NAPOLEON Bonaparte made a good beginning on his ascent to power in Europe before Americans such as Van der Kemp were aware of danger. In December, 1793, during the Reign of Terror, Napoleon freed the port of Toulon from the British and was raised to the rank of brigadier general. At a tense moment in 1795 he broke up a mob and received further governmental favor. From 1796 to 1799 he led victorious armies in Italy and Egypt and on November 9, 1799, overthrew the French Directory, thereby opening the way for his long dictatorial regime. After the events of 1799 Americans began to take notice.

As early as 1796 Van der Kemp had predicted that the French government would disrupt into chaos, bringing a crown to a “disinterested patriot.” Van der Kemp would never credit Napoleon with patriotism, but his prediction of the fall of the republic came true. While Adams was still president, Van der Kemp’s desire for peace with France shaped his thoughts. In December, after Napoleon seized power but probably before it was known in central New York, Van der Kemp wrote to President Adams,

Will you condescend to accept my thanks with those of the best of this neighbourhood for the grand sacrifice which you made again to your country in sending Ambassadors of peace to the French nation—notwithstanding the disapprobation of some of your real admirers and the murmurs of yet a greater number pretended friends? I knowed that Adams was not to be sway’d by frowns or smiles.1

This referred to the commission which negotiated the Convention of 1800 ending our alliance with France.

Van der Kemp was also concerned lest Francophiles sway the government and, of course, he was concerned about his native land. He had been disturbed when John Luzac lost his position at a Dutch university, but was proud to relate that Luzac rejected a pension because “he wished not to feed on the spoils of his country when he could not deserve well of it in the office with which he was entrusted.”2

A year and a half after Napoleon overthrew the Directory, Van der Kemp made an interesting comparison starting from the question, “Will King Buonaparte’s consulat be as durable as Cromwell’s Protectorship?”3 Adams replied, “I have long ceased to conjecture, and never pretended to prophecy. The Duration of Bonaparte’s Consulate is the most uncertain of things.”4 Of course, Adams had more knowledge of Napoleon than Van der Kemp since he had many reports from ministers and consuls when he was president. Perhaps he was exercising the use of discretion which he had been asked about. He said he had lots of it since he had used little in the past. He added, “I read the Newspapers and apply what I learn’d from Juvenal, half a century ago, an excellent Precept of Circumspection Digito compresse labellum, which is well translated by our vulgar monosyllable Mum!!! 5

Van der Kemp had less enthusiasm for the Jefferson administration than its predecessor and thoroughly disapproved certain actions of the government. Not only did he condemn the weak action against the Barbary states but also felt that the Senate intended to give up too much in the French treaty. Van der Kemp remembered the results of French treachery in the Netherlands and was afraid of the same thing in America, saying, “Buonaparte has jaggled America fairly—and our government says—Lett it be so—as says Buonaparte.” He told Adams he had “taken up my arms again—tho an old veteran” by writing about the Achaian and the Dutch republics in order to warn the citizens of America.6

After finishing the Achaian Republic, Van der Kemp took up a defense of the Constitution again. It seemed to him that the numerous attacks on the government and the “various illusory essays” of a Utopian nature called for a refutation of the criticisms and a clear portrayal of the advantages of the Constitution. He sent a rough outline to Adams, the most salient point of which was that a well regulated and balanced government “is not exposed to the danger of falling into a Despotism” unless its constitution is openly violated, neither can it “degenerate into Tyranny under the garb of Liberty.” He asked for Adams’ ideas on such a project. Then he declared that it made his blood boil to see Holland trampled upon by the “insolent Corsican at the head of his perfidious Gallic slaves.” Would the Americans learn? Would they rise, banish the foreign influence and eliminate the Jacobinical stain? 7

By this time one threat from France to the United States had been removed through the purchase of Louisiana, signed April 30, 1803. Napoleon made the sale in preparation for a renewal of war with Great Britain which came at about the same time. Britain had no allies when Napoleon made preparations for an invasion. Van der Kemp was gravely disturbed and asked how Europe could survive if its people did not oppose the Corsican usurper. He had been dismayed to hear his old friend, Rutger Jan Schimmelpennick, cringed before Napoleon. Was America in danger too? 8

Van der Kemp read the local newspapers and sometimes papers from Albany, New York City and Washington. The local papers, the Columbia Gazette and the Utica Patriot, carried many national and international reports, sometimes taken from other papers. The reports on Napoleon were frequently inaccurate because of prejudiced sources, but mistakes were later corrected when possible, and vague reports were often verified and amplified. However, there was no question as to the sentiment of the two papers. Van der Kemp could be righteously stirred by statements like the following:

It is evident that Bonaparte still feels himself insecure on his usurped and bloody throne. In blood he waded to it:—Like Damocles, he tastes not the dainties of his table, he enjoys not the magnificence which surrounds him; he sees suspended over his head a sword, which soon or late must, and will fall, for it is the sword of retributive justice.9

This statement was made in regard to Napoleon’s actions toward a conspiracy involving one of his generals. Van der Kemp was an indignant wishful thinker like the writer of the statement and he received comfort from such readings, if not assurance. In a few months he again expressed to Adams his fears about the dangers of French influence on America:

I lament with you most sincerely Sir! that our dear country is so deep tainted with Gallic principles, that it will require a very deep cut [as in bleeding for an ailment] before it shall be freed from this infection…. But do you not believe, that calamities will awaken the Nation from its lethargy? I do—10

Napoleon did not invade England but he did bring Spain into alliance with France. Austria, Russia and Sweden joined Great Britain in the Third Coalition and Napoleon moved by land to break it up. French arms were successful on land, but Nelson defeated the French and Spanish fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar. Although France had given up her interests in the Americas, Spanish lands still stretched from California and Florida to Cape Horn. The Spanish had been unpredictable at New Orleans before the purchase. Since then, there had been numerous incidents along the Florida border.

Van der Kemp expressed fear in late December, 1805, that Europe would be ruined if the Russians did not arrive in time to defend Austria against France. The Russians arrived but Napoleon defeated both Russians and Austrians in the great battle of Austerlitz. Van der Kemp did not know of this battle yet, but had heard of Trafalgar. In spite of the destruction of French naval power, he feared the United States might be drawn into the war through trouble with Spain.11 On the other hand, difficulties were piling up between the United States and Great Britain. Van der Kemp wrote: “I hope not that war with England shall be our doom …” He disapproved British acts on the seas but thought American merchants were courting trouble.12 Various hopeful reports from Europe arrived just before the news of Austerlitz, leading Van der Kemp to say as late as February 18, 1806, “God be praised! if the latest European accounts are verified—then the vain presumptuous Corse shall yet be humbled in the dust!”13

Adams was anything but optimistic.

[T]he mad Spirit of Democracy in France and in Bohemia and Austria has ended in Empire a[nd] Despotism. It may do the same in all Europe. A few Dynasties of Emperors may succeed, by frequent convulsions and wars till Arts Sciences Liberty Religion Government and all may perish and Europe grow up a howling Wilderness such as our Ancestors found this country in the days of Massasoit and Pokahunta.14

Later he wrote: “Our government moves with moderation, and I hope will not fly out in a passion with Spain or England. But our honor, and a Sense of their own Power, in the Minds of the People must be preserved.”15

When Van der Kemp heard of Napoleon’s successes in Austria, he was as pessimistic as Adams.

Alas poor tottering Europe—Austria annihilated, Italy under the Despot’s yoke—Mushroom Kings plundering their subjects to still the all devouring rapacity of a Corse—I am not indeed without apprehension for old England— … I have not the remotest doubt, or [that] Napoleon’s gigantic empire must crumble in pieces—even if he does not fall a victim to insulted humanity….

He believed the American nation had become corrupt and that New York was a sad example of it. The virulent Democrats had won in Oneida County and elsewhere were generally successful. Now they threatened to destroy politically the Livingstons and the Lansings.16 The following July he explained further: “The Livingstons pay now dearly in this State, for having bowed their knees to the thousand headed monster, and are writhing under the goad, which they permitted and assisted in cutting in their own manor.”17 He believed that the Federalists were the makers of their own ruin and that Hamilton had given his party the heaviest blow.18

The English Orders in Council and the French Decrees began to irritate Americans. After the Battle of Trafalgar, British interference with American shipping became far greater than that of France. John Adams had favored a strong American navy but Jefferson allowed the navy to decline for the sake of economy. To give protection to American shores a number of very small ships were built for a coast guard, but were found to be completely worthless for sea travel and offense. One of them was reported washed up into a cornfield in a heavy sea.

Van der Kemp was scornful of these ships even before their misfortunes:

Might I not give a hint—that in case of a new broil—a few of these amphibions—I suppose with triffling additional expenses, they might be enabled to act as well on land as in open sea—stationed on Oneida Lake—near my farm is a small snug harbour—black creek—to conceal them—might unexpectedly descend in Lake Ontario and lay Canada under contributions. It might be a good proviso in our Legislatures address—to pray the President—to manage our national affairs—after his own way—for another term—provided we may get our share in the cursed gunboats—19

Napoleon defeated Prussia and the Russian forces in the latter part of 1806, and Prussia was forced to make an unhappy peace. Would the conqueror invade Russia? Van der Kemp hoped the “modern Sennacherib” would fall on the way.

I ardently pray—that the gigantic power of that daring insolent Corse may be crushed. You can not doubt of my sincerity. What would save us from his grasp—in our distracted situation—if he succeeded in conquering Great Britain—That and the Almighty’s protection are our only bulwarks—20

When Congress requested in late 1806 that the president make overtures to Britain to settle their differences, Van der Kemp approved although he overestimated the British willingness to compromise at this time. The Monroe-Pinckney Treaty, which resulted from the negotiations, was so unfavorable to the United States that Jefferson did not even present it to the Senate. Without knowing all the facts Van der Kemp was hopeful that continued negotiations would be successful and would insure peace between the United States and Britain.

Adams told Van der Kemp that the United States should not despair in regard to the “Angel of Perdition” who was desolating Europe. Napoleon would need to transport fifty thousand men to America for a conquest and he could not raise the ships to do it. What this country needed for defense was only ships.21 Van der Kemp replied:

Ships! Ships! Yes Sir! with them—with a squadron of 16 men of war and an adequate number of frigates, America should have now dictated to the Belligerent powers, in the place of being the scorn and derision of Europe. No Navy can endanger our liberty—a standing army must sooner or later become its bane—and its increase beyond what imperious necessity commands must be viewed with a jealous eye by every lover of his country.22

And Adams responded, “I neither dread old England nor old France: of the two the former have it in their Power to do us most Mischief.’’23

After the defeat of the Prussians and Russians, the Treaty of Tilsit was made by the three rulers on a raft in the Nieman River. The treaty made France supreme in the Germanies and established the French satellite, the Duchy of Warsaw, on the border of Russia. By a secret agreement Russia promised to join France in war against England. Napoleon was now free to extend his continental sway southwestward. In November, 1807, a French army invaded Portugal and in March, 1808, a larger French army began the occupation of Spain. However, opposition by the Spanish with the assistance of the British made the Peninsular War drag on to November, 1809, before Spain was subdued. Portugal continued to resist.

In the middle of this war Van der Kemp expressed the opinion that if Austria and Russia did not take advantage of Napoleon’s involvement elsewhere to push the French out of north Germany, the two nations deserved to be conquered. He also thought Napoleon could be driven out if the Spaniards really tried. Van der Kemp was sincere in his desire to oppose Napoleon with arms, and favored fighting on the frontier in Europe rather than waiting for an attack in America. He wrote to Adams, “Was I young—without family—I would cross the Atlantic and enlisten in Spain—if previously I had some solid prospect that the majority of Spain would struggle to obtain the palm of victory.”24 He had faced armed conflict long ago at Wyk on Duurstede; now at fifty-six he declared he longed to take up arms again to defend his new country and help save Europe. He thought that if England fell to the continental conqueror, America would become the center of civilization and Europe would revert to wilderness.

An interesting view on the European situation was brought to Oldenbarneveld in 1808 by Bernardus Blok. With his daughter and secretary he stopped off in America, staying six weeks in Oldenbarneveld on his way to a judicial post at Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Blok had lived at Enkhuizen and probably became acquainted with Van der Kemp at Leyden. When the Mappas fled from the Netherlands they had lived for almost two years with Blok in Belguim. His appearance was an “unexpected agreeable visit.” Blok had kept abreast of movements in Europe and could “unfold a tale, which fills with horror.” Van der Kemp and Mappa plied him with questions about the exercise of controls by France in Holland, the movements of armies and economic dislocations. With a goodly amount of prejudice against Napoleon before the arrival of Blok, Van der Kemp was now confirmed in his opinion: “Never was similar Despotism established—never continued by similar means.” Blok told how the burgomasters not only wore large periwigs but also had donned togas and occupied pews of honor in the churches. Such worldly displays in the churches displeased Van der Kemp. He also disliked the fact that the herring fleet had not been sent into the North and Baltic seas during the past years. The Dutch economy suffered, fishermen were “reduced to beggary” and the public credit had fallen.25 Blok apparently tried to give his friends a true picture even though he officially represented the Netherlands as it now was—a satellite of Napoleon. When Blok left, Van der Kemp wrote, “I ardently wish he may with his family arrive in safety [in Batavia]. He is an amiable man—of an excellent character with moderate talents.”26

The coming of a treacherous Frenchman to the community later in the year increased Van der Kemp’s mistrust of Napoleon’s “horde of Gallic slaves.” Adam Mappa called the newcomer a “respectable, thin little Frenchman,” a “man of the world, once clever, agreeable in company, knowing human nature, a philosophe of the first rank” who married an “old lame widow,” bought a farm without seeing it and went away without paying for it.27 Van der Kemp described the Frenchman with a bitterness increased perhaps by a chronic headache which started early in 1809.

I presume that the disease originated chiefly from the mind, which had been cruelly delacerated by the discovered baseness of a foreigner, who, recommended to me, covered the heart of a villain with the cloak of an high-accomplished Gentleman and whom I had considered it a duty, to introduce to many of my respected friends to record his views and retrieve his broken fortune. I traced him out on his own steps, and found myself in the disagreeable necessity to warn and disabuse all my friends. This is over—and he is covered with infamy.

Added to Van der Kemp’s wounds, word came that the old “friend of his bosom,” Peter Vreede, had become a bankrupt and a fugitive. With him Van der Kemp had worked for the Patriot cause. When the French came in 1895, Vreede became a member of the Dutch Directory. He had become a millionaire through careful investments in commerce but now at the age of sixty was disgraced. His partner, a man of “deep profligacy,” had caused his failure. Van der Kemp was despondent but recovered, in part by his own prescription of light reading—Sterne or Scott, perhaps Shakespeare.28

Actually Van der Kemp had frequent headaches and other ailments from 1809 on. Whether it was his eyes, sinus infections or something else, it would be difficult to determine. The worries about Napoleon’s despotism and his threat to a weak United States were enervating. Frustration in seeing his research and writing generally rejected added to his ailments.

In 1805 Van der Kemp had been admitted to the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia but returned the diploma because of the ten-dollar fee. John Mifflin with-held the rejection and persuaded the society to waive fees for non-residents. Van der Kemp then accepted the diploma—but sent the fee. In the same year, through Chancellor Livingston, membership in the Society for Promotion of the Useful Arts (formerly agriculture) at New York was offered to Van der Kemp. This too he was obliged to decline because he could not afford the dues. In 1808 Van der Kemp was elected to membership in the Academy of Arts and Sciences at Boston.

Beset by fears stemming from Napoleon’s continued successes, and growing dissension in the United States, Van der Kemp constantly tried to induce Adams to make known his political theories and ideas. He also urged Livingston to be active in the field of politics as well as agriculture. When Livingston returned from his embassy in France, Van der Kemp wrote, “You will preside once more at the Society of Agriculture spread a new life thro all its members and make their operations prosper.”29 Some of the letters are missing but five years later when the international affairs were much more dangerous and internal politics were troubled, Van der Kemp encouraged Livingston to take a hand.

Your indolence is enviable indeed—when you perform so much—and spread knowledge—and ease all around you, in the instant of your pretended idleness. A man of your cast places himself usually in the most favourable light—in a dignified retirement—I acknowledge Sir! the justness of your remarks with regard to Politicks—but it is no less true that the situation of a country becomes duely alarming, when the Pelhams retreat. Men of noble mind and unsullied integrity and glowing Patriotism may widely differ in opinion and choice of means, but eagerly join hearts and hands—when their country must be saved—What must become of our poor hulk in a boisterous sea, amongst shores and quicksand, with a mutinous crew—without pilots to steer it in a safe harbour—Shall the rocks to which they fled—to repose in safety—ease their mind when all is lost? Men of your station—influence and talents—may well deserve of their country in their cabinet—and I know an example when a single letter turned the scales in favour of measures by a deliberating body, when without it, often contrary measures should have been adopted.30

By this time Livingston, at sixty-four, was tired of political warring, tired of the struggle to keep the steamboat rights on the Hudson, and interested chiefly in the further adoption of merino sheep. Some of his earlier political activity may have been encouraged and influenced by Van der Kemp, but not after 1810.

In order to stir up the thinkers of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Van der Kemp proposed that the members discuss the problem, “Thro what means the military and commercial spirit can be most effectually entertained and rendered permanently advantageous to a Free Nation under a Republican form of government.”31 Adams did not like the proposal and said the Academy was not prepared to discuss both sides of a political question since nearly all members were Federalists. Adams said “such questions would only make of our academies so many political caucuses.”32

Napoleon had failed to conquer Portugal but held Spain in 1809. Austria had risen and had been disastrously defeated in the Battle of Wagram and other revolts of lesser importance were promptly quelled. In 1810 Louis Bonaparte fled from his Dutch throne rather than block Dutch commerce by enforcing Napoleon’s order for the continental boycott against England. Napoleon married Maria Louise in the summer. Sweden and Russia went to war, Russia won, and a revolt in Sweden overthrew the king. Van der Kemp said he enjoyed being so far from the convulsions of Europe but feared they would be extended to our coasts.33

Shortly after Thanksgiving in 1810 Adams wrote to Van der Kemp about a timely sermon he had recently heard. He agreed with the preacher in many points “and in none more cordially than in Thanksgiving to God for creating the Atlantic Ocean between America and Europe.” The minister represented Napoleon “as the great oppressor, the Destroyer of Nations, the Universal Despot; and the English as a Nation to be pitied as fighting for their own Existence.” With this picture of Britain, Adams could not agree. He saw no moral difference between England and France. His philosophy was to “trust neither” and “prepare to defend ourselves and assert our Might against both.” He acknowledged that Van der Kemp undoubtedly agreed with the preacher.34

Van der Kemp was ill again during the winter and took medicine called “Bark and Steel.” Not until February did he start to mend, and spoke of doing light reading. He reread Rousseau’s Héloïse and Scott’s Lady of the Lake three times without interruption as part of the “course of Physic.” However, he had thought about Adams’ letter and commented:

Britain is yet a more powerful Nation—can not conquer France—grasps at every object she can reach and may nevertheless sit upon a tottering throne—be ripe for destruction. The all conquering Corse is safe at home—compelled to arms by necessity—moral and physical, and can not rest till Gr. B. is ruined by him—or herself—and if we had followed the system of preparing to defend ourselves and assert our rights against Both—we were safe—We might defy both—would be cajoled by both and supply the whole world with what they wanted.35

In 1811 Napoleon hurt the commerce of neutrals in trying to make his continental system more effective. However, the Americans had their attention directed to the commercial interference of England as well as France. The Macon Bill was proposed as a substitute for the Embargo prohibiting trade with the two belligerents. The new arrangement provided that if one of the two nations withdrew its decrees of interference and the other did not, trade would be banned with the latter. The Federalists opposed the Macon Bill but it passed. Napoleon pretended to accede and on November 2, 1810, President Madison opened trade with France and ordered trade cut off with Great Britain. France continued to seize United States ships, while Britain continued to blockade New York City and to impress seamen all through 1811. Anger at Great Britain mounted and Napoleon seemed far away as he began his disastrous invasion of Russia. Van der Kemp and Adams, and thousands of other patriotic citizens, criticized or praised the Madison administration and sometimes wondered what was going to happen to civilization.

Early in 1811 Van der Kemp congratulated John Adams for the appointment of John Quincy Adams to the Supreme Court and added that this act made up for “many political sins” in President Madison.36 The Supreme Court appointment was not accepted but John the father picked up Van der Kemp’s phrase about Madison’s sins.

You speak of Political Sins in the P. Pray what are those Sins? “In Adams Fall We Sinned All,” but I really know of no more Sins committed by Madison than by Washington Adams or Jefferson.

The Government of the United States from 1789 to 1811 has been but a Company of Engine Men. Their constant Employment has been to Spout cold Water upon their own Habitation, built, if not of Hay and Stubble, with Wooden Timbers, boards Clapboards and Shingles, to prevent its being Scorched by the F[l]ames from Europe.

Europe is desolated: Millions have perished in Arms glorious or inglorious: Every Nation has been Scourged by War. The United States of America have been at peace these eight and twenty years. In Foreign Relations Washington Adams Jefferson and Madison have pursued the same system, Neutrality: but I certainly knew that Washington and Adams, and believe the same of Jefferson and Madison, in case of equal Injury from France and England, and in case of an absolute Necessity of war with one or the other, would have preferred a War with Great Britain rather than France.37

To prefer war with the British seemed a paradox to Van der Kemp. We were prepared for war with neither nation but Napoleon’s great continental power was the more dangerous to humanity. He commented further on his lack of confidence in Madison.

I am no enemy of the President—as long as he was a Private Individual—or even a head of department. I should have courted his more intimate acquaintance—could it have been performed without appearent intrusions—or servil cringing—Indirectly I have received from him marks of civility and regard. But I do not approve His political conduct—indiscriminately—It may be that here in the Woods—my prospect is too much clouded by fogs—my eyes too grown so dim, that I can not allways see the fitness of the measures pursued.

Among the Political Sins I am this instant struck by Wolcott’s appointment [Bank Board]—the President’s Proclamation upon Cadore’s Letters [resuming trade with France]—the Proclamation with regard to the Florida’s—their invasion and retrogressive motion of the army—the appointment of Joel Barlow [minister to France]—38

Van der Kemp was not alone in his lack of confidence in Madison’s administration and in his opposition to a war with Great Britain. The Federalists won election victories in both New York and Massachusetts early in 1812. When Congress received Madison’s war message on June 1, the Congressmen from New York and New England constituted the bulk of the opposition.

Van der Kemp was greatly involved in his writing in 1811 and 1812 and made few comments on national and international events in his letters of the latter year. Patriot that he was, he could not keep still among his many friends in Oneida County. His later activities indicate this. Perhaps a comment late in 1811 shows resignation to evils which he could not prevent.

Yes Sir! No Nation on earth has so long enjoy’d uninterrupted so many eminent blessings—but I scarce know any Nation, except perhaps the Dutch—so ignorant, so insensible of these blessings—so insolently trampling under their feet, so that I am highly apprehensive that without seven stripes [of a lash]—they shall not learn wisdom—neither eventually be saved—as [except] thro fire.39

Would the fire be war with Britain followed by the domination of Napoleon?

Previous Chapter

XIV. The Achaian Republic

Next Chapter

XVI. The War of 1812

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.