Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE AMERICAN COMMISSIONERS TO THE EMPEROR ALEXANDER. - The Writings of Albert Gallatin, vol. 1
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THE AMERICAN COMMISSIONERS TO THE EMPEROR ALEXANDER. - Albert Gallatin, The Writings of Albert Gallatin, vol. 1 
The Writings of Albert Gallatin, ed. Henry Adams (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1879). 3 vols.
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THE AMERICAN COMMISSIONERS TO THE EMPEROR ALEXANDER.
Inofficial note1 concerning the impressment of seamen on board of American vessels by the officers of the British navy.
St. Petersburg, August, 1813.
The impressment of American seamen has been, ever since the year 1792, and until the commencement of the present war between the United States and Great Britain, a constant subject of remonstrance on the part of the government of the United States. After general fruitless negotiations, the war at length broke out: to this cause it must chiefly be ascribed; and a settlement on this subject is the greatest difficulty to be surmounted to accomplish a restoration of peace between the two countries.
The pretensions of Great Britain had at first appeared to be confined to British seamen who had deserted from some ship and entered the American service. They were gradually extended further. The British government claimed and seized all British subjects, whether deserters or otherwise, and at the same time, in the face of their own principles, refused to discharge American seamen settled or married in England, or who, they pretended, had voluntarily entered their service.
But, whatever might be the nature of the real or pretended rights of Great Britain, it was the extraordinary means which she employed to maintain them which the United States were always bound to resist. Instead of seeking to recover her seamen by demands addressed to the American government or by consenting to some reciprocal and definitive settlement, from the beginning and without interruption she had recourse to force. For twenty years in succession her naval officers have seized and carried away, without any formality, from on board American vessels, not only in British ports but on the high seas, and sometimes even in neutral ports, every passenger and seaman whom it suited their convenience to take and whom they pretended to be British subjects. By an unavoidable consequence of such an aggression, the abuses have far outstripped the iniquitous principle advanced. Thousands of native American seamen have been torn from their country and their families, forced to enter into a foreign service and to fight against nations at peace with their own. Although the pretext employed to palliate this enormity was the difficulty of distinguishing the Americans from the English, even foreign seamen in the American service, whose language made it impossible to mistake them for British subjects, have often been taken. The United States never could submit to such an order of things. Their navigation was materially affected by it, not merely by the loss of the seamen thus taken from it, but by that of the still greater numbers driven to abandon their profession or deterred from embracing it by the dread of British impressment. Above all, America was bound to protect her own citizens; and she owed it to herself and to other nations not to endure such an outrage upon her independence and her sovereignty, such a debasement of her flag, such a flagrant violation of her neutrality. Nevertheless, the government of the United States, with patience unparalleled, and which is perhaps the only blame that can be imputed to them, never ceased during twenty years together to negotiate, to discuss, and to forbear.
It would be useless to enter into the detail of all the discussions which have taken place on this subject, and it appears sufficient to point out the specific propositions which at different times have been made.
In the year 1800, his Britannic Majesty’s minister to the United States, Mr. Liston,V., for what occurred under General Washington’s Administration, Collection No. 1, p. 5 to 11, and 39 to 44. having proposed a plan for the reciprocal restitution of the deserters from the service of the two nations, which appeared to recognize the British pretension upon the subject of impressment, the government of the United States offered to enter into a reciprocal engagement to deliver up deserters upon condition that the practice of forcibly seizing seamen upon that pretext on board of American vessels should thenceforth cease.V. Collection No. 1, p. 13 to 35, particularly p. 19, Art. 7, of Mr. Liston’s plan, and p. 25, 26, Art. 4, of the American counter-project. This proposition was not accepted, and the abuses on one side and the remonstrances on the other continued until the Peace of Amiens.
In 1803, on the renewal of the maritime war, Mr. King, the minister from the United States in England, attempted to conclude a settlement, and believed he was on the point of succeeding.V. Collection No. 1, p. 35 to 39, and 44 to 48. Lord St. Vincent, who was at the head of the Admiralty under Mr. Addington’s Administration, and to whom the matter had been referred, verbally consented to a convention in the following terms:
V. the whole letter of Mr. King, in the Collection No. 1, p. 48 to 50.1. No seaman nor seafaring person shall upon the high seas, and without the jurisdiction of either party, be demanded or taken out of any ship or vessel belonging to the citizens or subjects of one of the parties by the public or private armed ships or men-of-war belonging to or in the service of the other party, and strict orders shall be given for the due observance of this engagement.
2. Each party will prohibit its citizens or subjects from clandestinely concealing or carrying away from the territories or colonial possessions of the other any seaman belonging to such other party.
3. These regulations shall be in force for five years, and no longer.
An unexpected objection broke off the negotiation. Lord St. Vincent claimed an exception from the arrangement, of the narrow seas, as belonging exclusively to Great Britain. Mr. King justly thought it better not to conclude the convention than to acquiesce in this extraordinary and obsolete pretension, by which England arrogated to herself the sovereignty of the Channel and other open seas, through which the whole commerce of the United States with Holland, Germany, and the Baltic must necessarily pass.
In 1806, Messrs. Monroe and Pinkney, ministers from the United States at London, were authorized to open a negotiation and to conclude a treaty which should embrace all the subjects of difference between the United States and England. Lords Holland and Auckland had the same powers on the part of the British government.V. No. 2, for their project. Messrs. Monroe and Pinkney proposed, with regard to impressment, an article more detailed, but in substance like the first article of Mr. King’s plan, and offered to consent to another article, by which it should be, first, forbidden to every captain or master of a vessel of either of the parties being in the ports of a third power, or in the ports of one of the parties, with a vessel of the other party, to receive on board and carry to sea any sailor belonging to and deserting from such vessel; and, secondly, enjoined that in case any master of a vessel should, notwithstanding, receive on board, and carry into a port of his own country, sailors having so deserted in a neutral port, they should be delivered up to the consul of their nation upon their arrival.
V., for this counter-project, No. 2.The English negotiators rejected these propositions, and offered a counter-project, by which the two powers were to engage to enact laws, in cases when either of the two nations should be at war, to punish severely every captain of a belligerent vessel who should impress or carry off, on any pretence whatsoever, from on board the neutral vessels, the native subjects of the neutral, or others, not being the subjects of the belligerent. This proposition was necessarily considered as altogether inadmissible, inasmuch as it recognized as lawful the pretended right of England to seize on board of American vessels those whom she should consider as her subjects. By accepting it, America would have sacrificed her rights and abandoned forever the hope of an arrangement founded upon justice. And this sacrifice and abandonment would have been entirely gratuitous; for England, having never pretended to a right of impressing native American seamen, promised nothing but what upon her own principles and without any stipulation she was already bound to do; and in the last resort she offered no security, other than the expectation, so often disappointed, of a more moderate conduct on the part of her government and naval officers.
All hopes of concluding a positive arrangement having vanished, the English commissioners addressed a note to Messrs.V. their note, 8th November, 1806, No. 2. Monroe and Pinkney, in which, after having declared that the British government was not prepared to abandon a right founded on immemorial usage, and in the exercise of which the security of the British navy might be essentially involved, that they were nevertheless ready to discuss any plan that could be devised to secure the interests of both states without any injury to rights to which they were respectively attached, and that in the mean time the most positive orders should be given that the citizens of the United States should not be molested or injured by the impressment of British subjects. The wish was expressed of terminating the other subjects of difference by a treaty.
The American ministers justly considered the pledge offered by this note, which required nothing from the United States, as a method preferable to the stipulation proposed by the counter-project. Believing that the British Administration, weakened by the death of Mr. Fox, offered perhaps all that they dared, and hoping that a definitive adjustment of the other points might tend to conciliate the two governments, and might lead, under more favorable circumstances, to an arrangement on the subject of impressment, they consented, contrary to their instructions, to sign a treaty of commerce,31st December, 1806. which did indeed embrace most of the questions in controversy between the two powers, but which contained no article respecting impressment, and no definition of what should constitute a lawful blockade. The treaty was likewise accompanied by a note from the English commissioners, declaring that, on certain contingencies, the British ratification of the treaty might be withheld, or similar measures taken to those which were in fact afterwards adopted by England under the denomination of Orders in Council.
The President of the United States (Mr. Jefferson), though approving the motives of Messrs. Monroe and Pinkney, absolutely refused to ratify a treaty which left the question of impressment undecided, and, without even consulting the Senate, sent it immediately back with new instructions to the American ministers. Then for the first time, seeing the impossibility of obtaining from England an abandonment of her pretension on the sole condition of restoring her deserters, and finding it was necessary to propose a plan which should give her entire satisfaction with regard to her seamen,V. extract from the instructions of 20th May, 1807, No. 2. the American government made an advance towards the basis now contemplated, and authorized Messrs. Monroe and Pinkney to consent to an article by which each of the two nations should engage, in time of war, not to employ on the high seas, on board of their vessels, any seaman not being its own citizen or subject and being a citizen or subject of the other, and who should not have been for two years constantly and voluntarily in its service or within its jurisdiction.
It is probable that this proposition, with such modifications as England might have desired, would have led to a final arrangement suitable to both nations. But it was never formally offered or discussed. The British government, grounding their refusal upon the rejection of the treaty by the President, refused to resume the negotiations.23d June, 1807. The attack upon the American frigate the “Chesapeake,” which happened the same year, and the interdict upon the American commerce known by the name of the orders in council, which immediately followed, produced exasperation and reciprocal recriminations, and arrested the negotiations upon all the other points. It will suffice to observe that a fruitless effort was made to induce England to connect the discussion upon the subject of impressment with that upon the affair of the Chesapeake, and that notwithstanding the tenor of the note of 8th November, 1806, above cited, and the reclamations which the ministers and officers of government of the United States have never ceased to make, the abuses had not diminished, and the impressment of American seamen continued without interruption until the declaration of war.
After that declaration the President of the United States authorized Mr. Russell,V. Mr. Russell’s letter to Lord Castlereagh, of 24th August, 1812, No. 3, p. 32 to 35. their last chargé d’affaires at London, to propose to the British government an armistice, on condition that the orders in council should be revoked, and that the practice of impressment on board of American vessels should cease, promising that in that case the American government would enact a law (to be reciprocal) forbidding the employment of English seamen on board of American vessels, whether public or private.V. Lord Castlereagh’s answer, 29th August, 1812, No. 3, p. 35 to 37. This proposal, which was presented in two different forms, was rejected, on the ground that Mr. Russell had not sufficient powers to negotiate, and especially because the American government demanded of England as a preliminary condition the abandonment of her ancient custom of impressing British sailors on board of American vessels, without giving her any security other than a simple assurance that America would afterwards enact a law prohibiting the employment of British seamen on board of her vessels. Lord Castlereagh closed his answer in the following manner:
“The British government now, as heretofore, is ready to receive from the government of the United States, and amicably to discuss, any proposition which professes to have in view either to check abuse in the exercise of the practice of impressment, or to accomplish by means less liable to vexation the object for which impressment has hitherto been found necessary; but they cannot consent to suspend the exercise of a right upon which the naval strength of the empire mainly depends, until they are fully convinced that means can be devised, and will be adopted, by which the object to be obtained by the exercise of that right can be effectually secured.”
We shall not dwell upon the remainder of the correspondence between Mr. Russell and Lord Castlereagh, which has no immediate relation to the subject of impressment.V. No. 4. But it may be necessary to observe that the British government had on their part authorized Admiral Warren to make a proposal of peace to the government of the United States, founded upon the revocation of the orders in council, which was not known in America when the war was declared.V. Admiral Warren’s letter, 30th Sept., 1812, and Mr. Monroe’s answer, 27th Oct., 1812, No. 3, p. 39 to 45. Admiral Warren having no authority to treat on the subject of impressment, and his proposition being merely that in consideration of the repeal of the orders in council there should be a suspension of hostilities, and that the United States should repeal the law prohibiting the importation of British merchandise, this proposition was rejected by the American government.
Animated by the constant desire of removing beforehand the obstacles which might impede the restoration of peace, the United States shortly afterwards enacted a law by which,V. the law of 3d March, 1813, No. 5. from the expiration of the present war, the employment of every person not being a citizen of the United States on board of American vessels, whether public or private, is prohibited, and which, by requiring a continual residence of five years without going out of the territory of the United States as an indispensable preliminary to naturalization, actually excludes from that right all foreign seamen not already naturalized. The number of these is too inconsiderable to present any real cause of difficulty.
Finally, the offer of mediation made by his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias having been received by the United States immediately after the adoption of this law, the President accepted it without hesitation, and immediately despatched to St. Petersburg an extraordinary mission, with full powers to conclude a treaty of peace with Great Britain under the mediation of his Imperial Majesty.
From this statement of facts, the hope may reasonably be entertained that England can have no fair objection to open a negotiation, and that its issue would be favorable. A few observations in this respect are submitted, with a view to avert the preliminary difficulties which might arise.
1. England has never refused to negotiate upon the principle now proposed. On the contrary, she has always declared, and particularly in August last in the above-cited note of Lord Castlereagh, that the British government was ready to discuss any proposition which should substitute instead of impressment any method equally efficacious, but less liable to vexation.
2. The proposition now intended by the American government to be made has never been rejected, nor even discussed. All those which have hitherto been considered as insufficient had for basis only the mutual restitution of seamen who had deserted from some public vessel; whereas this consists in excluding from American vessels British subjects whether deserters or not. The last offer which Messrs. Monroe and Pinkney had been authorized to make in May, 1807, was modified in a manner which might not have been satisfactory; and circumstances distinct from it prevented even its being discussed. The proposal made by Mr. Russell was rejected not because an arrangement founded on his proposition was considered as inadmissible, but because it was presented as a preliminary condition, and for the reasons already mentioned.
3. The law of 3d March is to be considered only as indicating the basis upon which the United States believe it possible to treat with success. The general principle adopted in it, of excluding British seamen from American vessels, is alone to be considered. The means by which this principle would be carried into effect by the law are those which the United States, without having consulted England, judged sufficiently efficacious.V. the law, Sec. 21, No. 5. But it was foreseen that a treaty which might have the concurrence of two independent powers might require other modifications; and a clause was inserted in the law itself, providing that nothing contained in it should prevent an arrangement concluded by treaty between the United States and any foreign nation.
Without entering at present into further details, it will merely be observed that the object in view may be attained either by restricting, as the law proposes, the admission of foreign seamen to the rights of American citizens, or by excluding from American vessels not only British subjects not naturalized in America (as the law likewise proposes), but even all British subjects who may be naturalized hereafter. It may be said in general terms that every modification will be admitted, necessary for the satisfaction of Great Britain and compatible with the rights of sovereignty and the national honor.
4. Great Britain claims only her own subjects. America consents to exclude British subjects from her vessels. Being agreed upon the principal point, an arrangement appears to be practicable without affecting the respective rights of the two nations, and in a manner which, discarding the vexations and outrages upon the Americans, will at the same time be more advantageous to Great Britain than the violent means of impressment which she has hitherto employed.
As to the question of abstract rights, America does not ask of England to abandon any of those maritime rights which she has or believes herself to have. England, on her side, cannot demand that America should abandon hers, as she necessarily must should she subscribe to the practice of impressment, whereas nothing is asked of England but to abstain, for an equivalent, from the exercise of a right which she says she has, but without abandoning it. It would besides be easy to insert an article in the treaty expressly declaring that the arrangement is merely conventional, without affecting in any manner the respective rights of the two nations.
It cannot be doubted that the measure proposed by the United States would be more effectual than that of impressment, and would restore to England a number of English seamen much more considerable than she now seizes by force. By impressment she can only recover a part, while America consents to exclude from her service the whole. England can, therefore, allege no objection but the fear that the United States would not fulfil their engagement. By the importance which they attach to the redemption of their seamen from the danger of British impressment a judgment may be formed of the interest they will have scrupulously to execute a stipulation upon which would depend the security of those seamen and the continuance of peace. If, however, England should still harbor doubts on this subject, it must be remembered that the proposed arrangement having reserved the respective rights of the two nations, being purely conditional and even limitable in duration, may be considered as an experiment which will bind the British government only so far and so long as America shall fulfil on her part the conditions to which she will have assented. England, therefore, not only cedes no right, real or pretended, but will even hazard nothing by abstaining from her pretension. For, however ill founded this may appear to the United States, the settlement being conditional and the engagements mutual, from the instant that America should fail to perform hers, that of England would cease to be binding upon her; and her right of impressment, though always contested, will certainly then be as lawful as it could have been before she acceded to the proposed arrangement.
This note having no other object than to exhibit in a general manner the facts and the views of the American government, all discussion of the question of right has been purposely avoided in it. The silence which, from respect for the character of impartiality of the power which has offered its mediation, has been observed with regard to this question, cannot be considered as an abandonment of the principles which the United States have always maintained. We shall always be ready, should the occasion require it, to develop those principles, and to demonstrate the futility of the arguments by which England has endeavored to support her pretension and to justify her conduct.
[1 ]The original in French was written by Mr. Gallatin. The translation was made by J. Q. Adams.