THE First Consul of France had procured his election to a seat on an imperial throne, in the spring of 1804; and on the 2nd of December following, he appeared before the altar of the Church of Notre Dame, in Paris, where he was consecrated " The High and Mighty Napoleon the First, Emperor of the French. " In 1806 he was monarch of Italy, and his three brothers were made ruling sovereigns. Then he was upon the full tide of successful domination, and a large part of continental Europe was prostrate at his feet. England had joined the continental powers against him in 1803, in order to crush out the Democratic revolution which had occurred in France, and threatened the peace of the United Kingdom; and the British navy had almost destroyed the French power on the sea. At the same time American shipping enjoyed the privilege of free intercourse between the ports of England and France, and pursued a very profitable carrying trade which unforeseen circumstances soon destroyed.
The envious shipping-merchants of Great Britain, and her navy officers and privateersmen who could then obtain very few prizes lawfully, represented to their government that the Americans, under the guise of neutrality, were secretly aiding the French. This hint caused that government to revive in full force the "rule of 1756" concerning neutrals; and orders were secretly issued authorizing British cruisers to seize and British admiralty courts to condemn as prizes American vessels and their cargoes that might be captured by British cruisers.
The depredations by these cruisers upon American commerce were commenced under the most frivolous and absurd pretexts, and the most intense indignation was aroused throughout the United States. Memorials from merchants in all the seaboard towns and cities were presented to Congress, in which the Democrats, with Mr. Jefferson (just re-elected) at their head, had an overwhelming majority. This and other grievances inflicted by the British government were discussed. Among them the alleged right of search which the British put forth, was paramount; and on the recommendation of the President, Congress, in the spring of 1806, passed an act prohibiting the importation into the United States of many of the more important manufactures of Great Britain, after the first of November following. In May William Pinckney was sent to London to join Mr. Monroe, the American minister there, in negotiating a treaty with the British government concerning the rights of neutrals, the impressment of seamen, and the right of search. A treaty was finally signed, but as it did not offer security to American vessels against the aggressions of British cruisers in searching for and carrying off seamen, the President would not lay it before the Senate.
A new difficulty now arose. In their anxiety to injure each other, the British and French government ceased to respect the rights of other nations, and dealt heavy blows at the life of the commerce of the word. In this business Great Britain took the lead. On the 16th of May (1806) that government, by an order in council, declared the whole coast of Europe from the Elbe to Brest to be in a state of blockade. Napoleon retaliated by issuing a decree from Berlin on the 21st of November, in which he declared all the British islands to be in a state of blockade. This was intended as a blow against Britain's maritime supremacy, and was the beginning of the Emperor's " Continental System," designed to ruin Great Britain. The latter, by another order in council issued January, 1807, prohibited all coast trade with France. So these desperate powers played with the world's commerce in their mad efforts to injure each other. American vessels were seized by both English and French cruisers, and American commerce dwindled to a merely coast trade. Our republic lacked a competent navy to protect our commerce on the high seas; and the swarm of gun-boats (small sailing-vessels having each a cannon in the bow and stern), which Congress had authorized from time to time, were insufficient for a coast-guard.
Early in 1807, American commerce was almost swept from the sea by the operations of the "orders" and "decrees." The French had withheld the operation of the decrees for full a year, but the British cruisers had been let loose at once. This produced bitter feelings toward the government of Great Britain on the part of the Americans, and this was intensified by the haughty assertion and offensive practice of the British doctrine of the right of search for suspected deserters from the royal navy, and to carry away the suspected without hindrance. This right was claimed on the ground that a British-born subject could never expatriate himself, and that his government might take him, wherever found, and place him in the army or navy, although, by legal process, he may have been made a citizen of another nation. This right of search and seizure had been strenuously denied and its policy strongly condemned, because American seamen might be thus forced into the British service under the false pretext that they were deserters. This had already happened. It had been proven, after thorough investigation, that since the promulgation of the British rule of 1756, a dozen years before, nearly three hundred seamen, a greater portion of them Americans, had been taken from vessels and pressed into the British service.
A crisis now approached. A small British squadron lay in American waters near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, watching some French frigates blockaded at Annapolis, in the spring of 1807. Three of the crew of one of the vessels, and one of another had deserted, and enlisted on board the United States frigate Chesapeake, lying at the Washington Navy Yard. The British minister made a formal demand for their surrender. Our government refused compliance, because it was ascertained that two of the men (one colored) were natives of the United States, and there was strong presumptive evidence that a third was, likewise. No more was said, but the commander of the British squadron took the matter into his own hands. The Chesapeake, on going to sea on the morning of the 22nd of June (1807), bearing the broad pennant of Commodore Barron, was intercepted by the British frigate Leopard, whose commander hailed the commodore and informed him that he had a despatch for him. Unsuspicious of unfriendliness, the Chesapeake was laid to, when a British boat bearing a lieutenant came alongside. That officer was politely received by Barron, in his cabin, when the former presented a demand from the commander of the Leopard to allow the bearer to muster the crew of the Chesapeake, that he might select and carry away the alleged deserters. The demand was authorized by instructions received from Vice-Admiral Berkeley, at Halifax. Barron told the lieutenant that his crew should not be mustered, excepting by his own officers, when the latter withdrew and the Chesapeake moved on.
Barron, suspecting mischief, had caused his vessel to be prepared for action as far as possible. The Leopard followed, and her commander called out to the commodore through his trumpet: "Commodore Barron must be aware that the vice-admiral's commands must be obeyed." This was repeated. The Chesapeake kept on her way, when the Leopard sent two shots athwart her bows. These were followed by the remainder of the broadside that poured shot into the hull of the Chesapeake. The latter was unable to return the fire, for her guns had no priming-powder. Not a shot could be returned; and after being severely bruised by repeated broadsides, she was surrendered to the assailant. Her crew was mustered by British officers; the deserters were carried away, and the Chesapeake was left to pursue her voyage or return. The "vice-admiral's command" had been obeyed. One of the deserters, who was a British subject, was hung at Halifax, and the three Americans were spared from the gallows only on the condition that they should re-enter the British service.
The indignation of the American people was hot because of this outrage. The President issued a proclamation at the beginning of July, ordering all British armed vessels to leave the waters of the United States, and forbidding any to enter them until ample satisfaction should be given. A demand for redress was made upon the British government, when an envoy extraordinary was sent to Washington city to settle the difficulty. He was instructed to do nothing until the President's proclamation should be with-drawn. So the matter stood for more than four years, when, in 1811, the British government disavowed the act. Meanwhile Commodore Barron had been tried on a charge of neglect of duty in not being prepared for action, found guilty, and suspended from service for five years without pay or emolument.
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