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The Redeclaration of War, 1803:

Who Was To Blame?

James Gillray, "The Evacuation of Malta", Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC, from here

British politicians were quick to claim that Napoleon’s untrustworthiness and policy of expansion had left them no choice. Pitt the Younger supported Addington’s reopening of hostilities from the back benches of the House of Commons: ‘The war [was] a war of necessity, and one which we could not decline without surrendering both our security and our honour.’ Addington’s government emphasised the point that war had only broken out again as a result of considerable provocation on Napoleon’s part. Napoleon, for his part, pointed to the British failure to evacuate Malta, the immediate cause behind the breakdown in diplomatic relations.

 

Historians have generally held both parties responsible for the resumption of the war, but acknowledge that the conflict may have been inevitable. Paul Schroeder sums up the situation in May 1803 in a pithy sentence: ‘The British went to war simply because they could not stand being further challenged and humiliated by Bonaparte; France went to war because Bonaparte could not stop doing it’ (The Transformation of European Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 243).

 

Charles Esdaile feels the Amiens settlement was sound enough – ‘a compromise settlement that was no more unstable than earlier general European peace treaties’ – but failed because Britain and France had incompatible long-term aims (Napoleon’s Wars (London, 2007), pp. 107–8).

 

Alan Forrest, in contrast, argues that Napoleon’s continental expansionism was offset by the fact that British politicians ‘had shown themselves to be aggressive in their own foreign policy objectives, whether in opposing French ambitions, in exploiting the weakness of the Austrian Empire, or in expanding their commercial and colonial empires’ (Napoleon: Life, Legacy, and Image (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2011), p. 177).

 

In the end it probably did not matter who was immediately responsible; the crucial point is that neither Britain nor France really expected the peace to last. The question, therefore, was not so much who would be responsible for breaking it, as when it would be broken.

Background image: James Gillray, "Maniac-Ravings, or Little Boney in a Strong Fit", Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC, from here

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