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The Peace of Amiens, 1802: Reactions to the Peace


Charles Williams, "The Preliminaries of Peace", 1801, Etching, hand-colored, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, from here

Few could deny that Britain urgently needed the chance to recover from the strains of war. The initial response to the peace preliminaries in October was, therefore, one of relief. The carriage of the French envoy bringing news of France’s ratification was drawn through the streets of London, and the peace was commemorated across the country by illuminations and the ringing of bells.


Politically speaking, however, the treaty was unpopular. Although Addington had concluded it with Pitt’s support and assistance, many members of Pitt’s former government were outraged. William Windham, Pitt’s former Secretary at War, thought Britain had ‘received its death blow’.


Lord Grenville, the former Foreign Secretary, was angry because Addington had ignored a paper that had been approved by Pitt’s cabinet in the autumn of 1800 laying out the minimum requirements for peace: retaining the Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon, and Cochin; ensuring the independence of the Netherlands; restoring Portugal and Sicily; and evacuating Egypt. Many of these men were driven into open opposition to the government, driving a wedge between themselves and Pitt, their former leader.

Addington had done his best with a bad hand, but his main problem was that France had begun to show her contempt for the terms of previous treaties (particularly Lunéville) even before the ink on the treaty of Amiens was dry. This undermined Addington’s attempt to portray the treaty as a major step forward in diplomatic relations between Britain and France, and undermined confidence in his government.


Even Addington had to admit Britain could not realistically trust French intentions. One of the benefits of peace was that the nation would be able to recover financially, but, as Addington admitted, ‘He was bound in candour and fairness to state, that it would be necessary to provide new means of security, such as were never before known in times of peace.’ In other words, the military and naval forces of the country would not be reduced to the usual peace establishment. This reflected the conviction of most political commentators that the Treaty of Amiens provided Britain with a ‘breathing space’ rather than a proper settlement. The brief life of the peace showed this to be true, even if it was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Background image: James Gillray, "The First Kiss These Ten Years! Or the Meeting of Britannia and Citizen François", Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC, from here

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