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MVB Senate speech on the colonial trade bill, 24 February 1827

Mr. VAN BUREN said, it was, until yesterday, m intention, Mr. President, to abstain from all participation in the discussion of the bill now under consideration. The able examination which it has already received, and the advanced period of the session at which it has been brought forward, alike dictate the propriety of this course. But as neither the bill reported by the Committee, nor the amendment proposed as a substitute by the Senator from Maryland, (Mr. Smith) appears to my judgment entirely satisfactory, I cannot do justice to the vote which I intend to give, without a brief examination of this important subject. The commercial gentlemen who have favored the Senate with their views, have sufficiently examined the details, and explained the value of the trade with the British Colonial possessions. To their remarks, on this point, nothing need be said. It is conceded on all sides, that the trade is of great value to our country, and demands every effort for its restoration and protection. Much time has been occupied in criminating and vindicating the conduct of the different branches of the Government, in reference to this subject. Of this, it is not my intention to complain. In a Government like ours, where the highest office is but a trust, and every public functionary is held responsible for the manner in which this trust has been fulfilled, the closest scrutiny of public measures is at all times necessary. But, although not disposed to censure, I will not imitate the example of some of those who have preceded me in the debate: and it will be my effort to avoid all reference to the conduct of individuals, except so far as may be necessary to explain the course of events, and to exculpate this body from unmerited imputations.

The subject of the Colonial Trade, involving in itself many opposing interests, has been rendered still more complicated by the various legislative measures, orders, and proclamations, which have, from time to time, been adopted by the respective Governments. To review these acts, and trace, from the extensive diplomatic correspondence between the two Governments, the rise, history, and present state, of the existing differences, is no easy task. This, however, I will attempt to do, in the plainest manner, and fewest words. I avail myself of the present moment to do so, for the purpose of affording to the worthy Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, an opportunity to correct, in his closing remarks, any errors into which I may have fallen. For, while it is my object to present an impartial view of the subject, uninfluenced by any other motive than a regard for the interest and honor of our country, it would be the source of unmingled regret, if, mistaking error for truth, it shall be my misfortune to do injustice to others. To foster the infant navigation of the United States, and countervail the regulations of other commercial nations, laws were passed, at an early period of the Government, imposing a duty of ninety-four cents per ton on foreign ships and vessels, and ten per centum on the amount of duty on the merchandise, therin imported, which should arrive in the United States; from which duties the American vessels and cargoes were exempted.* By the act of Congress of March, 1815, a new and more liberal policy was commenced. The discriminating duties on foreign ships and vessels were conditionally repealed: and a tender was made to all other nations to extend to their vessels the privileges enjoyed by our own, on the condition that the same concessions should be made in favor of the vessels of the United States. The principle of this act was adopted in the Commercial Convention with Great Britain, of July 3, 1815, but was limited, in its application, to the trade between the United States and the British possessions in Europe. It was at that time proposed by the Government of the United States to extend the principle to the trade between the United States and the British American Colonies. But Great Britain, claiming the right of pursuing a policy, in relation to her Colonies, different from that by which the trade between her European possessions and other nations was governed, declined the overture. With regard to this trade, therefore, each party preserved their original rights. By the operation of this convention, and the ordinary navigation laws of Great Britain, the United States were in effect excluded from all participation in the British West India trade; and British vessels became the sole carriers of the productions of the American soil, to Colonies to whose prosperity, if not existence, these productions were indispensable. A condition so unequal, demanded the interposition of our Government. Successive, but fruitless appeals were made to the interest of Great Britain: and the most favorable terms which could be obtained, so late as March, 1817, was a proposition to extend to the United States the Free Port Act, allowing the importation of certain enumerated articles, into certain enumerated ports, in vessels of one deck; to authorize a restricted admission of our vessels into Bermudas and Turks Island; and to connect with these an article regulating the intercourse between the United States and the British territories adjoining them. After mature deliberation, this proposition was declined by our Government. Negotiation having failed in procuring any favorable relaxation of the Colonial system of Great Britain, Congress deemed it necessary to enforce, by countervailing legislative enactments, a just participation in the trade; and in 1818 an act was passed, by which the ports of the United States were closed against British vessels coming from Colonial ports, which, by the ordinary laws of navigation, were closed against vessels of the United States. A non-intercourse in British vessels was thus established with the closed ports. Soon after the passing of this act, an opportunity again occurred of presenting this subject to the attention of the British Government, in the negotiation for the renewal of the commercial convention of 1815. But, although propositions were exchanged by the respective Governments, the terms still offered by Great Britain were such as our Government did not deem it proper to accept; and in May, 1820, an act was passed, supplementary to the Navigation Act of 1818, closing the ports of the United States against British vessels coming from any British Colonial ports in the West Indies, Lower Canada, &c. and interdicting the landing of the productions of the United States, exported in British vessels, in the prohibited places, as well as the introduction into the United States of the goods, wares, and merchandise, of these Colonies, except wholly of the growth or produce of the Colony whence laden and whence directly imported. To prevent or mitigate the effect of these measures upon the trade and prosperity of the Colonies, partial relaxations of her colonial system were at times permitted by Great Britain. But these temporary relaxations were not of a character to justify the abandonment of the ground which we had taken. To evince, however, our willingness to terminate a system of exclusion and prohibition, which could only be injurious to both parties, Congress, by act of 6th May, 1822, authorized the President, on being satisfied that the British West India Island or Colonies were open to the vessels of the United States, to open the ports of the United States to the vessels of Great Britain, under such “reciprocal rules and restrictions” as the President might make and publish. The act of Parliament, of 24th June, 1822, followed. By this act Great Britain opened the Colonial ports, therein designated, to the admission of certain enumerated articles, direct from the producing country; and authorized the exportation of any article of the growth, produce, or manufacture, of the British dominions, or any article legally imported into the said ports, (arms and naval stores excepted) on the condition that they should, in foreign ships, be exportable only direct to the country to which the vessel belonged. The 15th section empowers the King to prohibit trade and intercourse with any country, or island, in America, or the West Indies, if it should appear that the privileges granted by the act to foreign ships and vessels, were not allowed to British vessels. The anticipated contingency having arrived, which required the exercise of the power with which the President had been entrusted by the act of Congress, of May, 1822, he issued his proclamation in August, 1822, declaring the ports of the United States to be open to British vessels, under such rules and restrictions as were deemed reciprocal. The discriminating duties between American and foreign vessels, were not rescinded by the proclamation. Of this, the British Government complained, alleging that similar privileges were not conferred, by the proclamation, on British vessels, as had been conferred on American vessels, by the act of Parliament. On the other hand, it was contended by our Government, that the privileges granted to British vessels were more favorable than those conferred on American vessels engaged in the same trade, on the assumption that our discriminating duties were to be continued. This question gave rise to an extended correspondence between the appropriate public functionaries of the two Governments. It is not necessary, nor is it my intention, to examine minutely the grounds of these opposite opinions. I shall, therefore, merely endeavor to present such a view of them as may be necessary to decide upon their relative justice.

The objections urged by our Government to the provisions of the act of Parliament of June, 1822, and relied on as a justification for the refusal to discontinue the discriminating duties, were the following: First, that the Colonial produce, exported in American vessels, was subjected to an export duty to which it was not liable if exported in British vessels. Secondly, that, whilst all the ports of the United States were open to British vessels, certain enumerated ports, only, of the British Colonies, were open to the vessels of the United States. Thirdly, that American vessels were confined to a direct trade between the place of export and the place of import; whilst British vessels were not liable to the same restrictions. Fourthly, that the British vessels, though confined in the direct trade to the same enumerated articles as the American, were not so confined in trading from Colony to Colony, or with the ports of the mother country. Fifthly, that, whilst all articles of British Colonial produce are admitted into the United States, many important articles of American produce were excluded from the British West Indies. And, sixthly, that higher import duties were imposed, in the Colonies, upon the articles of American produce, than on the like articles produced in the Dominions of Great Britain: It is not to be controverted that, if our Government were warranted in the facts upon which these objections are founded, they could not have yielded to the terms insisted on by Great Britain, without an abandonment of the essential interests of the country. In opposition to these views, it was contended by the British Government: First, that the export duty complained was a duty of four and a half per centum, levied in some of the Leeward Islands on the produce of those Islands, whether exported in British or American vessels, and, equally, whether exported to Great Britain or for foreign counties. Secondly, that the Colonial ports, opened to American vessels, were all those in which custom house offices had been established. Thirdly, that we had passed an act confining British vessels to a direct trade, under bond, in the same manner as American vessels were restricted by the British act of Parliament, and to a greater degree. Fourthly, that the privilege of trading between Colony and Colony, as well as with the mother country, enjoyed exclusively by British vessels, was only a part of the coasting trade which every Government secures to its own citizens or subjects. Fifthly, that the exclusion from the West India markets, of certain articles of American produce, was no other than what already existed in the trade between the United States and Great Britain, and other countries; and that it was not confined to Colonial intercourse. And, lastly, that the protecting duties, levied in the West Indies, on the production of the United States, were necessary to equalize the advantages of climate and vicinity enjoyed by our citizens, and to enable the inhabitants of the Continental Colonies to dispose of their productions.

Such, in substance, were the points of collision between the two Governments, upon the British act of June, 1822. Subsequent changes have rendered a critical examination of the justice of the respective pretensions unnecessary. The correspondence which ensued produced no decisive result. Although Great Britain still alleged the inequality of the privileges enjoyed by British vessels in American ports, the power to prohibit intercourse with the West India islands, in pursuance of the act of Parliament of June, 1822, remained, for some time, unexercised. On the 1st of March, 1823, Congress passed an act suspending the non-intercourse acts of 1818 and 1820, and opening our ports to British vessels engaged in the colonial trade, on certain specified conditions. One of the conditions was, that, if the President should receive satisfactory evidence that no higher or other duties were imposed, in the British colonial ports, upon American vessels, or cargoes, imported from elsewhere into the same, to discontinue our discriminating or alien duties in favor of British vessels. This act was in accordance with the ground maintained by our Government in their correspondence with Great Britain since the year 1817. It adopts the principle that the reciprocity of burdens and exemptions should extend to the cargo as well as to the vessel; and claims for our produce, imported into the British colonies, the privileges allowed to the produce of the mother country, or its colonies. This claim was resisted by Great Britain, as wholly inadmissible; and, in the same year, an Order in Council was enforced, imposing countervailing duties on American vessels, arriving at her Colonial possessions, of precisely equal amount to those imposed in our ports, upon British vessels arriving from the Colonies. In 1824, there at length appeared some ground to anticipate the speedy termination of these conflicting views. Negotiations were commenced, propositions of the respective Governments were interchanged, and the claims of both were supported with ability and zeal. But, although the differences were reduced to a single point, the negotiation terminated without effecting the desired adjustment. Being limited by his instructions, the American Minister insisted that the productions of the United States imported into the Colonies, should not be subjected to a higher duty or impost than those arriving from any other place. The British Government were willing to place them on the footing of the most favored Nation; but inflexibly maintained their uniformly asserted right to encourage, by discriminating imposts, the growth and importation of their own productions.

It is not necessary to recapitulate the reasons which were urged by the respective parties, and with which every Senator must be familiar. But it is important to keep in mind, that the failure of the negotiation arose from our Government having, at that time, adhered to terms which it has since abandoned. In the instructions from the Department of State to our Minister in London, (Mr. Gallatin,) dated June 19, 1826, we find the following: “You will observe, that the instructions now given respecting the Colonial trade, amount to an authority, on the part of this Government, to you, to agree in substance to the modification of Mr. Rush’s proposal, which was required (in 1824) by the British Plenipotentiaries.” In July, 1824, the British tender was made: nearly two years elapse; and, in 1826, this tender is accepted! Nearly two years consumed in the consideration of that which ought not to have required as many months. Well might it have been supposed that this proffer was rejected: for surely the annals of no country can exhibit so lingering an acceptance. But this acceptance, coming thus slow, unfortunately came too late. Before its arrival, the policy or the inclination of the British Government had changed; and, instead of a cordial reception, our Minister was informed that negotiation was now unnecessary; and that the only terms of intercourse were prescribed by the acts of Parliament. In this, as well as in concerns of less magnitude, it may be seen, that whatever is determined to be done, should be done at once; that deliberation, if it supply the place of action, is not less fatal than precipitation; and that, to hesitate in the acceptance of a proffered and desired benefit, and permit occasions to pass away, which can never be recalled, partake of the character of weakness, and detract from the reputation of any man, whether in the cabinet or in the field. Sir, it was well known to our Government, that, in 1825, acts were passed by the British Government, opening her ports to foreign vessels, coming from any foreign country, upon equal terms with her own; on the condition that the country engaging in such trade, and having Colonies, should allow British vessels to trade with its Colonies, on similar terms; and that a country, having no Colonial possessions, should, to entitle itself to the privileges of these acts, place the trade between the British Colonies and such country, on the terms of the most favored Nation. The King was at the same time authorized to close the British Colonial ports against the vessels of any Power which should refuse or omit to avail itself of the proffered conditions. Not only were these acts in the possession of the Executive; they were presented to your Committee, and laid upon our tables. And yet, what was the course pursued by that Department of our Government, to which these concerns were specially confided? Were legislative measures recommended either to suspend or remove the existing restrictions, or to meet, in any way, the legislative measures of Great Britain? Not at all. We find the Administration, on the contrary, still hesitating, still delaying, and still placing their dependence on renewed negotiation. In their view, legislation was improper; and one entire session of Congress thus passed away, and nothing was either done or attempted under their recommendation. An effort, it is true, was made by a member of this body. But the bill introduced by the Senator from Maryland, and which, had it passed, would at least have manifested a conciliatory spirit, and, in all probability, have led to an honorable adjustment of the pending controversy, was permitted to fail. The cause of its failure, it will hereafter be my object to disclose. Interesting as that may be, the consequences attending it are of more importance to our country. Apprised of our refusal to modify the existing restrictions upon the trade, or reciprocate the provisions of the acts of Parliament, the British Government, by an Order in Council of July, 1826, closed the ports of the West Indies against the vessels of the United States; and since last December, the subjects of Great Britain have enjoyed the exclusive monopoly of this advantageous intercourse. To this has been added the intimation, that no measure will be taken to remove the interdict, while the act of Congress of 1823 shall remain in force.

Permit me now, sir, to advert, for a moment, to the measures adopted by the Government, for the purpose of meeting the condition of the country anterior to the British Order in Council of July, 1826. In the Spring of 1825, a Minister was sent to England, avowedly for the purpose of continuing the negotiations on this and other controverted points. The absence of the Ministry from London, retarded the commencement of negotiations; and the indisposition of our Minister, compelled his return to the United States, without effecting the object of his mission. His successor (Mr. Gallatin) arrived in England two days after the promulgation of the Order in Council, closing the British West India ports against American vessels. In his remonstrance against this measure, Mr. Gallatin ascribes the delay which had attended the negotiation, to the state of Mr. King’s health. In his reply, the British Minister asserts, that no intimation had been given that Mr. King had received instructions to resume the negotiations on this subject. Subsequent developments have shown, that no such instructions had been given. Sir, is there not some ground to believe, that the abrupt termination of the negotiation may have been produced by this omission, and that the consequences attending it may be justly chargeable to the Executive? I am aware that the Committee have attempted to palliate the conduct of the Executive, on the ground that, had instructions been given to Mr. King, his impaired state of health would have prevented the effectual prosecution of the negotiation, and rendered his instructions unavailing; and that, therefore, their having been withheld, was productive of no injury to the country. But can it be seriously urged, that a contingent and unforeseen event, is a sufficient justification for a previous omission? Is it certain that this neglect has caused no detriment to the public? Who will affirm, that the bare communication to the British Government of the fact, that our Minister had received instructions, would not of itself have prevented the interdict? And, whether the failure of the negotiation may be attributed to the indisposition of the Minister, or the Secretary; to the dispersion of the British Cabinet over the island, or to their unwillingness to negotiate; is perhaps of less importance than to know that the only effect of the measures of the Administration, in the very mode which they had selected, has been to diminish the prospect of success in any other. By the act of 1823, the President is authorized, if at any future period the British colonial ports should be closed to our trade, to announce that fact by proclamation; and on his doing so, the acts of 1818, and 1820 revive, by which the ports of the United States are closed against British vessels. Since, therefore, the first of last December, when the British interdict was known, the power of the Executive was complete, at any moment, to close the ports of the United States against British vessels, and effect all the purposes proposed by the bill reported by the committee. This power has not been exercised; and at this late period of the session, it is attempted, for the first time, to call up for consideration a subject vitally interesting to the whole community.

Such, sir, is the history and present condition of the existing controversy with Great Britain, which requires, it is said, the enactment of the bill under consideration. The following are some of the deductions which seem to follow, irresistibly, from the view which has been taken, viz: 1st. That, had it not been for the principle assumed in the act of Congress of 1823, which claims for our trade the same immunities as are allowed to the trade between the Colonies and the mother country, an honorable and equitable adjustment might have been effected under the British Act of June, 1822, opening the Colonial ports to American vessels. 2dly. That the principle of the act of Congress, of 1823, to which I have already referred, and which, until recently, was alleged to be an insuperable obstacle to the acceptance of the British proposal, has now been formally abandoned by our Government. 3dly. That, in 1824, the same terms were offered by the British Government, which, in 1826, Mr. Gallatin was instructed to accept. 4thly. That the British acts of June and July, 1825, opened the colonial ports to our trade, on the terms proposed by the committee in their reported bill, as the condition for the revival of the trade, and of the equity of which there can, therefore, be no difference of opinion: and, 5thly, that, if these terms had been reciprocated by the passage of the bill, which was presented to the Senate by the Senator from Maryland, at the last session, we should be now participating in the advantages of this intercourse.

Having already trespassed longer upon your indulgence, Mr. President, than the remaining period of the session will justify, I am precluded from entering into a full examination of the propriety of the course which our Government has pursued. In the remarks which I may make, I will, therefore, endeavor to be brief. The points raised upon the British act of 1822, have been noticed. The equality of the terms proposed by that act, was, as already stated, strenuously maintained by the British Government. It is urged, that the omission to reciprocate the provisions of the act, or to concur in the British proposal of 1824, was rendered necessary by the conflicting provisions of the act of Congress of 1823. The validity of this reason will be better appreciated, when it is considered that the act of Congress of 1823 was merely designed to give legislative efficiency to the principles adopted by our Cabinet, and maintained in its correspondence with the British Government: that the act was in force when Mr. Gallatin received instructions to depart from its principle, and conclude a treaty on the basis of the British proposal; and that, if it formed an insuperable obstacle in 1824, it was no less imperative in 1826. But the simple fact is, the act itself was never viewed as a legislative instruction, from which it was not left to the Executive discretion to depart. I pass on, however, to the British acts of June and July, 1825, and to our refusal to reciprocate their provisions. That these acts presented a basis for the honorable adjustment of our differences, is no longer doubtful. That the passage of the bill which was introduced by the Senator from Maryland would have led to this adjustment, is equally certain. Why was the bill not passed? Why was the British overture permitted to remain so long unregarded as to be considered rejected? The Senator from Maryland has permitted his regard for the Administration to mislead his judgment. In his recent address, he has advanced the opinion, that the omission to pass the bill at the last session, is imputable to the Senate. In support of this suggestion, he refers to an unofficial conversation with the Executive, in which, the President expressed his readiness to sign the bill, if it should receive the Legislative concurrence. Sir, no one can entertain for the gentleman from Maryland greater respect than myself; but, in a question of so much importance, individual feeling must be silent: and I must beg him to believe, that the remarks which I may make are extorted by a sense of public duty. The gentleman has raised an issue, unprecedented in the past, and presenting a question of momentous import. A great public interest has been sacrificed, at least for the present, by the neglect of the constituted authorities to act, when they could have acted with effect. Responsibility rests somewhere; and, according to the gentleman from Maryland, it rest upon this body. It is due to the parties, to the subject, and to the country, that the truth should be known. I dissent in toto from his opinion. Amidst all the complexity which has attended the investigation of this subject, amidst the differences of opinion which have prevailed, I had supposed that there was at least one point sufficiently plain to be easily comprehended, upon which all were agreed. I had supposed, that the failure of the bill at the last session, in consequence of Executive interference, was too evident to admit of doubt. It is unnecessary to say, that, when I speak of Executive interference, it is not my intention to impute to the Executive an improper intermeddling with the appropriate duties of the Legislature. Such an interference would neither be attempted by the one, nor tolerated by the other. By that term nothing more is meant than the expression of opinions, concerning our foreign relations, which, though subject to the action of both branches of the Legislature, are specially confided to the Executive; an influence proper in itself, and efficient in its application. Was it exercised on this occasion? That it was, and that it controlled the course of the Senate, is susceptible of demonstration. Without intending any disrespect to the Senator from Maryland, I must object to the introduction here of incidental conversation with the President. Had the Senator been called to order, he would have been obliged to desist. They violate the rules of our proceedings, and are too uncertain to be relied on. Executive opinions can only properly appear before this body, when communicated to them directly, or through the authorized organs of this House. Sir, opposed to the suggestion of the Senator from Maryland, we have the unequivocal opinion of the Executive, communicated in the way in which alone it can be received, tending to show that he was opposed to the passage of the bill. It will be found, 1st. In the annual message of the President at the last session; from which it will be seen that Legislative measures were neither desired nor expected by the Executive. 2dly. In the express declaration of the Chairman of the Committee of Commerce, (Mr. Lloyd) when the bill was under discussion. 3dly. In the remarks of Mr. Lloyd recently published; from which it appears, that, whilst acting as the Chairman of the Committee, and while the subject was under the consideration of Congress, he addressed a note to the Secretary of State, requesting to be informed whether any negotiation was, at that time, pending, relative to the Commercial intercourse between the United States and the British Colonial possessions? Whether it would be more expedient that the intercourse should be regulated by convention, than by legislation? And whether the existing laws, together with the act concerning discriminating duties, which had passed the Senate, and was then pending before the House of Representatives, would not give all useful power to the President, without further legislation! That the Secretary stated, in reply, that the subject of the Colonial intercourse with the British Colonial possessions, formed one of the most important and special objects confided to the American Minister at London; and that, from the liberal and conciliatory views of the United States, and from the disposition which was understood to be felt by the British Government, he expected an acceptable arrangement would be effected before the next meeting of Congress. That he considered a convention as the most desirable mode of making a definitive settlement between the two countries; and that the bill which had already passed the Senate, would, if it became a law, give the President all needful power. The reply of the Secretary, being communicated by the Chairman to the Committee, produced an unanimous opinion that it was expedient to await the issue of the negotiation. Mr. Lloyd also informs us that it was also well known that both the President and Secretary of the Treasury were equally decided in opinion with the Secretary of State, that an adjustment by international agreement, rather than by independent acts, was the more satisfactory mode; and adds, that the expectation of a favorable issue to the negotiation, was at that time so general as to have induced the remark, both before and after the report of the Committee, that the Administration were opposed to legislation, in order to avail themselves of the popularity and eclat of effecting a definitive arrangement between the two countries. If any thing were wanting to render the testimony thus furnished more explicit, it would be found in the report of the Committee of Commerce, accompanying the bill now under consideration. Adverting to the British act of July, 1825, the report proceeds to state, “after a due examination of this law, it was deemed by the Executive better to continue the negotiation, with a view, 1st. To a permanent regulation, by treaty, when full explanations would be made, and all doubt removed. 2dly. In the hope of connecting with the adjustment the right of navigating the St. Lawrence, with which it was almost inseparably connected, &c. The subject was brought before the Senate at the last session. These and other reasons induced the Committee of Commerce to decline to legislate upon the subject.” This accumulated evidence must convince the most sceptical, that the influence of the Executive, at least to the extent of the unreserved expression of its opinion, was exerted against the passage of the bill. Was this influence effectual? There is no room to doubt it. The Constitution has conferred the power of making treaties, and with it the charge of our foreign relations, upon the President and Senate. By the practice under the Constitution, all the preliminary steps of the negotiation are taken by the President and the Secretary of State; by whom, aided by Ministers receiving their appointments from the one, and instructions from the other, the correspondence with foreign nations is conducted. While the whole diplomatic correspondence is in the possession of the Executive, the Senate are only advised of the state and progress of negotiations on special occasions, and to a limited extent. When such an occasion occurs, information is desired by resolution, or obtained by appropriate committees, from the official organ of the Executive. On such subjects, discordance of opinion seldom occurs; and when confidence exists between the Executive and Legislative departments of the Government, instances of this are still more rare. On this occasion it is admitted, that the Committee to whom the subject was specially referred, adopted the views expressed by the Executive; and it is not unreasonable to infer that respect for the President and his Cabinet had an equal influence with a majority of the Senate. It is true, that there were those, and of the number I happened to be one, who, distrusting the efficacy of the desired negotiation, and believing that an opportunity had occurred to subserve the interests of the country, voted against laying the bill upon the table. But this in no degree impairs the inference attempted to be drawn. The suggestion of want of time is destitute of foundation. The bill was arrested on the grounds which I have endeavored to explain: and if want of time had then been a conclusive reason for its rejection, the opponents of the bill now under consideration, are presented with an objection which, in addition to its original weight, may claim the sanction of your authority. I trust, sir, there is no disposition in any part of this House to throw the responsibility of their own acts upon those by whom they were opposed, and shun the consequences which they had themselves produced. The motives which led to the rejection of the bill were doubtless pure: and although the promised eclat of an adjustment, through Executive instrumentality, so tempting to a new Administration, may have had its weight, yet that this was a controlling consideration, it is far from my intention to affirm. The step has been unfortunate. We have not only lost, for an indefinite period, the trade now sought to be regained, but our once favorable position in relation to future negotiation is reversed. From being the Power proposing terms in the consciousness of right, we are reduced to the humble condition of a suppliant. We now ask that, which, though once at our option, is refused; and to render the refusal more humiliating, it is conveyed in terms offensive to our pride and injurious to our interests.

Mr. President: In the review which I have taken of the origin and history of our commercial difference with Great Britain, I have endeavored to direct your attention to the acts as well as to the omissions of our Government. It remains to consider what is proper to be done, to remedy the one and supply the other.

In the prosecution of this inquiry, it is not necessary, I am sure, to urge upon this Senate the adoption of those measures only which are demanded by the honor and interests of our country, and the exclusion from our councils of every consideration less worthy of our regard. The humiliating spectacle of a foreign and adverse Government, speculating upon the advantages which it may derive from our dissensions, will, I fervently trust, never again be the reproach of the American People. In a Government like ours, founded upon freedom in thought and action, imposing no unnecessary restraints, and calling into exercise the highest energies of the mind, occasional differences of opinion are not only to be expected, but to be desired. They rouse the sluggish to exertion, give increased energy to the most active intellect, excite a salutary vigilance over our public functionaries, and prevent that apathy which has proved the ruin of Republics. Like the electric spark, they dispel from the political atmosphere the latent causes of disease and death. But these conflicting opinions should be confined to subjects which concern ourselves. In the collisions which may arise between the United States and a foreign Power, it is our duty to present an unbroken front; domestic differences, if they tend to give encouragement to unjust pretensions, should be extinguished or deferred; and the cause of our Government must be considered as the cause of our country.

If we direct our attention to the ground which has been assumed by Mr. Canning, there can arise, on this side of the Atlantic, no difference of opinion. It is, in my judgment, indefensible in its principle, and injurious in its application. Whatever may be the right of Great Britain to consider the colonies as an integral part of her Empire, and to restrict the supplying of their wants to the resources of the mother country, transported in their own vessels, this right of monopoly ceases, whenever other Powers, either from necessity or interest, are admitted to its participation. It then becomes a subject of mutual interest. The supply of the one is as useful as the demand of the other; and if the trade be opened at all, it should be opened on terms liberal and just to both. But where would be the justice of abandoning her system of exclusive supply, and opening her ports to the admission of foreign productions, now become necessary to their prosperity or existence, but denying to the countries from whence they are supplied, not only the privilege of transporting them, but even the privilege of an equal participation in their transportation. This has neither been the principle nor the practice of other nations having colonies. It is admitted to be the principle of the colony system, to prohibit, as much as may be convenient, all trade between the colonies and foreign countries; but, when policy requires the trade to be opened, to allow the vessels of foreign countries the reciprocal right of being employed in it. The trade, when opened, ceases to be a fit subject for the application of those rules by which portions of the same Empire are governed. Other Powers then become parties to the terms by which it is to be carried on. It stands precisely on the footing of any other trade; and differs in no essential principle from the trade now carried on between the United States and the British ports in Europe. In both, the privilege claimed for the American vessel must be founded on reason, equal rights, and common justice; and the attempt, in either, to confine the carrying of the articles sold or exchanged to British vessels, is nothing less than an endeavor to make our productions tributary to the growth and protection of British navigation, at the expense of our own; and should be opposed by every consideration of interest, of honor, and of safety. But, if the principle assumed by Mr. Canning is unsound, the application of this principle is not less injurious. For more than thirty years we have been admitted to this trade. The terms of admission, more or less liberal at different periods of our history, have, during this time, been the subject of amicable negotiation. The professed object of both Governments has been to place it upon a footing of liberal reciprocity; and the only question in all the negotiations for the last ten years, has been-what are the terms which would be equal and reciprocal? During this long interval, thousands of our citizens, confiding in the continuance of a trade believed to be necessary to the one, and beneficial to the other, and anticipating a speedy termination of differences, arising from points of secondary importance, have embarked their capital in its prosecution. In the midst, however, of a suspended negotiation, at the very moment when a newly appointed Minister was on his way, charged with instructions to terminate this controversy, on the terms proposed by Great Britain herself, without notice to our Government, and without being anticipated by our citizens, a British order is issued, closing the West India ports against America vessels, at the same time that they are opened to the vessels of other Powers. Our citizens are suddenly thrown out of employments, into which they were seduced by the pacific relation of the two countries; and are compelled, at a loss which none but merchants can understand, to direct their capital and their enterprise to new pursuits. Sir, there was nothing in the intercourse between the two countries-nothing in the liberal views which were previously professed—nothing in the common interest, by which, at the present period, the United States and England should be closely united, to justify so unexpected and so unjust a measure. Since, however, this measure has been adopted, it becomes our duty to meet it. The bill reported by the Committee directs, that, after the 30th of September next, our ports shall be closed against any vessel coming by sea from the enumerated British ports: but provides that the act shall not take effect, if, before that period, the President shall receive satisfactory information that the enumerated British ports are open to the admission of our vessels upon certain specified terms, being, in substance, the same proposed by the British acts of June and July, 1825. The substitute, proposed as an amendment by the Senator from Maryland, removes the discriminating duties, after the 31st of December, and suspends the acts of 1823, 1820, and 1818, until the same period, except so much thereof as imposes discriminating duties on the tonnage of foreign vessels and their cargoes. The bill, as reported, prescribes the consequences which would attend the failure on the part of the British Government to comply, in the time limited, with the terms proposed. The amendment leaves the consequences to the operation of the acts referred to, by which our ports will be closed whenever the President shall, by proclamation, announce, after the 31st of December next, that the British ports are closed against vessels of the United States, in the presumption that, at that time, Congress, being in session, will adopt such further measures as the existing state of things may require. The merits of the bill reported are supposed, by its advocates, to consist in the greater energy of its provisions; those of the amendment, in being equally efficient, and more conciliatory in its form. Without material alteration, I shall not be satisfied with either: but, as a basis to act on, I prefer the amendment. The bill assumes to be what it is not. If the honor and interest of the country required the adoption of a measure of retaliation, corresponding with that to which it is to be opposed, the bill should direct that the ports of the United States should be closed against British vessels engaged in this trade. But if, from what has been done or omitted, this step is not thought to be expedient, (a question which I am not now disposed to press) the measure which we may adopt should be as conciliatory as is consistent with self-respect. The amendment proposes to do now, what it was expedient to have done at the last session. It proposes to remove the ground of collision by abolishing the alien and discriminating duties. But, in consequence of the change produced by the British interdict, the operation of the amendment is deferred to a day sufficiently distant to enable the British Government to revoke its Order in Council, and meet the terms of the amendment by reciprocal provisions. With two modifications, the amendment shall receive my support. I object to the time when it is to go into operation, and I prefer that it should carry on its face the terms on which alone the intercourse can be revived. Should the Senate concur in the amendment, by which the act will take effect, before the next session of Congress, I shall propose a section to that effect. The amendment, as now offered, will present no inducement to Great Britain for the removal of her interdict, until a distant day. This objection, however, may, in part, be obviated by a provision, authorizing the President, by proclamation, to remove the discriminating duties at any intermediate time. But my objection to the day arises from a higher consideration. Our acts should be firm; and, however mild and conciliatory, should exhibit neither fickleness nor irresolution. If, retracing our steps, we abandon the principle which alone prevented an amicable adjustment in 1824, the act announcing the fact should also proclaim our unalterable determination, should our views not be met in a conciliatory spirit, to accept of nothing less than that which justice demands. We have to contend with an adversary deeply versed in the arts of diplomacy, and every way competent to discern the intentions of those whose interests may come in competition with her own. By deferring the operation of the act until Congress again meet, you will awaken some doubt of your ultimate intention, and perhaps a hope may arise that you are not now prepared to renounce a trade in which you are not permitted to participate on equitable terms. With such an alternative before us, there is no one in this Senate-I trust there is no one in this nation-who would hesitate one moment in his choice. In giving utterance to this universal sentiment, let your act be explicit, and your determination final. Leave nothing to be accomplished by a future Congress, and, in the act which you may pass, present to the British Government your ultimatum, in the terms which she has herself proposed. In this, there will neither be menace nor an offensive display. It is precisely the course which she pursued, when the situation of parties was reversed. If it be the intention of Great Britain to place this trade upon the footing of just reciprocity, she will not be moved from her purpose by mere questions of form. But if, influenced by any change in her views or policy, she is resolved to reject our liberal propositions, no phraseology, however courteous, will produce a different determination. Be this determination what it may, we shall have performed our duty, and may rely upon the support of the American People.

(Mr. VAN BUREN then read the section to which he had adverted. But, as the motion to strike out the 31st of December was not carried, the amendment was not submitted.)

 

* Hence called discriminating duties.

Exceprt printed in MVB, Autobiography, 512.

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Source: <em>Register of Debates</em>
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 5 (1 January 1825-3 March 1829)