A remarkable document from between Napoleon’s exile in Elba and his return to power, entrusted to the U.S. ambassador to France for delivery.
After a series of wars that lasted 21 years, Napoleon, who had known so many triumphs and had changed the face of Europe, suffered stinging defeats and defections in 1814. In April he was compelled to surrender and in May found himself in exile at Elba. News of these stirring events reached...
After a series of wars that lasted 21 years, Napoleon, who had known so many triumphs and had changed the face of Europe, suffered stinging defeats and defections in 1814. In April he was compelled to surrender and in May found himself in exile at Elba. News of these stirring events reached Boston on June 3, and within 5 days had made its way to Washington. This intelligence was anything but welcome in the United States, and caused great apprehension. The British had huge, experienced armies in Europe, and very capable military leaders (like the Duke of Wellington); with Napoleon gone and there being peace in Europe, all of these assets could be sent to prosecute the war in America, and the U.S. might be overwhelmed. On the other hand, the events were so epochal that Americans could not help but watch in amazement, and wonder about the fate of the parties and persons involved, and about the future of Europe and indeed the world.
Towards the end of June, word arrived in the U.S. that the restored King Louis XVIII had granted a charter, a liberal constitution with twelve articles analogous to a Bill of Rights. They contained such measures as a declaration of equality before the law, due process rights, religious toleration, freedom of the press, protection of private property, abolition of conscription. These principles, together with the retention of the Napoleonic Code, represent some of the permanent gains of the French Revolution. This charter was seen in the U.S. as a good sign that there would not be a return to authoritarian rule in France.
William H. Crawford was U.S. ambassador to France at the time, and was responsible for superintending the American consuls in Europe, and keeping them informed of developments. More than that, he was an advisor to the President on the happenings on the Continent. As Ambassador to the Court of one of the two major adversaries in the conflicts in Europe, he was also actively involved in the Ghent negotiation process, advising the negotiators and responding to their confidential communiqués. He would later serve as Secretary of War and Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Madison and Monroe.
Word had reached America of the fall of Napoleon but the U.S. government was not yet certain how to address the new monarch of France or the title he would be using. Secretary of State James Monroe wrote to Crawford, “A letter of evidence for the new sovereign will be sent to you as soon as he has been recognized and his title known.” The letter was entrusted to Crawford to present, but with the title and name left blank, to be filled in.
Letter signed, by President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe, to Louis XVIII, August 1814. “Great and good Friend, I have made the choice of William H. Crawford, one of our distinguished citizens, to reside near your Majesty in the quality of Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America. He is well informed of the relative interests of the two Countries, and our sincere desire to cultivate and strengthen the friendship and good correspondence between us; and from a knowledge of his fidelity, probity and good conduct, I have entire confidence that he will render himself acceptable to your Majesty; by his constant endeavor to preserve and advance the interest and happiness of both nations. I therefore request your Majesty to receive him favorably and to give full credence to whatever he shall say on the part of the United States; and most of all when he shall assure you of their friendship and wishes for your prosperity; and I pray God to have your Majesty in his safe and holy keeping.”
A search of public sale records going back 40 years reveals no other letters from Madison to Louis XVIII having reached the market, nor do we recall seeing any. This was acquired by us from a direct descendant of William H. Crawford, and it has never before been offered for sale.
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