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LETTER ON IMPRESSMENT.
MR. WEBSTER TO LORD ASHBURTON.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE,
} My LORD,—We have had several conversations on the subject of impressment, but I do not understand that your lordship has instructions from your government to negotiate upon it, nor does the government of the United States see any utility in opening such negotiation, unless the British government is prepared to renounce the practice in all future wars.
No cause has produced to so great an extent, and for so long a period, disturbing and irritating influences on the political relations of the United States and England, as the impressment of seamen by British cruisers from American merchant-vessels.
From the commencement of the French revolution to the breaking out of the war between the two countries in 1812, hardly a year elapsed without loud complaint and earnest remonstrance. A deep feeling of opposition to the right claimed, and to the practice exercised under it, and not unfrequently exercised without the least regard to what justice and humanity would have dictated, even if the right itself had been admitted, took possession of the public mind of America, and this feeling, it is well known, coöperated most powerfully with other causes to produce the state of hostilities which ensued.
At different periods, both before and since the war, negotiations have taken place between the two governments, with the hope of finding some means of quieting these complaints. At some times, the effectual abolition of the practice has been requested
and treated of; at other times, its temporary suspension; and at other times, again, the limitation of its exercise, and some cecurity against its enormous abuses.
A common destiny has attended these efforts; they have all failed. The question stands at this moment where it stood fifty years ago. The nearest approach to a settlement was a convention proposed in 1803, and which had come to the point of signature, when it was broken off in consequence of the British government insisting that the narrow seas should be expressly excepted out of the sphere over which the contemplated stipulation against impressment should extend. The American minister, Mr. King, regarded this exception as quite inadmis. sible, and chose rather to abandon the negotiation than to acquiesce in the doctrine which it proposed to establish.
England asserts the right of impressing British subjects, in time of war, out of neutral merchant-vessels, and of deciding by her visiting officers who, among the crews of such merchantvessels, are British subjects. She asserts this as a legal exer: cise of the prerogative of the crown; which prerogative is alleged to be founded on the English law of perpetual and indissoluble allegiance of the subject, and his obligation under all circumstances, and for his whole life, to render military service to the crown whenever required.
This statement, made in the words of eminent British jurists, shows at once that the English claim is far broader than the basis or platform on which it is raised. The law relied on is English law; the obligations insisted on are obligations existing between the crown of England and its subjects. This law and these obligations, it is admitted, may be such as England may choose they shall be. But then they must be confined to the parties. Impressment of seamen out of and beyond English territory, and from on board the ships of other nations, is an interference with the rights of other nations; is further, therefore, than English prerogative can legally extend; and is nothing but an attempt to enforce the peculiar law of England beyond the dominions and jurisdiction of the crown. The claim asserts an extra-territorial authority for the law of British prerogative, and assumes to exercise this extra-territorial authority, to the manifest injury and annoyance of the citizens and subjects of other states, on board their own vessels, on the high
Every merchant-vessel on the seas is rightfully considered as part of the territory of the country to which it belongs. The entry, therefore, into such vessel, being neutral, by a belligerent, is an act of force, and is, prima facie, a wrong, a trespass, which can be justified only when done for some purpose allowed to form a sufficient justification by the law of nations. But a British cruiser enters an American merchant-vessel in order to take therefrom supposed British subjects; offering no justification, therefore, under the law of nations, but claiming the right under the law of England respecting the king's prerogative. This cannot be defended. English soil, English terrritory, English jurisdiction, is the appropriate sphere for the operation of English law. The ocean is the sphere of the law of nations; and any merchant-vessel on the seas is by that law under the protection of the laws of her own nation, and may claim immunity, unless in cases in which that law allows her to be entered or visited.
If this notion of perpetual allegiance, and the consequent power of the prerogative, were the law of the world; if it formed part of the conventional code of nations, and was usually practised, like the right of visiting neutral ships, for the purpose of discovering and seizing enemy's property, then impressment might be defended as a common right, and there would be no remedy for the evil till the national code should be altered. But this is by no means the case. There is no such principle incorporated into the code of nations. The doctrine stands only as English law, not as a national law; and English law cannot be of force beyond English dominion. Whatever duties or relations that law creates between the sovereign and his subjects can be enforced and maintained only within the realm, or proper possessions or territory of the sovereign. There may be quite as just a prerogative right to the property of subjects as to their personal services, in an exigency of the state ; but no government thinks of controlling by its own laws property of its subjects situated abroad; much less does any government think of entering the territory of another power for the purpose of seizing such property and applying it to its own uses. As laws,
, the prerogatives of the crown of England have no obligation on persons or property domiciled or situated abroad.
“When, therefore,” says an authority not unknown or un regarded on either side of the Atlantic, " we speak of the right of a state to bind its own native subjects everywhere, we speak only of its own claim and exercise of sovereignty over them when they return within its own territorial jurisdiction, and not of its right to compel or require obedience to such laws, on the part of other nations, within their own territorial sovereignty. On the contrary, every nation has an exclusive right to regulate persons and things within its own territory, according to its sovereign will and public polity."
The good sense of these principles, their remarkable pertinency to the subject now under consideration, and the extraordinary consequences resulting from the British doctrine, are sig. nally manifested by that which we see taking place every day. England acknowledges herself overburdened with population of the poorer classes. Every instance of the emigration of persons of those classes is regarded by her as a benefit. England, therefore, encourages emigration; means are notoriously supplied to emigrants, to assist their conveyance, from public funds; and the New World, and most especially these United States, receive the many thousands of her subjects thus ejected from the bosom of their native land by the necessities of their
condition. They come away from poverty and distress in overcrowded cities, to seek employment, comfort, and new homes in a country of free institutions, possessed by a kindred race, speak. ing their own language, and having laws and usages in many respects like those to which they have been accustomed; and a country which, upon the whole, is found to possess more attractions for persons of their character and condition than any other on the face of the globe. It is stated that, in the quarter of the year ending with June last, more than twenty-six thousand emigrants left the single port of Liverpool for the United States, being four or five times as many as left the same port within the same period for the British colonies and all other parts of the world. Of these crowds of emigrants, many arrive in our cities in circumstances of great destitution, and the charities of the country, both public and private, are severely taxed to relieve their immediate wants. In time they mingle with the new community in which they find themselves, and seek means of living. Some find employment in the cities, others go to the frontiers, to cultivate lands reclaimed from the forest; and a greater or less number of the residue, becoming in time naturalized citizens, enter into the merchant service under the flag of their adopted country.
Now, my lord, if war should break out between England and a European power, can anything be more unjust, anything more irreconcilable to the general sentiments of mankind, than that England should seek out these persons, thus encouraged by her and compelled by their own condition to leave their native homes, tear them away from their new employments, their new political relations, and their domestic connections, and force them to undergo the dangers and hardships of military service for a country which has thus ceased to be their own country ? Certainly, certainly, my lord, there can be but one answer to this question. Is it not far more reasonable that England should either prevent such emigration of her subjects,