British History - The Napoleonic struggle, I., 1803 - 1807 - British parties - The war renewed - The Trafalgar campaign - Deaths of Pitt and Fox - Their successors - Tilsit - Napoleon and Nationality.
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE Napoleonic war (1803 - 15) that followed the brief interval of the Peace of Amiens, was for us a war waged in self-defence, to prevent the systematic subordination of Europe to a vigorous military despotism sworn to our destruction. A few months at the Foreign Office in i 8o6 and an attempt to treat with our adversary for peace, made this clear even to Fox, who had been till then singularly blind to the real character of Bonaparte. But the Whigs were only enthusiastic for the war by fits and starts. The honour of beating Napoleon fell as clearly to the Tories, as the honour of beating Louis XIV had fallen to the Whigs.
From 1793 to 1830 the Whigs were almost as powerless in Opposition as the Tories had been under the first two kings of the House of Hanover. They were not only in a miserable minority in Parliament, but in the country they were no longer at the head of any powerful popular movement. During the last years of the eighteenth century, Fox and Grey had continued to protest against Pitt's coercion bills and the suppression of press and platform, and to introduce motions for Reform, culminating in Charles Grey's plan for household suffrage, for which unpopular proposal they mustered 91 votes in the House of Commons, while in the Lords the Foxites could be counted on the fingers of two hands. These hundred gentlemen, who foregathered at the most fashionable club in London, were able to profess democracy in the days of its darkest disrepute, just because they themselves were so unquestionably aristocrats. Neither their constituents, when they had any, nor the world of parsons and squires, still less the middle class, could exert over them political or social pressure, or counteract the influence of Brooks's. They continued to regard omnipotent Toryism as unfashionable, and Pitt's new peerage as slightly vulgar.
After nailing the flag of Reform to the mast, the Whigs proceeded to desert the ship. Grey's Reform motion was followed by his ' secession ' from Parliament, in which he induced Fox to join. The motive was mingled indolence and despair. The denizens of Brooks's Club retired to their country homes to forget the ills of the world in the best of company, living and dead Charles Fox, the Greek and Latin writers, and the English and Italian poets. Conscious that they had little support in the country and that that little was silenced by Pitt's gagging bills, they regarded their work in Parliament as useless. They failed to consider that if liberty of speech had been put down everywhere else, it was all the more incumbent on them to make the voice of liberty heard in the only place where she was allowed to speak. The full reporting of Parliamentary debates in the newspapers, which had recently been established as a most valuable part of constitutional custom, had been left untouched by the anti-Jacobin repression. But during several important years the Opposition, by absenting themselves from Parliament, failed to turn to account this one remaining check on governmental tyranny. It was during the ` secession ' of the Whigs that Englishmen were kept in prison for years without trial, on the principle of the old French lettres de cachet. During the same period Pitt would, but for Wilberforce's personal remonstrance on behalf of the Dissenters, have seriously modified the Act of Toleration.2 No printer dared to publish even the most moderate Reform pamphlet. And these years of blackest eclipse of our domestic liberties in England were the years of the Irish tragedy.
With the opening of the new century, the Foxites crept back one by one to their places in Parliament. On Pitt's resignation, personal issues broke up the anti-Jacobin phalanx into a number of conflicting factions. The value of the Foxites rose, as possible allies among a number of mutually hostile Tory groups. There was some relaxation in the persecution of liberal opinion in the country. Pitt's successor, Addington, was too weak in Parliament to keep people in prison without trial. And Reform pamphlets were again occasionally to be seen on the bookstalls.
Nevertheless, the Reform movement as a serious issue had been suppressed for years to come. England had reached what Fox called ` the euthanasia of politics,' entire apathy on domestic questions and acquiescence in the existing regime. This was perpetuated by the concentration of the national thought on the Napoleonic struggle.
At the end of the war with the French Republic, such was the desire for peace that the Treaty of Amiens, though highly advantageous to France, was greeted with enthusiasm in England, before its implications were understood. When the first official representative of Bonaparte arrived in London, his carriage was drawn through the streets by a crowd cheering for peace. Not only Fox but many who had kindled to Burke's alarms, now swarmed over to France in the Dover packet, stared in good-natured wonder at the military pomps of Paris and waited round corners to catch a glimpse of the First Consul. There was no race hatred of the French. The crusading wrath of 1793 had died out. The ` French cannibals ' had fought surprisingly fair, and the war had left us no bitter memories. The English were ready to accept the new form of French government on equal terms.
But the First Consul soon made it clear that he had not come into the world to live on equal terms with anyone. By his reading of the Treaty of Amiens, we were to be excluded from all further interference on the Continent, while he was to be at liberty to push on annexation after annexation in Italy, Switzerland, Holland, and to parcel out the lands beyond the Rhine among his obsequious vassals, the German princes. We on the other hand regarded the Treaty of Amiens as fixing the utmost limits of his power, at the dangerously large latitude of the Netherlands and the Rhine. We had agreed to a settlement of Europe which we thought it our business to see observed, while he held that we had retired beaten from high politics, to console ourselves with the pursuits of a nation of shopkeepers. When Addington protested, Napoleon was merely contemptuous, for Englishmen had set foreigners the example of despising their own Prime Minister. With Pitt in office, there would have been little chance of avoiding war; with Addington there was none.
After one year, the peace of Amiens came to an end. We were bound, even at the price of war, to resist the absorption of Europe by Napoleon. But it was a point of dispute whether we were wise to make our protest by refusing to give up Malta to a neutral in accordance with the treaty we had signed, since we could with our sea-power have easily controlled the fate of the island in case of war breaking out. The quarrel, on the main causes of which we were in the right, was brought to a head by the First Consul on the issue of Malta in the spring of 1803. A carefully staged scene of the kind he loved, when he angrily interpellated the British Ambassador, Lord Whit-worth, at Josephine's evening party, announced to the world that a struggle to the death was coming on between the lord of the land and the lords of the sea.
For the first two years of the war, Napoleon had no enemy but Britain. His Grand Army was for the time ` the Army of England,' camped on the cliffs of Boulogne, ready to be shipped across the Channel. There had been no such fear in our island since the Armada. In tardy obedience to the popular voice, Addington was replaced by Pitt. But the ideal wish for a coalition of national defence was frustrated by George III, whose refusal to admit Fox prevented the Whigs and Grenvillites from joining the administration, in spite of Fox's generous entreaties to his friends to go in without him. The whole awful burden was thrown back upon Pitt, already sinking to the grave. The King's motives for refusing Fox were personal and narrow, yet it may be doubted whether in fact Pitt would have shared real power with anyone, or whether Dictatorship in war-time is best exercised by two Consuls. Would Fox have agreed to the main feature of Pitt's policy, the negotiating of the Third Coalition which drew Russia and Austria into the field? Fox attacked it in Opposition, and always maintained that the outcome, which laid Eastern Europe at Napoleon's feet, fully justified his predictions. It is at least possible that he would have refused to agree to it if he had been in Office.
But before the Third Coalition came upon the scene, the naval campaign had settled the practicability of the invasion of England. It is called in history the ` campaign of Trafalgar,' but its strategic result had been reached three months before the battle.
The French had five-and-thirty ships of the line, divided between Brest, Toulon and Rochefort, besides fifteen Spaniards in Ferrol and Cadiz after Spain had joined the war in March 1805. If several of these detachments could get out and unite, they might hold the Channel long enough for a part at least of the Grand Army to cross, and do what damage it could in England. That their command of the sea would be more than local and temporary was most improbable.1
Close off each of the ports where the enemy ships lay, a detachment of British men-of-war beat up and down in all weathers, performing, though under different conditions, the function that the Grand Fleet performed at Scapa Flow during our own war : they lay between the world and military conquest. The watch off Brest was the more easily kept because the home base was near at hand. The post of endurance and difficulty was the watch off Toulon, based merely on the roadsteads of Sardinia; that was Nelson's post for two years of unrelieved service. Finally, Villeneuve had his chance and slipped out from Toulon, leaving Nelson ignorant where he had gone. He had gone to the West Indies, picking up six Spanish ships on the way. In the West Indies, according to Napoleon's plan, Villeneuve was to meet the Brest fleet, destroy the British interests in the sugar islands, and return to hold the Channel for the passage of the Grand Army. But the Brest fleet remained locked up, and it was Nelson who crossed the Atlantic, not on certain information of Villeneuve's course, but on a bold calculation of probabilities.
The Nile and Trafalgar campaigns have the same general character, though the arena of the one was the Mediterranean, of the other the broad Atlantic. In both we have the first success of the enemy's fleet in getting away undetected, the pursuit and search so long baffled, the agonising uncertainty made good by calculation, energy and persistence, and the crowning victory at last. But whereas in 1798 the initial evasion enabled Bonaparte to land and conquer Egypt, in 1805 Nelson crossed the Atlantic so close on the heels of his enemy that Villeneuve had no time to capture our colonies and destroy our shipping.1 He escaped back to Europe only just ahead of his hunter, who missed the French by going to Gibraltar while they headed for North Spain. There Ville-neuve fought an indecisive action with Calder's fleet watching off that coast, and ran to ground in the Spanish harbours.
Thus by the end of July the strategic campaign of the ocean was finished, and the scheme of invasion, for whatever it may have been worth, was dead. Yet the remainder of the year was to be occupied by a series of military and naval operations as famous as any in the history of war.
In August the world learnt of the existence of the Third Coalition against France. The armies of Russia and Austria, paid by Pitt at the annual rate of twelve pounds ten shillings a man, were moving against Napoleon, who had recently crowned himself Emperor of France. His answer to the new league came quick as the flash of a sword out of its scabbard. While the Russians and Austrians were dawdling up to their points of concentration, the Grand Army was hurried across Europe from Boulogne to the Danube, and on October .o, the Austrian vanguard capitulated at Ulm. Next morning, off Cape Trafalgar, twenty-seven British ships of the line were bearing down in two columns on thirty-three French and Spaniards. Abandoning his usual policy of caution, the enemy had come out of Cadiz to give battle in a fit of desperation, which greatly lightened the burden of the next ten years' war to England. Ere sunset, eighteen great ships had struck their colours and the rest were in full flight, the British seamen were working with a will to save as many as possible of the enemy out of the sea and off the burning ships, and Nelson was lying dead in the cockpit of the Pictory.
On Lord Mayor's Day, the Prime Minister was received in the Guildhall with the gratitude due to the man who had furnished Nelson with the means and the authority to save the British Empire. ` England,' said Pitt, ` has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.' This speech, the best and shortest ever made on an official occasion, acquired in a few weeks a deeper meaning. At Austerlitz, in distant Moravia, at the battle of the Three Emperors, Napoleon laid low the combined armies of Russia and Austria. Before Christmas the Third Coalition was no more, and Europe was at the feet of the conqueror.
When the news of the battle and of the armistice reached Pitt, his face took on the ` Austerlitz look.' He knew that, at the best, England was doomed to ten years' war against the Continent. His exhausted frame, no longer stimulated by immediate hope, ceased to struggle against the malady that wasted it. On January 23 he died. His last words and thoughts did not concern his own soul or his private affections : ` My country ! How I leave my country !
He left her in desperate straits, amid the ruins of those dynastic alliances by which he had three times striven in vain to make head against the French nation. He left her shorn of her ancient freedom of speech and thought, and that harmony of classes that had once distinguished ` merry England.' He left her with her foot on Ireland prostrate and chained. But he left her recovered from the dishonour and weakness of the state in which he had found her a quarter of a century before. He left her with Canada and India so established that they would not go the way of the lost Colonies. He left her able and willing to defy the conqueror of Europe when all others bowed beneath the yoke. He left her victor at sea, freshly crowned with laurels that have proved immortal. And if in the coming era, Englishmen were divided class from class by new and bitter griefs, they had also a new bond of fraternity in the sound of Nelson's name.
The next year was marked by the fall of Prussia. For a whole decade she had kept out of the conflict, digesting Poland. In 1805, when her interference might have been decisive against French ambitions in Germany, Pitt had offered her every aid and inducement to join the Third Coalition. Only one thing he had refused to do, to barter away George III's beloved Hanover, the bait with which Napoleon dazzled the covetous imagination of the Court of Berlin. In the vain hope of deciding the hesitations and tergiversations of Prussia by a display of present aid, Pitt had landed a British army on the North German coast, but it had to be hastily withdrawn after Austerlitz.
At the beginning of the year 1806, Frederick William of Prussia, bribed by the offer of Hanover, turned towards alliance with Napoleon, and obediently excluded all British ships from the ports of his dominions. We were actually in a state of war with Prussia, when her king changed his mind once more and flung his country unaided into the struggle against France. He had been overborne by the movement against French domination of Germany, which Napoleon's execution of the patriotic bookseller, Palm, had done much to arouse. So rapidly did events now move that the British envoy who hastened out to make peace with Prussia, was met as he drove inland from the port of landing by the tide of fugitives from Jena ! There was no question this time of Prussia having been pushed and paid by England to enter the war. Fox and Grenville, in their Ministry of All-the-Talents, had only too completely abandoned Pitt's policy of Coalitions and subsidies which had sent so many dynasties to their doom.
The efficiency of Frederick the Great's small and barbarous kingdom of serfs and junkers had depended on the energies and genius of the sovereign. When the King happened to be a fool as well as a knave, Prussia merely afforded another example of the effete ancien régime. From the eclipse that she underwent after Jena, she emerged in six years' time as a self-conscious national State with a modern army and a modern bureaucracy. She had been reformed by Stein, Scharnhorst and Hardenberg, who sought, in an adoption of the new French institutions and principles, the means of combating the new France.
The Foxite Whigs, on returning to Parliament in 1801 at the end of their ill-advised ' secession,' saw that domestic politics were dead and that it was useless to attempt to revive them. They kept silence on Reform, without renouncing it. The ranks of Pitt's former party being broken into a number of hostile factions by his retirement, the Foxites entered into alliance with the Tory group led by Lord Grenville, at first out of common contempt for Addington's Ministry, afterwards on the basis of common agreement in favour of Catholic Emancipation. For one year, and one year only, immediately after Pitt's death, the Whigs held office in the famous Ministry of All the Talents, in coalition with the Grenville group and with Addington and his followers. This brief and partial interlude in the long regime of anti-Jacobinism was of notable service to the Empire and to the world, because Fox and his friends insisted on the passage of the Bill abolishing the slave-trade, about which Pitt had grown half-hearted in his later years. Abolition had sharply divided the Tory ranks, but when once it was on the Statute Book, the anti-slavery men in the subsequent Tory Ministries, especially those of the evangelical 'sect,' put down the slave-trade by a vigorous use of the British navy ; and, in the Treaties of Vienna and afterwards, pressed earnestly and with some measure of success to bring the Powers of the Holy Alliance into line with England on this question. The real abolition of the slave-trade on the high seas, and the theoretical ban placed upon it in the as yet unpenetrated Dark Continent, prepared the way for the abolition of slavery itself, and saved the tropics, in the coming era of their commercial exploitation by Europe, from becoming a vast slave-farm.
But All-the-Talents added little to the fighting strength of the nation, especially after their loss of Fox, who died in office, a late convert by experience to the impossibility of making peace with Napoleon. His last words were that he ` died happy.' And, in spite of all, he had lived happy, and spread happiness around him like a wind blowing from the hills. He had loved life too well to be a perfect statesman, but he had brought human life and love with him into the political world, and since he passed out of it, though it has been dignified by equal genius and higher virtue, it has never again been made Shakespearean by such a kind, grand, human creature.
The circumstances attending the fall of the Ministry of All-the-Talents, six months after the death of Fox, gave fresh proof of the power of the Crown. Though no longer able, as in the days of Bute and North, to form Cabinets and Parliamentary majorities out of his own creatures, George III could still exert authority as umpire between existing parties. He dismissed Lords Grenville and Grey because they had proposed to admit Roman Catholic officers into the British army, and because, when he had forced them to withdraw that Jacobinical measure, they had refused the promise he demanded of them, never again to moot Catholic relief in any form. A powerful Minister like Pitt, with a stable majority of his own in the House, could maintain himself against the Crown, though even Pitt had accepted the royal veto on the introduction of vital measures.' But the group-system to which parliamentary life had been reduced in the first years of the nineteenth century, afforded to George III and his successor a field where they were able to choose their own Ministers from among the group-leaders of the day. The power of the Crown remained at this mean level until the great Reform Bill made the people of England and Scotland arbiters of their own destiny. That measure very soon placed the Crown in its present position in the Constitution. Burke and Fox had desired to reduce George III to the position afterwards held by Queen Victoria, but had failed because the alternative to the Crown was not then the people but only the aristocracy.
From 1807 to 1830 the Whigs were excluded from office, partly by the will of the Crown, partly by their own instinct against allying themselves with anti-Reformers. They steadily refused to join any Ministry except on the basis of Catholic Emancipation being made a Government measure. As the Catholic claims were extremely unpopular in our Protestant island, there was not much temptation to Tories like Canning and Castlereagh, who theoretically believed in Emancipation, to make serious efforts on its behalf. So it was left to Ireland eventually to extort for herself what England was never willing to grant.
Although the permanent exclusion of the Whigs and Grenvillites was a result arrived at on purely domestic grounds, it probably helped to a better directed prosecution of the war. All-the-Talents had had no more success abroad than Pitt, and its leading members afterwards went wrong in Opposition about Wellington and the Peninsula. On the other hand, their Tory successors, Perceval, Lord Liverpool and Lord Castlereagh conducted the European war with great military and diplomatic success. It is indeed remarkable that the group of English statesmen who actually beat Napoleon were regarded by con-temporaries and by posterity with something akin to contempt.
They must have been giants indeed not to be dwarfed by the inevitable comparison with their great foreign antagonist and with their great predecessors, Fox and Pitt. They soon quarrelled with their most brilliant colleague, George Canning. And the reactionary and purely negative policy upon which they insisted at home even after Napoleon's fall, at a time when the underswell of the tide was veering round towards progress and liberty, exposed them to the angry ridicule of the younger generation, led by Brougham, Byron and the Reverend Sydney Smith.
Castlereagh, unlike his principal colleagues, had the gifts of a brilliant man of action. So had Canning, with wit and eloquence added. They were looked on as the young disciples on whom Pitt's mantle had fallen. If the two had held together as colleagues in the long Tory Ministry, it could scarcely have attained its reputation for dullness. Unfortunately the Dioscuri could not abide one another. A quarrel culminated in the scandal of a duel. The world sympathised with Castlereagh. Canning's brilliant and potentially liberal genius remained unemployed during the years when the fate of Europe was being decided. ` My political allegiance,' he told his constituents in 1812, `is buried in the grave of Pitt.' It was Castlereagh's fate to be associated in history and literature with Perceval, Liverpool and Addington, now become Lord Sidmouth.
But Canning, before he left the Ministry, found time to perform one act of moral daring, which, whether right or wrong, bears the imprint of genius.
Napoleon, after the first check to the pace of his European conquests on the bloodstained snows of Eylau, had heavily defeated the Russian army at the battle of Friedland. East Prussia and Poland, up to the Russian border, were at his feet. The young Czar Alexander, whose mutable fancies were one after another to play so great a part in history, now determined to give peace to Europe by entering into alliance with Napoleon at Tilsit. There, upon a raft on the Niemen, the Emperors of West and East agreed on the division of the world. Prussia was cut down to a small German principality. England was to be forced to accept the new settlement. If she remained obdurately at war, she must be reduced by the Continental System for cutting off her trade, which had been proclaimed the year before by Napoleon's Berlin Decree. Alexander under-took to enforce the prohibition of British trade in his vast dominions. And it was secretly agreed that the Scandinavian Powers and Portugal were, if necessary, to be compelled to close their ports, and to use their fleets against Britain.
Canning, as foreign secretary, got wind of the great conspiracy from secret agents, and what he did not know he shrewdly guessed. He sent an overwhelming military and naval force to demand of the Danes their alliance, and leave to hold their fleet in pawn. The Danes resisted, Copenhagen was bombarded from the land side, and their warships, which other-wise would have gone to Napoleon, were carried off to England.
It seemed hard to justify such a stroke against a Power that was not even in a state of ` armed neutrality ' against us, as it had been at the time of Nelson's similar attack on Copenhagen six years before. Canning's action gave us a bad name in Europe, while the secret clauses of Tilsit were unknown, and while people were seeking an excuse to themselves for their submission to French tyranny. But Napoleon's proceedings in Portugal and Spain shortly turned the moral scales heavily against him, and did much to exonerate Canning retrospectively for seizing hold of a weapon before Napoleon's out-stretched hand could be laid upon it.
After Tilsit, Napoleon was master of the whole Continent in the same sense that England in the following generation was master of all India. In the Europe of i 8o8 every State had been brought into a defined relation to the paramount power, by annexation, by vassalage, or by alliance on terms of submission. In no country had national feeling as yet been fused against French overlordship, though the anger in Germany at the execution of Palm was prologue to the omen coming on. At the beginning of 18o8 the principle of nationality still worked, perhaps, less against France than in her favour. In Poland ` the Grand Duchy of Warsaw,' torn from Prussia, and erected into a Napoleonic State, fully revived but only half satisfied Polish aspirations to nationhood. In Italy, the anti-Austrian and anti-Papal regime proved the nursery of Italian patriotism.
Everywhere the old world was being rejuvenated on ` French principles,' identified with the dynamic force of Napoleon's personality. Modern bureaucracy in place of old municipal and feudal inefficiency ; in law, the ideas of the Code Napoléon ; in education and thought, the influence of scientific standards, civic and military, instead of clerical obscurantism; in every walk of life the career open to talents these things were thrust upon Western Europe by the direct action of French governors, while in Prussia serfdom was abolished and the Universities and the Army were modernised by Prussian statesmen who saw the need to imitate France or be for ever fallen.
The ascendancy of France, since the days of Louis XIV, in letters, science and life, had prepared men's minds for acceptance of her political supremacy. It was not the French generals alone who had conquered Europe. Napoleon created an able bureaucracy, the Proconsuls of France in Europe, very different from the robber ruffians of the Directorate. They gave men a new and higher standard of government. Their limitations were set by the patriotic narrowness of the French mind: they lacked sympathy with the races over whom they bore rule. Only their Italo-Corsican master could, in his own interest, rise to the idea of an international Caesarism.
Gradually, between 1808 and 1813, Europe's sense of the benefits of this system waned before the growing sense of its burdens. These were mainly due to Napoleon's failure to give peace to the world he had created, a failure traceable partly to his own temperament, partly to the continued resistance of England.
As time went on, the conscription grew more and more unpopular : ` the blood tax ' was a new burden in Italy and many other countries, although by our terrible modern standards the Napoleonic demand on Europe's young manhood seems small indeed. War taxation and the deprivation of trade, in accordance with his Continental System against England, pressed ever more heavily on the subject peoples of the Empire. Peace, permanence and prosperity retreated further and further into the distance as the years went by. England's resistance unexpectedly continued and drew Napoleon on into more and more distant schemes of conquest in Spain and Russia, into ever stricter prohibitions against trade. It seemed that he must conquer and starve the whole world in order to starve and conquer the islanders. As he grew older the burden told on his nature and deepened its faults ; he grew ever more harsh, exacting, sudden ; he could not leave things alone ; he must always be reshuffling the provinces of Europe, pulling up and redistributing his own political creations. The impression grew that his work was always in hot flux, that it would never set cold and solid. Permanence and rest seemed alien to his genius, and it was for permanence and rest that Europe sighed.
These discontents took the form of a new sense of nation-hood, rendering French rule odious, in Holland, Germany and Eastern Europe, and to some extent even in Italy. In France herself they became operative in the political parties of the new Liberalism and the old Reaction. But as yet opposition could find no means of public expression. Politics, journalism, literature had less freedom under the Empire than under the Bourbons of the recent past or of the near future. ` Napoleon's dominion,' said Ugo Foscolo, ` was like a July day in Egypt all clear, brilliant and blazing; but all silent not a voice heard, the stillness of the grave.