Armed Neutralities - The second league




In the words of Isabel de Madariaga, the idea of a league of neutrals "flickered into brief life again in 1800" before it was finally abandoned. At that point, Napoleon Bonaparte, first consul of the French Republic, was anxious to construct a continental alliance against Great Britain, whose opposition to his designs was proving intransigent. He was attempting to use against the British a league of neutral powers, particularly those of northern Europe, who were angered by British refusal to recognize the rights of neutral commerce.

Paul I of Russia had withdrawn from the Second Coalition against Napoleon early in 1800, believing that his interests lay more in the Baltic than in Italy and Germany and vexed by British refusal to surrender Malta to him as the new Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. As a result of his diplomacy, the 1780 Declaration of Armed Neutrality was renewed. Beginning with the Prussians and Danes, Paul recreated the league, and by mid-December 1800, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia had also signed separate conventions with France to further their "disinterested desire to maintain the inalienable rights of neutral nations." Napoleon had earlier declared that he would not make peace with the British while they refused to respect the neutral rights not only of these powers, but also of the United States. He hoped to attach the Americans to the league, particularly after Thomas Jefferson's accession to the presidency early in 1801.

Late in 1800, John Adams, on the advice of his son, John Quincy Adams, minister to Prussia, sent an embassy to Paris that signed a convention reaffirming the principles of the 1780 declaration. This was ratified by the Senate early in 1801, but both Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, were cautious about entering into a firm attachment with a league in which, in the words of one of the American envoys in Europe, "the silly powers of the north" had responded to "this interested and politic cry of France against Great Britain." They recognized too that the situation could be turned to their advantage if the Baltic trade were denied to the British, and they were suspicious of Napoleon's designs in the Western Hemisphere and fearful of the seriousness with which the British government clearly took the league.

So they hung back, and while they did the league collapsed. In the spring of 1801, two events destroyed it. Late in March, Paul I, the main prop of the league, was assassinated. Up to and past this point, the league worked: no British ships passed through the Denmark Strait in the first four months of 1801. But now decisive and ruthless action in the form of Horatio Nelson's destruction of the Danish fleet in Copenhagen Harbor hit the league at its weakest point. The league was finished, because the new czar, Alexander I, refused to maintain the policies of his father. The League of the Armed Neutrality of 1780 had, because of the temporary concurrence of a number of factors, some effect on the course of the American Revolution and, more particularly, on the European policies that surrounded it. A weakened Great Britain, faced with rebellious colonies and declarations of war by the major European powers, was in no position to resist effectively a league that eventually contained all the other major European powers. For once, an unusual show of neutral strength and unity had an effect on European politics, although even this did not extend fully to all the members and particularly to the Dutch.

The effectiveness of the league, however, had nothing to do with the principles it had espoused, with their justice or their strength. It had to do with the strength of the league's members and the comparative weakness of the major object of its existence. In 1800, when such a situation did not exist, this fact was illustrated graphically by the collapse of the second League of the Armed Neutrality. On this occasion, helped by a fortunate accident of Russian politics, the British, strong and confident, led by a resolute and able prime minister and served by a brilliant and fearless admiral, struck hard at the league's weakest link and destroyed it. Unable to maintain the rights they claimed, the neutrals returned to conciliation of Great Britain. They had learned a severe lesson—and so, watching them, had the government of the United States.

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