BOOK REVIEW – Napoleon’s Troublesome Americans: Franco-American Relations, 1804-1815

Peter P. Hill, Napoleon’s Troublesome Americans: Franco-American Relations, 1804-1815, Potomac Books, 2005. xii & 288 pp. endnotes, bibliography, index.

Review by Andrew Lambert
King’s College London.

While American historians have paid close attention to the Anglo-American diplomacy of the Napoleonic Wars, as the lead up to the War of 1812, the equally troubled relationship with France and her mighty Emperor has received less attention. Peter Hill’s book focuses on the diplomatic exchanges, relegating the maritime issues that dominated the era to the background. Based on extensive research in American and French archives it provides parallel treatments from the perspectives of the Embassies in Paris and Washington as they struggled to find common ground between a peaceful republic and a massive empire built on military power. Hill’s judgement is clear and highly significant for students of the Anglo-American relationship. Napoleon systematically bullied and deceived successive American administrations because he could. The Americans had no power to coerce him, and he did not accord their arguments about international law or morality any weight. He acted in this way because America would not help him defeat Britain, instead American ships systematically, repeatedly and skilfully violated the ‘Continental System’ his economic total war against Britain, which relied on excluding British goods from Europe. He spent seven years trying to crush every neutral state that tried to maintain trade because this was a total war, one in which there could be no neutrals. He believed Americans, and he had a hard job telling them apart from Englishmen, were only interested in a profit, they had no honour and meekly accepted the British Orders in Council that placed his empire under an illegal blockade. He impounded American merchant ships, and recognised that almost half of all ‘American’ sailors were British. These men were locked up as Prisoners of War – to stop them being impressed into the Royal Navy. Any hints he made about relaxing his regime were entirely self-serving and failed to progress when Washington requested suitable recompense.

To make matters worse when the American Congress finally reacted to British provocation they did so with economic measures like the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts that damaged France more than Britain. These included leaving open the export of American flour to Spain, where it fed the British army that the Duke of Wellington used to drive the French back over the Pyrenees. When French frigates occasionally got to sea they systematically burnt these ships, causing outrage in Washington, leading to diplomatic protests that caused incomprehension in Paris. Hill stresses the diplomatic damage done by French frigates burning American merchant ships, but he misses the irony that their only defence was provided by the Royal Navy. The British captured many of the French raiders, and sent them to the American coast, to replace other ex-French ships like the Guerriere and Java.

The question of the former French colony of San Domingo, which was now the black republic of Haiti, run by former slaves who had overthrown and massacred their white masters proved equally divisive. The Americans here happy to sell guns to the new republic, but would not recognise it, fearing the idea of such a state might give American slaves dangerous ideas. This infuriated Napoleon, who had plans to recover San Domingo, as well as Louisiana, Florida and much more, once he had finished off the British.

Occasionally Napoleon hinted that if the Americans resisted the British, by declaring war, he might treat them better and offer an alliance. James Madison stiffly noted that America did not enter alliances. Finally his one and only gesture of support for the American war effort in 1812, allowing American privateers to sell captured British prizes in French harbours, was not reciprocated. Congress would not repeal the legal barrier.  Throughout the War of 1812 the British anxiously looked for signs of Franco-American collusion, of an alliance or joint operations at sea. Nothing happened. Napoleon didn’t care, the Americans were at war and that would suffice. Desperate attempts to end French seizures of American merchant ships, and secure indemnity for French outrages proved futile. When pressed Napoleon either ignored the issue, or simply lied about his policy. He did not value honesty or integrity, something that his American counterparts slowly came to realise. Attempts to secure a Commercial treaty, and build co-belligerent co-operation perished with Ambassador Joel Barlow, who died at Vilna on 26 December 1812 on a futile mission to meet the Emperor. Napoleon, on his way back from defeat at Moscow did not bother to stop. America was irrelevant to a man who needed 250,000 fresh soldiers.

While Thomas Jefferson courted France in pursuit of preposterous claims that West Florida had been part of the Louisiana Purchase, James Madison was more concerned with the growing list of maritime insults suffered at French hands, but he still hankered after seizing Florida from Spain. Ultimately American concerns to expand their borders outweighed the maritime dimension, and although Hill echoes much recent diplomatic history, arguing the War of 1812 was a question of national honour, and the survival of republican government and the Republican Party, he provides ample evidence that the conquest of Canada and Florida were major themes. In 1807 Jefferson told the French Ambassador (p.30) ‘If the English do not give us the satisfaction we demand [over the Leopard/ Chesapeake incident], we will take Canada which wants to join the Union, and when with Canada we shall have the Floridas, we will no longer have any difficulty with our vessels, and this is the only way to stop them.’ This theme constantly recurred through the intervening seven years until in 1812 American troops invaded Canada and Spanish Florida. They were intent on conquest and had no intention of leaving. This was the only war America could hope to win.

Napoleon’s Troublesome Americans is a useful reminder of the problems that face smaller powers in an age of totals war, and a lesson in the irrelevance of diplomacy in the face of blatant, repeated, unblinking dishonesty. In sharp contrast to the position in 1914 Madison’s America lacked the weight and power in international affairs to be taken seriously by London and Paris, then in the middle of an existential conflict. Britain would not surrender the ancient legal right to impress her own sailors; France would not concede the Floridas, or free trade. Both France and Britain were overbearing, arrogant and dismissive of minor neutrals, as all great powers have been in times of national emergency. Fine words and elevated principles were not enough.

(Return to the October 2013 Issue Table of Contents)

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