Page images

The three subjects on which we have dwelt, namely, the northeastern boundary, the extradition of fugitives, and the suppression of the slave-trade, were the only ones which required to be provided for by treaty stipulation. Other subjects, scarcely less important and fully as difficult were happily disposed of in the correspondence of the plenipotentiaries. These were the affair of the "Caroline," that of the "Creole," and the question of impressment. Our limits do not permit us to dwell at length on these topics; but we shall be pardoned for one or two reflections.

So urgent is the pressure on the public mind of the successive events which demand attention each as it presents itself, that the formidable difficulties growing out of the destruction of the "Caroline" and the arrest of McLeod are already fading from recollection. They formed, in reality, a crisis of a most serious and delicate character. A glance at the correspondence of the two governments at Washington and London sufficiently shows this to be the case. The violation of the territory of the United States in the destruction of the "Caroline," however unwarrantable the conduct of the "sympathizers" which provoked it, became, from the moment the British government assumed the responsibility of the act, an incident of the gravest character. On the other hand, the inability of the government of the United States to extricate McLeod from the risks of a capital trial in a State court, although the government of England demanded his liberation on the ground that he was acting under the legal orders of his superior, presented a difficulty in the working of our system equally novel and important. Other cases had arisen in which important constitutional principles had failed to take effect, for want of the requisite legislative provisions. It is believed that this was the first time in which a difficulty of this kind had presented itself in our foreign relations. A more threatening one can scarcely be imagined. In addition to the embarrassment occasioned by the refusal of the executive and judiciary of New York to yield to the representations of the general government, the violent interference of the mob presented new difficulties of the most deplorable character. If McLeod had been executed, it is not too much to say, that war would at once have ensued. His acquittal averted this impending danger. The conciliatory spirit cannot be too warmly commended with which, on the one hand, the proper reparation was made by Lord Ashburton for the violation of the American territory, and, on the other hand, Congress, by the passage of an appropriate law, provided an effectual legislative remedy for any future similar case. They show with what simplicity and ease the greatest evils may be averted, and the most desirable ends achieved, by statesmen and governments animated by a sincere desire to promote the welfare of those who have placed power in their hands, not for selfish, party purposes, but for the public good.

There is, perhaps, no one of the papers written by Mr. Webster as Secretary of State, in which so much force of statement and power of argument are displayed as in the letter on "impressment." To incorporate a stipulation on this subject into a treaty was, regarding the antecedents of the question, impracticable. But the reply of Lord Ashburton to Mr. Webster's announcement of the American principle must be considered as acquiescence on the part of his government. It may be doubted whether this odious and essentially illegal practice will ever again be systematically resorted to, even in England.* Considering the advance made by public sentiment an all questions connected with personal liberty, "a hot-press on the Thames" would hardly stand the ordeal of an investigation in Parliament at the present day. It is certain that the right of impressing seamen from American vessels could never be practically asserted in a future war with any other effect than that of adding the United States to the parties in the contest. No refinements in the doctrine of natural allegiance, although

* The following passage from a letter of Robert Walsh, Esq., to the editors of the National Intelligencer, dated Paris, 28th October, 1842, furnishes confirmation of the remark in the text: —

"The former journal [The Times], of the 18th instant, acknowledges that Mr. Webster 'has not exaggerated the hardships and evils which the practice of impressment occasioned in the last war.' It ratifies his ideas of the probable aggravation of them, if the practice should be ever renewed; it would even dispense with press-warrants at home, as adverse to the general principles of British liberty and law; it advises some general measure for the entire abolition of arbitrary impressment both at home and abroad, and it expresses its belief of a very strong probability, that, in the event of a war, no instructions for the impressment of British seamen found in American merchant-vessels will be issued to her Majesty's cruisers. The Standard chimes with the great oracle, and concludes in this strain: 'We may infer that, whatever may be the plan hereafter for managing our navy, impressment will never again be resorted to; this is beyond a doubt; the practice complained of by Mr. Webster will be abandoned.'"

their theoretical soundness might equal their subtilty, would be of the least avail here. To force seamen from the deck of a peaceful neutral vessel, pursuing a lawful commerce, and compel them to serve for an indefinite and hopeless period on board a foreign man-of-war, is an act of power and violence to which no nation will submit that is able to resist it. In the case of the United States and Great Britain, that community of language and resemblance in general appearance which may have been considered as palliating the most deplorable results of the exercise of this power, in reality constitute the strongest reason for its abandonment. The unquestionable danger that, with the best intentions, the boarding officer may mistake an American for an Englishman; the certainty that a reckless lieutenant, unmindful of consequences, but bent upon recruiting his ship on a remote foreign station, will pretend to believe that he is seizing the subjects of his own government, whatever may be the evidence to the contrary, are reasons of themselves for denying on the threshold the existence of a right exposed to such inevitable and intolerable abuse.

These and other views of the subject are presented in Mr. Webster's letter to Lord Ashburton of the 8th of August, 1842, with a strength of reasoning and force of illustration not often equalled in a state paper. That letter was spoken of, in the hearing of the writer of this memoir, by one whose name, if it could be mentioned with propriety, would give the highest authority to the remark, as a composition not surpassed by any thing in the language. The principles laid down in it may be considered as incorporated into the public law of the United States, and will have their influence beyond our own territorial limits and beyond our own time.

Some disappointment was probably felt, when the treaty of Washington was published, that a settlement of the Oregon question was not included among its provisions. It need not be said that a subject of such magnitude did not escape the attention of the negotiators. It was, however, speedily inferred by Mr. Webster, from the purport of his informal conferences with Lord Ashburton on this point, that an arrangement of this question was not then practicable, and that to attempt it would be to put the entire negotiation to great risk of failure. On the other hand, it was not less certain that, by closing up the other matters in controversy, the best preparation was made for bringing the Oregon dispute to an amicable issue, whenever circumstances should favor that undertaking. Considerable firmness was no doubt required to act upon this policy, and to forego the attempt, at least, to settle a question rapidly growing into the most formidable magnitude. It is unnecessary to say how completely the course adopted has been justified by the event.

We have in the preceding remarks confined ourselves to the topics connected with the treaty of Washington. But other subjects of great importance connected with the foreign affairs of the country engaged the attention of Mr. Webster as Secretary of State.

The first of these pertained to our controversies with Mexico, and was treated in a letter to M. de Bocanegra,the Mexican Secretary of State and Foreign Relations. The great and unexpected changes which have taken place in that quarter since the date of this correspondence will not impair the interest with which it will be read. It throws important light on the earlier stages of our controversy with that ill-advised and infatuated government. Among the papers in this part of the volume are those which relate to the Santa Fe prisoners and Captain Jones's attack on Monterey.

Under the head of "Relations with Spain" will be found a correspondence of great interest between the Chevalier d'Arga'iz, the representative of that government, and Mr. Webster, on the subject of the "Amistad." The pertinacity with which this matter was pursued by Spain, after its adjudication by the Supreme Court of the United States, furnishes an instructive commentary upon the sincerity of that government in its measures for the abolition of the slave-trade. The entire merits of this important and extraordinary case are condensed in Mr. Webster's letters of the 1st of. September, 1841, and 21st of June, 1842.

Of still greater interest are the institution of the mission to China, and the steps which led to the establishment of the independence of the Sandwich Islands. The sixth volume of this collection contains the instructions given to Mr. Cushing as commissioner to China, and the correspondence between Mr. Webster and Messrs. Richards and Haalilio on behalf of the Sandwich Islands. At any period less crowded with important events the opening of diplomatic relations with China, and the conclusion of a treaty of commerce with that power, would have been deemed occurrences of unusual importance. It certainly reflects great credit on the administration, that it acted with such promptitude and efficiency in seizing this opportunity of multiplying avenues of commercial intercourse. Nor is less praise due to the energy and skill of the negotiator,* to whom this novel and important undertaking was confided, and who was able to embark from China, on his return homeward, in six months after his arrival, having in the mean time satisfactorily concluded the treaty.

The application of the representatives of the Sandwich Islands to the government of the United States, and the countenance extended to them at Washington, exercised a most salutary and seasonable influence over the destiny of those islands. The British government was promptly made aware of the course pursued by the United States, and was no doubt led, in a considerable degree, by this circumstance, to promise the Hawaiian delegates, on the part of England, to respect the independent neutrality of their government. In the mean time, the British admiral on that station had taken provisional possession of them on behalf of his government, in anticipation of a similar movement which was expected on the part of France. If intelligence of this occurrence had been received in London before the promise above alluded to was given by Lord Aberdeen to Messrs. Richards and Haalilio, it is not impossible that Great Britain might have felt herself warranted in retaining the protectorate of the Hawaiian Islands as an offset for the occupation of Tahiti by the French. As it was, the temporary arrangement of the British admiral was disavowed, and the government restored to the native chief.

Among the papers contained in the sixth volume will be found a correspondence between Mr. Webster and the Portuguese Minister, on the subject of duties on Portuguese wines, and a report of great importance on the Sound duties and the Zoll-Verein, topics to which the recent changes in the Germanic system will henceforward impart a greatly increased importance.

* Mr. Gushing.

« PreviousContinue »