Mr. Seward to Mr. Ford

Sir: I take occasion at the earliest convenient moment to acknowledge the receipt of your note of the 31st of January, which conveys to me the decision of her Majesty’s government that it cannot find any reason for a mitigation of the sentence of Robert B. Lynch, who was convicted for the so-called Fenian raid in Canada in 1866.

I do not care to discuss that subject at large, but am under the necessity of seeking to rectify the understanding of her Majesty’s government concerning the grounds upon which the President thought proper to [Page 426] commend the case to renewed consideration. You inform me that her Majesty’s government has every disposition to take a merciful view of events which may have arisen in part from ignorance or perverted sentiment; but it also owes a duty to the peaceful inhabitants of Canada, whose country had been made the object of a criminal attack, and would not be discharging that duty if it allowed it to be supposed that persons who, like Lynch, shared in the invasion of an unoffending country, should escape the punishment which their acts had invited on the ground of an allegation which, even if it were true, would amount to no more than this: that his object was not to engage personally in acts of violence, but only to give encouragement to those who did.

The views which I have had the honor to submit, with a recommendation of clemency in the case of Mr. Lynch, were that the evidence on the trial sufficiently established the fact that Lynch never united with any so-called Fenian organization, and that he constantly denounced their schemes as visionary and impracticable. Without denying that his conviction was lawful, it seemed to me that the British government nevertheless might find reasonable ground for believing that he did not intend to encourage those who engaged in acts of violence; and that the absence of this intention, qualifying the question of moral guilt, might well be taken into consideration upon an appeal or recommendation to the clemency of the British government. It was believed that the special clemency recommended would produce a favorable influence upon public opinion in the United States. I frankly confess to the opinion that although statutes, executive proclamations, and judicial decisions have all concurred in treating the aggression of the so-called Fenian raiders into Canada as merely a municipal crime, the transaction nevertheless partook of a political character, and had relations and connections with movements of that character that have widely manifested themselves, not only in Canada and in Great Britain, but in the United States also. In dealing with all such movements it is always a practical question how far magisterial benignity can be wisely mingled with judicial severity. All experience shows that clemency to political offenders may at times be legitimately exercised with advantage for preserving peace and public order. The recommendation in the case of Mr. Lynch proceeded upon the belief that his discharge from imprisonment would, under the circumstances, be very conducive to the preservation of peace and a good understanding between the United States and Great Britain. The disposition of the subject, however, properly belongs to her Majesty’s government. Time must pronounce between this government and your own upon the wisdom of the decisions at which they have arrived.

I have the honor to be, sir, with the highest consideration, your obedient servant,


Francis Clare Ford, Esq., &c., &c., &c.