Mr. Adams to Mr. Seward

No. 1516.]

Sir: I beg to call your attention to a leader in the London Times of this morning, a copy of which I transmit, following up the subject of the law of allegiance discussed in the same paper on the 11th of December last, reference to which was made in my dispatch No. 1492, of that date.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.


The United States Congress is already acting upon the President’s suggestion, and the liabilities of naturalized citizens must soon become the subject of serious negotiation. On the 19th of last month there was a debate in the Senate upon a petition soliciting protection in general terms for American citizens domiciled abroad. The immediate occasion of this petition appears to have been the revival of an old dispute with Prussia respecting the alleged claims of that power to the military service of Prussians naturalized in America but actually residing in the country of their birth. Now that Prussia represents North Germany, and that a rigid system of conscription is established throughout the confederation, the question has acquired a new importance, and will not be solved without difficulty. The debate, however, inevitably expanded into a discussion of the still larger question opened by the Fenian prosecutions in Ireland. Senator Conness, who spoke in a very hostile spirit towards this country, stated that American citizens had been convicted in our courts not only for acts done but for words uttered in America; and Mr. Reverdy Johnson expressed great indignation at the refusal of a jury de mediatate to natural-born British subjects afterwards naturalized in America. The matter had previously been referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations, but Mr. Sumner, as chairman of that committee, declared that it would not be shelved there. He added that, in his opinion, the unrestricted permission of emigration by Great Britain, coupled with, the doctrine of perpetual allegiance, involved a downright absurdity, and predicted that, on a candid examination, our government would not maintain the latter claim. In the mean time large meetings have been held in various parts of the Union to assert the rights of “foreign-born citizens abroad,” and the House of Representatives has passed a resolution urging the Committee on Foreign Affairs to inquire forthwith into the alleged maltreatment of American citizens by the British authorities in Ireland.

We cannot be surprised, and we ought not to be offended, at the keen interest manifested by the Americans in the principle which, as they suppose, is at stake. The whole number of foreign-born citizens naturalized in the United States has been estimated to exceed 4,000,000, at least half of whom are immigrants from British territories, and more than one-third from Ireland alone. If the strict theory of perpetual allegiance were enforced, any of these Irish-Americans who might serve against Great Britain in the armies of the United States would be guilty of treason against his lawful sovereign, and, if captured, might be punished accordingly. Of course, the law would never in practice be carried to this length, but a nation so largely composed of foreign element must naturally rebel against a rule which, if applied, would produce such consequences. Mr. Sumner, however, went too far when he maintained that it was peculiar to English jurisprudence and is not recognized in the United States. On the contrary, though disputed in one case by an American secretary, it has been admitted, we believe by all American judges and jurists of repute, down to General Halleck. Mr. Justice Story himself, though he points out that no state can give an extra-territorial operation to its laws by requiring another state to execute them, carefully abstains from denying its right over natural-born subjects returning within its own jurisdiction. He elsewhere affirms this right in express and unqualified language. “An offense,” says he, “may be committed in one sovereignty in violation of the laws of another, and if the offender be afterwards found in the latter state, he may be punished according to the laws thereof, and the fact that he owes allegiance to another sovereignty is no bar to the indictment.” Nor is this all; for the same eminent authority negatives, as if by anticipation, the untenable notion that American legislation can affect the status of natural-born British subjects, or any other persons, in an English court. If our [Page 136] common law cannot govern the rights and liabilities of native Irishmen, so long as they reside in America, it is equally certain that no American law can govern those rights and liabilities when they return to Ireland. Such matters are exclusively within the province of municipal enactment, and it so happens that, whatever conflict may exist between the interests of the two countries, there is here no conflict between their respective codes. This, indeed, is fully acknowledged in one of the resolutions carried at a recent “indignation” meeting in Illinois, which calls upon Congress “to define by law the right of expatriation, recognizing the rigid of American citizens to change their allegiance, thereby setting an example to Europe, and depriving foreign governments of the plausible objections now urged against our position in this matter.

On the other hand, some misapprehension seems to prevail in America as to the nature of the charges upon which American Fenians have been tried in Ireland. We have not the indictments or detailed report of the proceedings actually before us, and are not, therefore, in a condition to prove a negative; but we are not aware that any prisoner now under sentence was tried for treasonable acts committed in the United States. No doubt a natural-born British subject might have been so tried under the treason-felony act had the law officers of the Crown thought proper so to frame the charge; but, to the best of our belief, a different course has been pursued, and most, if not all, the party, who disembarked from the Erin’s Hope were actually tried for offenses committed in Ireland, or within three miles of the Irish coast. General Warren, in particular, who has addressed a memorial to the American Senate, alleging that he was in New York when his supposed crime was perpetrated, was a prominent leader among the fillibusters who attempted to land arms at Sligo, and one of those who compelled the pilot to take an illegal oath. Had he simply attended Fenian meetings at New York, and revisited Ireland peaceably, he might never have been arrested at all. It is not difficult to account for the erroneous impression which has possessed the minds of the American public. In the first place, although the actual crime may have been committed on Irish soil or in Irish waters, a great deal of the evidence connecting the prisoners with the Fenian conspiracy relates to interviews and conversations at New York. To exclude evidence of this kind would be manifestly unreasonable, but to admit it is a very different thing from treating Fenian recruiting in America as treason against her Majesty, however clearly this principle may be sanctioned by our present law. Again, the rejection of Warren’s claim for a jury de mediatate linguæ has been interpreted in America as if it indicated an intention to strain the obligations of allegiance, whereas the point was started by the prisoner, and not by the Crown, and could not have been decided otherwise by any court, whether English or American. But the less ambiguous the existing law is, the stronger are the arguments for its revision, and we cannot but regret that more than 50 years have elapsed since the peace of Ghent without an effort to place it on a more satisfactory footing. It is not, indeed, correct to identify the issue now raised with that which led to the war of 1812, for Great Britain then insisted not only on the indefeasible allegiance of her subjects, but on her right to visit and search American ships for the purpose of impressing them. Still, the conclusion of that war afforded a good opportunity of limiting once for all the privileges and duties of allegiance. Upon grounds of international policy, it is highly expedient that what ought to have been done in 1814 should be done now, before new difficulties arise. Should any overture have been made with that object by the American government, we trust it has been favorably entertained by Lord Stanley; and if no such overture has been made, we trust Lord Stanley will take the initiative in proposing a basis of settlement.