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A non-fiction by Samuel Johnson

Debate Regarding The Departure Of The French And Spanish Squadrons

Title:     Debate Regarding The Departure Of The French And Spanish Squadrons
Author: Samuel Johnson [More Titles by Johnson]


Mr. SANDYS this day presented a motion in writing, for petitioning his majesty to inform them when the regency received intelligence that the French and Spanish squadrons sailed, which was seconded, as follows, by Mr. WALLER:--

Sir, the information now moved for, appears to me so necessary in their deliberations on the conduct of the war, that without it we can only conjecture in the dark, and entangle ourselves in an inextricable labyrinth.

It is well known, that in war all motions are, in a great degree, to be regulated by those of the enemy, and that, therefore, no vigilance is to be spared by which any knowledge can be gained of their designs, nor any methods omitted of communicating them to those who have the direction of the war.

A ministry may, in conducting military operations, disappoint the expectations of their country, either by neglecting to procure intelligence, or by failing to make use of those opportunities which seasonable information puts into their power, and they may, when their designs fail of success, justify themselves, by proving that they were deceived by intelligence which it was reasonable to believe, or that better intelligence was not attainable, or that they made use, however unsuccessfully, of all the forces that could then be employed, and of all the advantages that were then in their possession.

But how shall we judge of our administration, how shall we know what confidence we ought to repose in their prudence and fidelity, and what miscarriages are to be attributed to the chance of war or superiour force of our enemies, if we cannot be informed with what diligence they endeavour at information, and how early they have notice of the motions of the enemy?

The sailing, or rather escape of the Ferrol squadron, and departure of the French fleet, are the most important events of the present war; events that threaten very dangerous consequences, no less than descents upon our American colonies, the conquest of our dominions, the slavery of our fellow-subjects, and perhaps the destruction of the brave Vernon, who is secure in the imagined vigilance of the other commanders, and may, perhaps, in a few days see himself surrounded by formidable squadrons of different nations, and exposed to the attack of forces to which his little fleet bears no proportion.

Nothing appears more evident, than that we had opportunities of observing, at least, all the preparations of the French, and of watching the moment of their departure, and that our force on the coast of Spain was sufficient to have confined their fleets for ever in their harbours, or to have destroyed them at their first entrance into the open seas, of which we may justly inquire, why it was not attempted, but shall inquire to no purpose till we know when they departed, that we may consider the state of our own forces, and whether our enemies escaped by our negligence, cowardice, or weakness.

Mr. WINNINGTON then spoke to the following purpose:--Sir, that we cannot deliberate upon subjects which we do not understand, and that, therefore, no necessary or useful information ought to be denied to the house, I shall readily admit; but must observe, at the same time, that the reputation of the house would be very little consulted, in demanding information which cannot be given.

To address his majesty to inform us of the time at which the squadrons of our enemies sailed, is to inquire of him what it ought to be the highest care of those princes to conceal from him, and which he can only know by having spies in their privy councils.

And of what importance is it to inquire what intelligence was brought him, or when he received it, if it appears that his intelligence must be in its own nature uncertain and dubitable?

That they have left their ports is now certain, because they have been twice discovered in different parts of the world; but, as we can now only form conjectures on their designs and courses, so, before they sailed, it was impossible to know when they were fully equipped, or what time was fixed for their departure. It is to be remembered, that they form their measures, and make their preparations in their own dominions, and therefore, have more advantages of concealing their schemes than we of discovering them.

Mr. Advocate CAMPBELL then spoke thus:--Sir, this motion, which has been represented as unreasonable and absurd, is, in my opinion, not only proper, but important.

It is important, because it will enable us to judge, upon sufficient foundations, of the conduct of the ministry, who are censured by the voice of the nation, for having been either defective in vigilance or in activity, for having been either ignorant by their own fault of the designs of the enemy, or perfidiously passive in permitting the execution of them.

I am far from believing that such intelligence as our ministry is expected to procure, requires any uncommon subtilty, or any other agents than are always employed by every minister, to transmit to them informations from foreign courts. Such, I am afraid, are always hovering about our consultations, and I know not why our ministers should be less diligent or less successful than those of other princes.

If, therefore, such intelligence might have been obtained, it was criminal not to obtain it; and if the departure of the Spanish squadron was foreseen, it ought to be inquired, why it was not prevented; and if it was only known when it was too late to hinder it from sailing, why it was not pursued, or why succours were not immediately despatched to admiral Vernon.

All these questions can only be resolved, in consequence of the information which his majesty shall give us; and for which it is, therefore, in my opinion, necessary to petition.

Mr. Henry PELHAM spoke next, to this purpose:--Sir, how the regency could be informed of the intention of the Spaniards to leave their ports till it appeared by their departure, or by what means it can be expected that his majesty should be now acquainted with their particular course, or farther designs, I confess myself unable to conceive.

With regard, sir, to the intelligence transmitted from foreign courts by agents and spies, a little consideration will easily discover that it is not to be trusted. For what can be generally expected from them, but that they should catch flying reports, or by chance intercept uncertain whispers, that they should inquire timorously, and, therefore, for the greatest part, of those from whom no satisfactory accounts can be received, and that they should often endeavour to deserve their salaries by such information as is rather pleasing than true.

All the knowledge that can be obtained of an enemy's designs, must arise from a diligent comparison of one circumstance with another, and from a general view of his force, his interest, and his opportunities. And that such conjectures will be often erroneous, needs not be told.

Probability, therefore, is, in such inquiries, all that can be attained, and he that sits idle in the time of war, expecting certain intelligence, will see his enemies enjoying the advantages of his folly, and laying hold on a thousand opportunities which he has neglected to improve.

The war in which we are now engaged, has been carried on by the administration with the utmost diligence and vigour; nor have any measures been omitted that could probably produce success, and the success of the wisest measures is only probable.

Should the great admiral, who is now present in the house, have met the French and Spaniards in the open seas, by what art could he arrive at a certain knowledge of their designs? He might by his acquaintance with the situation and state of neighbouring countries, the observation of their course, the periods of particular winds, and other hints of observation, form probable conjectures, but could never reach to certainty or confidence.

It seems to me, therefore, highly improper, to petition his majesty for intelligence which he cannot be imagined to have received, and I cannot agree to any motion for that purpose.

Mr. SANDYS then made another motion, to address his majesty, that there may be laid before the house copies of all letters received from, or written to, admiral Vernon since his going to the West Indies. Which being seconded,

Mr. PELHAM spoke to this effect:--Sir, this motion, if the intention of it be limited by proper restrictions, is doubtless reasonable and just; for the right of this house to examine into the conduct of publick affairs, and, consequently, for calling for the papers necessary to enlighten their inquiries, is not to be disputed.

But, as the end of all such inquiries is the promotion of the publick welfare, so they are not to be made in a manner by which that end may be defeated. Papers are not to be demanded, which cannot be produced without discovering our own secrets, and acquainting our enemies either with that weakness which we ought carefully to conceal, or that force which will be most effectually employed if it is not known, and, therefore, no preparations are made to oppose it.

It cannot be imagined, but that many of the papers which have passed between the admiralty and the commander in America, contain plans for the prosecution of the war, observations on the conditions of our own colonies, and, perhaps, intelligence of the estate of the Spanish fortresses and towns. Many informations of the utmost consequence to our enemies may be collected from those papers, but nothing can be expected from them, that will enable us to prosecute a senatorial inquiry with more success, that will put it in our power to discover frauds, negligence, or treachery.

There are, sir, other papers which may, indeed, be laid before us, without any benefit to our enemies, and, perhaps, with some advantage to ourselves; the papers which contain the accompts of our preparations and stores, the lists of our forces, and the calculation of our expenses, are the proper subjects of senatorial inquiries; and if the motion be restrained to those, I believe it will not be opposed by any gentleman engaged in the administration of our affairs. I shall beg leave to propose these words may be added, "So far as the same relates to a supply of ships, marines, or land forces."

The motion, thus amended, was agreed to.

[The end]
Samuel Johnson's non-fiction: Debate Regarding The Departure Of The French And Spanish Squadrons