The Peace of Amiens, 1802: Reasons for Making Peace
In 1801, Britain had been at war against France for eight years. Prospects of significant victory seemed bleak, and the past year had been particularly difficult. Infuriated by her experience fighting alongside British forces during the Helder expedition of 1799, Russia had left the Second Coalition in 1800 and formed an ‘Armed Neutrality’ with Sweden, Prussia, and Denmark to harass British shipping in the Baltic.
This situation was relieved by the burning of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in April 1801, but the impact of the Armed Neutrality on British trade, particularly affecting supply routes for naval resources, was significant. Austria, meanwhile, made peace with France in February 1801 at Lunéville following defeat in Switzerland and Northern Italy. Despite success in Egypt, where Sir Ralph Abercromby’s forces helped secure British interests in the Middle East, Britain was without significant continental allies for the second time in five years.
Britain was also on the brink of domestic crisis. Taxes were high; the national debt had almost doubled from £242 million in 1792 to £446 million in 1801. In 1797, the financial situation had been so bad that there had been a run on the banks and, to forestall the collapse of the Bank of England, the government had been forced to suspend cash payments and issue paper money. There had been significant disturbances in 1795 over the price of bread following a series of poor harvests, and in 1800 a series of riots over grain shortages prompted fears that Britain might be in the throes of an insurrection.
Only two years previously, Ireland had risen in rebellion against British rule. A French invasion had been repulsed and the rebellion was over, but the rising had fundamentally shaken the British establishment. The Anglo–Irish Union dissolving the Irish Parliament and tying Ireland explicitly to a new ‘United Kingdom’ came into force on 1 January 1801.
Britain simultaneously experienced a significant change in political leadership for the first time since 1783. As a result of the union with Ireland and to help conciliate Irish opinion, the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, had proposed to extend the rights of citizenship to Ireland’s predominantly Catholic population. This had been opposed by the King, and instead of backing down, Pitt had surprised everyone by offering his resignation.
He was replaced by Henry Addington, the Speaker of the House of Commons. Many considered him a political upstart (his father had been a doctor), but others admired him as a sensible man with a talent for conciliating backbench political opinion. Addington had one important advantage: he was a fresh face on the political scene at a time when many felt Pitt was a man who could neither make war nor make peace (peace initiatives in 1796 and 1797 had failed).