Reviews: Books of General Interest

The Consequences of Honour: Bonaparte, Britain and the Peace of Amiens

Lucas, Mark Grenville. The Consequences of Honour: Bonaparte, Britain and the Peace of Amiens. Morrisville, NC: Lulu, 2013. 470 p. ISBN# 9781304116031. Softcover. $23

There is a possibly apocryphal Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” Surely in “our” era the fourteen months of the peace of Amiens qualify as an “interesting” time. The year saw many of Napoleon’s most important institutional changes initiated, French expeditions to the Caribbean, changes in the status of Italy and Switzerland, reorganization of Germany, conspiracies in both Britain and France, negotiations with the United States over New Orleans, among the most notable events.  Mark Lucas has written a book covering the history of this era from the negotiations over the Treaty of Amiens to Britain’s breaking of the peace. Despite the importance of this period, there have been few full accounts of the Peace of Amiens.

There’s arguably more fudging by (Anglophone) authors when dealing with the Treaty of Amiens than almost any other event of the Napoleonic era.  Because the British government was particularly culpable in the breakdown of the peace, these writers go to pains to point out the offenses of the French government (or really Napoleon, since it’s useful to personify the one side while keeping the other vague and impersonal) and quietly move on to Trafalgar. That it was Britain which broke the peace is explained away as inevitable, forced upon it by the perfidious French.

In the British mind, later events justified breaking the Treaty. Even though the British agreed to the French sending an expedition to Saint-Domingue (the British had no more interest in a slave republic in the Caribbean than the French had), the British later used the expedition as an example of French bad behavior. Another grievance being that France didn’t open its territory to British trade, even though this issue was not included in the Treaty of Amiens and the French well remembered the disaster of the Eden Treaty of 1786 (which helped bring about the Revolution).  Paul Schroeder has argued that “The British went to war simply because they could not stand being further challenged and humiliated by Bonaparte…” Yet as Alan Forrest observes the British saw that “the terms of Amiens were themselves part of that ‘humiliation’…” A treaty the British negotiated, agreed to and were satisfied to sign. Pittites, in and out of the government, who had never supported the peace, continued to try to undermine both it and the administration of Addington, who had been after all Pitt’s handpicked successor. To many of the Pittites Addington suffered from not being from the right class, not being an orator, and not being William Pitt.

The chief French complaint about the treaty were that the British wouldn’t evacuate Malta, and you have to wonder if they deep down, after having occupied Malta, Britain ever really wanted to leave.  The French had proposed destroying the fortifications on the island during the negotiations, rendering the island of less use as a Gibraltar in the middle of the Mediterranean, a proposal the British never seriously considered. Britain claimed that Malta was “so essential to England’s safety that it was prepared to go to war over it,” (p.413) but it did not recognize the importance of Holland or Switzerland to France.  An interesting point of view especially when one looks a map. The British had also failed to evacuate Egypt, which was also a provision of the Treaty, and used the publication of a report by the French envoy to the region, Horace-François-Bastien Sébastiani, in the Moniteur as a further justification for war. The British government chose to see this report as a provocation and a threat.  William Pitt said, "The mere circumstance of a military man having been sent at that time with such a commission to Egypt, was a sufficient evidence of the object of his mission," i.e., "of resuming his [Napoleon's] hostile project against Egypt." This overlooks, however, that by the Treaty of Amiens, Egypt was to have been evacuated by the time of Sébastiani's mission. The French ambassador Andréossy correctly pointed out to Hawkesbury that, "Without a very considerable navy we could have no designs on Egypt; the business of St. Domingo is quite sufficient for us, and besides, when such designs are conceived, care is taken not to divulge them." Britain only evacuated Egypt in March 1803 as war became more inevitable and the troops would be of use elsewhere.  It was the British, not the French, who were to return of Egypt in 1807. 

The other complaint being the presence of French Royalist conspirators in Britain.  Though the British had wanted the Treaty to include the French expelling Irish rebels from French territory, they wouldn’t consider the French counter-proposal that the recalcitrant Royalists be expelled from Britain.  Royalist propagandist writings in Britain insulting Napoleon and his family and calling for his assassination was a particular sore point for Napoleon.  The British claimed that the constitution rendered them powerless to act against Royalists advocating the violent overthrow of the French Consulate (even while some of these journalists were receiving government funds). Forgetting that Lord George Gordon had been prosecuted for libeling Marie Antoinette, or as Talleyrand told the British ambassador that their scruples over the constitution didn’t prevent Britain from suspending habeas corpus.. Under later circumstances the British the British government would be complaining to the American government that no civilized government would allow publication of “very violent and hostile language…which supported…murder and destruction.”  In the end the constitution did allow Jean Charles Peltier to be prosecuted and found guilty of libel, but as war broke out before Peltier could be sentence he was allowed to go free. In fact he made a fortune selling copies of the transcript of his trial and had a long and profitable career calling for the downfall of Napoleon.    

Lucas, on the other hand, has attempted to present a balanced account of this momentous period.  Though he admits that his opinion of Napoleon is “ambivalent” (perhaps the wisest starting point for a historian to take), he has attempted not to take sides in the debate over the culpability of the two sides. He has instead tried to recount the events and let the reader come to his own conclusions.  He recognizes that even the choice of events to recount and their emphasis is not without bias. That the peace failed, as some historians seem to suggest, simply because Napoleon was Napoleon seems facile to Lucas. It was however more in the interest of France to be conciliatory and see that the period of peace continued than it was for Britain. France had appeared to have gotten the better of Britain in the negotiations for the treaty and was more in need of time for consolidating the new regime.  The French ambassador to Britain wrote as much to Napoleon. (p. 393) In the end mutual misunderstandings, sensitivities and long-standing national ambitions undermined the peace.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg

Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2014



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