David Montagu Erskine was born in England in 1776 and died in England on March 19, 1855. His father was Thomas Erskine, the Lord High Chancellor of England. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge. In 1799 he married Frances Cadwalader, the daughter of General John Cadwalader, commander of the Pennsylvania troops during the American Revolution. In 1802 he became a barrister at law and returned to parliament for Portsmouth on February 24, 1806.
In July 1806 Foreign Secretary of Great Britain George Canning made him the plenipotentiary to the United States and Erskine stayed in that position until 1809. A plenipotentiary is a person given full power to act on behalf of their government (Webster’s Dictionary). Over the next three to four years he was in constant communication with Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State James Monroe, who was adamant in addressing British ships taking U.S. ships and sailors for their own use.
The correspondence between David Montague Erskine and James Madison was extensive.
On June 27, 1807 the HMS Leopard attacked the U.S. frigate Chesapeake, causing a major international incident. The Embargo Act was passed in December 1807 which banned American ships from exporting to or carrying goods for other nations. This prevented both Britain and France, who were at war with each other at the time, from getting supplies. It was supposed to be a form of economic coercion, as well as a way to keep U.S. ships from harm. On January 23, 1809 Erskine was informed by Foreign Secretary Canning that the Orders in Council would be lifted if the U.S. lifted its embargo. However, there were three conditions to Britain lifting the Orders:
Erskine knew the U.S. government would not agree to these and keeping in what he viewed as the “true spirit” of his instructions, removed the conditions. President Madison and Congress accepted his offer, but no one knew Foreign Secretary Canning would refuse to ratify Erskin’s arrangement. In April of 1809, the British government issued a new Orders in Council, which removed the one of 1807 and reestablished the blockade of Holland, France, and Italy. Since Canning had acted without hearing back from Erskine, the U.S. government wondered if he had any authority to open the ports of Holland to the U.S. as he promised. Erskine worked feverishly to reassure the U.S. government the new blockade would not affect the recent negotiations.
But Foreign Secretary Canning rejected Erskine’s negotiations and replaced him with Francis James Jackson who took a hard line with the U.S. and reasserted the original three conditions. He also accused Erskine of fraud and trickery by leaving out the conditions. Erskine was proved right for the conditions were rejected by the U.S. Any control Foreign Secretary Canning had in U.S. negotiations was gone for Jackson spoke in what President Madison considered extremely disrespectful and he would accept no more communications from Jackson. Jackson, in turn, tried to get the American people on his side by publishing what he deemed to be charges against the U.S. government. Only some radical Federalists repeated his words while every patriotic American was outraged.
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