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Dr. William Wroten

Delmarva Heritage Series

 * Shoreman Averted War With France

Salisbury Times - January 2, 1959

In the 1790's, as a result of wars in Europe stemming from the French Revolution, the United States and France were on the verge of declared war. France was deeply angered because we had signed the Jay Treaty with England in 1794. The French looked upon this treaty as the step toward an

alliance with England, their foe, and as a flagrant violation of the Franco-American Treaty of 1778. France began to seize defenseless American merchant vessels, and the by the middle of 1797 had captured about three hundred. To add insult to injury, the Paris Government refused to receive the American envoy, and even threatened to arrest him.

HOPING TO SETTLE the disputes between France and the United States, President John Adams sent three American envoys (John Marshall, C.C. Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry) to Paris in 1798. However, they were unable to accomplish anything, and the result was famous XYZ Affair in which the American nation was highly insulted. Undeclared war on the high seas broke out between the United States and France, a war which could have become at any time a major struggle. The man who played leading role in helping to bring the United States and France to an understanding in 1800, after two and a half years of hostilities, was the talented Maryland statesman, William Vans Murray.

One of America's leading historians, who is making a special study of William Vans Murray, wrote in 1955, "Surprisingly, even though he is one of Maryland's more illustrious early sons, and an important political and diplomatic figure in his own right, little is known about the formative years of his life; to this day he is a misty figure in our early history."

An earlier William Vans Murray, fearing for his life after the Scottish Rebellion of 1715, escaped to France. From France he made his way to Maryland where he settled in the village of Cambridge. By profession he was a physician and his practice soon brought him a rather large fortune. In 1739 he was able to buy a tract of land, about one-third of which is the present site of Cambridge.

WHEN DR. MURRAY died in 1759 he left five children, and Elias Jones in his History of Dorchester County says that one of these was James, the father of William Vans Murray, while another authority claims that the father was Dr. Henry Murray, a prominent physician and influential citizen of the county. Be that as it may, William Vans Murray was born apparently in 1760 in or near Cambridge.

Murray's early education was received in Maryland, and he went to the Middle Temple (you may recall from a previous article that this is where John Dickinson studied about 30 years previously) in London in April 1784 to study law. While in England he married Charlotte Hughins (Higgins?). During his three years aboard he also became interested in politics and diplomacy, and in 1787 wrote Political Sketches, which was a defense of the new American experiment. This work was inscribed to John Adams, who was then the American minister to Great Britain.

After his return to Maryland in 1787 Murray began the practice of law, and although still in his twenties he represented Dorchester County for several terms in the Maryland State Legislature. He resigned his seat in the General Assembly in 1791 so that he might represent the Eastern Shore in the United States House of Representatives. He served in the House until March 3, 1797. As a member of Congress Murray was considered one of the leading orators of his day.

MURRAY BECAME a staunch Federalist and soon rose to a position of influence in the party. As a most loyal Federalist, and often in the center of the political battles, he was closely associated with such men as George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Samuel Chase, Luther Martin, and even the Marquis de Lafayette. However, Prof. DeConde points out, he "was never sufficiently the center of attraction to have the spotlight of history centered directly on him; somehow he seems always to have remained in the shadows." Yet as a leading Federalist he was often consulted by President Washington concerning matters of office-appointments, and the appointments of such Marylanders as James McHenry as Secretary of War and Samuel Chase as a judge on the Supreme Court were made after Murray's advice had been given.

In the presidential campaign of 1796, Murray was a very active supporter of John Adams against Thomas Jefferson, and he wrote numerous articles for the newspapers in Adams' behalf. At the end of the Fourth Congress Murray had planned to retire from public service and to return to Dorchester County. But this was not to be, for his greatest service to the nation was yet to come.

Although it could be considered as a "party - political - appointment," one of the last official acts by President Washington shows the confidence the President had in the abilities of Murray. Murray was appointed as minister to the Netherlands (Batavian Republic) to succeed John Quincy Adams. It has been said that the incoming president, John Adams, told Washington that he would have made the appointment if Washington had not done so.

WILLIAM VANS MURRAY, his wife, and secretary arrived at the Hague in the summer of 1797, a very critical period in our history. The misunderstandings and disputes between the United States and France were becoming very dangerous. In less than a year's time the envoys sent by President Adams had visited France and returned to present their report concerning Talleyrand and his agents, the famous "Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Mr. Z." Now began the Quasi-War (1798-1800), which almost brought the two nations to a declaration of hostility. President Adams severed relations with France, and insisted that the renewal of friendly intercourse would have to be advanced by the French Government.

The first advance for the renewal of diplomatic relations came through conversations between the secretary of the French legation of the Hague and U.S. Minister Murray. Talleyrand assured Murray that "whatever plenipotentiary the government of the United States might send to France, in order to terminated the existing differences between the two countries, would undoubtedly be received with the respect due the representative of a free, independent, and powerful nation."

Acting upon this promise from Talleyrand, president Adams nominated Murray as minister plenipotentiary, but because of pressure from political opponents a commission was named with the addition of Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth and William R. Davie, formerly governor of North Carolina.

When Murray met with the other commissioners in February, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte was at the head of the French Nation, and the French commissioners with whom the Americans were to deal were Joseph Bonaparte, M. Fleurieu, and Mr. Roederer. The negotiations between the two nations continued until October 1, 1800, when the convention, although not entirely satisfactory to either nation, was signed.

THE CONVENTION of 1800, which later Murray along negotiated for the exchange of ratifications, was vital for both the United States and France. The treaty was essential to Napoleon in his plans for Louisiana and the re-creating of a French Empire in North America, to the United States it brought peace with the most powerful nation in Europe; it ended or first and only (for almost 175 years) "entangling alliance"; and finally in helping to establish good-will with Napoleon it laid the foundation for the later acquisition of Louisiana, probably the greatest real-estate deal in history.

Murray returned to his work at The Hague, resigning in September, 1801 when Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party (of that day) took control of the government back in the States. The rest of his days, although few in number (it is believed that he died in December 1803), were spent on his farm near Cambridge. He is supposedly buried in the Christ Episcopal Church graveyard, but neither his place of death nor his place of burial is definitely known.

Prof. DeConde, who is probably the leading living authority on Murray (see two of his articles in the Maryland Historical Magazines, March, 1953 and December, 1955), has this to say about the famous Eastern Shoreman:

"More than any other American William Vans Murray was responsible for keeping the limited naval conflict from spreading for the success of the long drawn-out negotiations; and for the enduring peace that was achieved. While others contributed much and actually determined policy, he alone worked steadily at the trying and far from glamorous project of building a peace from its faintest inception to its anti-climatic end. If there was a keystone to the fabric of Franco-American diplomacy that brought peace, he was it. But for him, there might have been no peace.


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