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FRENCH SPOLIATIONS BEFORE 1801
Our relations with France, at the close of the last century, is a part of our national history now seldom considered.
It is intended to give a brief sketch of what are known as the spoliations committed by France on the commerce of the United States anterior to the ratification of the convention with that country in 1801. These spoliations, and the claims growing out of them, are not of a mere private character. They are national and historic.
They form a part of the exciting public events of the time; they are associated with our early national struggles; they recall the dark days of the Revolution; they are connected with the period of the birth of our liberty--with its dawning and wavering fortunes, its victories and its defeats, its despondency,-and, finally, with its triumph and the vindication of the principles of free government.
They are associated, too, with the period of the formative life of our nation, with its infant industries and its struggling but enterprising commerce.
They have relation, too, to the bloody period of the French Revolution, and to the great war of nations that for over twenty years desolated Europe and disturbed the peace and commerce of all civilization. All the principal statesmen and jurists of our early national life come picturesquely before us, also, in their relation to these spoliations. Washington, Franklin, Adams and Jefferson, Pinckney, Madison and Monroe had their part in their history; and the names of Talleyrand, Bonaparte, and the various members of the French Directory figure prominently on the French side of the historic scene.
During the war for our independence France had given us her alliance in very material shape. Her blood and her money were freely expended for and with us; and she asked no pay or indemnity other than our fulfillment of the treaty obligations we assumed, of guaranteeing to her the possession of her French colonies in this hemisphere, and of opening our ports to her privateers and their prizes, in exclusion of the privateers of her enemies and their prizes.
These concessions by treaty were in expression of our gratitude to France, and in return for her coming to our relief in the darkest period of our struggle, when, as Washington announced in a letter to Congress, “that unless some great and capital change takes place, the army must be reduced to the one or the other of three things—starve, dissolve, or disperse."
The alliance with France broke like a ray of light through the ominous darkness. The blood of nobleman and commoner of France was alike shed in our cause, and her assistance in arms retrieved our falling fortunes.
She, too, in her turn became fascinated with the dawning principle of liberty, whose rays, soon to be in her own realm lurid and terrible, were penetrating into the dark recesses of feudal dominion, and bringing to light the oppressed, the lowly, the ignorant of mankind, on a new plane of sympathy and human brotherhood.
According to the report of the French Bureau of Finance, the war in which France assisted us in obtaining our independence cost that country about $280,000,000. The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, to the allied forces under Washington and Rochambeau, was the crowning and critical triumph of the war, and insured the independence for which for seven dreary years the colonies had struggled.
After the independence of the United States was secured, and, during the latter period of the last century, the country was being rapidly nationalized and strengthened.
The new constitutional compact bound the people together in patriotic links.
The scars of the terrible struggle were being healed. Peace smiled over the land, and the war-worn soldier gladly had exchanged his sword for the plow and the pruning-hook. Infant commerce unfurled her sails and boldly sought far distant seas, and industry and activity in every phase displayed the energy, the force, and the ingenuity of an indomitable people.
In order fully to comprehend the relations between the two countries, the causes which led to the spoliations upon our Merchant Marine by France, and the grounds upon which the claims for indemnity against her were founded, it will be necessary briefly to refer to the treaties made by us with that country.
By the treaty with France of February 6, 1778, made by the thirteen States, by name, France was to assist in effecting the independence of the United States, and both parties were to unite their efforts against Great Britain, the common enemy.
By the 10th Article of the Treaty, the United States guarantees to the French King from that time and “forever, against all other powers, the present possessions of the Crown of France in America, as well as those it may acquire by the future treaty of peace.” In return, the King of France guarantees to the United States their “liberty, sovereignty and independence, absolute and unlimited," and also their possessions and any additions or conquests obtained through the then war from Great Britain.
It was also provided that in case of a rupture between France and England, the reciprocal guarantee declared as above should have its full force and effect the moment such war should break out.
This treaty of alliance was signed at Paris by Benj" Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee.
A Treaty of Commerce between the then United States and France was also concluded, at the above date.
This provided for a firm peace and friendship between the two countries, and neither party was to grant any commercial favors to other nations that should not be enjoyed by the other party.
France stipulated to protect vessels of the United States within her ports or jurisdiction and to restore them if captured therein.
There were also provisions in the Treaty that, in case of war, the French cruisers and prizes were to have the use of our ports to the exclusion of others, and that free ships were to make free goods, even enemies' goods or persons, except goods contraband of war, and, by Article 27, no capture, molestation, or search of an American vessel was to be made under any circumstances whatever.
It was also provided that ships of war and privateers of either party are to do no injury to property of the other party.
Liberty was given to either party to trade with a nation at war with the other.
If either party were to be engaged in war the vessels of the other were to be furnished with sea letters, passports, and certificates of the cargo; and visitations of vessels at sea were to be made, peaceably, in boats, and beyond cannon shot.
These treaties with France were, of course, hailed throughout the United States with the greatest enthusiasm.
By the above treaties it will be seen that the United States, in return for the assistance France was to give in the War of Independence, positively guaranteed to France its possessions in America.
The possessions of France in America at the time of the above treaties consisted of about eleven of the West India Islands, and also Cayenne. The most important of the islands were St. Domingo, Martinique, Guadaloupe and St. Lucia.
In 1792, when war was breaking out between France and England, the United States were embarrassed what to do.
On the one hand, there were the treaties by which we guaranteed to France her possessions in America, the feelings of sympathy for a people struggling for freedom from a long established tyranny, and also the feelings of gratitude toward that people for their timely assistance to us in the days of our doubt and peril.
On the other hand were the terrors and the hardships of a war, whose duration would be great, and for which we were totally unprepared. We had neither army nor navy to protect our commerce or our ports, much less for aggressive action. It was considered, too, that if the strict construction of the treaties were carried out, the United States might be led into extreme complications and obligations never contemplated when the treaties were made. The status of France, too, had changed. She had deposed and executed her king; her condition was almost one of anarchy, and the war was considered an offensive one by her against England, which sort of war the Cabinet of President Washington considered was not contemplated by the treaties.
The guarantees, therefore, in the treaties were a source of great embarrassment to the Executive.
The government foresaw that when a war broke out between the new Republic of France and the powers of Europe, the struggle would be prolonged and terrible, and that the exact fulfillment of our treaty guarantees would place us at war with Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Holland, and the other powers leagued against France, a condition, in our then weak state, that would have been probably fatal to our national existence.
The President, therefore, on April 22d, 1793, made a proclamation of strict neutrality, as between the contending powers.
This action of neutrality was, politically speaking, a virtual violation of our treaties with France, who repeatedly demanded their strict execution.
She expected from us both sympathy and assistance, attacked as she was by nearly all the powers of Europe, and naturally complained of our declaration of neutrality and of our refusal to assist her in retaining her possessions in America. England, at the same time, took umbrage at our concessions to France of a right to use our ports for privateers and their prizes.
Genet, the new French minister, landed in Charleston in April, 1793, with instructions to study the views of our government as to its adhesion to the treaties of 1778; “as the just price of the independence which the French nation had secured to the United States," and to endeavor to enforce the views of France.
Genet's career, as minister, was turbulent. He issued privateers' commissions and established consular prize tribunals in our ports. He conducted himself in a manner arrogant and insulting; the modus of his diplomacy was ill calculated to promote the success of his mission.
In one of his communications he demands “ that the Federal Government should observe the public engagements contracted, and give to the world the example of a true neutrality, which does not consist in the cowardly abandonment of friends and at the moment when danger threatens."
Genet put himself at the head of a French party or faction in the United States, and fought the administration with pamphlets, newspapers, clubs, and all kinds of intrigue. He called upon the people at large to assist him and favor the cause of France, and set up in the ports of the United States a regular privateering warfare against the commerce of Great Britain. In the meanwhile the English fleets swept the seas, and, in a little more than a month, took possession of nearly all the French West India possessions.
In 1794 the troublesome Genet was recalled, under the urgent request of our government. He was of the Girondin French faction, and, as Danton, Robespierre, and the Jacobins had come into power, the new French Executive was not disposed to favor him or consider him as a martyr to his patriotic zeal.
He did not choose to risk his neck by returning to France, and avoided the guillotine by settling as a resident of New York; and took refuge from his political cares in the charms of matrimony, contracted with a daughter of Governor Clinton.
We come down now to the celebrated treaty with Great Britain, commonly called the Jay Treaty, which, although negotiated in November, 1794, was not ratified and promulgated until far into the year 1796.
Its negotiation had been kept secret; for great apprehension was entertained by the Executive as to how it would be received by the American people, who, apparently, were generally opposed to it, and the demonstrations against its ratification were loud, and even violent.
This treaty with Great Britain first provides for a firm and inviolable peace between the two countries, and that all British troops are to be withdrawn from within the United States boundaries. There is provision for free and unrestricted commerce and entry into each other's ports; and also that the privateers of either may bring prizes into the ports of the
VOL. XII.—No. 1.-3