History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/First/II:16

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Chapter 16: Anthony Merry[edit]

One of Addington's friendly acts was the appointment of Anthony Merry as Brisish minister to the United States. For this selection Rufus King was directly responsible. Two names were mentioned to him by the Foreign Office as those of the persons entitled to claim the place; one was that of Merry, the other was that of Francis James Jackson.

"As I have had the opportunity of knowing both these gentlemen during my residence here," wrote Minister King to Secretary Madison,[1] "it was not without some regret that I heard of the intention to appoint Mr. Jackson in lieu of Mr. Merry. From this information I have been led to make further inquiry concerning their reputations, and the result has proved rather to increase than to lessen my solicitude. Mr. Jackson is said to be positive, vain, and intolerant. He is moreover filled with English prejudices in respect to all other countries, and as far as his opinions concerning the United States are known, seems more likely to disserve than to benefit a liberal intercourse between them and his country. On the other hand, Mr. Merry appears to be a plain, unassuming, and amiable man, who having lived for many years in Spain is in almost every point of character the reverse of Mr. Jackson, who were he to go to America would go for the sake of present employment and with the hope of leaving it as soon as he could receive a similar appointment in Europe; while Mr. Merry wishes for the mission with the view of obtaining what he believes will prove to be an agreeable and permanent residence."

In deference to Rufus King's wishes or for some other reason Merry received the appointment. Doubtless he came to America in hope of finding a "permanent residence," as King remarked; but it could hardly be agreeable, as he hoped. He was a thorough Englishman, with a wife more English than himself. He was not prepared for the isolation of the so-called Federal City, and he did not expect to arrive at a moment when the United States government, pleased with having curbed Bonaparte, was preparing to chasten Spain and to discipline England.

Landing at Norfolk from a ship of war Nov. 4, 1803, Merry was obliged to hire a vessel to carry himself and his belongings to Washington, where, after a tempestuous voyage, he at last arrived, November 26. Possibly Mr. and Mrs. Merry, like other travellers, would have grumbled even though Washington had supplied them with Aladdin's palace and Aladdin's lamp to furnish it; but the truth was not to be denied that the Federal City offered few conveniences, and was better suited for members of Congress, who lived without wives in boarding-houses, than for foreign ministers, with complaining wives, who were required to set up large establishments and to entertain on a European scale.

"I cannot describe to you," wrote Merry privately,[2] "the difficulty and expense which I have to encounter in fixing myself in a habitation. By dint of money I have just secured two small houses on the common which is meant to become in time the city of Washington. They are mere shells of houses, with bare walls and without fixtures of any kind, even without a pump or well, all which I must provide at my own cost. Provisions of any kind, especially vegetables, are frequently hardly to be obtained at any price. So miserable is our situation."

Had these been the worst trials that awaited the new British minister, he might have been glad to meet them; for when once surmounted, they favored him by preventing social rivalry. Unfortunately he met more serious annoyances. Until his arrival, Yrujo was the only minister of full rank in the United States; and Yrujo's intimate relations at the White House had given him family privileges. For this reason the Spanish minister made no struggle to maintain etiquette, but living mostly in Philadelphia disregarded the want of what he considered good manners at Washington, according to which he was placed on the same social footing with his own secretary of legation. Yet Yrujo, American in many respects, belonged to the school of Spanish diplomacy which had for centuries studied points of honor. He might well have made with his own mouth the celebrated retort which one of his predecessors made to Philip II., who reproached him with sacrificing an interest to a ceremony: "How a ceremony? Your Majesty's self is but a ceremony!" Although Yrujo submitted to Jefferson, he quarrelled with Pichon on this point, for Pichon was only a secretary in charge of the French legation. In November, 1803, Yrujo's friendship for Jefferson was cooling, and he waited the arrival of Merry in the hope of finding a champion of diplomatic rights. Jefferson, on the other hand, waited Merry's arrival in order to establish, once for all, a new social code; and that there might be no misunderstanding, he drafted with his own hand the rules which were to control Executive society,—rules intended to correct a tendency toward monarchical habits introduced by President Washington.

In 1801 on coming into power Jefferson announced that he would admit not the smallest distinction that might separate him from the mass of his fellow-citizens. He dispensed with the habit of setting apart certain days and hours for receiving visits of business or curiosity, announcing that he would on any day and at any hour receive in a friendly and hospitable manner those who should call upon him.[3] He evidently wished to place the White House on the footing of easy and generous hospitality which was the pride of every Virginia gentleman. No man should be turned away from its doors; its table, liberal and excellent, should be filled with equal guests, whose self-respect should be hurt by no artificial rules of precedence. Such hospitality cost both time and money; but Washington was a petty village, society was very small, and Jefferson was a poor economist. He entertained freely and handsomely.

"Yesterday I dined with the President," wrote Senator Plumer of New Hampshire, Dec. 25, 1802.[4] "His rule is to have about ten members of Congress at a time. We sat down to the table at four, rose at six, and walked immediately into another room and drank coffee. We had a very good dinner, with a profusion of fruits and sweetmeats. The wine was the best I ever drank, particularly the champagne, which was indeed delicious. I wish his French politics were as good as his French wines."

So long as this manner of life concerned only the few Americans who were then residents or visitors at Washington, Jefferson found no great difficulty in mixing his company and disregarding precedence. Guests accommodated themselves to the ways of the house, took care of their own comfort, went to table without special request, and sat wherever they found a vacant chair; but foreigners could hardly be expected at first to understand what Jefferson called the rule of pell-mell. Thornton and Pichon, being only secretaries of legation, rather gained than lost by it; but Yrujo resented it in secret; and all eyes were turned to see how the new British minister would conduct himself in the scramble.

A month afterwards the President drew up the Code which he called "Canons of Etiquette to be observed by the Executive,"[5] and which received the approval of the Cabinet. Foreign ministers, he said, were to pay the first visit to the "ministers of the nation;" their wives were to receive the first visit from the wives of "national ministers." No grades among diplomatic members were to give precedence; "all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office." Finally, "to maintain the principle of equality, or of pêle-mêle, and prevent the growth of precedence out of courtesy, the members of the Executive will practise at their own houses, and recommend an adherence to, the ancient usage of the country,—of gentlemen in mass giving precedence to the ladies in mass in passing from one apartment where they are assembled into another." Such, according to Rufus King, whose aid was invoked on this occasion, was the usage in London.[6]

Merry duly arrived in Washington, and was told by Madison that the President would receive his letter of credence Nov. 29, according to the usual formality. At the appointed hour the British minister, in diplomatic uniform, as was required in the absence of any hint to the contrary, called upon Madison, and was taken to the White House, where he was received by the President. Jefferson's manner of receiving guests was well known, although this was the first occasion on which he had given audience to a new foreign minister. Among several accounts of his appearance at such times, that of Senator Plumer was one of the best.

"In a few moments after our arrival," said the senator, writing two years before Merry's mishap,[7] "a tall high-boned man came into the room. He was dressed, or rather undressed, in an old brown coat, red waistcoat, old corduroy small-clothes much soiled, woolen hose, and slippers without heels. I thought him a servant, when General Varnum surprised me by announcing that it was the President."

The "Evening Post," about a year later, described him as habitually appearing in public "dressed in long boots with tops turned down about the ankles like a Virginia buck; overalls of corduroy faded, by frequent immersions in soap suds, from a yellow to a dull white; a red single-breasted waistcoat; a light brown coat with brass buttons, both coat and waistcoat quite threadbare; linen very considerably soiled; hair uncombed and beard unshaven." In truth the Virginia republicans cared little for dress. "You know that the Virginians have some pride in appearing in simple habiliments," wrote Joseph Story in regard to Jefferson, "and are willing to rest their claim to attention upon their force of mind and suavity of manners." Indeed, "Virginia carelessness" was almost a proverb.[8]

On the occasion of Merry's reception, the President's chief offence in etiquette consisted in the slippers without heels. No law of the United States or treaty stipulation forbade Jefferson to receive Merry in heelless slippers, or for that matter in bare feet, if he thought proper to do so. Yet Virginia gentlemen did not intentionally mortify their guests; and perhaps Madison would have done better to relieve the President of such a suspicion by notifying Merry beforehand that he would not be expected to wear full dress. In that case the British minister might have complimented Jefferson by himself appearing in slippers without heels.

A card of invitation was next sent, asking Mr. and Mrs. Merry to dine at the White House, December 2. Such an invitation was in diplomatic usage equivalent to a command, and Merry at once accepted it. The new minister was then told that he must call on the heads of departments. He remonstrated, saying that Liston, his predecessor, had been required to make the first visit only to the Secretary of State; but he was told, in effect, that what had been done under the last Administration was no rule for the present one. Merry acquiesced, and made his calls. These pin-thrusts irritated him; but he was more seriously inconvenienced by the sudden withdrawal of diplomatic privileges by the Senate, although VicePresident Burr took occasion to explain that the Senate's action was quite unconnected with the President's "canons of etiquette," and was in truth due to some indiscretion of Yrujo in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile the President took an unusual step. When two countries were at war, neutral governments commonly refrained from inviting the representative of one belligerent to meet the representative of the other, unless on formal occasions where the entire diplomatic body was invited, or in crowds where contact was not necessary. Still more rarely were such incongruous guests invited to an entertainment supposed to be given in honor of either individual. No one knew this rule better than Jefferson, who had been himself four years in diplomatic service at Paris, besides being three years Secretary of State to President Washington at Philadelphia. He knew that the last person whom Merry would care to meet was Pichon, the French chargé; yet he not only invited Pichon, but pressed him to attend. The Frenchman, aware that Merry was to be mortified by the etiquette of the dinner, and watching with delight the process by which Jefferson, day after day, took a higher tone toward England, wrote an account of the affair to Talleyrand.[9] He said:—

"I was invited to this dinner. I had learned from the President what was the matter (ce qui en était), when I went to tell him that I was going for some days to Baltimore, where I was called by the affairs of the frigate 'La Poursuivante.' The President was so obliging as to urge my return in order to be present with Mme. Pichon at the dinner (Le Président eut l'honnêteté de me presser de revenir pour être au diner). I came back here, although business required a longer stay at Baltimore. Apart from the reason of respect due to the President, I had that of witnessing what might happen (j'avais celle de connaître ce qui se passerait)."

Pichon accordingly hurried back from Baltimore, especially at the President's request, in order to have the pleasure of seeing Jefferson humiliate his own guest in his own house.

Pichon was gratified by the result. At four o'clock on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 1803, this curious party assembled at the White House,—Mr. and Mrs. Merry, the Marquis Yrujo and his American wife, M. Pichon and his American wife, Mr. and Mrs. Madison, and some other persons whose names were not mentioned. When dinner was announced, the President offered his hand to Mrs. Madison and took her to table, placing her on his right. Mme. Yrujo took her seat on his left.

"Mrs. Merry was placed by Mr. Madison below the Spanish minister, who sat next to Mrs. Madison. With respect to me," continued the British minister in his account of the affair,[10] "I was proceeding to place myself, though without invitation, next to the wife of the Spanish minister, when a member of the House of Representatives passed quickly by me and took the seat, without Mr. Jefferson's using any means to prevent it, or taking any care that I might be otherwise placed. . .
"I will beg leave to intrude a moment longer on your Lordship's time," continued Merry's report, "by adding to this narrative that among the persons (none of those who were of this country were the principal officers of the government except Mr. Madison) whom the President selected for a dinner which was understood to be given to me, was M. Pichon the French chargé d'affaires. I use the word selected, because it could not be considered as a diplomatic dinner, since he omitted to invite to it the Danish chargé d'affaires, who, with the Spanish minister, form the whole body."

Merry's report was brief; but Yrujo, who also made an official report to his Government, after mentioning the neglect shown to Merry before dinner, added a remark that explained the situation more exactly:[11]

"I observed immediately the impression that such a proceeding of the President must have on Mr. and Mrs. Merry; and their resentment could not but be increased at seeing the manifest, and in my opinion studied, preference given by the President throughout to me and my wife over him and Mrs. Merry."

There the matter might have rested, had not Madison carried the new "canons" beyond the point of endurance. December 6, four days after the dinner at the White House, the British minister was to dine with the Secretary of State. Pichon and Yrujo were again present, and all the Cabinet with their wives. Yrujo's report described the scene that followed.

"I should observe," said he, "that until then my wife and I had enjoyed in the houses of Cabinet ministers the precedence of which we had been deprived in the President's house; but on this day the Secretary of State too altered his custom, without informing us beforehand of his resolution, and took to table the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury. This unexpected conduct produced at first some confusion, during which the wife of the British minister was left without any one giving her his hand, until her husband advanced, with visible indignation, and himself took her to table."

Even Pichon, though pleased to see the British minister humbled, felt his diplomatic pride a little scandalized at this proceeding. He admitted that it was an innovation, and added,—

"There is no doubt that Mr. Madison in this instance wished to establish in his house the same formality as at the President's, in order to make Mr. Merry feel more keenly the scandal he had made; but this incident increased it."

The scandal which Merry had made consisted in saying that he believed his treatment at the White House was a premeditated insult against his country. Madison's course took away any remaining doubt on the subject in his mind. Merry became bitter. He wrote home informally:[12]

"On this occasion, also, the pas and the preference in every respect was taken by, and given to, the wives of the Secretaries of the Departments (a set of beings as little without the manners as without the appearance of gentlewomen), the foreign ministers and their wives being left to take care of themselves. In short the latter are now placed here in a situation so degrading to the countries they represent, and so personally disagreeable to themselves, as to have become almost intolerable. The case yesterday was so marked and so irritating that I determined to hand Mrs. Merry myself to the table, and to place ourselves wherever we might conveniently find seats."

Merry then received an official explanation that Jefferson invariably gave precedence to the wives of his Cabinet ministers, and that he made no exceptions in favor of foreigners in his rule of pêle-mêle.[13] Merry notified Lord Hawkesbury to that effect. He did not fail to point out the signs which indicated to him that these proceedings were but part of general plan intended to press on the British government. In truth, the whole issue lay in the question whether that intent influenced Jefferson's behavior.

A sort of civil war ensued in the little society of Washington, in which the women took prominent part, and Mrs. Merry gave back with interest the insults she considered herself to have received. The first serious evil was an alliance between Merry and Yrujo, the two men whom Jefferson had most interest in keeping apart. Pichon wrote home a lively account of the hostilities that followed.[14]

"M. Yrujo, who is vanity itself, blew the flame more vigorously than ever. . . . He concerted reprisals with Mr. Merry, and it was agreed that whenever they should entertain the secretaries and their wives, they should take none of them to table, but should give their hands to their own wives. This resolution was carried out at a dinner given some days afterward by M. Yrujo. Mr. and Mrs. Merry were next invited by the Secretary of the Navy. Mrs. Merry refused; yet this minister, a very well-bred man (homme fort poli), had so arranged things as to give her his hand. Apparently what had taken place at Mr. Madison's was thought harsh (dur), and it was wished to bring Mr. and Mrs. Merry back to a reconciliation. The Cabinet took up the question, as reported in the newspaper of which I sent you an extract, and it was resolved that hereafter the President should give his hand to the lady who might happen to be nearest him, and that there should be no precedence. Mr. Merry was invited to a tea by the Secretary of War and by the Secretary of the Treasury. To avoid all discussion he wholly refused the first, and after accepting the second he did not come. Finally, New Year's Day gave another occasion for scandal. On this day, as on the Fourth of July, it is the custom to call upon the President; and even the ladies go there. This year neither Mme. Yrujo nor Mrs. Merry went, and the Marquis took care to answer every one who inquired after his wife's health, that she was perfectly well. Since then Washington society is turned upside down; all the women are to the last degree exasperated against Mrs. Merry; the Federal newspapers have taken up the matter, and increased the irritation by sarcasms on the Administration and by making a burlesque of the facts, which the Government has not thought proper to correct. The arrival of M. Bonaparte with his wife in the midst of all this explosion has furnished Mr. Merry with new griefs. The President asked M. and Mme. Bonaparte to dinner, and gave his hand to Madame. There was, however, this difference between the two cases,—the President had invited on this day, besides myself and Mme. Pichon, only the two Messrs. Smith and their wives, who are of Mme. Bonaparte's family. But when Mr. Merry heard of it, he remarked that Mme. Bonaparte had on this occasion taken precedence of the wife of the Secretary of the Navy. . . I am aware," continued the delighted Pichon, "that with tact on the part of Mr. Jefferson he might have avoided all these scandals."

The British minister wrote to Lord Hawkesbury a brief account of his reception, closing with the remark:[15]

"Under these circumstances, my Lord, I have thought it advisable to avoid all occasions where I and my wife might be exposed to a repetition of the same want of distinction toward us until I shall have received authority from you to acquiesce in it, by a signification of his Majesty's pleasure to that effect."

Accordingly, when the President invited the two ministers to dine at the White House without their wives, they replied that they could not accept the invitation until after receiving instructions from their Governments. Jefferson regarded this concerted answer as an insult.[16] He too lost his temper so far as to indulge in sharp comments, and thought the matter important enough to call for explanation. In a private letter to Monroe, dated Jan. 8, 1804, he wrote:[17]

"Mr. Merry is with us, and we believe him to be personally as desirable a character as could have been sent us; but he is unluckily associated with one of an opposite character in every point. She has already disturbed our harmony extremely. He began by claiming the first visit from the national ministers. He corrected himself in this; but a pretension to take precedence at dinner, etc., over all others is perservered in. We have told him that the principle of society as well as of government with us is the equality of the individuals composing it; that no man here would come to a dinner where he was to be marked with inferiority to any other; that we might as well attempt to force our principle of equality at St. James's as he his principle of precedence here. I had been in the habit when I invited female company (having no lady in my family) to ask one of the ladies of the four Secretaries to come and take care of my company, and as she was to do the honors of the table I handed her to dinner myself. That Mr. Merry might not construe this as giving them a precedence over Mrs. Merry I have discontinued it, and here as in private houses the pêle mêle practice is adhered to. They have got Yrujo to take a zealous part in the claim of precedence. It has excited generally emotions of great contempt and indignation (in which the members of the Legislature participate sensibly) that the agents of foreign nations should assume to dictate to us what shall be the laws of our society. The consequence will be that Mr. and Mrs. Merry will put themselves into coventry, and that he will lose the best half of his usefulness to his nation,—that derived from a perfectly familiar and private intercourse with the Secretaries and myself. The latter, be assured, is a virago, and in the short course of a few weeks has established a degree of dislike among all classes which one would have thought impossible in so short a time. . . . With respect to Merry, he appears so reasonable and good a man that I should be sorry to lose him as long as there remains a possibility of reclaiming him to the exercise of his own dispositions. If his wife perseveres she must eat her soup at home, and we shall endeavor to draw him into society as if she did not exist."

Of all American hospitality none was so justly famous as that of Virginia. In this State there was probably not a white man, or even a negro slave, but would have resented the charge that he was capable of asking a stranger, a foreigner, a woman, under his roof, with the knowledge that he was about to inflict what the guest would feel as a humiliation. Still less would he have selected his guest's only enemy, and urged him to be present for the purpose of witnessing the slight. Reasons of state sometimes gave occasion for such practices, but under the most favorable conditions the tactics were unsafe. Napoleon in the height of his power insulted queens, browbeat ambassadors, trampled on his ministers, and made his wife and servants tremble; but although these manners could at his slightest hint be imitated by a million soldiers, until Europe, from Cadiz to Moscow, cowered under his multiplied brutality, the insults and outrages recoiled upon him in the end. Jefferson could not afford to adopt Napoleonic habits. His soldiers were three thousand in number, and his own training had not been that of a successful general; he had seven frigates, and was eager to lay them up in a single dry-dock. Peace was his passion.

To complicate this civil war in the little society of Washington, Jerome Bonaparte appeared there, and brought with him his young wife, Elizabeth Patterson, of Baltimore. Jerome married this beautiful girl against the remonstrances of Pichon; but after the marriage took place, not only Pichon, but also Yrujo and Jefferson, showed proper attention to the First Consul's brother, who had selected for his wife a niece of the Secretary of the Navy, and of so influential a senator as General Smith. Yet nothing irritated Napoleon more than Jerome's marriage. In some respects it was even more objectionable to him than that of Lucien, which gave rise to a family feud. Pichon suspected what would be the First Consul's feelings, and wrote letter after letter to clear himself of blame. In doing so he could not but excite Napoleon's anger against American society, and especially against the family of his new sister-in-law.

"It appears, Citizen Minister," wrote Pichon to Talleyrand,[18] "that General Smith, who in spite of the contrary assurances he has given me, has always had this alliance much at heart, has thrown his eyes on the mission to Paris as a means of appeasing (ramener) the First Consul. He has long since aimed at the diplomatic career, for which he is little qualified; this motive and the near return of Mr. Livingston have decided his taste. For some time there has been much question of this nomination among the friends of General Smith. There is also question of promoting, on the part of the First Consul, for minister to this country, a selection which should be connected with the other. It is thought that the appointment of M. Jerome Bonaparte would be an honorable mode of leaving the First Consul's brother time to have his fault forgotten, and of preparing his return to favor."

Such readiness among Jefferson's advisers to court the favors of the young First Consul was sure not to escape the eyes of the embittered Federalists. Pichon's account, although sharp in allusions to General Smith's "vanity," was mild compared with the scorn of the New Englanders. Apparently the new matrimonial alliance was taken seriously by prominent Republican leaders. One of the Massachusetts senators mentioned in his diary[19] a "curious conversation between S. Smith, Breckinridge, Armstrong, and Baldwin, about 'Smith's nephew, the First Consul's brother.' Smith swells upon it to very extraordinary dimensions." Pichon openly spoke of the whole family connection, including both Robert and Samuel Smith, and even Wilson Cary Nicholas, as possessed with "an inconceivable infatuation" for the match; "it was really the young man who was seduced." Nothing that Pichon could say affected them. Senator J. Q. Adams remarked: "the Smiths are so elated with their supposed elevation by this adventure, that one step more would fit them for the discipline of Dr. Willis,"—the famous English expert in mental diseases.[20]

The President and his friends might not know enough of Napoleon's character to foresee the irritation which such reports would create in his mind, but they were aware of the contrast between their treatment of Jerome Bonaparte and their slights to Anthony Merry. Had they felt any doubt upon the subject, the free comments of the British minister and his wife would have opened their eyes. In truth, no doubt existed. Washington society was in a manner ordered to proscribe the Merrys and Yrujo, and pay court to Jerome and the Smiths.

Had this been all, the matter would have ended in a personal quarrel between the two envoys and the two Virginians, with which the public would have had no concern. Jefferson's "canons of etiquette" would in such a case have had no further importance than as an anecdote of his social habits. The seriousness of Jefferson's experiments in etiquette consisted in the belief that they were part of a political system which involved a sudden change of policy toward two great Powers. The "canons" were but the social expression of an altered feeling which found its political expression in acts marked by equal disregard of usage. The Spanish minister had already reason to know what he might expect; for six weeks before Merry's dinners John Randolph proclaimed in the House that West Florida belonged to the United States, and within the week that preceded Merry's reception, he brought in the Bill which authorized the President to annex Mobile. After such a proceeding, no diplomatist would have doubted what meaning to put upon the new code of Republican society. Merry's arrival, at the instant of this aggression upon Spain, was the signal for taking toward England a higher tone.

Merry could not fail to see what lay before him. From the President, notwithstanding heelless slippers and "canons of etiquette," the British minister heard none but friendly words. After the formal ceremony of delivering the letter of credence was over,—

"He desired me to sit down," wrote Merry,[21] "when we conversed for some time on general affairs. The sentiments which he expressed respecting those of Europe appeared very properly to be by no means favorable to the spirit of ambition and aggrandizement of the present ruler in France, or to the personal character in any respect of the First Consul, and still less so to his conduct toward all nations."

From this subject the President passed to Spanish affairs and to the Spanish protest against the Louisiana cession, founded on Bonaparte's pledge never to alienate that province.

"This circumstance," continued Merry, "as well as the resistance altogether which Spain had unexpectedly brought forward in words, Mr. Jefferson considered as highly ridiculous, and as showing a very pitiful conduct on her part, since she did not appear to have taken any measures to support it either by preparation of defence on the spot, or by sending there a force to endeavor to prevent the occupation of the country by the troops of the United States. He concluded by saying that possession of it would, at all events, be taken."
If Merry did not contrive, after his dinner at the White House, to impart this conversation to his colleagues Yrujo and Pichon, he must have been a man remarkably free from malice. Meanwhile he had his own affairs to manage, and Madison was not so forbearing as the President. Merry's first despatch announced to his Government that Madison had already raised his tone. Without delay the matter of impressments was brought into prominence. The "pretended" blockade of Martinique and Guadeloupe was also strongly characterized.
"It is proper for me to notice," said Merry in his report of these remonstrances,[22] "that Mr. Madison gave great weight to them by renewing them on every occasion of my seeing him, and by his expressing that they were matters upon which this Government could not possibly be silent until a proper remedy for the evil should be applied by his Majesty's government. His observations were, however, made with great temper, and accompanied with the strongest assurances of the disposition of this Government to conciliate, and to concur in whatever means could be devised which should not be absolutely derogatory to their independence and interests, to establish principles and rules which should be satisfactory to both parties. . . . But, my Lord, while it is my duty to do justice to Mr. Madison's temperate and conciliatory language, I must not omit to observe that it indicated strongly a design on the part of this Government to avail themselves of the present conjucture by persisting steadily in their demands of redress of their pretended grievances, in the hope of obtaining a greater respect to their flag, and of establishing a more convenient system of neutral navigation than the interests of the British empire have hitherto allowed his Majesty to concur in."

The British government was aware that its so-called right of impressment and its doctrine of blockade rested on force, and could not be maintained against superior force; but this consciousness rendered England only the more sensitive in regard to dangers that threatened her supremacy. Knowing that the United States would be justified in declaring war at any moment, Great Britain looked uneasily for the first symptoms of retaliation. When Madison took so earnest a tone, Merry might reasonably expect that his words would be followed by acts.

These shocks were not all that the new British minister was obliged to meet at the threshold of his residence in Washington. At the moment when he was, as he thought, socially maltreated, and when he was told by Madison that America meant to insist on her neutral rights, he learned that the Government did not intend to ratify Rufus King's boundary convention. The Senate held that the stipulations of its fifth article respecting the Mississippi might embarrass the new territory west of the river. King had not known of the Louisiana cession when he signed the Treaty; and the Senate, under the lead of General Smith,[23] preferred to follow its own views on the subject, as it had done in regard to the second article of the treaty with France, Sept. 30, 1800, and as it was about to do in regard to Pinckney's claims convention, Aug. 11, 1802, with Spain. Merry was surprised to find that Madison, instead of explaining the grounds of the Senate's hesitation, or entering into discussion of the precise geographical difficulty, contented himself with a bald statement of the fact. The British minister thought that this was not the most courteous way of dealing with a treaty negotiated after a full acquaintance with all the circumstances, and he wrote to his Government to be on its guard:[24]

"Notwithstanding Mr. Madison's assurances to the contrary, I have some reason to suspect that ideas of encroachment on his Majesty's just rights are entertained by some persons who have a voice in deciding upon the question of the ratification of this convention, not to say that I have much occasion to observe, from circumstances in general, that there exists here a strong impression of the consequences which this country is supposed to have acquired by the recent additions to the territory of the United States, as well as by the actual situation of affairs in Europe."

In view of the Mobile Act, introduced into Congress by Randolph on behalf of the government a week before this letter was written, Merry's suspicions could hardly be called unreasonable. A like stretch of authority applied to the northwest territory would have produced startling results.

Merry's suspicions that some assault was to be made upon England were strengthened when Madison, December 5, in pursuance of a call from the Senate, sent a list of impressments reported to the Department during the last year. According to this paper the whole number of impressments was forty-six,—three of which were made by France and her allies; while of the forty-three made by Great Britain twenty-seven of the seamen were not American citizens. Of the entire number, twelve were stated to have had American papers; and of the twelve, nearly half were impressed on land within British jurisdiction. The grievance, serious as it was, had not as yet reached proportions greater than before the Peace of Amiens. Merry drew the inference that Jefferson's administration meant to adopt stronger measures than had hitherto been thought necessary. He soon began to see the scope which the new policy was to take.

Dec. 22, 1803, Madison opened in a formal conference the diplomatic scheme which was the outcome of these preliminary movements.[25] Beginning with a repetition of complaints in regard to impressments, and dwelling upon the great irritation created by such arbitrary acts, the secretary next remonstrated against the extent given to the law of blockade by British cruisers in the West Indies, and at length announced that the frequent repetition of these grievances had rendered it necessary for the United States to take immediate steps to find a remedy for them. Instructions would therefore be shortly sent to Monroe at London to negotiate a new convention on these subjects. The American government would wish that its flag should give complete protection to whatever persons might be under it, excepting only military enemies of the belligerent. Further, it would propose that the right of visiting ships at sea should be restrained; that the right of blockade should be more strictly defined, and American ships be allowed, in consideration of the distance, to clear for blockaded ports on the chance of the blockade being removed before they arrived; and finally that the direct trade between the West Indies and Europe should be thrown open to American commerce without requiring it to pass through a port of the United States.

In return Madison offered to the British government the unconditional surrender of deserters by sea and land, together with certain precautions against the smuggling of articles contraband of war.

Although Madison pressed the necessity of an immediate understanding on these points, he did so in his usual temperate and conciliatory manner; while Merry frankly avowed that he could give no hopes of such propositions being listened to. He did this the more decisively because Congress seemed about to take the matter of impressments into its own hands, and was already debating a Bill for the protection of seamen by measures which tended to hostilities. Madison disavowed responsibility for the legislation, although he defended it in principle.[26] Merry contented himself for the time by saying that if the United States government sought their remedy in municipal law, the matter would immediately cease to be a subject of negotiation.

Thus, in one short month, the two governments were brought to what the British minister supposed to be the verge of rupture. That any government should take so well-considered a position without meaning to support it by acts, was not probable. Acts of some kind, more or less hostile in their nature, were certainly intended by the United States government in case Great Britain should persist in contempt for neutral rights; the sudden change of tone at Washington left no doubt on this point. Edward Thornton, who had not yet been transferred to another post, wrote in consternation to the Foreign Office, fearing that blame might be attached to his own conduct while in charge of the legation:[27]

"When I compare the complexion of Mr. Merry's correspondence with that of my own, particularly during the course of the last summer, before the intelligence of the Louisiana purchase reached this country, I can scarcely credit the testimony of my own senses in examining the turn which affairs have taken, and the manifest ill-will discovered toward us by the Government at the present moment. . . . I believe that the simple truth of the case is, after all, the circumstance. . . that a real change has taken place in the views of this Government, which may be dated from the first arrival of the intelligence relative to the Louisiana purchase, and which has since derived additional force and acrimony from the opinion that Great Britain cannot resist, under her present pressure, the new claims of the United States, and now, from the necessity they under of recurring to the influence of France in order to support their demands against Spain. . . . The cession of Louisiana, notwithstanding that the circumstances under which it was made ought to convince the vainest of men that he was not the sole agent in the transaction, has elevated the President beyond imagination in his own opinion; and I have no doubt that he thinks of securing himself at the next election by having to boast of concessions and advantages derived from us, similar to those he has gained from France,—that is, great in appearance, and at a comparatively insignificant expense."

From such premises, the conclusion, so far as concerned England, was inevitable; and Thornton agreed with Merry in affirming it without reserve:—

"Everything, as it relates to this government, now depends on our firmness. If we yield an iota without a real and perfect equivalent (not such imaginary equivalents as Mr. Madison mentions to Mr. Merry), we are lost."

  1. King to Madison, April 10, 1802; MSS. State Department Archives.
  2. Merry to Hammond, Dec. 7, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  3. Thornton to Hawkesbury, Dec. 9, 1801; MSS. British Archives.
  4. Life of William Plumer, p. 245.
  5. Jefferson's Works, ix. 454.
  6. King to Madison, 22 Dec., 1803; MSS. State Department Archives.
  7. Life of William Plumer, p. 242.
  8. Life of Joseph Story, pp. 151, 158.
  9. Pichon to Talleyrand, 15 Pluviôse, An xii. (Feb. 5, 1804); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  10. Merry to Hawkesbury, Dec. 6, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  11. Yrujo to Cevallos, Feb. 7, 1804; MSS. Spanish Archives.
  12. Merry to Hammond, Dec. 7, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  13. Madison to Monroe, 19 Jan., 1804. Madison MSS., State Department Archives. Merry to Hawkesbury, 30 Jan., 1801. MSS. British Archives.
  14. Pichon to Talleyrand, 15 Pluviôse, An. xii. (Feb. 5, 1804); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  15. Merry to Hawkesbury, Dec. 31, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  16. Pichon to Talleyrand, 27 Pluviôse, An xii. (Feb. 13, 1804); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  17. Jefferson to Monroe, Jan. 8, 1804; Jefferson's Writings (Ford), viii. 286. Cf. Madison to Monroe, 16 Feb. 1804. Madison's Works, ii. 195-199.
  18. Pichon to Talleyrand, 30 Pluviôse, An xii. (Feb. 16, 1804); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  19. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Jan. 7, 1804), i. 284.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Merry to Hawkesbury, Dec. 6, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  22. Merry to Hawkesbury, Dec. 6, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  23. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Oct. 31, 1803), i. 269.
  24. Merry to Hawkesbury, Dec. 6, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  25. Merry to Hawkesbury, Dec. 31, 1803; MSS. British Archives.
  26. Merry to Hawkesbury, Jan. 20, 1804; Jan. 30, 1804; MSS. British Archives.
  27. Thornton to Hammond, Jan. 29, 1804; MSS. British Archives.