Mr. Dayton to Mr. Seward

No. 297.]

Sir: In a conference with Mr. Drouyn de l’Huys, had this day, he inquired particularly as to our action in reference to the issue of letters of marque. He has, without doubt, recently had conversation with Lord Cowley on this subject. He stated that Lord Cowley had given to him a copy of the late speech of Mr. Palmer, the solicitor general of England, (delivered in the House of Commons,) on the subject of the Alabama and the building of ships in their ports for the confederates. He said the speech seemed carefully prepared (trayaillé.) I told him that I thought it had been elaborated with much care, but I had reason to know from a member of the House of Parliament, present at its delivery, that it was thought by him, and many others, that the learned solicitor general had gone too far; that he had promulgated doctrines which England would not herself abide by, if we or other powers should, under like circumstances, attempt to apply them to her. I further told Mr. Drouyn de l’Huys our foreign enlistment act was the same as that of England, and that the United States, during the Crimean war, had enforced another rule; that we had promptly interfered, as I had been informed, to prevent the building of one war vessel for Russia, and had prevented the sailing of others. Strange as it may seem, this appeared to be new to him, and he said if that were so, the fact should be known. I assured him that the facts were, as I believed, already known to the British government; that they appeared, in part, at [Page 725] least, in the correspondence between Mr. Adams and Earl Russel; that the French journals seemed to take little interest in the publication of such matter, and although these statements had been repeatedly made in the American and in some English journals which were received by French journalists, they had not been generally re-published here. He said, at once, that this was wrong, and that an important fact of this nature should be made known through the public press. I then told him that, inasmuch as Lord Cowley had supplied him with the speech of Mr. Palmer on this subject, I would make it my business forthwith to furnish him with such evidence of the facts I had referred to as were within my reach, which I shall immediately do. It was quite evident to me that the British authorities had been making an effort to satisfy this government that they were not to blame for what had occurred or might hereafter occur in reference to the fitting out of war vessels for the rebels in their ports. Mr. Drouyn de l’Huys, while not questioning our right to issue letters of marque, seemed, I thought, to deprecate it as an act uncalled for under existing circumstances, and calculated to produce troublesome complications. He begged that, should anything of the kind be done, it might be done with all proper precaution and guards to avoid interference with the commerce of neutral powers. He said that we well knew that the practice of France and her principals as to maritime law had differed from those of England; that they had built no ships for the insurgents, and had not interfered with us; that it was evidently not the interest of the United States to take such course as would create community of action upon these questions between England and France. I referred him to the contents of your despatch No. 304, as the last official intimation I had received on the subject, and assured him that, should the President feel it his duty to act under the law of Congress, it would be done with all the precaution and care of which the nature of the proceedings was susceptible. That the President would, of course, feel most anxious to surround his letters of marque, if the issue of such should be made, with such guards as would, if possible, prevent injurious collisions or complications with foreign powers. I then again called his attention to the fact that all this trouble came from the Alabama and the course of Great Britain in permitting ships-of-war to be built for the insurgents in her ports. I thought it well, top, (believing that Lord Cowley conferred with him on these subjects,) to inform him distinctly that the exasperation of the citizens of the United States, growing out of the depredations of the Alabama and Florida, was so great that should the war ships now being built for the rebels in British ports escape by the negligence of that government, I did not believe it would be possible to keep the peace between the two countries. I told him that a foreign war would affect us principally through our commerce, and if this were to be cut up and destroyed by the indirect action of Great Britain, the feeling would be that we might as well meet her direct hostility at once. But I added, that we hoped to avoid adding to our internal difficulties a foreign war, and I trusted, for the interest of both countries and the world, that Great Britain might be induced, in this respect, to stay her hand. I trust that he will say this to Lord Cowley.

Before leaving, I said to Mr. Drouyn de l’Huys that I hoped he would apprize me seasonably of anything of special interest to my country; this he said he would cheerfully do.

He then began immediately to inform me of the condition of the Polish question, which seemed uppermost in his mind. He said that France, England, and Austria were about to express their views or wishes to Russia; that they had substantially agreed upon the character of representation they would make; that everything would be in the mildest form, with no attempt at pressure, &c. It fact, it seemed to me that France was about applying [Page 726] to Russia the same policy she had proposed to apply to us; only in this instance she had got the assent of other powers to act with her, which in our case was wanting. But here, too, the Emperor took the initiative. I said to Mr. Drouyn de l’Huys that these were questions of European policy in which, although we had a general interest, it was altogether subordinate to our interest in the affairs of our own country and continent. He then said immediately there was nothing of special interest for me there; that they had no news of importance from the United States, and as to Mexico, he said again their purpose was to take the city; to give some sort of order to the condition of things there, repay themselves for debts, expenses, &c, and then leave the country. That we might rest assured they were not going to charge themselves with the government of Mexico. I told him that in the present distracted condition of that country I did not see how it was possible that France, if she got possession, could enforce the payment of the debts due her and expenses. (I suppose he meant expenses of invasion, although he did not say so.) I said that France would not be willing, I supposed, to seize on the private property of Mexican citizens for the purpose of meeting these claims, and there seemed to be no public revenues adequate. To this he answered that the wealth of Mexico was rather unused and scattered than exhausted; that there were sources of wealth, mines, &c., which, properly worked, would meet all claims upon the country. Here I think you have a view of the probable policy of this government, an intimation which will serve as an index to point out the future route which the government of France, if successful, at present designs to follow. My fear would be that, estimating for herself the debts and expenses due to her, working for herself the mines or other sources of income, and keeping both sides of the account, it would require a long possession before the profits of the adventure would fully settle the balance.

My long conference with Mr. Drouyn de l’Huys was a very pleasant and agreeable one. Our personal relations are in all respects kind. Before leaving I asked for another copy of the diplomatic correspondence of France for the past year, telling him, at the same time, that it was for Mr. Romero, the Mexican minister at Washington, who had written to me for it. He gave it to me at once, adding some other pamphlets about Mexican affairs, which I told him I should forward to Mr. Romero. I use the despatch bag for that purpose.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, &c.