The Continental System - War in disguise




James Stephen (1758–1832), a crusty and argumentative British Admiralty lawyer, felt anger for years when he considered how the Americans were injuring Britain with their commercial carrying trade. Ever since 1800, those crafty Americans had been engaged in an enormous trade with the Continent because the British had allowed Americans to "neutralize" their cargoes from the French Caribbean by first landing them in America and paying a small duty. Even those minor British requirements were massively evaded by Americans; too few cargoes were landed and even small duties were quickly refunded by port authorities. From London, it appeared that Americans were growing rich while the British struggled to contain Napoleon, would-be dictator of the Western world. Ungrateful Americans, supposed lovers of liberty, assisted Napoleon and counted their coins while Britain defended America from Napoleonic incursions into the New World with great sacrifice.

Stephen, who hated Napoleon and Jefferson in equal measure, decided to urge his fellow citizens to crack down on the Americans. In October 1805 he published War in Disguise; or, The Frauds of the Neutral Flags, a pamphlet that appeared on the same day Admiral Nelson smashed the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. Do not, Stephen warned, allow American neutral ships to continue trading freely with France; such trade "sustains the ambitions of France and prolongs the miseries of Europe." Since Britain ruled the oceans, why concede extensive rights to greedy neutrals, as Britain had in 1800? Why should Americans be allowed to prosper while Britain bled for freedom and the precious right of self-governance? When news of the Trafalgar triumph reached London, Stephen's arguments seemed even more convincing; Britain controlled the high seas and could enforce its will without contradiction. His powerful pamphlet became a best-seller in England for several months. Even those who favored leniency toward the American trade found his arguments difficult to refute.

British orders in council regulating American shipping soon followed. To a striking degree, they enacted policies suggested by Stephen. No longer could Americans neutralize their cargoes by landing them in an American port and paying a small duty. Britain was thus preparing in 1805 to reinforce Napoleon's coming continental system in making life miserable for the heretofore prosperous American commercial carriers.

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