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In the spring of 1796, Rufus King was appointed minister to the court of London, in the room of Thomas Pinckney, who, at his own request, was permitted to return home. Mr. King had been an active member of the senate of the United States, from the commencement of the new government. He was well acquainted with the views of president Washington, and from his talents and extensive political information, was peculiarly qualified for the important station assigned him. During a residence of several years as American minister in England, he maintained the rights of his country with great firmness, and sustained a high character among the diplomatic corps at the British court.
The particular friends of president Washington, had long known that he would utterly decline another election. His determination, however, on this subject, was not publicly announced until September, 1796. Unanimity in the choice of his successor was not to be expected. The two great parties in the United States, were now at once arrayed against each other, on the great question of the presidential election. They were divided between Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson. Nor did foreign nations view this contest with indifference. Their interests were supposed, in some measure, involved in the issue.
The views of one candidate were considered favorable to Great Britain, those of the other to France. And the difference be tween these parties, with respect to the conduct of the executive towards these two nations, served to increase the bitterness of this contest.
The French minister took this opportunity to present more in detail, the various complaints of France, against the conduct of the American government. These complaints were embodied in a letter to the secretary of state, bearing date the 15th of November, 1796; and the letter itself, by direction of the minister, was immediately published in the newspapers. It was no doubt, intended to excite the feelings of the people in favor of France, to convince them of the injustice and ingratitude of their own government towards that nation, and to produce an influence on the pending presidential election. Mr. Adet now formally notified the American government, that the executive directory
regarded the British treaty as a violation of that made with France in 1778, and equivalent to a treaty of alliance with Great Britain; and that justly offended at this conduct of the American executive, they had given him orders from that time, to suspend his ministerial functions, with the federal government. He, at the same time declared, that notwithstanding the wrongs of the gov ernment," the directory did not wish to break with a people whom they love to salute with the appellation of friend."
He therefore announced, that the government and people of the United States, were not to regard the suspension of his functions as a rupture between the two countries; "but a mark of discontent, which was to last until the government of the United States returned to sentiments and to measures more conformable to the interests of the alliance and the sworn friendship between the two nations."
After alluding to the enthusiasm with which the American minister was received in the bosom of the national convention, and the joy inspired by the American flag, "when it waved unfurled in the French senate ;" and after enumerating the various complaints of France against the conduct of the American government, and referring to her services in the war of the revolution, he thus concludes-" Alas! time has not yet demolished the fortifications with which the English roughened this country-nor those the Americans raised for their defense; their half rounded summits still appear in every quarter, amidst plains, on the tops of mountains. The traveller need not search for the ditch which served to encompass them; it is still open under his feet. Scattered ruins of houses laid waste, which the fire had partly respected, in order to leave monuments of British fury, are still to be found. Men still exist, who can say, here a ferocious Englishman slaughtered my father; there my wife tore her bleeding daughter from the hands of an unbridled Englishman. Alas! the soldiers who fell under the sword of the Britons are not yet reduced to dust the laborer, in turning up his field, still draws from the bosom of the earth their whitened bones; while the ploughman, with tears of tenderness and gratitude, still recollects that his
fields, now covered with rich harvests, have been moistened with French blood; while every thing around the inhabitants of this country, animates them to speak of the tyranny of Great Britain and of the generosity of Frenchmen; when England has declared a war of death to that nation, to avenge herself for having cemented with its blood the independence of the United States.It was at this moment their government made a treaty of amity with their ancient tyrant, the implacable enemy of their ancient ally. O! Americans covered with noble scars! O! you who have so often flown to death and to victory with French soldiers ! You who know those generous sentiments which distinguish the true warrior! Whose hearts have always vibrated with those of your companions in arms! Consult them to-day to know what they experience; recollect at the same time, that if magnanimous souls with liveliness resent an affront, they also know how to forget one. Let your government return to itself, and you will still find in Frenchmen, faithful friends and generous allies."
This manifest attempt on the part of a foreign minister, to separate the people from their government, and to influence the election of a president, failed of its object. The more reflecting and dispassionate part of the Americans, viewed it as an improper interference of a foreign power, in one of their dearest and most important rights; and some, who had been opposed to the administration, used their influence against the candidate supposed to be favored by France.
On the 7th of December, 1796, president Washington met, and for the last time addressed the national legislature. He adverted in his speech to the treaties which had adjusted most of the disputes betweed the United States and foreign nations; and informed congress, they were in a train of execution. The defenseless state in which the war in Europe found the American commerce, and the lawless depredations made upon it, by the belligerents, had more fully convinced the president, that a naval force was necessary for its protection. The extent of this commerce had no doubt excited the jealousy of the navigating interest of Great Britain; and the belligerents considered the United States.
most vulnerable on the ocean. Both France and Great Britain, therefore, for any supposed injuries received from the Americans, immediately retaliated by a lawless attack on their unprotected trade.
This important subject was strongly pressed upon the attention of congress, by the president, at this time.
"To an active external commerce," he observed, "the protection of a naval force is indispensable. This is manifest with respect to wars in which a state is a party. But besides this, it is evident in our own experience, that the most sincere neutrality is not a sufficient guard against the depredations of nations at war. To secure respect to a neutral flag, requires a naval force, organized and ready to vindicate it from insult or aggression. This may even prevent the necessity of going to war, by discour aging belligerent powers from committing such violations of the rights of the neutral party, as may, first or last, leave no option. From the best information I have been able to obtain, it would seem as if our trade to the Mediterranean, without a protecting force, will always be insecure, and our citizens exposed to the calamities from which numbers of them have just been relieved."
With these views he suggested the propriety of gradually creating a navy, by providing and laying up materials for building and equipping ships of war, and to proceed in the work as our resources should increase.
He invited the attention of the national legislature also to the encouragement of manufactures and agriculture, as well as to the establishment of a military academy and a national university.
He alluded to the late conduct of the French government by saying, that while in our external relations some serious inconveniences and embarrassments had been overcome, and others lessened, he had with much pain and regret to mention, "that circumstances of a very unwelcome nature had lately occurred. Our trade has suffered and is suffering extensive injuries in the West Indies, from the cruizers and agents of the French republic; and communications have been received from its minister here, which indicate the danger of a further disturbance of our commerce by its authority, and which are far from agreeable."
This subject, however, was reserved for a more particular communication.
The president in conclusion said-"The situation in which I now stand, for the last time, in the midst of the representatives of the people of the United States, naturally recalls the period when the administration of the present form of government commenced; and I cannot omit the occasion to congratulate you and my country, on the success of the experiment, nor to repeat my fervent supplication to the Supreme Ruler of the universe and Sovereign Arbiter of nations, that his providential care may still be extended to the United States; that the virtue and happiness of the people may be preserved; and that the government which they have instituted for the protection of their liberties may be perpetual."
The answers of both houses, notwithstanding the conflict of parties, were adopted with great unanimity, and evinced an undiminished veneration for the character of the president. Both expressed their grateful sense of the eminent services he had rendered his country, their extreme regret at his retiring from office, and their ardent wishes for his future personal happiness.
Perfect unanimity, however, did not prevail in the house of representatives. Mr. Giles moved to strike out several clauses in the answer, among which was the following-" And while we entertain a grateful conviction that your wise, firm and patriotic administration has been signally conducive to the success of the present form of government, we cannot forbear to express the deep sensations of regret with which we contemplate your intended retirement from office."
Mr. Giles said, "If he stood alone in the opinion, he would declare, that he was not convinced that the administration of the government for these six years had been wise and firm."-" He did not regret," he added, "the president's retiring from office. He hoped he would retire and enjoy the happiness that awaited his retirement. He believed it would more conduce to that happiness, that he should retire, than if he should remain in office." In this opinion of Mr. Giles, only eleven concurred, and with him voted against the answer.