Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Peace of Amiens

Between 1801 and 1812 Britain endured five weak governments, which highlighted the continuing power of the monarchy to choose ministers. George III not only selected Addington to replace Pitt, but also kept Fox out of office in 1804. All the ministries were weakened by internal divisions but ministerial instability owned much to disenchantment with governments unable to make peace or defeat Napoleon.

Addington, the former Speaker of the Commons, was despised because he was not an orator, an aristocrat, or Pitt. Fox contemptuously referred to him as ‘the Doctor’. Across the Commons he faced a rejuvenated Foxite group as well as disgruntled Pittites like George Canning.

Pitt had resigned at a crucial point in the war when Napoleon seemed to have Europe within his grasp. He had defeated Austria at Marengo (14 June, 1800 and Hohenlinden (3 December 1800) and the subsequent treaty of LunĂ©ville (1801) left him in control of all territory west of the Rhine and parts of Italy, while also occupying Holland and Switzerland. Only Britain barred Bonaparte’s way to greater world domination.

The year 1801 saw some encouraging British victories. In protest against the Royal Navy’s search of neutral shipping, Russia and Denmark had joined the League of Armed Neutrality against Britain. But on 2 April Nelson defeated the Danish fleet at Copenhagen and thus confirmed Britain’s control of the Channel. The assassination of the Tsar Paul on 23 March ended the League. The British under Sir Ralph Abercromby finally defeated the French in Egypt and forced their withdrawal. But nothing could disguise the fact that Britain was facing the war without allies at a time when she was exhausted, over-stretched financially and war-weary. Under these circumstances, the demand for peace was irresistible.

During the summer of 1801 the Foreign Secretary Lor Hawkesbury (the future Earl of Liverpool) was negotiating with the French. On 1 October the peace preliminaries were signed and accepted by Parliament with comparatively little opposition (William Windham in the Commons, Pitt’s cousin Lord Grenville and Samuel Horsely, bishop of Rochester in the Lords, the journalist William Cobbett outside Parliament). In a Commons speech Pitt strongly endorsed the peace. The Peace of Amiens was signed on 27 March 1802. The terms were not advantageous to Britain, who finally acknowledged French hegemony in Europe, and took no account of recent British victories.
1. Almost all British overseas conquests, apart from Trinidad (taken from Spain) and Ceylon (taken from the Dutch) were handed back. Egypt was to be restored to Turkey.
2. The Cape of Good Hope was handed back to the Dutch.
3. Malta, which had been captured by Britain, was to be restored to the Knights of St John within three months.
4. In Europe Holland, Spain and northern Italy remained effectively under French domination.
The peace settlement has been condemned by historians as over-generous to Bonaparte, but at the time it was vindicated by a war-weary over-taxed nation, who responded with public celebrations. The undercover opposition of the king (who was said to be contemplating a change of government) and the hostility of Cobbett, Windham and Horsley probably did not represent the view of the nation as a whole. The settlement was vindicated in the election of June 1802 when Windham lost his Norwich seat. Sheridan probably summed up the situation best when he observed that it was ‘a peace which all men are glad of but no man can be proud of’.

The general election was a comfortable win for Addington’s government. But this did not mean that Pitt’s political career was over. A cult was developing round him, which can be seen as marking the origins of the ‘second Tory party’. On May 28 there was a huge celebration of Pitt’s forty-third birthday at the Merchant Taylors’ Hall organized by George Cannning. Nearly a thousand people attended (though not Pitt). The culmination of the evening was Canning’s song:
If hushed the loud whirlwind that ruffled the deep,
The sky if no longer dark tempests deform,
When our perils are past, shall our gratitude sleep?
No - here’s to the pilot that weathered the storm.

And O if again the rude whirlwind should rise,
And the dawning of peace should fresh darkness deform,
The regrets of the good and the fears of the wise,
Shall turn to the Pilot that weather’d the storm.
In the interval of peace, there was a spate of British visitors to France. Wordsworth went with Dorothy to make contact with his mistress, Annette Vallon and their daughter. Fanny Burney travelled there with her husband. Charles James Fox travelled to France in the autumn of 1802 with Mrs Armistead (he had married her in 1795) but only now acknowledged her as Mrs Fox). On 2 November he finally met Bonaparte (the meeting is here satirized by Gillray) and was disillusioned. Far from being a champion of liberty, Napoleon turned out to be a dictator! Fox returned to England a disillusioned man, though he continued to believe, against the evidence, that France's intentions were fundamentally peaceful.

The Resumption of War
Addington was not fooled into believing that Amiens represented a final settlement. In the year of uneasy peace which followed, he made only moderate cuts in army and navy manpower and his revision of the Militia Acts in 1802 added 75,000 ‘occasional’ troops. Troops were left in the West Indies to facilitate the easy reconquest of territory given back to France should the need arise.

Napoleon never had any intention of maintaining the status quo. Even before the Amiens treaty had been signed he had, by private negotiations with Spain acquired Louisiana, Elba and the Duchy of Parma. (The Louisiana Purchase has to be the biggest bargain in history!) Within months of Amiens, he had been ‘elected’ President of the new Cisalpine Republic (now renamed the Italian Republic), thus effectively controlling northern Italy. He invaded Switzerland to impose a new constitution and found a pretext to continue the occupation of Holland, close West Indian Dutch and Italian ports to British merchandise, and to seize the property of the Knights of St John in Spain. The French occupation of Switzerland finally ended Wordsworth’s sympathy for him and for the French Revolution.

Two Voices are there -one is of the Sea,
One of the Mountains; each a mighty Voice:
In both from age to age thou didst rejoice;
They were thy chosen music, Liberty!
There came a tyrant, and with holy glee
Thou fought'st against him; but hast vainly striven:
Thou from thy Alpine holds at length art driven
Where not a torrent murmurs heard by thee.
Of one deep bliss thine ear hath been bereft;
Then cleave, O cleave to that which still is left;
For, high-souled Maid, what sorrow would it be
That Mountain floods should thunder as before,
And Ocean bellow from his rocky shore,
And neither awful Voice be heard by Thee!
Thoughts of a Briton on the occupation of Switzerland (1803)

However, from the French point of view, Britain’s failure to evacuate Malta was also a provocation, though in view of Napoleon’s expansionism it would have been unwise to have surrendered such a strategically important base. By December 1802 anti-French feeling in Britain was reaching fever pitch.

By the spring of 1803 Britain’s defences in were sufficiently good for Addington to take the initiative, declare war on 18 May and, having called his bluff, take Bonaparte by surprise. In the Commons Pitt lent his support to the government in a brilliant and impassioned speech that highlighted the contrast between him and Addington.

Rather prematurely, Gillray saw the resumption of war as marking the end of Napoleon!