History of the United States, Volume 5: 1776-1782

Author: George Bancroft

Chapter 22:
America in Europe,
The Armed Neutrality,

FREDERIC of Prussia had raised the hope that he would follow France in recognising the independence of the United States; but the question of the Bavarian succession compelled him, in junction with Saxony, to stand forth as the champion of Germany; and in his late old age, broken as he was in everything but spirit, he stayed the aggressions of Austria on Bavarian territory, and on the liberty and the constitutions of the Germanic body. "At this moment the affairs of England with her colonies disappeared from his eyes." To William Lee, who, in July 1777, had been appointed by congress its commissioner to treat alike with the emperor of Germany and the king of Prussia, and in March 1778 importuned the Prussian minister Schulenburg for leave to reside at Berlin as an American functionary, Frederic minuted this answer: "We are so occupied with Germany that we cannot think of the Americans: we should be heartily glad to recognise them; but at this present moment it could do them no good, and to us might be very detrimental." He could not receive the prizes of the Americans in Embden, because at that harbor he had no means to protect them; their merchants were admitted to his ports on the same terms as the merchants of all other countries.

The British ministry, abandoning the scheme of destroying Prussian influence at Petersburg, sought to propitiate Frederic, as the best means of gaining favor in Russia; and authorized its minister at Berlin to propose an alliance. But Frederic was unalterably resolved "not to contract relations with a power which, like England in the last war, had once deceived him so unworthily."

With the restoration of peace, Austria and Russia contested the honor of becoming mediators between the Bourbons and England. On the fifteenth of May 1779, Maria Theresa wrote in her own hand to Charles III of Spain, in the hope to hold him back from war; and she sent a like letter to her son-in-law at Versailles. Kaunitz, her great minister, followed with formal proposals of mediation to France and England. In an autograph letter, the king of Spain put aside the interference of the empress; and on the sixteenth of June his ambassador in London delivered to Lord Weymouth a declaration of war; but neither in that declaration nor in the manifesto which followed was there one word relating to the war in America.

In reply, Burke, Fox, and their friends, joined in pledging the house of commons and the nation to the support of the crown. Fifty thousand troops defended the coasts, and as many more of the militia were enrolled. The oscillation of the funds did not exceed one per cent. But opinion more and more denied to parliament the right of taxing unrepresented colonies, and prepared to accept the necessity of recognising their independence. In the commons, Lord John Cavendish, true to the idea of Chatham, moved for orders to withdraw the British forces employed in America; to the lords, the duke of Richmond proposed a total change of meas ures in America and Ireland; and they were supported by increasing numbers. The great land-owners were grown sick of attempting to tax America; Lord Mansfield was ready to consent to the cutting of the traces that bound the restless colonies to Britain; Lord North was frequently dropping hints that no advantage was to be gained by continuing the contest.

But on the twenty-first of June the king summoned his ministers to his library; and, seating them all at a table, expressed to them in a speech of an hour and a half "the dictates of his frequent and severe self-examination." Inviting the friends of Grenville to the support of the administration, he declared his unchanging resolution to carry on the war against America, France, and Spain. Before he would hear of any man’s readiness to come into office, he would expect to see it signed under his hand, that he was resolved to keep the empire entire. "If his ministers would act with vigor and firmness, he would support them against wind and tide." Yet, far from obtaining recruits from the friends of Grenville, the administration was about to lose its members of the Bedford connection. The chief minister, incapable of forming a plan for the conduct of the war, repeatedly offered his resignation, not in earnest, but that it might serve him as an excuse for remaining in office without assuming the proper responsibility of his station. Confiding in the ruin of the finances of the rebels and in recruiting successfully within their borders, the king was certain that, but for the intervention of Spain, the provinces would have sued to the mother country for pardon; and "he did not despair that, with the activity of Clinton and the Indians, they would even now submit." But his demands for an unconditional compliance with his American policy left him no choice of ministers but among weak men. So the office made vacant by the death of Lord Suffolk, the representative of the Grenville party, was reserved for Hillsborough. "His American sentiments," said the king, "make him acceptable to me." Yet it would have been hard to find a public man more ignorant or more narrow, more confused in judgment or faltering in action; nor was he allowed to enter on active service till Lord Weymouth had retired.

To unite the house of Bourbon in the war, France had bound herself to the invasion of England. True to her covenant, she moved troops to the coasts of Normandy and Brittany, and engaged more than sixty transport vessels of sixteen thousand tons’ burden. The king of Spain would not listen to a whisper of the hazard of the undertaking, for which he was to furnish only the temporary use of twenty ships for the defence of the French in crossing the channel. Florida Blanca insisted on an immediate descent on England without regard to risk. Vergennes, on the other hand, held the landing of a French army in England to be rash until a naval victory over the British should have won the dominion of the sea.

Early in June the French fleet of thirty-one ships of the line, yielding to Spanish importunities, put to sea from Brest; and yet they were obliged to wait off the coast of Spain for the Spaniards. After a loss of two months in the best season of the year, a junction was effected with more than twenty ships-of-war under the separate command of Count Gaston; and the combined fleet, the largest force that had ever been afloat, sailed for the British channel. King George longed to hear that Sir Charles Hardy, with scarcely more than forty ships of the line, had brought the new armada to battle. "Everything," wrote Marie Antoinette, "depends on the present moment. Our united fleets have a great superiority; they are in the channel; and I cannot think without a shudder that, from one moment to the next, our destiny will be decided."

The united fleet rode unmolested by the British; Sir Charles Hardy either did not or would not see them. On the sixteenth of August they appeared off Plymouth, but did not attack the town. After two idle days, a strong wind drove them to the west. When the gale had abated, the allies rallied, returned up the channel, and the British retreated before them. No harmony existed between the French and Spanish officers. A deadly malady ravaged the French ships and infected the Spanish. The combined fleet never had one chief. The French returned to port and remained there; the Spaniards sailed for Cadiz, execrating their allies. The two powers had not even harmed British merchant vessels on their homeward voyages. The troops that were to have landed in England wasted by disease in Normandy and Brittany. "The doing of nothing at all will have cost us a great deal of money," wrote Marie Antoinette to her mother. There was nothing but the capture of the little island of Grenada for which a Te Deum could be chanted in Paris. "We shall feel it very sensibly if any offer of mediation should be preferred to ours," wrote Maria Theresa to her daughter, who answered: "The nothingness of the campaign removes every idea of peace."

During the attempt at an invasion of England the allied belligerents considered the condition of Ireland. "To form Ireland into an independent government like that of America," wrote Vergennes, "I would not count upon the Catholics. They form the largest and the most oppressed part of the nation; but the principle of their religion attaches them specially to the monarchical system." An American was sent as the agent of France to form close relations with the principal Presbyterians, especially with the ministers; but confidence was not established between France and the protestant Irish.

The emissary from Spain to the Irish Catholics was a Catholic priest, who was promised a bishopric if he should succeed. He could have no success. After the first shedding of American blood in 1775, one hundred and twenty-one Irish Catholics, professing to speak "for all the Roman Catholic Irish," had made to the British secretary in Ireland "a tender of two millions of men in defence of the government of the king in any part of the world." The Irish association aimed only to extort for Ireland the free trade with other nations which had been granted to Scotland at the union.

As soon as the existence of war between Spain and Great Britain was known at New Orleans, Galvez, the governor of Louisiana, drew together all the troops under his command to drive the British from the Mississippi. Their posts were protected by less than five hundred men; Lieutenant-Colonel Dickson, abandoning Manchac as untenable, sustained a siege of nine days at Baton Rouge, and on the twenty-first of September made an honorable capitulation. The Spaniards planned the recovery of east Florida, Pensacola, and Mobile. They expelled from Honduras the British logwood cutters. In Europe, their first act was the siege of Gibraltar.

More important were the consequences of the imperious manner in which Great Britain, substituting its own will alike for its treaties and the law of nations, violated the rights of neutrals on the high seas.

The immunity of neutral flags is unknown to barbarous powers. The usages of the middle ages condemned as lawful booty the property of an enemy, though under the flag of a friend; but spared the property of a friend, though under the flag of an enemy. Ships, except they belonged to the enemy, were never confiscated. When the Dutch republic took its place among the powers of the earth, crowned with the honors of martyrdom in the fight against superstition, this daughter of the sea, with a carrying trade exceeding that of any other nation, became the champion of the maritime code, which protected the neutral flag everywhere on the great deep. In the year 1646 these principles were imbodied in a commercial treaty between the republic and France. When Cromwell was protector, when Milton was Latin secretary, the rights of neutrals found their just place in the treaties of England, in 1654 with Portugal, in 1655 with France, in 1656 with Sweden. After the return of the Stuarts, they were recognised, in 1674, in their fullest extent by the commercial convention between England and the Netherlands.

In 1689, after the stadholder of the United Provinces had been elected king of England, his overpowering influence drew the Netherlands into an acquiescence in a declaration that all ships going to or coming from a French port were good prizes; but it was recalled upon the remonstrance of neutral states. The rights of neutral flags were confirmed by France and England in the peace of Utrecht. The benefits of the agreement extended to Denmark, as entitled to all favors granted to other powers. Between 1604 and 1713 the principle had been accepted in nearly twenty treaties. When, in 1745, Prussian ships, laden with wood and corn, were captured on the high seas and condemned in English courts, Frederic, without a treaty, resting only on the law of nations, indemnified his subjects for their losses by retaliations on England. The neutral flag found protection in the commercial treaty negotiated in 1766 by the Rockingham ministry with Russia, whose interests as the producer of hemp required the strictest definition of contraband. Of thirty-seven European treaties made between 1745 and 1780, but two have been found which contain conditions contravening neutral rights.

In 1778 England desired an offensive and defensive alliance with Russia and with the Dutch republic. To the renewed overture, Count Panin, the only Russian statesman much listened to by the empress in the discussion of foreign affairs, replied that Russia never would stipulate advantages to Great Britain in its contest with its colonies, and "never would guarantee its American dominions." After the avowal by France of its treaties with the colonies, Harris, the British minister at Petersburg asked an audience of the empress; his request was refused, and all his complaints of the "court of Versailles drew from her only civil words and lukewarm expressions of friendship." But when, in the summer of 1778, an American privateer hovered off the North Cape and took seven or more British vessels bound for Archangel, Panin informed Harris ministerially that, so long as the British treated the Americans as rebels, the court of Petersburg would look upon them as a people not yet entitled to recognition.

Long years of peace had enriched the Dutch republic by prosperous manufactures and commerce. It was the leading neutral power; but the honor of its flag was endangered by the defects in its constitution, of which the forms of procedure tended to anarchy. Its stadholder, William V of the house of Orange, a young and incompetent prince, without self-reliance and without nobleness of nature, was haunted by the belief that his own position could be preserved only by the influence of Great Britain; and from dynastic selfishness followed the counsels of that power. Nor was his sense of honor so nice as to save him from asking and accepting money from the British crown. His chief personal counsellor was his former guardian, Prince Louis of Brunswick. No man could be less influenced by motives of morality or fidelity to the land in whose army he served, and he was always at the beck of the British ambassador at the Hague. Fagel, the secretary, was devoted to England. The grand pensionary, Van Bleiswijck, who had been the selection of Prince Louis, was a weak politician and inclined to England, but never meant to betray his country. Thus all the principal executive officers were attached to Great Britain; Prince Louis and the secretary Fagel as obsequious vassals.

France had a controlling influence in no one of the provinces; but, in the city of Amsterdam, Van Berckel, its pensionary, was her "friend." In January 1778, before her rupture with England, the French ambassador at the Hague was instructed to suggest a convention between the states-general, France, and Spain, for liberty of navigation. As the proposal was put aside by the grand pensionary, Vergennes asked that the Netherlands in the coming contest would announce to the court of London their neutrality, and support it without concessions. "The Dutch," Vergennes observed, "will find in their own history an apology for the French treaty with America." From the interior condition of the Netherlands, their excessive taxes, their weakness on sea and land, and the precarious condition of their possessions in the two Indies, they sought scrupulously to maintain their neutrality. As England did not disguise her aggressive intentions, the city of Amsterdam and Van Berckel sought to strengthen the Dutch navy, but were thwarted by Prince Louis, Fagel, and the stadholder. The Dutch were brave, provident, and capable of acts of magnanimity; but they were betrayed by their executive.

In April 1778, the American commissioners at Paris—Franklin, Arthur Lee, and John Adams—in a letter to the grand pensionary, Van Bleiswijck, proposed a good under standing and commerce between the two nations, and promised to communicate to the states-general their commercial treaty with France. The Dutch government, through all its organs, met this only overture of the Americans by total neglect. It was neither answered nor put in deliberation. The British secretary of state could find no ground for complaint whatever. Still the merchants of Amsterdam saw in the independence of the United States a virtual repeal of the British navigation acts; and the most pleasing historical recollections of the Dutch people were revived by the rise of the new republic.

In the following July the king of France published a declaration protecting neutral ships, though carrying contraband goods to or from hostile ports, unless the contraband exceeded in value three fourths of the cargo. But the right was reserved to revoke these orders if Great Britain should not within six months grant reciprocity.

The commercial treaty between France and the United States was, about the same time, delivered to the grand pensionary and to the pensionary of Amsterdam. The grand pensionary took no notice of it whatever. Van Berckel, in the name of the regency of Amsterdam, wrote to an American correspondent at the Hague: "With the new republic, clearly raised up by the help of Providence, we desire leagues of amity and commerce which shall last to the end of time." Yet he acknowledged that these wishes were the wishes of a single city, which could not bind even the province to which it belonged. Not one province, nor one city; not Holland, nor Amsterdam; no, not even one single man, whether in authority or in humble life—appears to have expected, planned, or wished a breach with England; and to the last they rejected the idea of a war with that power as an impossibility. The American commissioners at Paris, being indirectly invited by Van Berckel to renew the offer of a treaty of commerce between the two republics, declined to do so; for, as the grand pensionary had not replied to their letter written some months before, "they apprehended that any further motion of that kind on their part would not at present be agreeable."

Meantime, one Jan de Neufville, an Amsterdam merchant, who wished his house recommended to good American merchants and had promised more about an American loan than he could make good, had come in some way to know William Lee, an alderman of London as well as an American commissioner to Vienna and Berlin, and, with the leave of the burgomasters of Amsterdam, met him at Aix-la-Chapelle and concerted terms for a commercial convention, proper in due time to be entered into between the two republics. The act was a nullity. When Lee communicated to the commissioners at Paris this project of a convention, they reminded him that the authority for treating with their high mightinesses belonged exclusively to themselves. The American congress took no notice of his intermeddling, and in the following June dismissed him from its service. Amsterdam disclaimed "the absurd design of concluding a convention independent of their high mightinesses." "The burgomasters only promised their influence in favor of a treaty of amity between the two powers, when the independence of the United States of America should be recognised by the English."

To get rid of everything of which England could complain, the offer made in April by Franklin, Arthur Lee, and John Adams, to negotiate a treaty of commerce between America and the Netherlands, together with a copy of the commercial treaty between the United States and France, was, near the end of October, communicated to the states-general. They promptly consigned it to rest in the manner which met exactly the "hope" of the British secretary of state.

During the summer of 1778, British cruisers and privateers scoured the seas in quest of booty. Other nations suffered, but none like the Netherlands. To their complaints that the clearest language of treaties was disregarded, the earl of Suffolk answered that the British ambassador at the Hague should have instructions to negotiate with the republic new stipulations for the future; but for the present, treaty or no treaty, England would not suffer materials for ship-building to be taken by the Dutch to any French port; and its cruisers and its admiralty were instructed accordingly. The stadholder brought all his influence to the side of England. On the thirtieth of December 1778, the states-general asserted their right to the commercial freedom guaranteed by the law of nations and by treaties; and yet of their own choice voted to withhold convoys, where the use of them would involve a conflict with Great Britain.

In the same year the flag of Denmark, of Sweden, and of Prussia had been disregarded by British privateers, and the three powers severally demanded of England explanations. Vergennes seized the opportunity to fix the attention of Count Panin. "The empress," so he wrote toward the end of the year to the French minister in Russia, "will give a great proof of her dignity and equity if she will make common cause with Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and the king of Prussia." "She would render to Europe a great service if she would bring the king of England to juster principles on the freedom of navigation of neutral ships. Holland arms its vessels to convoy its merchant fleet; Denmark announces that in the sprang it will send out a squadron for the same object; Sweden will be obliged to take the like resolution. So many arrangements can easily give rise to troublesome incidents, and kindle a general maritime war. It would be easy for the empress to secure the prosperity of the commerce of Russia by supporting with energetic representations those of other neutral nations."

The Swedish envoy, in an interview with Panin, invited the Russian court to join that of Stockholm in forming a combined fleet to protect the trade of the North. Denmark, he said, would no doubt subscribe to the plan, and the commerce of the three countries, now so interrupted, would no longer be molested. The summons was heard willingly by Panin, who, on one of the last days of December, spoke to the British minister very plainly: "Denmark, Sweden, and Holland have respectively solicited the empress to join with them in a representation to you on this subject; and she cannot see with indifference the commerce of the North so much molested by your privateers. The vague and uncertain definition given by you to naval and warlike stores exposes almost all the productions of these parts to be sequestered. It becomes the empress, as a leading power on this side Europe, to expostulate with you and express her desire of some alteration in your regulations, and more circumspection in your mode of proceeding against the ships of neutral states." The British minister defended the British definition of "naval stores." Count Panin answered with a smile: "Accustomed to command at sea, your language on maritime subjects is always too positive." Harris deprecated any formal remonstrance against the British treatment of neutral powers as an appearance of disunion between the two courts. Panin replied: "I am sorry to hear you say what you do, as I have the orders of the empress to prepare a representation."

The plan of Russia for 1779 aimed at no more than an agreement with Denmark and Sweden to exclude privateers from the North Sea near their coasts and from the Baltic. As the Russian trade was for the most part in the hands of the English, this action of Catharine would in practice be little more than a safeguard to English commerce. The cabinet of France feared that the consolidated group of northern states might be drawn into connection with England. At this stage, by the explanations of the king of Prussia, who through the mediation of Russia and France was just emerging from his Austrian war, every doubt was removed from the mind of Vergennes; and his answer to the Russian note drew from Panin the remark to the French minister at Petersburg: "Once more I give you my word that we have no engagement with England whatever."

The oppressed maritime powers continued to lay their complaints before the empress of Russia; so that the study of neutral rights occupied her mind till she came to consider herself singled out to take the lead in their defence.

When, in the middle of July, Harris presented the Spanish declaration of war against England to Count Panin, he replied ministerially: "Great Britain has by its own haughty conduct brought down all its misfortunes on itself; they are now at their height; you must consent to any concessions to obtain peace; and you can expect neither assistance from your friends nor forbearance from your enemies." In subsequent conversations, Panin ever held the same language.

"Count Panin," wrote Harris, "receives every idea from his Prussian majesty, and adopts it without reflection;" and the indefatigable envoy, giving up all hope of reclaiming him, undertook to circumvent him through the influence of Prince Potemkin, who possessed rare ability and occupied a position of undefined and almost unlimited influence with the army, the Greek church, and the nobility. By descent and character he was a true representative of Russian nationality. Leaving the two chief maritime powers of western Europe, both of whom wished to preserve the Ottoman empire in its integrity, to wear each other out, Potemkin used the moment of the American war to annex the Crimea.

Harris professed to believe that for eighty thousand pounds he could purchase the influence of this extraordinary man; but Potemkin could Rot be reached. He almost never appeared at court or in company. No foreign minister could see him except by asking specially for an interview; no one of them was ever admitted to his domestic society or his confidence. Those who knew him best agree that he was too proud to take money from a foreign power, and he never deviated from his Russian policy; so that the enormous bribes which were designed to gain him were squandered on his intimates. At the same time he was aware how much he would gain by lulling the British government into acquiescence in his Oriental schemes of aggrandizement.

Without loss of time, Harris proposed to Potemkin that the empress should make a strong declaration at Versailles and Madrid, and second it by arming all her naval force. To this Potemkin objected, that both the Russian ministers who would be concerned in executing the project would oppose it. Harris next gained leave to plead his cause in person before Catharine herself. On the second of August, the favorite of the time conducted him by a back way into her private room, and immediately retired. The empress discomposed him by asking if he was acting under instructions. He had none; and yet he renewed his request for her armed mediation. She excused herself from plunging her empire into fresh troubles; then discoursed on the American war, and hinted that England could in a moment restore peace by renouncing its colonics. The council of state, to which the question was referred, unanimously refused to change its foreign policy. To the count of Goertz, the new and very able envoy of Frederic at Petersburg, Panin unfolded his innermost thoughts. "The British minister," said he, "as he makes no impression on me by sounding the tocsin, applies to others less well informed; but I answer for my ability to sustain my system. It would be no harm for England to meet with some loss." "The balance of power in Europe," wrote Frederic, "will not be disturbed by England’s losing possessions here and there in other parts of the world."

During the same year, 1779, the Netherlands continued to suffer from the conflicting aggressions of France and Great Britain. France sought to influence the states-general by confining its concession of commercial advantages in French ports to the towns which voted for unlimited convoy. In the states of Holland it was carried for all merchant vessels destined to the ports of France by a great majority, Rotterdam and the other chief cities joining Amsterdam, and the nobles being equally divided; but the states-general, in which Zealand was followed by Gelderland, Groningen, and Overyssel, from motives of prudence rejected the resolution. Notwithstanding this moderation, a memorial from the British ambassador announced that Dutch vessels carrying timber to ports of France, as by treaty with England they had the right to do, would be seized, even though, escorted by ships-of-war. Indignation within the provinces at the want of patriotism in the prince of Orange menaced his prerogatives as stadholder, and even the union itself. On one occasion five towns voted in the states of Holland for withholding the quota of their province.

Great Britain, in July 1779, demanded of the states-general the succor stipulated in the treaties of 1678 and the separate article of 1716; but they denied that any case under the treaties had arisen, and insisted that England might not at will disregard one treaty and claim the benefit of others.

While the British were complaining that nine or ten American merchant vessels had entered the port of Amsterdam, a new cause of irritation arose. Near the end of July, Paul Jones, a Scot by birth, in the service of the United States, sailed from l’Orient as commander of a squadron, consisting of the Poor Richard of forty guns, many of them unserviceable; the Alliance of thirty-six guns, both American ships-of-war; the Pallas, a French frigate of thirty-two; and the Vengeance, a French brig of twelve guns. They ranged the western coast of Ireland, turned Scotland, and, cruising off Flamborough Head, descried the British merchant fleet from the Baltic, under the convoy of the Serapis of forty-four guns and the Countess of Scarborough of twenty guns.

An hour after sunset, on the twenty-third of September, the Serapis, having a great superiority in strength, engaged the Poor Richard. Paul Jones, after suffering exceedingly in a contest of an hour and a half within musket-shot, bore down upon his adversary, whose anchor he hooked to his own quarter. The muzzles of their guns touched each other’s sides. Jones could use only three nine-pounders beside muskets from the round-tops, but combustible matters were thrown into every part of the Serapis, which was on fire no less than ten or twelve times. There were moments when both ships were on fire. After a two-hours’ conflict in the first watch of the night, the Serapis struck its flag. Jones raised his pendant on the captured frigate, and the next day had but time to transfer to it his wounded men and his crew before the Poor Richard went down. The French frigate engaged and captured the Countess of Scarborough. The Alliance, which from a distance had raked the Serapis during the action, not without injuring the Poor Richard, had not a man injured. On the fourth of October the squadron entered the Texel with its prizes.

The British ambassador, of himself and again under instructions, reclaimed the captured British ships and their crews, "who had been taken by the pirate Paul Jones of Scotland, a rebel and a traitor." "They," he insisted, "are to be treated as pirates whose letters of marque have not emanated from a sovereign power." The grand pensionary would not apply the name of pirate to officers bearing the commissions of congress. In spite of the stadholder, the squadron enjoyed the protection of a neutral port. Under an antedated commission from the French king, the flag of France was raised over the two prizes and every ship but the Affiance; and, four days before the end of the year, Paul Jones with his English captures left the Texel.

An American frigate, near the end of September, entered the port of Bergen with two rich prizes. Yielding to the British envoy at Copenhagen, Bernstorff, the Danish minister, seized the occasion to publish an ordinance forbidding the sale of prizes until they should have been condemned in a court of admiralty of the nation of the privateer; and he slipped into the ordinance the declaration that, as the king of Denmark had recognised neither the independence nor the flag of America, its vessels could not be suffered to bring their prizes into Danish harbors. The two which had been brought into Bergen were set free; but, to avoid continual reclamations, two others, which in December were taken to Christiansand, were only forced to leave the harbor.

Wrapt up in the belief that he had "brought the empress to the verge of standing forth as the professed friend of Great Britain," Harris thought he had only to meet her objection of has having acted without instructions; and, at his instance, George III, in November, by an autograph letter, entreated her armed mediation against the house of Bourbon. "I admire," so he addressed her, "the grandeur of your talents, the nobleness of your sentiments, and the extent of your intelligence." "The mere show of naval force could break up the league formed against me, and maintain the balance of power which this league seeks to destroy." A writing from Harris, in which he was lavish of flattery, accompanied the letter; and he offered, unconditionally, an alliance with Great Britain, including even a guarantee against the Ottoman Porte.

The answer was prepared by Panin without delay. The empress loves peace, and therefore refuses an armed intervention, which could only prolong the war. She holds the time ill chosen for a defensive alliance, since England is engaged in a war not appertaining to possessions in Europe; but, if the court of London will offer terms which can serve as a basis of reconciliation between the belligerent powers, she will eagerly employ her mediation.

In very bad humor, Harris rushed to Potemkin for consolation. "What can have operated so singular a revolution?" demanded he, with eagerness and anxiety. Potemkin, cajoling him, replied: "Count Panin times his councils with address; my influence is at an end."

The Russian envoy at London, and the envoys of Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Prussia, delivered memorials to the British government. To detach Russia from the other complainants, Harris, in January 1780, gave a written promise "that the navigation of the subjects of the empress should never be interrupted by vessels of Great Britain."

The spirit of moderation prevailed in the councils of the Netherlands. Even the province of Holland had unreservedly withdrawn its obnoxious demands. On the evening before the twenty-seventh of December 1779, seventeen Dutch merchant vessels, laden with hemp, iron, pitch, and tar, left the Texel under the escort of five ships-of-war, commanded by the Count de Bylandt. In the English channel, on the morning of the thirtieth, they descried a British fleet, by which they were surrounded just before sunset. The Dutch admiral refusing to permit his convoy to be visited, Fielding, the British commander, replied that it would then be done by force. During the parley, night came on; and twelve of the seventeen ships, taking advantage of the darkness and a fair wind, escaped through the British lines to French ports. The English shallop, which the next morning at nine would have visited the remaining five ships, was fired upon. At this, the British flag-ship and two others fired on the Dutch flag-ship. The ship was hit, but no one was killed or wounded. "Let us go down," said the Dutch crews to one another, "rather than fail into a shameful captivity;" but their admiral, considering that the British force was more than three times greater than his own, after returning the broadside, struck his flag. Fielding carried the five merchant ships as prizes into Portsmouth.

This outrage on the Netherlands tended to rouse and unite all parties and all provinces. But another power beside England had disturbed neutral rights. Fearing that supplies might be carried to Gibraltar, Spain had given an order to bring into Cadiz all neutral ships bound with provisions for the Mediterranean, and to sell their cargoes to the highest bidder. In the last part of the year 1779 the order had been applied to the Concordia, a Russian vessel carrying wheat to Barcelona. Harris, who received the news in advance, hurried to Potemkin with a paper, in which he proved from this example what terrible things might be expected from the house of Bourbon if they should acquire maritime superiority. On reading this paragraph, Potemkin cried out: "You have the empress now. She abhors the inquisition, and will never suffer its precepts to be exercised on the high seas." A strong memorial was drawn up under the inspection of the empress herself; and a reference to the just reproaches of the courts of Madrid and Versailles against Great Britain for troubling the liberty of commerce was added by her own express order.

Hardly had the Spanish representative at Petersburg forwarded the memorial by a courier to his government when letters from the Russian consul at Cadiz announced that the St. Nicholas, bearing the Russian flag and bound with corn to Malaga, had been brought into Cadiz, its cargo disposed of by auction, and its crew treated with inhumanity. The empress felt this second aggression as a deliberate outrage on her flag; and, following the impulses of her own mind, she seized the opportunity to adopt, seemingly on the urgency of Great Britain, a general measure for the protection of the commerce of Russia as a neutral power against all the belligerents and on every sea. She preceded the measure by signing an order for arming fifteen ships of the line and five frigates for service early in the spring.

She further signed letters, prepared by her private secretary, to her envoys in Sweden, Denmark, and the Hague, before she informed her minister for foreign affairs of what had been done. A Russian courier was expedited to Stockholm, and thence to Copenhagen, the Hague, Paris, and Madrid. On the twenty-second of February 1780, Potemkin announced the measure to Harris, by the special command of the empress. "The ships," said the prince, "will be supposed to protect the Russian trade against every power, but they are meant to chastise the Spaniards, whose insolence the empress cannot brook." Harris "told him that it was no more than the system of giving protection to trade, suggested last year by the three northern courts, now carried into execution." Potemkin, professing to be "almost out of humor with his backwardness to admit the great advantage England would derive from the step," rejoined: "I am just come from the empress; it is her particular order that I tell it to you. She commanded me to lose no time in finding you out. She said she knew it would give you pleasure; and, beside myself, you are at this moment the only person acquainted with her design." He ended by urging Harris to despatch his messenger immediately with the news; and accordingly the measure was reported to the British government by its own envoy as a friendly act performed at its own request.

Before the dispatches of Harris were on the road, the conduct of the affair was intrusted to Panin, who was suffering from a disease which was bringing him to the grave. The last deed of the dying statesman was his best.

To Frederic, Goertz made his report: "Everything will depend on the reply of the court of Spain; at so important a moment, your majesty has the right to speak to it with frankness." "There will result from the intrigue a matter the execution of which no power has thus far been able to permit itself to think of. All have believed it necessary to establish and to fix a public law for neutral powers in a maritime war; the moment has come for attaining that end."

These letters reached Frederic by express; and on the fourteenth of March, by the swiftest messenger, he instructed his minister at Paris as follows: "Immediately on receiving the present order you will demand a particular audience of the ministry at Versailles; and you will say that in my opinion everything depends on procuring for Russia, without the least loss of time, the satisfaction she exacts, and which Spain can the less refuse, because it has plainly acted with too much precipitation. Make the ministry feel all the importance of this warning, and the absolute necessity of satisfying Russia without the slightest delay on an article where the honor of her flag is so greatly interested.

Vergennes forwarded a copy of the letter of Frederic to the French ambassador at Madrid, with the instruction: "I should wrong your penetration and the sagacity of the cabinet of Madrid, if I were to take pains to demonstrate the importance for the two crowns to spare nothing in order that the empress of Russia may not depart from the system of neutrality which she has embraced." The letter of Frederic was communicated to Florida Blanca, and it was impossible to resist its advice.

Before a dispatch could have reached even the nearest power, Count Panin laid before the empress a plan for deducing out of the passing negotiation a system of permanent protection to neutral flags in a maritime war. He advised her to present herself to Europe in an impartial attitude, as the defender of the rights of neutrals before all the world. She would thus gain a glorious name as the law-giver of the seas, imparting to commerce in time of war a security such as it had never yet enjoyed; she would gather around her all civilized states, and be venerated by the nations through coming centuries as the benefactress of the human race.

The opinions of her minister coinciding with her own, on the twenty-sixth of February 1780—that is, on the eighth of March, new style—Catharine and Panin set their names to the declaration, of which the fixed principles are: Neutral ships shall enjoy a free navigation even from port to port, and on the coasts of the belligerent powers. Free ships free all goods except contraband. Contraband are arms and ammunitions of war, and nothing else. No port is blockaded unless the enemy’s ships, in adequate number, are near enough to make the entry dangerous. These principles shall rule decisions on the legality of prizes. "Her imperial majesty," so ran the state paper, "in manifesting these principles before all Europe, is firmly resolved to maintain them. She has therefore given an order to fit out a considerable portion of her naval forces, to act as her honor, her interest, and necessity may require."

Frederic received the news of the declaration in advance of others, and with all speed used his influence in its behalf at Versailles; So that for the maritime code, which came upon Great Britain as a surprise, a welcome was prepared in France and Madrid.

The empress made haste to invite Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, and the Netherlands to unite with her in supporting the rules which she had proclaimed. John Adams applauded the justice, the wisdom, and the humanity of an association of maritime powers against violences at sea, and added as his advice to congress: "The abolition of the whole doctrine of contraband would be for the peace and happiness of mankind; and I doubt not, as human reason advances and men come to be more sensible of the benefits of peace and less enthusiastic for the savage glories of war, all neutral nations will be allowed by universal consent to carry what goods they please in their own ships, provided they are not bound to places actually invested by an enemy."

For the moment the attention of Europe was riveted on the Netherlands.


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Chicago: George Bancroft, "Chapter 22: America in Europe, the Armed Neutrality, 1778-1780," History of the United States, Volume 5: 1776-1782 in George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.337-356 Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKBG1Q2BAZ8YWXC.

MLA: Bancroft, George. "Chapter 22: America in Europe, the Armed Neutrality, 1778-1780." History of the United States, Volume 5: 1776-1782, in George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.337-356, Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKBG1Q2BAZ8YWXC.

Harvard: Bancroft, G, 'Chapter 22: America in Europe, the Armed Neutrality, 1778-1780' in History of the United States, Volume 5: 1776-1782. cited in , George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, 6 Vols. (New York: Harper & Bros, 1882), Pp.337-356. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKBG1Q2BAZ8YWXC.