Canning and the Napoleonic Wars
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Ministry of all the Talents
The death of Pitt necessitated the formation of a new ministry on the lines which Pitt himself had, desired when he took office for the last time.
The king himself could no longer resist the inclusion of Fox in a National government. Grenville was the head of the "Ministry of all the Talents." But eight months after his great rival Fox too died. In these last months of his life he saw secured one great reform upon which his heart had long been set. The resolutions demanding the abolition of the slave trade were at last carried in both Houses, though the consequent Act was not passed until Fox had disappeared from the scene. But Fox learnt in office the vanity of his persistent hope and belief that a durable peace could be made with Napoleon. The Emperor had no objection to negotiations, but he had no intention of being baulked or hampered in carrying out the smallest' fragment of his ambitious designs.
From Austerlitz onwards, through 1806 at least, Napoleon's career was one of steady and successful aggression with only one unimportant check. Prussia very soon accepted his conditions and closed her ports to British trade, getting Hanover as her reward. The Bourbon dynasty was again driven out of Naples and retained only the island of Sicily under British protection. The mainland was made a kingdom for Napoleon's brother Joseph; Holland with enlarged borders was made a kingdom for another brother, Louis. The Rhine states of the Empire were formed into the Confederation of the Rhine, with duchies and principalities distributed among Napoleon's marshals. The Holy Roman Empire was formally dissolved; the Austrian Emperor was the Austrian Emperor and nothing more. The king of Prussia at last awoke to the fact that the French Emperor was playing with him; too late he challenged his mighty adversary, and in October Prussia was brought completely under Napoleon's heel by the victories of Jena and Auerstadt. Frederick William had to fall back upon Russian support.
The negotiations with Fox broke down over the English minister's refusal to cede Sicily or to desert the Tsar. But the Ministry of all the Talents, failing through no fault of its own to procure an honourable peace, did not understand the conduct of war. It clung to the old tradition of sending here and there desultory expeditions with no chance of accomplishing permanent results. Thus it sent to Southern Italy a force under General Stuart, who won at Maida a victory over a superior force of French veterans, which somewhat raised the prestige of British troops and lowered that of the French; but the success was not followed up and the expedition was withdrawn. Another expedition sent to Buenos Ayres by way of striking a blow at the Spanish government in South America ended in ignominious disaster in 1807. The one distinctive gain to the British Empire in 1806 was the effective reoccupation of Cape Colony, which Fox refused to surrender.
Six months after Fox's death the Grenville ministry resigned, in March 1807, on a constitutional question. Defeated by the king's rejection of a proposal to admit Roman Catholics to commissions in the Army and Navy, it formally refused the king's demand that it should pledge itself not to raise the question again. Resolutions declaring the right of the ministry to tender advice at its own discretion were shelved, the ministry resigned, and reactionary Toryism was established in power for twenty years. During those twenty years the strifes and divisions, as under the long Whig ascendency of the last century, were not strifes of party principle but of antagonistic personalities. But the events of 1806 had the effect of removing the last shred of doubt that the struggle with Napoleon would have to be fought out to the bitter end, and also of bringing home a new conviction that Napoleon was not to be defeated by the old system of alliances with continental dynasties. Pitt had grasped the fact before his death. Dynastic interests would never form a solid ground for a combination which could hold Napoleon permanently in check. Napoleon meant to be master of Europe, and only when nations, not dynasties, rose against the oppressor would combinations be effective. To national uprisings Britain would give her hearty support, but she would no longer devote herself to forming coalitions of the old type.
The Orders in Council
Already, in 1806, Napoleon struck the first blow which was intended to bring the "nation of shopkeepers" to its knees. When after Jena Napoleon conducted his triumphal progress through Prussia to Berlin, he issued from the Prussian capital the Berlin Decree which was to annihilate British commerce. Every port in every dependent state and in every state in alliance with France was to be closed to British goods. It was tolerably apparent that every state which did not so close its ports would very soon be treated by France as an enemy. The British Government responded with the Orders in Council, declaring all ports so closed to be in a state of blockade, and therefore not open to any commerce at all. Further Napoleonic decrees were met by further Orders in Council of the same drastic type. British action was of course represented as having for its purpose the destruction of all neutral commerce and the appropriation of the trade of the world. That was very nearly the effect,.but it was not the intention. The Orders in Council were measures of war. The conquest was a plain trial of strength. If Europe could preserve her commerce while excluding the British at the dictation of Napoleon, the British Empire would be ruined; if she could not, the British Empire would not be ruined; but European commerce would, and Europe would feel that she owed her woes to the dictatorship of Napoleon. The commercial war would be a means to excite Europe to shake itself free from the Napoleonic yoke.
Early in 1807 Napoleon received a check from the Russians in alliance with the Prussian king at the battle of Eylau; but four months later he won a decisive victory at Friedland, which, with other circumstances, caused the Tsar to change his policy. Alexander was angry with Britain, which, owing chiefly to inefficiency in the administration, had failed to send him the support he expected. His alliance with Prussia, now absolutely at Napoleon's mercy, was of no use to him. The two Emperors met and held a secret conclave on a raft in midstream at Tilsit, where they made a compact under which the Tsar was to unite with his new ally in competing the still neutral minor states to close their ports, while his own were also to be closed, to the British. Prussia was shorn of its western territories, out of which a kingdom of Westphalia was patched up for still another of Napoleon's brothers, Jerome, while her annexations in Poland were taken away and converted into the grand duchy of Warsaw.
Seizing the Danish fleet
George Canning, however, received information of the secret articles of the treaty; he had become Foreign Secretary on the fall of the Grenville ministry. Although it was impossible to produce any public justification, he promptly despatched an expedition to Denmark, offering her the British alliance, and demanding as on the previous occasion that she should surrender her fleet into British keeping. It was the obvious intention of the new alliance to absorb all the European fleets; and, in view of the danger, Canning had no hesitation in ignoring customary rules. Denmark refused. Copenhagen was bombarded; Denmark yielded, and her fleet was carried off. It may be doubted whether Britain had anything serious to fear from any possible combination of foreign navies, and whether she did not rather lose by making Danish sentiment bitterly hostile and by violating the accepted conventions which are called the Public Law of Europe. But the danger was there, and Canning's action put an end to it.
Napoleon, like Canning himself, certainly believed that the high-handed action of the British minister had gone far to foil his plans; for his indignation was genuine, and was certainly not in fact based, as be professed, on his respect for the Public Law of Europe, which be only recognised himself when it suited him. His denunciations were made scarcely more convincing by the coercion which he applied to Portugal to bring it within the ring-fence of his Continental System, the name he gave to the scheme for the exclusion of British commerce. A French army under Junot marched into Portugal; but the royal family, instead of submitting to Napoleon, embarked upon British ships and betook itself to the great Portuguese colony of Brazil. Canning's coercion of Denmark, though it failed to bring about the alliance with the Northern Powers for which he had hoped, had the very clear justification that it might at least be regarded as a necessary act of self-defence. It was not possible to apply a similar defence to Napoleon's seizure of Portugal.
War with Russia
Before the end of the year, then, Russia had declared war upon Britain, and there was scarcely a free port left along the whole European coastline from which British goods were not excluded. It is an ironical commentary on Napoleon's programme that he found himself obliged to grant licences to purchase and sell British goods, both manufactures and raw materials, which the Continent could not produce out of its own resources; while smuggling, if a dangerous business, became both a very extensive and a very lucrative one.
Napoleon seizes Portugal and Spain
The seizure of Portugal, where Junot very soon set aside the Portuguese government and took over the administration, was the first step towards the opening of an entirely new phase in the war. It is probable that Napoleon was already resolved to annex Spain as well as Portugal to the French Empire. The royal family of Spain played into his hands. The king, Charles IV, the queen, the heir-apparent Ferdinand, and the minister Godoy, formed perhaps a group as despicable as any which ever held in its hands the government-of a great nation. The Crown Prince and the minister, the queen's favourite, were very much at feud. Both parties intrigued with the French Emperor, who found in the Portuguese troubles a sufficient excuse for throwing French troops into Spain. These were at first rather welcomed by the populace, who imagined that they had come to take the part of Ferdinand, who was popular simply for the reason that Godoy was detested. But Napoleon enticed both the king and his son over the border to Bayonne, where both became parties to a compact by which both king and prince abdicated the Spanish throne; whereupon Napoleon proclaimed his own brother Joseph king of Spain, transferring him thither from Naples, while he passed on the crown of Naples to his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat.
It was a simple and easy bargain, but it left out of count the possibility that the Spanish people might have something to say. They had. They regarded Joseph Bonaparte as a usurper and Ferdinand's abdication as having been extorted from him by force. In every province the people rose in arms, and committees called juntas were formed to conduct resistance to the usurper. Before the end of July a considerable French force was compelled to capitulate to the insurgents at Baylen. Napoleon discovered that Spain would have to be conquered before his brother could occupy the throne. He did not anticipate much difficulty in the task; but he had never before had to overcome a fiercely hostile people, and he had never before had to do battle with an efficient British army. Both those experiences were before him now and made havoc of his calculations.