Mr. Seward to Mr. Webb.

No. 33.]

Sir: Your able despatch of May 20 (No. 17) has been submitted to the President.

It brings into coincident review the aspects of slavery in the two countries, which, although very widely separated, are the two principal states on this continent, and the only two which tolerate that form of human bondage. This review, at the same time, derives great interest from the fact that it is made the basis for suggesting a philanthropic scheme for effecting the relief of both countries from the evils and dangers with which you assume that this toleration of slavery afflicts them.

Although the political and social conditions of Brazil and the United States are very unlike, they do not entirely disagree. Each is found in what may be called a formative and not in a settled and fixed stage. In the former there are besides the slaves of African descent many who have been brought as captives from the African coast. In the latter, practically speaking, there are only native slaves of African derivation. In Brazil the slave is generally the only laborer, and he is found in every province. In the United States slaves are exceptional from the general prevailing system of free white labor, and are found in only a section and not throughout the whole country. Under the circumstances thus described, each of these two countries has accepted the conviction of the age that the African slave trade is injurious and inhuman, and has abolished it, and thus has closed the original fountain of supplies, leaving the cut-off streams replenished only from diminutive native springs, to shrink, stagnate and dry up, if they will.

A great alteration of social laws, however inevitable and however ultimately beneficent, must necessarily be attended with immediate inconveniences, and often with violent disturbances and convulsions. Governments, in cases where the error is a fundamental one, must make the desired reform as early as possible, but at the same time with a wise moderation, so as to mitigate the immediate evil without losing the ultimate objects of safety and improvement. How to practice this moderation is really the problem now to be solved respectively by Brazil and the United States.

You tell me that the abolition of the African slave trade on the part of Brazil has resulted in producing a scarceness of labor and, of course, an enhancement of the value of the slaves; that at the same time, owing to a great increase in the [Page 713] world’s consumption of coffee, there is an exalted demand for labor to produce it in Brazil; that owing to these circumstances the slaves are being rapidly transferred from the northern provinces, which produce little or no coffee, to the southern coffee producing provinces; that discontent pervades, and even an organized conspiracy exists among the slaves to prevent the increase of their class, and that for this purpose they resort even to the fearful practice of infanticide. You tell me, also, what contemporaneous information confirms, that owing to some cause emigration from Europe into Brazil is practically unknown, and you add that unless some remedy is applied to these evils the northern provinces will be exhausted of laborers and will relapse into their early colonial condition, and attempts will then be made to revive the enslavement of the native Indians.

Casting about you for a remedy for these assumed evils in Brazil you not unnaturally turn to survey the condition and prospects of slavery as it lingers in the United States, where slaves increase rapidly in number instead of decreasing. You assume that many slaves here are by some process or other speedily to become free, and that owing to the native and exotic augmentation of free white men the slaves so becoming freedmen will be superfluous as laborers. I understand you, but perhaps erroneously, as also adopting an idea which to some extent prevails here, that policy requires the removal of such freedmen of African descent out of the country to some other, where they could be kindly welcomed and furnished with homes and facilities for self support, and in a reasonable time elevated to the privileges of members of the political state. Warned, as well you may be, by this humanitarian aspect of the condition of the two countries, you think that you discern the finger of God pointing to the northern provinces of Brazil as the land of promise, rest, and restoration of the slaves now in the southern States of this republic. Thus believing, you ask from the President power to negotiate a treaty to effect the removal of such freedmen from their present homes and their colonization upon most liberal principles in Brazil. The President cannot, without further consideration, accede to this request, yet you are not, therefore, to suppose that he undervalues either the motives which suggested it or the grave considerations by which you have supported it.

We can readily believe that your speculations upon the social and political evils of Brazil are just; yet courtesy to that state forbids this government from assuming their complete truth, and basing on it a proposition with a view to a relief of those evils, without having first some overture from the head of that empire. Moreover, we have no right to assume that the Emperor of Brazil would prefer an expelled caste from this country to other possible supplies of population for the improvement of the laboring classes of the empire.

It remains to consider whether this government is prepared to entertain negotiations with Brazil with a view to our own relief from such evils as you have supposed to exist or to be imminent in this country.

You are aware that the question of slavery is the experimentum crucets in American politics. Slavery is the cause of this civil war, and debates upon the present treatment and ultimate fate of slavery give to its abettors and to the government which is engaged in suppressing it much of their relative strength. Their relative weakness results equally from the same debates.

I present the condition of the debates in general review, not deeming it either necessary or important to declare opinions on the part of the government upon any of the propositions involved. If we embrace in our view the insurrectionary, as well as the loyal regions of the United States, it may justly be said that even the question whether slavery is an eradicable evil is yet open and vehemently discussed. In what manner and by what process slavery shall be brought to an end, whether by the civil authority of the States which tolerate it only, or whether as a military necessity of the present civil war by the federal authority; and, in either case, whether the abolition shall be immediate or gradual, with compensation or without, who shall pay such compensation, [Page 714] and the measure of it; whether the slaves emancipated shall be removed or be suffered to remain in their native homes, how removed, and at whose cost; whether their consent shall be required or waived; whither they shall be removed and colonized; whether they shall be colonized within our own jurisdiction, and on what terms, or in some region to be purchased for the purpose, and over which the federal authority shall be extended for their protection, making them an outpost and support of the republic, and, possibly, a burden; or whether in some central or South Amerian country, with the consent of their government, and relinquishing to such government the benefits and the charges of the colony, what country or countries, in either case, shall be preferred? All these questions remain a subject of earnest but as yet very confused discussion. They are, at the same time, questions which are involved in the proposition you make. You know that, practically, the executive authority cannot lead but must follow the popular will on such great and vital questions as collected in our frequently recurring elections, and expressed by the legislature and the Senate of the Union. We have every reason to believe that the assent of two-thirds of the Senate to any treaty based upon an executive decision upon these questions could not now be obtained, and, even if that were possible, then the provisions of the treaty could not receive due effect until a majority of Congress should have approved them, because appropriations of money to enable the President to execute the treaty must be made by law.

It must not, however, be inferred that the uncertainty of the public mind, which I have described, is a permanent and unchangeable one. On the contrary, the national mind is every day more directly and earnestly fixed upon the complex problem, and it advances in one day as far as once it advanced in a year. The solution of it in all its branches is therefore near at hand, but no human wisdom can foresee through what new political changes, affecting the subject, the nation is to pass before reaching that solution, and how not only the policy to be at any time adopted with a view to ultimate results but even the results themselves are to be affected by such changes.

If now we consider the subject practically we shall see our case to be simply this: The nation has decided, and decided forever, first, that slavery shall not henceforth be extended under our flag over territories now free; secondly, that the African slave trade shall never be revived or renewed; thirdly, that slavery shall be forever abolished within the federal District of Columbia, where it has heretofore been tolerated; fourthly, that slaves escaping or captured from disloyal masters in this civil war shall not be restored to slavery, but shall be free; and fifthly, that slaves so escaping or captured by the national forces shall be employed as laborers by them, and their dependent families shall be temporarily relieved by military and naval authorities of the United States. Many such persons have even already fallen within the control of the federal government. But it is believed no more than the provision thus made by the government, together with casual employment by private citizens, can establish them in comfortable circumstances useful to the country. Thus far, therefore, the surplus for whom you propose to provide does not exist, and hence probably the uncertainty of the public mind in regard to a disposition of it which I have described. It is a truism that most governments seldom, and republican governments least of all, practice sufficient foresight to provide prematurely for future but not imminent emergencies.

We shall grow wiser every year, every month, and every day, in regard to the questions I have been considering, because public opinion will settle and guide us as occasions for our action arise.

I close with remarking that the views you have so clearly expressed will be very useful to the country, and will therefore, at a convenient time, receive adequate publication; and the President, while declining at present to give you the authority you request, invites a continuance of your discussions, from the important [Page 715] position which you hold in a country whose condition is so suggestive of liberal and hopeful thought. He observes, with pleasure, that you are examining the subject under the influences, not of a blinding zeal, but of enlightened patriotism, as well as an earnest philanthropy, which are eminently calculated to inspire moderation into public councils.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,


James Watson Webb, Esq., &c., &c., &c.