UNTIL the war of independence the Americans had no navy of their own, such maritime expeditions as that against Louisburg having been undertaken with the aid of British ships. When the war broke out, one of the chief advantages possessed by the British, in their offensive operations, was their entire control of the American waters. Not only were all the coast towns exposed to their sudden attack, but on the broad deep rivers they were sometimes able to penetrate to a considerable distance inland, and by means of their ships they could safely transport men and stores from point to point. Their armies always rested upon the fleets as bases of operations, and soon lost their efficiency when severed from these bases. General Howe was not safe in Philadelphia until his brother had gained control of the Delaware River, and Burgoyne’s army invited capture as soon as its connection with the lakes was cut off. From first to last, the events of the war illustrated this dependence of the army upon the fleet. On the retreat from Lexington, it was only the ships that finally saved Lord Percy’s weary troops from capture ; at Yorktown, it was only the momentary loss of naval superiority that made escape impossible for Cornwallis. For want of a navy, General Washington could not hold the island of New York in 1776 ; and for a like reason, in 1778, after the enemy had been reduced to the defensive, he could not prudently undertake its recapture. It was through lack of effective naval aid that the Newport expedition failed ; and the atrocities of 1779, in Virginia and Connecticut, bore sad testimony to the defenseless condition of our coasts.
Early in the war this crying want was earnestly considered by Congress, and efforts were made to repair it by the construction of a navy and the equipment of private cruisers. But the construction of a regular navy, which alone could serve the purpose, was beset with even greater difficulties than those which attended the organization of a permanent army. There was, indeed, no lack of good material, whether for ships or for seamen. New England, in particular, with its great length of seacoast and its extensive fisheries, had always possessed a considerable merchant marine, and nourished a hardy race of seafaring people. How formidable they could become in naval warfare, Great Britain was destined, nearly forty years afterward, to find out, to her astonishment and chagrin. But the absence of a central government was even more seriously felt in naval than in military affairs. The action of Congress was feeble, unintelligent, and vacillating. The “ marine committees,” “navy boards,” and “boards of admiralty,” to which the work of creating a navy was entrusted, were so often changed in their composition and in their functions that it was difficult for any piece of work to be carried out in accordance with its original design. As there was a total absence of system in the department of admiralty, so there was utter looseness of discipline in the service. There were the same wranglings about rank as in the army, and the consequences were even more pernicious. It was difficult to enlist good crews, because of the uncertainty arising from the general want of system. The risks encountered were excessive, because of the overwhelming preponderance of the enemy from the outset. Of thirteen new cruisers laid down in the autumn of 1775, only six ever succeeded in getting out to sea. During the war one ship-of-the-line was built, — the America 74 ; but she was given to the King of France while yet on the stocks. Between 1775 and 1783, there were twenty small frigates and twenty-one sloops-of-war in the service. Of these, fifteen frigates and ten sloops-of-war were either captured by the enemy, or destroyed to prevent their falling into the enemy’s hands. The armaments of these ships were very light ; the largest of them, the Bon Homme Richard, was constructed for a thirty-eight, but her heaviest guns were only twelve-pounders.
Yet in spite of this light force, weak discipline, and unsteady management, the little American navy did some very good work in the course of the war, and it was efficiently helped by a multitude of private cruisers, just as the Continental army often got valuable aid from the militia. Before the French alliance more than six hundred British vessels had fallen prey to the American cruisers, and so venturesome were these swift little craft that they even hovered around the coast of England, and merchant vessels going from one British port to another needed the protection of a convoy. During the same period, about nine hundred American vessels were taken by British cruisers ; so that the damaging power of the American marine seems to have amounted to about two thirds that of such part of the British marine as could be devoted to the injury of American shipping. The damage inflicted upon the Americans was the more serious, for it well-nigh ruined the New England fisheries and the coasting trade. On the other hand, the American cruisers caused marine insurance in England to rise to a far higher point than had ever before been known ; and we learn from a letter of Silas Deane to Robert Morris that, shortly before the alliance between France and the United States, the docks on the Thames were crowded with French vessels loading with British goods that sought the shelter of a neutral flag.
In one respect the value of this work of the American cruisers was incalculable. It familiarized Europe with the sight of the American flag in European waters. It was of great importance that Europe should think of the new republic not as merely the theme of distant rumors, but as a maritime power, able to defend itself within sight of the British coast ; and in this respect it would be difficult to overrate the services rendered by the heroic captains who first carried the stars and stripes across the ocean, and bearded the lion in his native lair. Of these gallant fellows, Wickes was the first, and his ship, the Reprisal 16, was the first American war vessel to visit the eastern shores of the Atlantic. After a brilliant cruise in the summer of 1777, she foundered off the banks of Newfoundland, with the loss of all on board. Next came Captain Conyngham, with the Surprise and the Revenge, which in the same summer took so many prizes in the North Sea and the British Channel that insurance rose as high as twenty-five per cent., and in some instances ten per cent. was demanded for the short passage between Dover and Calais. But the fame of both these captains was soon eclipsed by that of John Paul Jones, a Scotch sailor, who from boyhood had been engaged in the Virginia trade, and in 1773 had gone to Virginia to live.
When war broke out Jones offered his services to Congress, and in October, 1776, his name appears as eighteenth in the list of captains in the new navy. From the outset he was distinguished for skill and bravery, and in 1778, being then thirty years old, he was sent, with the Ranger 18, to prowl about the British coasts. In this little ship he made a successful cruise in the Irish Channel, burned some of the shipping in the port of Whitehaven, in Cumberland, and in a fierce fight off Carrickfergus captured the British sloop-of-war Drake 20 ; losing only eight men in killed and wounded, while the Drake lost forty-two. With the Drake and several merchant prizes, Jones made his way to Brest, and sent the Ranger home to America, while he remained to take command of a more considerable expedition that was fitting out for the following year. Along with the other duties of Franklin, as minister of the United States at the French court, was joined a general superintendence of maritime affairs. He was a sort of agent plenipotentiary of Congress in all matters relating to the navy. He had authority from Congress to issue letters of marque, and exercised it freely, while imposing restrictions that were characteristic of his magnanimous spirit. In 1779, he issued instructions to all American cruisers that, in whatsoever part of the sea they might happen to meet the great discoverer Captain Cook, they were to forget the temporary quarrel in which they were fighting, and not merely suffer him to pass unmolested, but offer him every aid and service in their power ; since it would ill beseem Americans to lift their hands against one who had earned the reverence and gratitude of all mankind. So in the instructions given to Paul Jones, he ordered him not to burn defenseless towns on the British coast except in case of military necessity, and in such case he was to give notice, so that the women and children, with the sick and aged inhabitants, might be removed betimes.
The expedition of which Paul Jones took command in the summer of 1779 was designed for a signal “ demonstration ” upon the coasts of Great Britain. The object of the British raids in Virginia and Connecticut was to terrify the Americans by a bold and savage assertion of the ubiquity of British power. The expedition of Paul Jones was to serve as a sort of counter-irritant. The confused and indefinite character of the American naval service at that time could not have a better illustration than is to be found in the details of the little squadron with which he was called upon to undertake his perilous task. The flagship was an old Indiaman named the Duras, purchased by the French government and fitted up for the occasion. In compliment to the author of Poor Richard’s maxims, her name was changed to the Bon Homme Richard. She was an exceedingly clumsy affair, with swelling bows and a tower-like poop such as characterized the ships of the seventeenth century. She was now pierced for a thirty-eight-gun frigate, but as there was delay in procuring the eighteenpounders suited for such a craft, her main deck was armed with twelve-pounders instead. In the gun-room below Captain Jones had twelve port-holes cut, in which he mounted six old eighteens, that could be shifted from side to side as occasion required. Leaving these eighteens out of the account, the force of the Bon Homme Richard was about equal to that of a thirty-two-gun frigate. This singular vessel was manned by a crew as nondescript as herself, — a motley gang of sailors and marines from nearly every country in Europe, with half a dozen Malays into the bargain. To these a hundred New England men were afterwards added, bringing up the whole number to 380. For this flagship three consorts were supplied, under the direction of the French government. The Pallas, a merchant vessel pierced for the occasion, was thus transformed into a thirty-two-gun frigate ; the Vengeance and Cerf were of smaller calibre. All these ships were French built. To these Franklin added the Alliance 32, which happened to be in a French port at the time. The Alliance, lately built at Salisbury, in Massachusetts, and named in honor of the treaty between France and the United States, was a very swift and beautiful ship, the finest in the American navy. Unfortunately, it was thought desirable to pay a further compliment to our new allies by appointing a French captain to command her, and this step gave rise to so much discontent and insubordination as well-nigh to destroy her efficiency. Nor had Captain Landais done anything to merit such distinction ; he was simply an adventurer, seeking notoriety in the American service.
The ships in this motley squadron were not privateers. The Alliance was a regular member of our navy. The French-built ships were regarded as loaned to the United States, and were to resume their French nationality after the termination of the cruise ; but they were all duly commissioned by Franklin, under the powers delegated to him by Congress. For the time being, they were part of the American navy and subject to its regulations. Their commodore, Paul Jones, has often been spoken of as a privateer, sometimes as a pirate, but he was as much a regular captain in our navy as Greene was a regular general in our army. Though, however, there could be no doubt as to the legitimate naval character of the expedition, a more ill-assorted or disorderly squadron was perhaps never sent to sea. The summer was spent in cruising about the British coasts, and many prizes were taken ; but the insubordination of the French commanders was so gross that during a large part of the time the ships were scattered in all directions, and Jones was left to cruise alone. On the 17th of September, having got his fleet together, he entered the Frith of Forth, and came within gunshot of Leith, which he intended to attack and capture. Sir Walter Scott, then a schoolboy at Edinburgh, has given, in the introduction to Waverley, a graphic description of the excitement which was felt upon that occasion. But, as Scott says, “ a steady and powerful west wind settled the matter by sweeping Paul Jones and his vessels out of the Frith of Forth.” Four days later, the Bon Homme Richard and the Vengeance entered the river Humber, and destroyed several vessels. On the 23d, the Alliance and Pallas having come up, a British fleet of forty sail was descried off Flamborough Head. They were merchant vessels bound for the Baltic, under convoy of the Serapis 44, Captain Pearson, and the Countess of Scarborough 20, Captain Piercy. Captain Jones instantly gave chase, ordering his consorts to follow and form in line of battle ; but the Alliance disobeyed and ran off to some distance, for a time disconcerting the Pallas, which could not understand the discrepancy between the signals and the movements. The British merchant ships crowded all sail to get out of the way, but the two frigates accepted Jones’s challenge, and came up to fight. The Countess of Scarborough was very inferior in size and armament to the Pallas, while on the other hand the Serapis was much more powerful than the Bon Homme Richard. She was a two - decker, mounting twenty eighteen-pounders below, and twenty nine-pounders above, with ten six-pounders on her quarter-deck and forecastle ; so that she could throw 300 pounds of metal on a broadside. The Bon Homme Richard, with her six eighteens, could indeed throw 312 pounds on a broadside, but her weight of metal was very badly distributed among light guns. Without her eighteens, she could throw only 204 pounds on a broadside, being thus inferior to her opponent by one third. The Serapis had a crew of 320 well trained British sailors, and she was a new and fast ship, perfect in all her appointments.
The fight began at half past seven o’clock, on a dark, cloudy evening, in very smooth water. The two principal opponents delivered their entire broadsides at the same moment. At this first fire, two of the old eighteens in the American frigate burst, killing a dozen men. After this disaster, no one had confidence enough in such guns to fire them again, so that the Bon Homme Richard was at once reduced to two thirds the force of her antagonist, and in ordinary fight must soon have been overcome. A brisk cannonade was kept up for an hour, while the two ships manœuvred for a raking position. The Serapis, being much the better sailer, was passing across her adversary’s bows, with very little elbow-room, when Jones succeeded in running his vessel into her just aft of her weather beam. For a moment all firing ceased on both ships, and Captain Pearson called out, “ Have you struck your colors ? ” “I have not yet begun to fight,” replied Captain Jones. For a moment the ships separated, the Serapis running ahead almost in a line with the Bon Homme Richard. The Serapis now put her helm hard down and was box-hauled, in order to luff up athwart her adversary’s bow, and thus regain her raking position ; but the Bon Homme Richard changed her tack, and presently, in a dense cloud of smoke, the two ships came together again, the British bowsprit passing over the high old-fashioned poop of the American vessel. This was just what Jones desired, and as he stood there on his quarterdeck he seized a stout rope, and lashed the enemy’s jib-boom to his mizzen-mast. Thus tied fast, the pressure of the light wind brought the ships alongside, the head of the one lying opposite the stern of the other. Grappling-hooks were now thrown into the quarter of the Serapis, and with repeated lashings fore and aft the two monsters were held together in deadly embrace. So close did they lie that their yards were interlocked, and some of the guns of the Serapis became useless for want of room to use the rammers. The advantage of her superior armament, was thus in some measure lost, while her advantage in quickness of movement was entirely neutralized. Still her heavy guns at this short range did frightful execution, and the main deck of the Bon Homme Richard was soon covered with mangled and dying men, while her timbers were badly shivered and many cannon were knocked from their carriages. Unable to bear this terrible fire, the Americans crowded upon the upper deck in such numbers as easily to defeat the British attempts to board. Parties of marksmen, climbing into the rigging, cleared the enemy’s tops, and shot down every man upon the Serapis who ventured from under cover. Hand-grenades were thrown into her port-holes to slay the gunners ; and presently one bold fellow, crawling out to the very end of the Bon Homme Richard’s main-yard, just over the main hatchway of the Serapis, dropped one of these mischievous missiles through the hatchway, where it ignited a row of cartridges that were lying upon the main deck. The explosion ran swiftly along the line, as through a pack of gigantic fire-crackers. More than twenty men were blown into fragments, their heads, arms, and legs flying in every direction, while forty others were disabled. With the havoc already wrought by the guns, the Serapis had now lost two fifths of her crew, and her fire perceptibly slackened ; so that the Americans were able to go below and work their guns again, pouring into the British portholes a storm of grape and canister which made an awful carnage.
It was now ten o’clock. All this while the Alliance had kept out of the fight, but the Pallas had attacked the Countess of Scarborough, and after a brisk cannonade compelled her to surrender. The Alliance now came down, and stupidly poured a raking volley along the decks of the two chief combatants, doing impartial damage to friend and foe. Warning shouts went up from the Bon Homme Richard, and her commander called out to Captain Landais to fall upon the further side of the Serapis and board her. The Frenchman replied that he would do so, but instead he ran his ship off a couple of miles to leeward, and comfortably awaited the end of the battle. By this time the Serapis was on fire in several places, so that part of her crew had to leave their guns, and bend all their energies to extinguishing the flames. The American ship was in still worse plight ; she had not only been burning for half an hour, but so many holes had been shot in her hull that she began to sink. She had more than a hundred British prisoners below decks, and these men were now set free and marshaled at the pumps. Few guns were worked on either ship, and the rest of the fight between the two exhausted combatants was a mere question of dogged tenacity. At last Captain Jones, with his own hands, directed a couple of guns against the enemy’s mainmast, and just as it was threatening to fall she surrendered. The gallant British commander stood almost alone on the main deck of his ship, in the midst of an awful scene of death ; while of his few men who remained unhurt, most had sunk down, panting and overcome with fatigue. No sooner were the ships cut asunder than the tottering mainmast of the Serapis went overboard, carrying with it the mizzen topmast and all the mizzen rigging. The Bon Homme Richard was with difficulty kept afloat till morning, and all night long fresh men from her consorts were hard at work fighting the flames, while the wounded were being carried off. At ten o’clock next morning she sank.
Thus ended one of the most obstinate and murderous struggles recorded in naval history. Of the men engaged, more than half were killed or badly wounded, and few got off without some scar or bruise to carry as a memento of this dreadful night. From a merely military point of view, this first considerable fight between British and American frigates had perhaps no great significance. But the moral effect, in Europe, of such a victory within sight of the British coast was prodigious. The King of France made Paul Jones a knight of the order of merit, and from the Empress of Russia he received the ribbon of St. Anne. The King of Denmark settled a pension on him, while throughout Europe his exploit was told and told again in the gazettes, and at the drinking-tables on street corners. On his arrival in Holland, whither he went with his prizes a fortnight after the battle, the British government peremptorily demanded that he should be given up, to be hanged as a pirate. The sympathies of the Dutch were decidedly with the Americans ; but as they were not quite ready to go to war with England, a tardy notice was given to Jones, after ten weeks, that he had better quit the country. Though chased by a British fleet, he got safely to France in December, and after various adventures, lasting through the ensuing year, he reached Philadelphia early in 1781. On inquiry into the extraordinary behavior of Captain Landais, some doubt as to his sanity arose, so that he was not shot for disobedience of orders, but simply discharged from the navy. Paul Jones was put in command of the America 74, but the war was so nearly ended that he did not get to sea again, and Congress presented his ship to the King of France. In 1788, he passed into the Russian service with the rank of rear-admiral. He died in Paris, in 1792, in the forty-fifth year of his age.
Here the question naturally arises, Why should the King of Denmark and the Empress of Russia have felt so much interest in the victory of Paul Jones as to confer distinguished honors upon him for winning it ? The answer, at which we shall presently arrive, will forcibly disclose to us the extent to which, by the end of the year 1779, the whole civilized world had become involved in the quarrel between England and her revolted colonies. As at the bridge of Concord the embattled farmers of Massachusetts had once fired a shot heard round the world, so those last guns aimed by Paul Jones against the mainmast of the Serapis aroused an echo of which the reverberations were not to cease until it should be shown that henceforth nobler principles of international law must prevail upon the high seas than had ever yet been acknowledged. We have now to trace the origin and progress of the remarkable complication of affairs which at length, during the year 1780, brought all the other maritime powers of Europe into an attitude of hostility toward Great Britain. For not until we have duly comprehended this can we understand the world-wide significance of our Revolutionary War, or estimate aright the bearings of the events which led to that grand twofold consummation, — the recognition of the independence of the United States, and the overthrow of the personal government of George III. in England.
Paul Jones was not the only enemy who hovered about the British coast in the summer of 1779. In June of that year, Spain declared war against England, but without recognizing the independence of the United States, or entering into an alliance with us. From the beginning, Count Vergennes had sought Spanish aid in his plans for supporting the Americans, but anything like cordial coöperation between Spain and France in such an undertaking was impossible, for their interests were in many respects directly opposite. So far as mere hatred toward England was concerned, Spain doubtless went even farther than France. Spain had not forgotten that she had once been mistress of the seas, or that it was England which had ousted her from this supremacy in the days of Queen Elizabeth. Of England, as the greatest of Protestant and constitutional powers, as the chief defender of political and religious liberty, priest-ridden and king-ridden Spain was always the natural enemy. She had also, like France, the recollection of injuries lately suffered in the Seven Years’ War to urge her to a policy of revenge. And to crown all, in the event of a successful war, she might hope to regain Jamaica, or the Floridas, or Minorca, or, above all, Gibraltar, that impregnable stronghold, the possession of which by England had for more than sixty years made Spaniards blush for shame. On the other hand, Spain regarded the Americans with a hatred probably not less rancorous than that which she felt toward the British. The mere existence of these English colonies in North America was a perpetual reminder of the days when the papal edict granting this continent to Spain had been set at naught by heretical cruisers and explorers. The obnoxious principles of civil and religious liberty were represented here with even greater emphasis than in England. In Mexico and South America the Spanish crown had still a vast colonial empire ; and it was rightly foreseen that a successful revolt of the English colonies would furnish a dangerous precedent for the Spanish colonies to follow. Spain was, moreover, the chief upholder of the old system of commercial monopoly ; and here her interests were directly opposed to those of France, which, since it had been deprived of its colonial empire, saw in the general overthrow of commercial monopoly the surest way of regaining its share in the trade of the world.
Under the influence of these conflicting motives, the conduct of Spain was marked for a time by hesitation and double-dealing. Between his various wishes and fears, the Spanish prime minister, Florida Blanca, knew not what course to pursue. When he heard of the alliance between France and the United States, which was undertaken against his advice to Vergennes, his wrath knew no bounds. It was a treaty, he said, “ worthy of Don Quixote.” At first he intrigued with the British government, offering his services as mediator between England and France. Lord Weymouth, the British minister for foreign affairs, refused to enter into any negotiation so long as France should extend aid to “ the rebel colonies.” To the covert threat of the wily Spaniard, that if the war were to continue his royal master would doubtless feel compelled to take part with one side or the other, Lord Weymouth replied that the independence of the United States would prove fatal to the continuance of Spanish control over Mexico and South America ; and he suggested, accordingly, that the true interest of Spain lay in forming an alliance with Great Britain. While this secret discussion was going on, Florida Blanca also sounded Vergennes, proposing that peace should be made on such terms as to allow the British to retain possession of Rhode Island and New York. This, he thought, would prevent the formation of an American Union, and would sow the seeds of everlasting dissension between Great Britain and the American States, whereby the energies of the English race would be frittered away in internecine conflict, leaving room for Spain to expand itself. But Vergennes would not hear of this. France had recognized the independence of the thirteen States, and had explicitly and publicly agreed to carry on the war until that independence should be acknowledged by England ; and from that position she could not easily retreat. At the same time Vergennes intimated that France was in no way bound to protect the American claim to the Ohio Valley, and was far from desiring that the people of the United States should control the whole of North America. Upon this suggestion the Spanish court finally acted. After six months more of diplomatic fencing, a treaty was concluded in April, 1779, between France and Spain, whereby it was agreed that these two powers should undertake a concerted invasion of England. For this undertaking France was to furnish the land force, while both powers were to raise as great a naval armament as possible.
France was to assist Spain in recovering Minorca and the Floridas, and if Newfoundland could be conquered, its fisheries were to be monopolized by the two parties to this treaty. Neither power was to make peace on any terms until England should have surrendered Gibraltar to Spain.
This convention brought Spain into the lists against England without bringing her directly into alliance with the United States. She was left free to negotiate with Congress at her own good pleasure, and might ask for the whole Mississippi Valley, if she chose, in return for her assistance. Gerard, the French minister at Philadelphia, sought to persuade Congress to give up the fisheries and relinquish all claim to the territory west of the Alleghanies. There were hot debates on this subject in 1779, and indeed the situation of affairs was sufficiently complicated to call for the exercise of skillful diplomacy. As the treaty between France and Spain became known in America, it was felt to be in some respects inconsistent with the prior convention between France and the United States. In that convention it had been stipulated that neither party should make peace with Great Britain without the consent of the other. In the convention between France and Spain it was agreed that neither party should make peace until Great Britain should surrender Gibraltar. But the Americans rightly felt that, should Great Britain be found willing to concede their independence, they were in no wise bound to keep up the war for the sole purpose of helping France to conquer Gibraltar for a power which had never owed them any good will, and was at this very moment hoping to cut down their territory. The proposal to exclude America as well as Great Britain from the fisheries excited loud indignation in New England.
Meanwhile, the new allies had gone energetically to work. Early in 1779, a French fleet had captured all the British settlements in Senegambia, and made a vigorous though unsuccessful assault upon the island of Jersey. In June, war was accordingly declared by Spain so suddenly that England was quite taken by surprise. Florida Blanca had lied with so grave a face that Lord North had not been looking out for such a step. In August, the allied French and Spanish fleets, numbering more than sixty shipsof-the-line, with a full complement of frigates, entered the English Channel, with intent to repeat the experiment of the Invincible Armada ; while a French army lay at Havre, ready to cross at the first opportunity. To oppose this formidable force, Admiral Hardy was able to get together only thirty-eight ships-of-the-line, with the ordinary proportion of frigates. There was a panic in England, and the militia were called out. But owing to dissensions between the French and Spanish admirals and serious illness in the crews, nothing whatever was accomplished, and the great fleet retired crestfallen from the channel. Everybody blamed everybody else, while an immense sum of money had been spent upon a wretched fiasco. In America, however, the allies were more successful. Galvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, captured Baton Rouge and Mobile, with their British garrisons, and preparations were made for the siege of Pensacola, to complete the conquest of West Florida. In the West Indies, the islands of Grenada and St. Vincent were captured by D’Estaing. The moment that war was declared by Spain, there was begun that siege of Gibraltar which, for its heroic defense, as well as for its long duration of nearly four years, has had no parallel in the annals of modern warfare.
It was only through maritime expeditions that the two new allies could directly assail England with any hope of success ; but here on the sea her natural superiority was not long in asserting itself. Great efforts were made to increase the strength of the navy, and in December, 1779, the command of the fleet in the West Indies was given to a man who among English sailors ranks with Blake and Hawke, on a plane inferior only to that occupied by Nelson. The brilliant career of Sir George Rodney began in the Seven Years’ War, in the course of which he bombarded Havre, thus warding off a projected invasion of England, and moreover captured several islands in the West Indies. It was Pitt who first discerned his genius, and put him into a position in which he could win victories. After the peace of 1763 he became a member of Parliament, but lost all he had in gambling, and fled to France to get rid of his creditors. When war broke out between France and England in 1778, the venerable Marshal de Biron loaned him enough money to save him from the Marshalsea or the Fleet, and he returned to England to be appointed to the chief command in the West Indies. A vain and unscrupulous man, as many called him, he was none the less a most skillful and indomitable captain. He was ordered, on his way to the West Indies, to relieve Gibraltar, which was beginning to suffer the horrors of famine, and never was such a task more brilliantly performed. First, he had the good fortune to fall in with fifteen Spanish ships, loaded with provisions and under the convoy of seven war vessels, and all this fleet he captured. Then, at Cape St. Vincent, on a dark and stormy night, he gave chase to a Spanish fleet of eleven ships-of-the-line and two frigates, and in a sharp fight captured or destroyed all but four of them without losing one of his own ships. He thus reached Gibraltar, and after passing up to the fortress the welcome cargoes of the fifteen merchant prizes went on to the West Indies, where his presence turned the scale against the allies. A powerful French fleet under Count de Guichen was cruising in those waters ; and it was hoped that this fleet would soon be able to come to New York and coöperate with Washington in an attempt to regain that city. But the arrival of Rodney changed all this, and the Count de Guichen, after being worsted in battle, sailed away for France, while Rodney proceeded to New York, to relieve Sir Henry Clinton and foil the projects of Washington.
That very supremacy upon the sea, however, which enabled England to defy the combined fleets of France and Spain served, in its immediate consequences, only to involve her in fresh difficulties. By the arrogant and indiscriminate manner in which she exercised the right of search, she soon succeeded in uniting against her all the neutral nations of Europe ; and a principle of international law was laid down which in our own time has become fully established, and must in future essentially limit the areas over which wars are likely to extend. This new principle of international law related to the rights of merchant vessels belonging to neutral powers, in time of war. In early times it was held that if one country went to war with another, its right to prey upon its enemy’s commerce was virtually unlimited. If it found its enemy’s goods carried in a ship belonging to some neutral power, it had a right to seize and confiscate them ; and in days when hostility was the rule and peace the exception, when warfare was deemed honorable and commerce ignoble, and when the usages of war were rough and unscrupulous, the neutral ship itself, which carried the goods, was very likely to be confiscated also. As the neutral power whose ship was seized would be sure to resent such behavior, it followed that any war between two maritime powers was likely to spread, until it involved every other power which possessed any merchant shipping or did any business upon the high seas. With a view to confining such evils within as narrow a limit as possible, the maritime code known as the Consolato del Mare, which represented the commercial interests of the Middle Ages, and was generally accepted as of the highest authority in maritime affairs, recognized the right of confiscating an enemy’s goods found in a neutral ship, but did not recognize the right of confiscating the neutral ship. In the Middle Ages maritime warfare played a subordinate part ; but after colonies had been planted in America and the East Indies by the great maritime nations of Western Europe, the demand for fixed rules, whereby the usages of such warfare should be regulated, soon came to be of transcendent importance. England and the Netherlands, as powers with whom industrial considerations were of the first consequence and military considerations only secondary, adhered firmly to the rule of the Consolato del Mare as the most liberal rule then in existence. France and Spain, as preëminently militant powers, caring more for the means of annoying an enemy than for the interests of commerce in general, asserted the principle that neutral ships detected in carrying an enemy’s goods were themselves lawful subjects for seizure. France, however, did not hold this doctrine so firmly as Spain. Here, as in so many other respects, France showed herself more advanced in civilization than Spain, while less advanced than England and the Netherlands. In 1655, by a treaty between Cromwell and Mazarin, France accepted the English rule ; in 1681, under the retrograde government of Louis XIV., she went back to her ancient practice ; in 1744, she again adopted the English rule, while Spain kept on with her old custom, until sharply called to account by Russia in 1780.
Until the middle of the eighteenth century, the most liberal doctrines respecting maritime warfare had concerned themselves only with the protection of neutral ships. It had never occurred to anybody to maintain that the goods of an enemy should be guaranteed against scrutiny and seizure by the mere fact of their being carried on a neutral ship. That any belligerent could seize its antagonist’s property, if found on a neutral ship, was the doctrine laid down alike by Vattel and Bynkershoek, the chief French and Dutch authorities on maritime law. In acting upon this principle, therefore, at the time of our Revolutionary War, England acted strictly in accordance with the recognized maritime law of Europe. She was not, as some writers seem to have supposed, introducing a new principle of aggression, in virtue of her newly acquired position as chief among maritime powers. In stopping the defenseless merchant vessels of neutral or friendly powers, compelling them to show their bills of lading, searching their holds if need be, subjecting them to a hateful inquisition and vexatious delays, she did no more than every maritime nation had been in the habit of doing, and even less than Spain claimed the right to do. It was quite natural, too, that England should insist upon retaining this privilege, as something which no great naval power could afford to dispense with ; for obviously, if in time of war your enemy can go on trading with everybody but yourself, and can even receive timber and provisions from people not concerned in the struggle, your means of crippling him are very materially diminished. Such reasoning seemed conclusive everywhere in Europe until after the middle of the eighteenth century. At that time, however, the unexampled naval preponderance of England began to lead other nations to take a new view of the case. By the maintenance of the old rule, England could damage other nations much more than they could damage her. Other nations, accordingly, began to feel that it would be a good thing if the flag of a neutral ship might be held to protect any merchandise whatsoever that she might happen to have on board. This modern doctrine, that free ships make free goods, was first suggested by Prussia in 1752. Such a view naturally commended itself to a nation which had a considerable number of merchantmen afloat, without any navy fit to protect them ; and it was accordingly likely to find favor in the eyes of such nations as Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and the United States. But, more than this, it was a view entirely in accordance with the philosophic tendencies of the age. The great humanitarian movement, which in our time has borne rich and ample fruit, and which has tended in every practicable way to diminish the occasions for warfare and to restrict its scope, had its first brilliant literary representatives among the clearsighted and enthusiastic French philosophers of the eighteenth century. The liberal tendencies in politics, which hitherto England alone had represented practically, were caught up in France, as soon as the dismal and protracted tyranny of Louis XIV. had come to an end, with an eagerness that partook of fanaticism. English political ideas, without being thoroughly comprehended in their practical bearings, were seized and generalized by Montesquieu and Turgot, and a host of lesser writers, until they acquired a width of scope and a genial interest which exercised a prodigious influence upon the thought of Continental Europe. Never in any age, perhaps, since the days when Sokrates talked to enchanted crowds upon street corners in Athens, did men of broad philosophic ideas come so closely into contact with men absorbed in the pursuit of life’s immediate ends as at the time when all Paris rushed to kiss the hand of Voltaire, and when ladies of the court went to sleep with the last brochure of Diderot or Helvetius under their pillows. The generous “ enthusiasm of humanity,” which revealed itself in every line of the writings of these great men, played an important part in the political history of the eighteenth century. It was an age of crowned philosophers and benevolent despots. Joseph of Austria, Frederick of Prussia, and Catherine of Russia, in their several ways, furnished illustrations of this tendency. Catherine, who wrote letters to Voltaire and admired Fox above all other English statesmen, set almost as much store by free thought as by free love, and her interest in the amelioration of mankind in general was second only to her particular interest in the humiliation of the Turk. The idea of taking the lead in a general movement for the liberation of maritime commerce was sure to prove congenial to her enlightened mind, and her action would have great weight with England, which at that time, isolated from all European sympathy, was especially desirous of an alliance with Russia, and especially anxious to avoid offending her. At the beginning of 1778, Sir James Harris, afterward Earl of Malmesbury, was sent as ambassador to St. Petersburg, with instructions to leave no stone unturned to secure an offensive and defensive alliance between Russia and Great Britain, in order to offset and neutralize the alliance between France and the United States. Negotiations to this end were kept up as long as the war lasted, but they proved fruitless. While Catherine coquetted and temporized, the Prussian ambassador had her ear, and his advice was unfavorable to such an alliance. For the England of Pitt the great Frederick felt sympathy and gratitude ; for the England of George III. he had nothing but hatred, and his counsels went far to steady Catherine, if ever she showed signs of wavering. The weight of France was of course thrown into the same scale, and for four years the Russian court was the scene of brisk and multifarious intrigues. Harris said that his very valets were offered bribes by busybodies who wished to get a look at his papers ; and when he went out, leaving his secretary writing, he used to lock him up, not through doubts of his fidelity, but lest he should thoughtlessly leave the door ajar. From Prince Potemkin, one of Catherine’s lovers whose favor Harris courted, he learned that nothing short of the cession of Minorca would induce the empress to enter into the desired alliance. Russia was already taking advantage of the situation to overrun and annex the Crimea, and the maritime outlook thus acquired made her eager to secure some naval station on the Mediterranean. Minorca was England’s to give. She had won it in the war of the Spanish Succession, and for seventy years it had been one of the brightest jewels in her imperial crown. Together with Gibraltar it had given her that firm grasp upon the Mediterranean which — strengthened in later times by the acquisition of Malta, Cyprus, and the isthmus of Suez — has gone far toward making that vast inland sea an English lake. So great a value did England set upon Minorca that when, in the Seven Years’ War, it was lost for a moment, through an error of judgment on the part of Admiral Byng, the British people were seized with a bloodthirsty frenzy, and one of the foulest judicial murders known to history was committed when that gallant commander was shot on his own quarter-deck. Yet even this island, by which England set such store, she was now ready to surrender in exchange for the help of Russia against her revolted colonies and the House of Bourbon. It was not, however, until 1781 that the offer of Minorca was made, and then Catherine had so far acceded to the general combination against England that she could not but refuse it. That such an offer should ever have been made shows how important an alliance with Russia seemed to England at the moment when France and Spain were leagued against her, and all the neutral powers looked on her with hostile eyes. We can thus the better appreciate the significance of the step which Russia was now to take with reference to the great question of maritime law which was beginning to agitate the civilized world.
In the summer of 1778, the French government, with intent to curb the depredations of British cruisers, issued a proclamation adopting the Prussian doctrine of 1752, that free ships make free goods, and Vergennes took occasion to suggest that Catherine should put herself at the head of a league of neutral powers for the purpose of protecting neutral commerce all over the world. For the moment no decided action was taken, but the idea was one of those broad ideas in which the empress delighted, and she devoted herself to the historical and philosophical study of the subject. Count Panin, her principal minister, who was strongly in sympathy with the King of Prussia, insisted upon the necessity of protecting the commerce of minor powers against England, which since 1763 had become the great naval bully of the world. England was doubtless acting in strict accordance with timehonored custom, but circumstances had changed, and the law must be changed to meet them. The first great war since 1763 was now showing that England could destroy the commerce of all the rest of the world, without any fear of retaliation except through a universal war. During the summers of 1778 and 1779, Prussian, Swedish, Danish, and Dutch ships were continually overhauled by British cruisers, and robbed of cargoes which they were carrying to France. Such gross outrages upon private property, however sanctioned by laws of war that had grown up in a barbarous age, awakened general indignation throughout Europe ; and from whatever quarter complaints poured in, Vergennes and Frederick took good care that they should be laid before the Empress of Russia, until presently she came to look upon herself as the champion of little states and oppressed tradesmen. The British depredations were, moreover, apt to be characterized by an arrogance which, while it rendered them all the more exasperating, sometimes transcended the limits of aggression prescribed by the rude maritime law of that day. Upon Netherland commerce England was especially severe, for the Dutch had more merchant shipping than any other people on the Continent, with a weak navy to protect it. England forbade the Dutch to send timber to France, as it would probably be used in building ships of war. On the 30th of December, 1779, seventeen Dutch vessels, laden with tar and hemp, and other materials useful in shipyards, were sailing through the English Channel, escorted by five ships-of-the-line under Count Bylandt, when toward nightfall they were overtaken and hailed by a British squadron of sixteen ships-of-the-line under Admiral Fielding. A lively parley ensued. Bylandt swore that his ships should not be searched, and Fielding threatened violence. While this was going on, twelve of the Dutch ships got away under cover of darkness, and reached in safety the French ports to which they were bound. Early in the morning, Bylandt fired upon the boat which was bringing a party of British officers to search the merchantmen that remained. Upon this, three British ships instantly poured their broadsides into the Dutch flagship, which returned the compliment, and then hauled down its flag, as resistance was useless. Nobody was killed, but Fielding seized the five merchantmen, and took them in to Portsmouth. The States-General of the Netherlands complained of the outrage to Lord Stormont, the new foreign secretary, and demanded the restitution of the prizes. The matter was referred to the British court of admiralty, and the singular doctrine was there laid down that the Dutch vessels were virtually blockaderunners, and as such were lawfully captured ! “ Great Britain,” said the judge, “ by her insular position, blocks naturally all the ports of Spain and France, and she has a right to avail herself of this position as a gift of Providence.” But the States-General did not accept this interpretation of the law and theology of the matter, and they appealed to the Empress of Russia.
Just at this moment events occurred which compelled Catherine to take some decided stand on the question of neutral rights. Through fear of adding her to the list of their enemies, the British ministry had issued the most stringent orders that no Russian vessel should be searched or molested, under any circumstances. The Dutch and Danish flags might be insulted at pleasure, but that of Russia must be respected ; and so well were these orders obeyed that Catherine had no grounds for complaint against England on this score. Spain, on the other hand, was less cautious. In the winter of 1779—80, her cruisers captured two Russian vessels laden with wheat, in the mistaken belief that their cargoes were destined for Gibraltar. The ships were taken into Cadiz, their cargoes were sold at auction, and their penniless crews were outrageously treated by the people, and came little short of starving. Catherine was wild with rage, and instantly ordered out fifteen ships-of-the-line and five frigates for the protection of Russian commerce. For a moment war between Spain and Russia was imminent. But Panin moved with cautious shrewdness, and consulted the King of Prussia, who persuaded Florida Blanca to restore the captured ships, with compensation to the owners of the cargoes, and an ample apology for the blunder. The empress was satisfied, and Panin assured her that now the time had come for her to act with magnanimity and power, laying down an impartial code for the protection of maritime commerce, and thus establishing a claim to the gratitude of mankind through all future ages. On the 8th of March, 1780, Catherine issued a proclamation, setting forth the principles of maritime law which she was henceforth resolved to defend by force, if necessary. Henceforth neutral ships were to sail unmolested from port to port, even on the coasts of countries at war. They were to be free to carry into such ports any goods or merchandise whatsoever, except arms and ammunition, and the right of search was to be tolerated as regarded such contraband articles, and for no other purpose. Hereafter no port was to be considered blockaded unless the enemy’s ships of war should be near enough to make it dangerous to enter. These principles were immediately adopted by Spain, France, and the United States, the three powers actually at war with England. At the same time, Denmark and Sweden entered into an arrangement with Russia for the mutual protection of their commerce. It was announced that for every Danish, Swedish, or Russian ship searched or seized by the cruisers of any belligerent power, a strict retaliation would be made by the allied navies of these three countries. This covenant, known as the Armed Neutrality, was practically a threat aimed at England, and through her unwillingness to alienate Russia it proved a very effective threat. We can now understand the interest shown by Denmark and Russia in the victory of Paul Jones, and we can also appreciate the prodigious moral effect of that victory. So overwhelming was England’s naval superiority that the capture of a single one of her war ships was a memorable event. To the lesser maritime powers it seemed to bring the United States at once into the front rank of belligerents. The British ministry was too well instructed to be brought under this spell ; but in view of the great hostile combination now formed against it, for the moment it was at its wits’ end. “ An ambiguous and trimming answer was given,” says Sir James Harris ; “ we seemed equally afraid to accept or dismiss the new-fangled doctrines. I was instructed secretly to oppose, but avowedly to acquiesce in them.” In England, the wrath and disgust extended to all parties. Shelburne and Camden joined with North and Thurlow in denouncing Catherine’s proclamation as an impudent attempt, on the part of an upstart power, hardly known on the sea till quite lately, to dictate maritime law to the greatest maritime power the world had ever seen. It was contended that the right to search neutral vessels and take an enemy’s goods from them was a cardinal principle of international law ; and jurists, of course, found the whole body of precedents on the side of this opinion. But in spite of all protests these “ new-fangled doctrines,” subversive of all precedent, were almost immediately adopted throughout Europe. In December, 1780, the Netherlands joined the Armed Neutrality, under circumstances presently to be related. In May, 1781, it was joined by Prussia ; in October, 1781, by the Empire; in July, 1782, by Portugal; in September, 1782, by the Turk ; in February, 1783, by the Kingdom of Naples. Though England’s maritime strength exceeded that of all the members of the league taken together, she could not afford to run the risk of war with all the world at once ; and thus the doctrine that free ships make free goods acquired a firm foothold. In the chaos of the Napoleonic wars, indeed, paper blockades and illegal seizures abounded, and it fared ill with neutral commerce on the high seas. But the principles laid down by Catherine survived that terrible crisis, and at last they were formally adopted by England at the close of the Crimean War, in 1856.
This successful assertion of the rights of neutrals was one of the greatest and most beneficent revolutions in the whole history of human warfare. It was the most emphatic declaration that had ever been made of the principle that the interests of peace are paramount and permanent, while those of war are subordinate and temporary. In the interest of commerce it put a mighty curb upon warfare, and announced that for the future the business of the producer is entitled to higher consideration than that of the destroyer. Few things have ever done so much to confine the area of warfare and limit its destructive power. If the old doctrine were in force at the present day, when commerce has expanded to such enormous dimensions, and every sea is populous with merchant ships, it would be well-nigh impossible for any two maritime powers to go to war without dragging all the rest of the world into the struggle. For the speedy accomplishment of this great reform we have chiefly to thank the Empress Catherine, whose action at the critical moment was so prompt and decisive. It is curious to consider that an act which so distinctly subordinated military to industrial interests should have emanated from that country of Europe which had least outgrown the militant stage of civilization, and should have been chiefly opposed by that country which had advanced the farthest into the industrial stage. It is a brilliant instance of what may be achieved by an enlightened despot when circumstances are entirely favorable. Among the many acts of Catherine which, in spite of her horrible vices, have won the admiration of mankind, this is doubtless the most memorable ; and as time goes on we shall realize its importance more and more.
The immediate effect of the Armed Neutrality was to deprive England of one of her principal weapons of offense. To add to her embarrassment, there now came war with Holland. While there was strong sympathy between the British and Dutch governments, there was great jealousy between the peoples which had so long been rivals in the colonial world. Hence there were two parties in the Netherlands, — the party of the Stadtholder, which was subservient to the policy of the British government, and the popular party, which looked with favor upon the American cause. The popular party was far the more numerous, including all the merchants of the most mercantile of countries, and it was especially strong in the city of Amsterdam. A brisk trade — illicit from the British point of view — was carried on between Holland and the United States, chiefly through the little Dutch island of St. Eustatius, in the West Indies. An equally lively trade went on between Holland and France, and against this England felt that she had an especial right to make complaint. Her relations with Holland were regulated not simply by the ordinary law of nations, but by careful and elaborate treaties, made in the days when the two peoples were leagued in sympathy against the aggressive policy of Louis XIV. In 1678, it had been agreed that if either England or Holland should be attacked by France, both powers should make common cause against their common enemy ; and in 1716 this agreement had been renewed in such wise as to include the contingency of an attack by Spain, since a younger branch of the House of Bourbon had succeeded to the Spanish throne. When, in 1779, Spain declared war against England, the latter power accordingly called upon the Netherlands for aid ; but no aid was given, for the Dutch felt that they had an especial right to complain of the conduct of England. By that same treaty which in 1674 had finally given New York to the English, it had been provided that in case either England or Holland should ever go to war with any other country, the ordinary rules of maritime law should not be enforced as between these two friendly commercial powers. It was agreed that either power might freely trade with the enemies of the other; and such a treaty was at that time greatly to the credit of both nations. It was made in a moment when an honorable spirit of commercial equity prevailed. But it was one of the chief symptoms of the utter demoralization of the British government in 1778, after the untimely death of Lord Chatham, that these treaty obligations were completely ignored ; and in the general plunder of merchant shipping which went on at that time, no nation suffered like the Dutch. George III. now felt that he had got everything into his own hands, and when the Dutch complained he gave them to understand that, treaty or no treaty, he should do as he pleased. Under such circumstances, it was rather cool for England to ask aid against Spain, and the Dutch very naturally turned a deaf ear to the demand. It was thus a very pretty quarrel as it stood at the end of 1779, when Fielding fired upon the flagship of Count Bylandt, and Paul Jones was allowed to stay with his prizes ten weeks in a Dutch harbor. Each party was thus furnished with an “ outrage.” The righteous anger of the Dutch over the high-handed conduct of Fielding was matched by the British chagrin over the victory of Jones. The Stadtholder’s weak efforts to keep the peace were quite overwhelmed in the storm of wrath that arose. After much altercation, England notified Holland that all treaties between the two countries must be considered as abrogated, owing to the faithless behavior of the Dutch in refusing aid against Spain, in trading with France and America, in resisting the right of search, and in sheltering Paul Jones. Having thus got rid of the treaties, England proceeded to act as if there were no such thing as international law where Dutchmen were concerned. During the summer of 1780, the wholesale robbery on the high seas grew worse than ever, and, with a baseness that seems almost incredible, the British ambassador at the Hague was instructed to act as a spy, and gather information concerning the voyages of Dutch merchants, so that British cruisers might know just where to pounce upon the richest prizes. Thus goaded beyond human endurance, Holland at last joined the Armed Neutrality, hoping thereby to enlist in her behalf the formidable power of Russia.
But the policy of England, though bold and arrogant in the extreme, was so far well considered as to have provided against such an emergency. She was determined to make war on Holland, to punish her for joining the Armed Neutrality ; but if she were to avow this reason, it would at once entail war with Russia also, so that it was necessary to find some other reason. The requisite bone of contention was furnished by a curiously opportune accident. In October, 1780, an American packet was captured off the banks of Newfoundland, and among the prisoners was Henry Laurens, lately president of Congress, now on his way to the Hague to negotiate a loan. He threw his papers overboard, but a quick-witted tar jumped after them, and caught them in the water. Among them was found a project for a future treaty of commerce between the Netherlands and the United States, which had been secretly concerted two years before between Jean de Neufville, an Amsterdam merchant, and William Lee, an American commissioner to Berlin. It was signed also by Van Berckel, the chief magistrate of Amsterdam ; but as it had been neither authorized nor sanctioned by the States-General or by Congress, it had no validity whatever. Quite naturally, however, the discovery of such a document caused much irritation in England, and it furnished just the sort of excuse for going to war which the ministry wanted. To impose upon the imagination of the common people, Laurens was escorted through the streets of London by a regiment of soldiers, and shut up in the Tower, where he was denied pen and paper, and no one was allowed to enter his room. A demand was made upon Holland to disavow the act of Van Berckel, and to inflict condign punishment upon him and his accomplices, “ as disturbers of the public peace and violators of the rights of nations.” In making this demand, it was foreseen that the StatesGeneral would disavow the act of Van Berckel, but would nevertheless decline to regard him as a fit subject for punishment. The message was sent to the British ambassador at the Hague on the 3d of November. It was then known in England that Holland contemplated joining the Northern league, but the decisive step had not yet been actually taken by the States-General. The ambassador was secretly instructed by Lord Stormont not to present the demand for the disavowal and punishment of Van Berckel unless it should become absolutely certain that Holland had joined the league. At their meeting in November, the States-General voted to join the league, and the demand was accordingly presented. Everything happened according to the programme. The StatesGeneral freely condemned and disavowed the Amsterdam affair, and offered to make reparation ; but with regard to the punishment of Van Berckel, they decided that an inquiry must first be made as to the precise nature of his offense and the court most fit for trying him. England replied by a peremptory demand for the immediate punishment of Van Berckel, and, without waiting for an answer, proceeded to declare war against Holland on the 20th of December. Four days before this, the swiftest ship that could be found was sent to Admiral Rodney, who was then at Barbadoes, ordering him to seize upon St. Eustatius without a moment’s delay.
Whatever other qualities may have been lacking in the British ministry at this time, they certainly were not wanting in pluck. England had now to fight single-handed against four nations, three of which were, after herself, the chief naval powers of the world. According to the Malmesbury Diaries, “ this bold conduct made a great and useful impression upon the Empress ” of Russia. It was partly with a view to this moral effect that the ministry were so ready to declare war. It was just at this time that they were proposing, by the offer of Minorca, to tempt Catherine into an alliance with England ; and they did not wish to have her interpret their eagerness to secure her aid as a confession of weakness or discouragement. By making war on Holland, they sought to show themselves as full of the spirit of fight as ever. To strengthen the impression, Harris blustered and bragged. The Dutch, said he, “are ungrateful, dirty, senseless boors, and, since they will be ruined, must submit to their fate.” But in all this the British government was sailing very near the wind. Prince Galitzin, the Russian ambassador at the Hague, correctly reported that the accession of Holland to the Armed Neutrality was the real cause of the war, and that the Amsterdam affair was only a pretext. Upon this ground, the Dutch requested armed assistance from Catherine, as chief of the league. The empress hesitated ; she knew the true state of the case as well as any one, but it was open to her to accept the British story or not, as might seem best. Dispatches from Berlin announced that Frederick was very angry. When he first heard the news, he exclaimed, “ Well! since the English want a war with the whole world, they shall have it.” Catherine then sat down and wrote with her own hand a secret letter to Frederick, asking him if he would join her in making war upon England. On second thoughts, the King of Prussia concluded there was no good reason for taking part in the affair, and he advised Catherine also to keep her hands free. This decided the empress. She did not care to make war upon England, except with such overwhelming force as to be sure of extorting very important concessions. She accordingly chose to believe the British story, and she refused to aid the Dutch, on the ground that their quarrel with England grew out of a matter with which the Armed Neutrality had nothing to do. At the same time, after dallying for awhile with the offer of Minorca, she refused that also, and decided to preserve to the end the impartial attitude which she had maintained from the beginning.
Meanwhile, on the 3d of February, 1781, a powerful fleet under Rodney, with the force of 5000 men which had been detached in November, 1779, from Clinton’s army in New York, appeared before the island of St. Eustatius, and summoned it to surrender. The Dutch governor, ignorant of the fact that war had begun, had only fifty-five soldiers on the island. He had no choice but to surrender, and the place was given up without a blow. The scene which ensued was one of the most disgraceful in all the history of England. The British had an especial spleen against this wealthy little island, which had come to be the centre of an enormous trade between France and Holland and the United States. Rodney called it a nest of thieves, and declared that “ this rock, only six miles in length and three in breadth, had done England more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies, and alone supported the infamous American rebellion.” His colleague, General Vaughan, who commanded the land force, regarded it as a feeder for the American “ colonies,” of which the summary extinction would go far toward ending the war. With such feelings, they made up their minds to do their work thoroughly ; and accordingly they confiscated to the crown not only all the public stores, but all the private property of the inhabitants. Their orders were carried out with great brutality. The goods in the warehouses were seized and laden upon ships, to be carried away and sold at auction in the neighboring islands. Every kind of private and personal property was laid hold of, and the beggared inhabitants were turned out-of-doors and ordered to quit the island. The total value of the booty amounted to more than twenty million dollars. Among the victims of this robbery were many British merchants, who were no better treated than the rest. Rodney tore up their remonstrance without reading it, and exclaimed, “ This island is Dutch, and everything in it is Dutch, and as Dutch you shall all be treated.” The proceedings were fitly crowned by a contemptible act of treachery. The Dutch flag was kept flying as a decoy, and in the course of the next seven weeks more than fifty American ships, ignorant of the fate of the island, were captured by the aid of this dirty stratagem.
The conduct of the government in declaring war against Holland was denounced by the Whigs as criminal, and the true character of the shameful affair of St. Eustatius was shown up by Burke in two powerful speeches. But the government capped the climax of infamy when it deliberately approved the conduct of Rodney, and praised him for it. Many of the British victims, however, brought their cases before the courts, and obtained judgments which condemned as illegal the seizure of private property so far as they were concerned. On the continent of Europe, the outrage awakened general indignation, as an infraction of the laws and usages of civilized warfare, the like of which had not been seen for many years ; and it served to alienate from Great Britain the little sympathy that remained for her.
The position of England at this time was alarming, as well as ignominious. She had contrived to league against herself, in various degrees of hostility, nearly the whole of the civilized world, and the most distressing part of the situation, to all liberal-minded Englishmen, was the undeniable fact that this hostility was well deserved. To the historian who appreciates the glorious part which England has played in history, the proceedings here recorded are painful to contemplate ; and to no one should they be more painful than to the American, whose forefathers climbed with Wolfe the rugged bank of the St. Lawrence ; or a century earlier, from their homes in New England forests heard with delight of Naseby and Marston Moor ; or back yet another hundred years, in Lincolnshire villages defied the tyranny of Gardiner and Bonner ; or at a yet more remote period did yeoman’s service in the army of glorious Earl Simon, or stood, perhaps, beside great Edward on the hallowed fields of Palestine. The pride with which one recalls such memories as these explains and justifies the sorrow and disgust with which one contemplates the spectacle of a truculent George Germaine, an unscrupulous Stormont, or a frivolous North ; or hears the dismal stories of Indian massacres, of defenseless villages laid in ashes, of the slaughter of unarmed citizens, of legalized robbery on the ocean highway, or of colossal buccaneering, such as that which was witnessed at St. Eustatius. The earlier part of the reign of George III. is that period of English history of which an enlightened Englishman must feel most ashamed, as an enlightened Frenchman feels ashamed of the reigns of Louis XIV. and the two Bonapartes. All these were periods of wholesale political corruption, of oppression at home and unrighteous warfare abroad, and all invited swift retribution in the shape of diminished empire and temporary lowering of the national prestige. It was not until some time after the downfall of the personal government of George III. that England began to resume her natural place in the foremost rank of liberal and progressive powers. Toward that happy result, the renewal and purification of English political life, the sturdy fight sustained by the Americans in defense of their liberties did much to contribute. The winning of independence by the Americans was the winning of a higher political standpoint for England and for the world.