Orders in Council (1807)
the War of 1812
The Orders in Council were a series of decrees, in the form of Orders in Council, made by the Privy Council of the United Kingdom in the course of the wars with Napoleonic France which instituted its policy of commercial warfare. The Orders are important for the role they played in shaping the British war effort against France, but they are also significant for the strained relations—and sometimes military conflict—they caused between the United Kingdom and neutral countries, whose trade was affected by them.
In Europe, restrictive British trade policy as enacted in the Orders led to the formation of the Second League of Armed Neutrality, and deteriorating relations with other neutral powers, notably Denmark (with whom the British would fight a series of wars) and Russia. In the Atlantic, the Orders in Council were one of the main sources of tension between the United Kingdom and the United States which led to the War of 1812.
Formally, an "Order in Council" is an order by the Sovereign at a meeting of the Privy Council by which the British government decrees policies. It is a political term for a type of legislation that is still used on occasion, particularly in the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.
Especially in American history, the term "the Orders in Council" is also used collectively to refer to the group of such orders in the late 18th and early 19th centuries which restricted neutral trade and enforced a naval blockade of Napoleonic France and its allies. In total, the collective term "Orders in Council" refers to more than a dozen sets of blockade decrees in the years 1783, 1793, 1794, 1798, 1799, 1803–1809, 1811, and 1812; in practice, it is most often associated strictly with the decrees of 7 January 1807, 11 November 1807, and 26 April 1809 which were most inflammatory to the Americans.
By 1806, Napoleon was master of continental Europe effectively locking Great Britain out of the continent. However, the defeat of the French and Spanish navies at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) ended any thoughts of an invasion of Great Britain. Napoleon, aware of British commercial strength, thus resorted to a policy of economic warfare, in what became known as the Continental System.
The Berlin Decree of 1806 forbade French, allied or neutral ships trading with Britain. By this means Napoleon hoped to destroy British trade, disrupt its growing industrial expansion and diminish its credit.
Great Britain responded with the Orders in Council of 1807 issued 11 November 1807. These forbade French trade with the United Kingdom, its allies, or neutrals, and instructed the Royal Navy to blockade French and allied ports. This order required all shipment to stop in English ports to be checked for military supplies that could have aided France. Ships that did not stop to be checked at English ports were liable to British seizure.
Napoleon retaliated with the Milan Decree of 1807, which declared that all neutral shipping using British ports, or paying British tariffs, were to be regarded as British and seized.
Due to the strength of the Royal Navy, the British blockade of continental Europe was reasonably effective. French trade suffered, and its primitive industrial revolution was set back. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, actually increased trade with its overseas colonies over the period. Smuggling persisted, and even Napoleon made exceptions to his embargo so he could procure necessary supplies for his war effort.
More significantly, enforcing the economic blockades led both the United Kingdom and France into a series of military engagements. The British bombarded Copenhagen in September 1807 (Battle of Copenhagen) to prevent the Danish joining the Continental System, and the British policy of stopping neutral ships trading with France played a large part in the outbreak of the Anglo-American War of 1812 (the three most repugnant to the Americans were in fact repealed five days after the declaration of war, but before Prime Minister Lord Liverpool was aware of it). However, it was Napoleon's invasion of Russia in the same year, again in part to enforce his continental system, that proved to be the turning point of the war. He was never able to recover militarily from that defeat.
The economic warfare ended with Napoleon's final defeat in 1815.
Repeal of the Orders in Council
The British made their greatest concession to the United States in June 1812 just as the United States was declaring war. On 16 June 1812, two days before the United States declaration of war, Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs announced in Parliament of the United Kingdom that the Order in Council would be suspended.
On the very day that the Minister took his formal leave of the United States[clarification needed], 23 June 1812, a new British Government headed by Lord Liverpool provisionally repealed the Order in Council.
Forty-one days after the United States Congress declared war, the word arrived in London on 29 July 1812. Two days later, 31 July 1812, the Ministry ordered its first counter-measures. It forbade English ships to sail except in convoys and restrained American ships in English ports. The Orders in Council had been repealed on 23 June 1812, but the ministers did not intend to take additional measures until they could learn the American reaction. Word of the repeal of the Orders did not reach President James Madison until 12 August 1812, some fifty days later. Even then he refused to halt hostilities because he did not know how Britain had reacted to the declaration of war.
- Holberg, Tom The Acts, Orders in Council, &c. of Great Britain (on Trade), 1793 – 1812
- Hickey, Donald. The War of 1812. (pg. 42) ISBN 0-252-06059-8
- Hitsman, J. The Incredible War of 1812. (pg. 48) ISBN 1-896941-13-3
- Mahon, John. The War of 1812. (pg 35) ISBN 0-306-80429-8