have often blamed the right honorable gentleman for being disingenuous and insincere. On the present occasion I certainly can not charge him with any such thing. He has made to-night a most honest confession. He is open and candid. He tells Bonaparte fairly what he has to expect. “I mean,” says he “to do everything in my power to raise up the people of France against you; I have engaged a number of allies, and our combined efforts shall be used to excite insurrection and civil war in France. I will strive to murder you, or to get you sent away. If I succeed, well; but if I fail, then I will treat with you. My resources being exhausted, even my ‘solid system of finance’ having failed to supply me with the means of keeping together my allies, and of feeding the discontents I have excited in France—then you may expect to see me renounce my high tone, my attachment to the House of Bourbon, my abhorrence of your crimes, my alarm at your principles; for then I shall be ready to own that, on the balance and comparison of circumstances, there will be less danger in concluding a peace than in the continuance of war!” Is this political language for one state to hold to another? And what sort of peace does the right honorable gentleman expect to receive in that case? Does he think that Bonaparte would grant to baffled insolence, to humiliated pride, to disappointment, and to imbecility the same terms which he would be ready to give now?

Sir, we have heard to-night a great many most acrimonious invectives against Bonaparte, against all the course of his conduct, and against the unprincipled manner in which he seized upon the reins of government. I will not make his defense. I think all this sort of invective, which is used only to inflame the passions of this House and of the country, exceedingly ill-timed, and very impolitic. But I say I will not make his defense. I am not sufficiently in possession of materials upon which to form an opinion on the character and conduct of this extraordinary man.

On his arrival in France, he found the government in a very unsettled state, and the whole affairs of the Republic deranged, crippled, and involved. He thought it necessary to reform the government; and he did reform it, just in the way in which a military man may be expected to carry on a reform. He seized on the whole authority for himself. It will not be expected from me that I should either approve or apologize for such an act. I am certainly not for reforming governments by such expedients; but how this House can be so violently indignant at the idea of military despotism, is, I own, a little singular, when I see the composure with which they can observe it nearer home—nay, when I see them regard it as a frame of government most peculiarly suited to the exercise of free opinion, on a subject the most important of any that can engage the attention of a people. Was it not the system which was so happily and so advantageously established of late, all over Ireland, and which even now the government may, at its pleasure, proclaim over the whole of that kingdom? Are not the persons and property of the people left, in many districts, at this moment, to the entire will of military commanders?

“It is not the interest of Bonaparte,” it seems, “sincerely to enter into a negotiation, or if he should even make peace, sincerely to keep it.” But how are we to decide upon his sincerity? By refusing to treat with him? Surely, if we mean to discover his sincerity, we ought to hear the propositions which he desires to make. “But peace would be unfriendly to his system of military despotism.” Sir, I hear a great deal about the short-lived nature of military despotism. I wish the history of the world would bear gentlemen out in this description of it. Was not the government erected by Augustus Cæsar a military despotism? and yet it endured for six or seven hundred years. Military despotism, unfortunately, is too likely in its nature to be permanent, and it is not true that it depends on the life of the first usurper. Though half of the Roman emperors were murdered, yet the military despotism went on; and so it would be, I fear, in France. If Bonaparte should disappear from the scene, to make room perhaps, for Berthier, or any other general, what difference would that make in the quality of French despotism, or in our relation to the country? We may as safely treat with a Bonaparte, or with any of his successors, be they who they may, as we could with a Louis XVI., a Louis XVII., or a Louis XVIII. There is no difference but in the name. Where the power essentially resides, thither we ought to go for peace.

But, sir, if we are to reason on the fact, I should think that it is the interest of Bonaparte to make peace. A lover of military glory, as that general must necessarily be, may he not think that his measure of glory is full; that it may be tarnished by a reverse of fortune, and can hardly be increased by any new laurels? He must feel that, in the situation to which he is now raised, he can no longer depend on his own fortune, his own genius, and his own talents, for a continuance of his success. He must be under the necessity of employing other generals, whose misconduct or incapacity might endanger his power, or whose triumphs even might affect the interest which he holds in the opinion of the French. Peace, then, would secure to him what he has achieved, and fix the inconstancy of fortune.

But this will not be his only motive. He must see that France also requires a respite—a breathing interval, to recruit her wasted strength. To procure her this respite, would be, perhaps, the attainment of more solid glory, as well as the means of acquiring more solid power, than anything which he can hope to gain from arms, and from the proudest triumphs. May he not, then, be zealous to secure this fame, the only species of fame, perhaps, that is worth acquiring? Nay, granting that his soul may still burn with the thirst of military exploits, is it not likely that he is disposed to yield to the feelings of the French people, and to consolidate his power by consulting their interests? I have a right to argue in this way when suppositions of his insincerity are reasoned upon on the other side. Sir, these aspersions are, in truth, always idle, and even mischievous. I have been too long accustomed to hear imputations and calumnies thrown out upon great and honorable characters, to be much influenced by them.

My honorable and learned friend [Mr. Erskine] has paid this night a most just, deserved, and eloquent tribute of applause to the memory of that great and unparalleled character, who is so recently lost, to the world. I must, like him, beg leave to dwell a moment on the venerable George Washington, though I know that it is impossible for me to bestow anything like adequate praise on a character which gave us, more than any other human being, the example of a perfect man; yet, good, great, and unexampled as General Washington was, I can remember the time when he was not better spoken of in this House than Bonaparte is at present. The right honorable gentleman who opened this debate [Mr. Dundas] may remember in what terms of disdain, or virulence, even of contempt, General Washington was spoken of by gentlemen on that side of the House. Does he not recollect with what marks of indignation any member was stigmatized as an enemy to this country who mentioned with common respect the name of General Washington? If a negotiation had then been proposed to be opened with that great man, what would have been said? Would you treat with a rebel, a traitor! What an example would you not give by such an act! I do not know whether the right honorable gentleman may not yet possess some of his old prejudices on the subject. I hope not: I hope by this time we are all convinced that a republican government, like that of America, may exist without danger or injury to social order, or to established monarchies. They have happily shown that they can maintain the relations of peace and amity with other states. They have shown, too, that they are alive to the feelings of honor; but they do not lose sight of plain good sense and discretion. They have not refused to negotiate with the French, and they have accordingly the hopes of a speedy termination of every difference. We cry up their conduct, but we do not imitate it.

Where, then, sir, is this war, which on every side is pregnant with such horrors, to be carried? Where is it to stop? Not till we establish the House of Bourbon! And this you cherish the hope of doing, because you have had a successful campaign. So that we are called upon to go on merely as a speculation. We must keep Bonaparte for some time longer at war, as a state of probation. Gracious God, sir! is war a state of probation? Is peace a rash system? Is it dangerous for nations to live in amity with each other? Are your vigilance, your policy, your common powers of observation, to be extinguished by putting an end to the horrors of war? Can not this state of probation be as well undergone without adding to the catalogue of human sufferings? “But we must pause!” What! must the bowels of Great Britain be torn out—her best blood be spilled—her treasures wasted—that you may make an experiment? Put yourselves—oh! that you would put yourselves in the field of battle, and learn to judge of the sort of horrors that you excite! In former wars a man might, at least, have some feeling, some interest, that served to balance in his mind the impressions which a scene of carnage and of death must inflict.

If a man had been present at the Battle of Blenheim, for instance, and had inquired the motive of the battle, there was not a soldier engaged who could not have satisfied his curiosity, and even, perhaps, allayed his feelings. They were fighting, they knew, to repress the uncontrolled ambition of the Grand Monarch. But if a man were present now at a field of slaughter, and were to inquire for what they were fighting— “Fighting!” would be the answer; “they are not fighting; they are pausing.” “Why is that man expiring? Why is that other writhing with agony? What means this implacable fury?” The answer must be: “You are quite wrong, sir; you deceive yourself—they are not fighting—do not disturb them—they are merely pausing! This man is not expiring with agony—that man is not dead—he is only pausing! Lord help you, sir! they are not angry with one another; they have no cause of quarrel; but their country thinks that there should be a pause. All that you see, sir, is nothing like fighting—there is no harm, nor cruelty, nor bloodshed in it whatever; it is nothing more than a political pause! It is merely to try an experiment—to see whether Bonaparte will not behave himself better than heretofore; and in the meantime we have agreed to a pause, in pure friendship!” And is this the way, sir, that you are to show yourselves the advocates of order? You take up a system calculated to uncivilize the world—to destroy order—to trample on religion—to stifle in the heart, not merely the generosity of noble sentiment, but the affections of social nature; and in the prosecution of this system, you spread terror and devastation all around you.

Sir, I have done. I have told you my opinion. I think you ought to have given a civil, clear, and explicit answer to the overture which was fairly and handsomely made you. If you were desirous that the negotiation should have included all your allies, as the means of bringing about a general peace, you should have told Bonaparte so. But I believe you were afraid of his agreeing to the proposal.


This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.