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A movement in Europe, known as the “Armed neutrality,” threatened to seriously cripple the power of Great Britain and incidentally aid the Americans in their struggle for independence. It was a league of the leading nations of Europe against the pretensions of Great Britain as “Mistress of the seas.” It was conceived in the summer of 1778, when British cruisers seized American vessels in the Baltic Sea engaged in commerce with Russia. The latter nation was then assuming colossal proportions, and all the others courted the friendship of its empress, Catharine II., who was able and powerful. Great Britain tried to induce her to become an ally against France. Catharine coquetted a long time with King George, while her sympathies were with Sweden, Denmark, and Holland. Their neutral ships were continually interfered with by British sea-rovers, whose acts were justified by the British government. France had gained the good — will of the Northern powers by a proclamation (July, 1778) of protection to all neutral vessels going to or from a hostile port with contraband goods whose value did not exceed threefourths of the whole cargo.

From that time until the beginning of 1780 the insolence of British cruisers and the tone of the British ministers offended the Northern powers. The tone was often insulting. “When the Dutch,” said Lord North, “say ‘We maritime powers,’ it reminds me of the cobbler who lived next door to the lord mayor, and used to say, ‘My neighbor and I. ’ ” Official language was often equally offensive. The British minister at The Hague said, “For the present, treaty or no treaty, England will not suffer materials for ship-building to be taken by the Dutch to any French port.” A similar tone was indulged towards the other powers, excepting Russia The shrewd Catharine, perceiving the commercial interests of her realm to be involved in the maintenance of the neutral rights of others, after long coquetting with Great Britain, assumed the attitude of defender of those rights before all the world.

Early in March, 1780, she issued a declaration, in substance, (1) that neutral ships shall enjoy free navigation from port to port, and on the coasts of belligerent powers; (2) that free ships free all goods except contraband; (3) that contraband are arms and munitions of war, and nothing else; (4) that no port is blockaded unless the enemy's ships in adequate number are near enough to make the entry dangerous. “In manifesting these principles before all Europe,” that [368] state paper said, “her Imperial Majesty is firmly resolved to maintain them. She has therefore given an order to fit out a considerable portion of her naval forces to act as her honor, her interest, and necessity may require.” The Empress invited Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, and the Netherlands to join in support of her declaration. These, with Prussia and Russia, entered into a league in the course of the year. France and Spain acquiesced in the new maritime code; and at one time a general war between Great Britain and the Continental nations seemed inevitable. The United States approved the measure, and towards the close of 1780 sent Francis Dana as ambassador to the Court of St. Petersburg to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce. The alliance neither awed nor in any sensible way affected England. The known fickleness and faithlessness of Catharine made other powers hesitate in going to war, and the league resulted in inaction.

When the Berlin decree (see orders in council) was promulgated, John Armstrong, American minister at Paris, inquired of the French minister of marine how it was to be interpreted concerning American vessels, and was answered that American vessels bound to and from a British port would not be molested; and such was the fact. For nearly a year the French cruisers did not interfere with American vessels; but after the peace of Tilsit (July 7, 1807), Napoleon employed the released French army in enforcing his “Continental system.” According to a new interpretation of the Berlin decree, given by Regnier, French minister of justice, American vessels, laden with merchandise derived from England and her colonies, by whomsoever owned, were liable to seizure by French cruisers. This announced intention of forcing the United States into at least a passive co-operation with Bonaparte's schemes against British commerce was speedily carried into execution by the confiscation of the cargo of the American ship Horizon, which had accidentally been stranded on the coast of France in November, 1807. The ground of condemnation was that the cargo consisted of merchandise of British origin. This served as a precedent for the confiscation of a large amount of American property on the sea Already Great Britain had exhibited her intended policy towards neutrals. When she heard of the secret provisions of the treaty of Tilsit, in anticipation of the supposed designs of France she sent a formidable naval force to Copenhagen and demanded (Sept. 2) the surrender of the Danish fleet, which being refused, it was seized by force, and the vessels taken to England. Her policy was further foreshadowed by an Order in Council (Nov 11, 1807) prohibiting any neutral trade with France or her allies—in other words, with the whole of Europe, Sweden excepted—unless through Great Britain. A colorable pretext for these orders was the Berlin decree. See embargo.

In 1816 it was proposed to Spain to accept, on the part of the United States, in satisfaction of the claims against her, a cession of Florida; and, that all controversies between the two governments might be settled at once, to make the Colorado of Texas the western boundary of the United States in Spanish territory. The Spanish minister at Washington demanded, as preliminary to such an arrangement, the restoration to Spain of West Florida, and the exclusion of the flags of insurrectionary Spanish provinces of South America, they being used by privateersmen. An act was accordingly passed in March, 1816, and penalties provided for a violation of it. This act secured peace between the two countries

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