William H. Seward, Secretary of State
June 17, 1861
SIR: Every instruction which this government has given to its representatives abroad, since the recent change of administration took place, has expressed our profound anxiety lest the disloyal citizens who are engaged in an attempt to overthrow the Union should obtain aid and assistance from foreign nations, either in the form of a recognition of their pretended sovereignty, or in some other and more qualified or guarded manner. Every instruction has expressed our full belief that, without such aid or assistance, the insurrection would speedily come to an end, while any advantage that it could derive from such aid or assistance could serve no other purpose than to protract the existing struggle and aggravate the evils it is inflicting on our own country and on foreign and friendly nations. Every instruction bears evidence of an earnest solicitude to avoid even an appearance of menace or of want of comity towards foreign powers; but at the same time it has emphatically announced, as is now seen to have been necessary, our purpose not to allow any one of them to expect to remain in friendship with us if it should, with whatever motive, practically render such aid or assistance to the insurgents. We have intended not to leave it doubtful that a concession of sovereignty to the insurgents, though it should be indirect or unofficial, or though it should be qualified so as to concede only belligerent or other partial rights, would be regarded as inconsistent with the relations due to us by friendly nations. Nor has it been left at all uncertain that we shall, in every event, insist that these United States must be considered and dealt with now, as heretofore, by such nations as exclusively sovereign for all purposes whatsoever within the territories over which the Constitution has been extended. On the other hand we have not, at any time, been unmindful of the peculiar circumstances which might excite apprehensions on the part of commercial nations for the safety of their subjects and their property in the conflicts which might occur upon sea as well as on land between the forces of the United States and those of the insurgents.
The United States have never disclaimed the employment of letters of marquee as a means of maritime war. The insurgents early announced their intention to commission privateers. We knew that friendly nations would be anxious for guarantees of safety from injury by that form of depredation upon the national commerce. We knew also that such nations would desire to be informed whether their flags should be regarded as protecting goods., not contraband of war, of disloyal citizens, found under them, and whether the goods, not contraband, of subjects of such nations would be safe from confiscation when found in vessels of disloyal citizens of the United States. This administration, free from some of the complications of those which had preceded it, promptly took up the negotiations relating to the declaration of the congress of Paris, just at the point where they had been suspended by President Buchanan. We found it just and humane in itself so far as it goes, and that it had only failed to be accepted by the United States because foreign nations had refused to accept an additional principle pro posed by this government, yet more just and humane than any which it does contain, namely, that the property of private citizens, not contraband, should be exempted from confiscation in maritime war. While still willing and desirous to have that further principle incorporated in the law of nations, we nevertheless instructed you, and all our representatives in foreign countries, to waive it, if necessary, and to stipulate, subject to the concurrence of the Senate of the United States, our adhesion to the declaration of the congress of Paris as a whole and unmodified. This was done so early as the .25th day of April last, long before the date of the instructions which Mr. Mercier proposed to submit to us. We have ever since that time been waiting for the responses of foreign powers to this high and liberal demonstration on our part. We have, however, received no decisive answers on the subject from those powers.
It was under these circumstances that on the fifteenth day of June instant, the minister from France and the minister from Great Britain, having previously requested an interview, were received by me. Each of them announced that he was charged by his government to read a dispatch to me and to give me a copy if I should desire it.
I answered that, owing to the peculiar circumstances of the times, I could not consent to an official reading or delivery of these papers without first knowing their characters and objects. They confidentially and with entire frankness put the dispatches into my hands for an informal preliminary examination. Having thus become possessed of their characters, I replied to those ministers that I could not allow them to be officially communicated to this government. They will doubtless mention this answer to their respective states.
I give you now the reasons of this government for pursuing this course in regard to the dispatch from France, that you may communicate them to the French government, if you shall find it necessary or expedient.
Some time ago we learned through our legation at St. Petersburg that an understanding had been effected between the governments of Great Britain and France that they should take one and the same course on the subject of the political disturbances in this country, including the possible recognition of the insurgents. At a later period this understanding was distinctly avowed by Mr. Thouvenel to Mr. Sanford, who had been informally introduced by me to the French minister for foreign affairs, and by Lord John Russell to Mr. Dallas, our late minister in London. The avowal in each case preceded the arrival of our newly appointed ministers in Europe, with their instructions for the discharge of their respective missions.
On receiving their avowals I immediately instructed yourself and Mr. Adams “that although we might have expected a different course on the part of these two great powers, yet, as the fact that an understanding existed between them did not certainly imply an unfriendly spirit, we should not complain of it, but that it must be understood by the French and British governments that we shall deal, hereafter, as heretofore, in this case, as in all others, with each power separately, and that the agreement for concerted action between them would not at all influence the course we should pursue.” The concert thus avowed has been carried out. The ministers came to me together; the instructions they proposed to me differ in form, but are counter parts in effect.
Adhering to our previous decision, which before this time has doubtless been made known to the government of France, we do not make this concert, under the circumstances, a reason for declining to hear the instruction with which Mr. Mercier is charged.
That paper does not expressly deny the sovereignty of the United States of America, hut it does assume, inconsistently with that sovereignty; that the United States are not altogether and for all purposes one sovereign power, but that this nation consists of two parties, of which this government is one. France proposes to take cognizance of both parties as belligerents, and for, some purposes to hold communication with each. The instruction would advise us indeed that we must not be surprised if France shall address herself to a government which she says is to be installed, at Montgomery, for certain explanations. This intimation is conclusive in determining this government not to allow the instruction to be read to it.
The United States rightly jealous, as we think, of their sovereignty, cannot suffer themselves to debate any abridgement of that sovereignty with France or with any other nation. Much less can it consent that France shall announce to it a conclusion of her own against that sovereignty, which conclusion France has adopted without any previous conference with the United States on the subject. This government insists that the United States are one whole undivided nation, especially so far as foreign nations are concerned, and that France is, by the law of nations and by treaties, not a neutral power between two imaginary parties here, but a friend of the United States.
In the spirit of this understanding of the case, we are not only not wishing to seek or to give offence to France, but, on the contrary, we desire to preserve peace and friendship with that great power, as with all other nations. We do not feel at liberty to think, and do not think, that France intended any want of consideration towards the United States in directing that the instruction in question should be read to us. Outside of that paper we have abundant evidence of the good feeling and good wishes of the Emperor, and even his anxious solicitude for the same consummation which is the supreme object of our own desires and labors, namely, the preservation of the American Union in its full and absolute integrity.
Doubtless the proceeding has been the result of inadvertence. We feel ourselves at liberty to think that it would not have occurred if we had been so fortunate as to have been heard through you in the consultations of the French government. We think we can easily see how the inadvertence has occurred. France seems to have mistaken a mere casual and ephemeral insurrection here, such as is incidental in the experience of all nations, because all nations are merely human societies, such as have sometimes happened in the history of France herself, for a war which has flagrantly separated this nation into two co-existing political powers which are contending in arms against each other after the separation.
It is erroneous, so far as foreign nations are concerned, to suppose that any war exists in the United States. Certainly there cannot be two belligerent powers where there is no war. There is here, as there has always been, one political power, namely, the United States of America, competent to make war and peace, and conduct commerce and alliances with all foreign nations. There is none ether, either in fact, or recognized by foreign nations. There is, indeed, an armed sedition seeking to overthrow the government, and the government is employing military and naval forces to repress it. But these facts do not constitute a war presenting two belligerent powers, and modifying the national character, rights, and responsibilities, or the characters, rights, and responsibilities of foreign nations. It is true that insurrection may ripen into revolution, and that revolution thus ripened may extinguish a previously existing State, or divide it into one or more independent States, and that if such States continue their strife after such division, then there exists a state of war affecting the characters, rights, and duties of all parties concerned. But this only happens when the revolution has run its successful course;
The French government says, in the instruction which has been tendered to us, that certain facts which it assumes confer upon the insurgents of this country, in the eyes of foreign powers, all the appearances of a government de facto, wherefore, whatever may be its regrets, the French government must consider the two contending parties as employing the forces at their disposal in conformity with the laws of war.
This statement assumes not only that the law of nations entitles any insurrectionary faction, when it establishes a de facto government, to be treated as a belligerent, hut also that the fact of the attainment of this status is to be determined by the appearance of it in the eyes of foreign nations. If we should concede both of these positions, we should still insist that the existence of a de facto government, entitled to belligerent rights, is not established in the present case. We have already heard from most of the foreign nations. There are only two, which seem so to construe appearances, and France is one of them. Are the judgments of these two to outweigh those of all other nations? Doubtless each nation may judge and act for itself; but it certainly cannot expect the United States to accept its decision upon a question vital to their national existence. The United States will not refine upon the question when and how new nations are born out of existing nations. They are well aware that the rights of the States involve their duties and their destinies, and they hold those rights to be absolute as against all foreign nations. These rights do not at all depend on the appearances, which their condition may assume in the eyes of foreign nations, whether strangers, neutrals, friends, or even allies. The United States will maintain and defend their sovereignty throughout the bounds of the republic, and they deem all other nations bound to respect that sovereignty until, if ever, Providence shall consent that it shall be successfully overthrown. Any system of public law or national morality that conflicts with this would resolve society, first in this hemisphere and then in the other, into anarchy and chaos.
This government is sensible of the importance of the step it takes in declining to hear the communication the tender of which has drawn out these explanations. It believes, however, that it need not disturb the good relations, which have so long and so happily subsisted between the United States and France.
The paper, as understood, while implying a disposition on the part of France to accord belligerent rights to the insurgents, does not name, specify, or even indicate one such belligerent right. On the other hand, the rights which it asserts that France expects, as a neutral, from the United States, as a belligerent, are even less than this government, on the 25th of April, instructed you to concede and guaranty to her by treaty, as a friend. On that day we offered to her our adhesion to the declaration of Paris, which contains four propositions, namely: 1st. That privateering shall be abolished. 2d. That a neutral flag covers enemy’s goods not contraband of war. 3d. That goods of a neutral, not contraband, shall not be confiscated though found in an enemy’s vessel. 4th. That blockades, in order to be lawful, must be maintained by competent force. We have always, when at war, conceded the three last of these rights to neutrals, a fortiori, we could not when at peace deny them to friendly nations. The first-named concession was pro posed on the grounds already mentioned. We are still ready to guarantee these rights, by convention with France, whenever she shall authorize either you or her minister here to enter into convention. There is no reservation or difficulty about their application in the present case. We hold all the citizens of the United States, loyal or disloyal, alike included by the law of nations and treaties; and we hold ourselves bound by the same obligations to see, so far as may be in our power, that all our citizens, whether maintaining this government or engaged in overthrowing it, respect those rights in favor of France and of every other friendly nation. In any case, not only shall we allow no privateer or national vessel to violate the rights of friendly nations as I have thus described them, but we shall also employ all our naval force to prevent the insurgents from violating them just as much as we do to prevent them from violating the laws of our own country.
What, then, does France claim of us that we do not accord to her? Nothing. What do we refuse to France by declining to receive the communication sent to us through the hands of Mr. Mercier? Nothing but the privilege of telling us that we are at war, when we maintain we are at peace, and that she is a neutral, when we prefer to recognize her as a friend.
Of course, it is understood that on this occasion we reserve, as on all others, our right to suppress the insurrection by naval as well as by military power, and for that purpose to close such of our ports as have fallen or may fall into the hands of the insurgents, either directly or in the more lenient and equitable form of a blockade, which for the present we have adopted. It is thus seen that there is no practical subject of difference between the two governments. The United States will hope that France will not think it necessary to adhere to and practice upon the speculation concerning the condition of our internal affairs, which she has proposed to communicate to us. But however this may be, the United States will not anticipate any occasion for a change of the relations which, with scarcely any interruption, have existed between the two nations for three-quarters of a century, and have been very instrumental in promoting, not merely the prosperity and greatness of each State, but the cause of civil and religious liberty and free institutions throughout the world.
This government understands equally the interest of friendly nations and its own in the present emergency. If they shall not interfere, the attempt at revolution here will cease without inflicting serious evils upon foreign nations. All that they can do by any interference, with a view to modify our action, will only serve to prolong the present unpleasant condition of things, and possibly to produce results that would be as universally calamitous as they would be irretrievable, the case, as it now stands, is the simple, ordinary one that has happened at all times and in all countries. A discontented domestic faction seeks foreign intervention to overthrow the Constitution and the liberties of its own country. Such intervention, if yielded, is ultimately disastrous to the cause it is designed to aid. Every uncorrupted nation, in its deliberate moments, prefers its own integrity, even with unbearable evils, to division through the power or influence of any foreign State. This is so in France. It is not less so in this country. Down deep in the heart of the American people—deeper than the love of trade, or of freedom—deeper than the attachment to any local or sectional interest, or partisan pride or individual ambition— deeper than any other sentiment—is that one out of which the Constitution of this Union arose, namely, American independence—independence of all foreign control, alliance, or influence. Next above it lies the conviction that neither peace, nor safety, nor public liberty, nor prosperity, nor greatness, nor empire, can be attained here with the sacrifice of the unity of the people of North America. Those who, in a frenzy of passion, are building expectations on other principles do not know what they are doing. Whenever one part of this Union shall be found assuming bonds of dependence or of fraternity towards any foreign people, to the exclusion of the sympathies of their native land, then, even if not before, that spirit will be reawakened which brought the States of this republic into existence, and which will preserve them united until the common destiny which it opened to them shall be fully and completely realized.
I am, sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,
WILLIAM H. SEWARD.