« AnteriorContinuar »
or that, if she encourage and promote it, she should leave them, not to the embroilment of a double and contradictory allegiance, but to their own voluntary choice, to form such relations, political or social, as they see fit in the country where they are to find their bread, and to the laws and institutions of which they are to look for defense and protection ?
A question of such serious importance ought now to be put at rest. If the United States give shelter and protection to those whom the policy of England annually casts upon their shores; if, by the benign influences of their government and institutions, and by the happy condition of the country, those emigrants become raised from poverty to comfort, finding it easy even to became land-holders, and being allowed to partake in the enjoyment of all civil rights; if all this may be done, (and all this is done, under the countenance and encouragement of England herself,) is it not high time, my lord, that, yielding that which had its origin in feudal ideas as inconsistent with the present state of society, and especially with the intercourse and relations subsisting between the Old World and the New, England should at length formally disclaim all right to the services of such persons, and renounce all control over their conduct ?
But impressment is subject to objections of a much wider range. If it could be justified in its application to those who are declared to be its only objects, it still remains true that, in its exercise, it touches the political rights of other governments, and endangers the security of their own native subjects, and citizens. The sovereignty of the state is concerned in maintaining its exclusive jurisdiction and possession over its merchant-ships on the seas, except so far as the law of nations justifies intrusion upon that possession for special purposes; and all experience has shown, that no member of a crew, wherever born, is safe against impressment when a ship is visited.
The evils and injuries resulting from the actual practice can
hardly be overrated, and have ever proved themselves to be such as should lead to its relinquishment, even if it were founded in any defensible principle. The difficulty of discriminating between English subjects and American citizens has always been found to be great, even when an honest purpose of discrimination has existed. But the lieutenant of a man-of-war, having necsssity for men, is apt to be a summary judge, and his decisions will be quite as significant of his own wants and his own power, as of the truth and justice of the case. An extract from a letter of Mr. King, of the 13th of April, 1797, to the American secretary of state, shows something of the enormous extent of these wrongful seizures.
“ Instead of a few, and these in many instances equivocal cases, I have,” says he, “ since the month of July past, made application for the discharge from British men-of-war of two hundred and seventy-one seamen, who, stating themselves to be Americans, have claimed my interference. Of this number, eighty-six have been ordered by the admiralty to be discharged, thirty seven more have been detained as British subjects or as American volunteers, or for want of proof that they are Americans, and to my applications for the discharge of the remaining one hundred and forty-eight I have received no answer; the ships on board of which these seamen were detained having, in many instances, sailed before an examination was made in consequence of my application.
It is certain that some of those who have applied to me are not American citizens, but the exceptions are, in my opinion, few, and the evidence, exclusive of certificates, has been such as, in most cases, to satisfy me that the applicants were real Americans, who have been forced into the British service, and who, with singular constancy, have generally persevered in refusing pay or bounty, though in some instances they have been in service more than two years.”
But the injuries of impressment are by no means confined to its immediate subjects, or the individuals on whom it is prac tised. Vessels suffer from the weakening of their crews, and voyages are often delayed, and not unfrequently broken up, by subtraction from the number of necessary hands by impress ment. And what is of still greater and more general moment, the fear of impressment has been found to create great difficulty in obtaining sailors for the American merchant service in times of European war. Seafaring men, otherwise inclined to enter into that service, are, as experience has shown, deterred by the fear of finding themselves ere long in compulsory military service in British ships of war. Many instances have occurred, fully established in proof, in which raw seamen, natives of the United States, fresh from the fields of agriculture, entering for the first time on shipboard, have been impressed before they made the land, placed on the decks of British men-of-war, and compelled to serve for years before they could obtain their release, or revisit their country and their homes. Such instances become known, and their effect in discouraging young mer from engaging in the merchant service of their country can neither be doubted nor wondered at. More than all, my lord, the practice of impressment, whenever it has existed, has pro duced, not conciliation and good feeling, but resentment, exasperation, and animosity between the two great commercial countries of tbe world.
In the calm and quiet which have succeeded the late war, a condition so favorable for dispassionate consideration, England herself has evidently seen the harshness of impressment, even when exercised on seamen in her own merchant service, and she has adopted measures calculated, if not to renounce the power or to abolish the practice, yet at least to supersede its necessity by other means of manning the royal navy more compatible with justice and the rights of individuals, and far more conformable to the spirit and sentiments of the age.
Under these circumstances, the government of the United
States has used the occasion of your lordship’s pacific mission to review this whole subject, and to bring it to your notice and that of your government. It has reflected on the past, pondered the condition of the present, and endeavored to anticipate, so far as might be in its power, the probable future; and I am now to communicate to your lordship the result of these deliberations.
The American government, then, is prepared to say that the practice of impressing seamen from American vessels cannot hereafter be allowed to take place. That practice is founded on principles which it does not recognize, and is invariably attended by consequences so unjust, so injurious, and of such formidable magnitude, as cannot be submitted to.
In the early disputes between the two governments on this so long contested topic, the distinguished persons to whose hands were first entrusted the seals of this department, declared, that “the simplest rule will be, that the vessel being American shall be evidence that the seamen on board are such.”
Fifty years' experience, the utter failure of many negotiations, and a careful reconsideration now had, of the whole subject, at a moment when the passions are laid, and no present interest or emergency exists to bias the judgment, have fully convinced this government that this is not only the simplest and best, but the only rule, which can be adopted and observed, consistently with the rights and honor of the United States and the security of their citizens. That rule announces, therefore, what will hereafter be the principle maintained by their government. In every regularly-documented American merchant-vessel the crew who navigate it will find their protection in the flag which is over them.
This announcement is not made, my lord, to revive useless recollections of the past, nor to stir the embers from fires which have been, in a great degree, smothered by many years of
peace. Far otherwise. Its purpose is to extingush those fires effectu
ally, before new incidents arise to fan them into fame. The communication is in the spirit of peace, and for the sake of peace, and springs from a deep and conscientious conviction that high interests of both nations require that this so long con tested and controverted subject should now be finally put to rest. I persuade myself that you will do justice to this frank and sincere avowal of motives, and that you will communicate your sentiments in this respect to your government.
This letter closes, my lord, on my part, our official corres pondence; and I gladly use the occasion to offer you the assurance of my high and sincere regard.
DANIEL WEBSTER. LORD ASHBURTON, &c. &c. &c.