The Amiens Truce: Britain and Bonaparte, 1801-1803
John D. Grainger's The Amiens Truce: Britain and Bonaparte, 1801-1803 offers a highly detailed examination of why Great Britain decided to seek peace with Napoleonic France in 1801-02 and why, only fourteen months later, resolved to renounce the Treaty of Amiens (March 1802) and resume warfare. Questioning the widely-accepted notion that the Peace of Amiens was nothing more than a truce, intended by both sides merely as a pause during which they could recuperate from nearly a decade of uninterrupted warfare and prepare for the next round, Grainger argues that the British government was sincerely committed to making peace work. The signature of the Treaty marked the beginning of what Grainger terms "an experiment . . . in living alongside a swollen French Republic controlled by a charismatic military dictator." (210) Grainger assigns responsibility for the experiment's failure entirely to the French leader, for whom peace was but an "experiment . . . in expanding his power in times of peace rather than by conquest." (210) Grainger makes the interesting suggestion that, when full-blown hostilities resumed between the two powers in May 1803, the new conflict was not a simple continuation of the previous decade's fighting, but rather an entirely new war, "much more nationalistic and less ideological" than the struggles of the revolutionary period. (69)
The body of the book is devoted to retracing the tortuous steps of the British and French diplomats as they danced the year-long ballet that would eventually produce the Treaty of Amiens, and then the no less intricate disengagement of the British as they grew progressively aware of their negotiating partner's bad faith. Working with diplomatic records from the Public Records Office, as well as correspondence of key British actors held in other repositories, Grainger has brought to light what appears to be the entire story of rebuffed peace feelers, projected offers and counter-offers that were never made, and negotiating initiatives that were killed at birth in the meetings of cabinet ministers, as well as those which had more success and eventually coalesced into the Treaty of Amiens. For this alone, Grainger's work is a valuable resource for historians who need an accessible, but comprehensive, account of the peace negotiations. But Grainger does more than just piece together the diplomatic narrative. He also takes [End Page 397] great care to situate the different stages of the diplomatic dance in their international military context: after all, the peace talks took place while Great Britain and France were still at war, and events like the surrender of the French garrison on Malta and the defeat of the French expeditionary force in Egypt had a major impact on the negotiations. Although it adheres to the well-established methodological and narrative norms of traditional diplomatic history, The Amiens Truce is a work of original scholarship that analyzes for the first time a crucial episode in the history of the Napoleonic era and offers a new interpretation of the meaning of that episode for the British and French.
It is in its reinterpretation of the respective reasons why the British and French sought and then abandoned peace that this otherwise solid work may be questioned. Grainger's focus – reflected in the fact that all of the primary, and most of the secondary, sources are British – is on the thinking behind the diplomatic maneuvers and resolutions of the British government. He justifies this choice of focus at length in his introduction, where he notes that "it was the British government's decision in each case – to make peace and to make war. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, necessarily central to all of this, was the object of British attention, and did not control events." (ix, italics in original) Yet, in his conclusion, he ventures a number of conjectures about French motives that may be accurate, yet are entirely unsupported by either primary research or the findings of other historians. How can one conclude, for example, that "good faith was what was missing in Franco-British negotiations – at least it was missing on the French side" or that "the French side was not trustworthy, that Bonaparte was not capable of keeping his agreements" (211) without having actually looked at the French sources? I suspect that even a brief survey of the relevant correspondence in the Archives des Affaires Etrangères would reveal that French diplomats viewed the British in exactly the same way. In concluding that the British were serious about making the peace work while the French were only serious about using it to extend their power in Europe and overseas, is Grainger simply echoing the feelings of the British ministers and diplomats whose papers alone he has consulted? Grainger's research into the British side of the question is long-overdue and entirely reliable. Yet, it seems to me that a general interpretation of the Peace of Amiens requires archival investigation into the thinking of both sides. Surprisingly, there is no study of the French comparable to Grainger's. Here is a dissertation topic ready-made for a student willing to put up with the various inconveniences of carrying out research at the Quai d'Orsay.