Mr. Berthemy to Mr. Seward

Mr. Secretary: A disagreement on the question of precedence now divides the diplomatic and consular body at Tangier. Some of its members have expressed the opinion that consuls general, though of inferior rank, ought to be allowed to exercise the functions of dean, by seniority, with the other representatives of foreign powers.

Though this proposal only concerns the future, it has given rise to a discussion, to which the Marquis de Moustier begs me to call your attention.

You are acquainted with the regulation of the congress of Vienna, which was intended to settle disputes of precedence that occurred so frequently in former times. The protocol of the 19th March, 1815, contains the following provisions:

Article 1. Diplomatic employés are divided into three classes:

1. Ambassadors, legates, or nuncios.

2. Envoys, ministers, or others accredited to sovereigns.

3. Chargés, accredited to ministers for foreign affairs.

Article IV. Diplomatic employés will take rank among themselves, in each class, according to the date of the official notice of their arrival.

The Congress of Aux-la-Chapelle, on the 21st November, 1818, also adopted an article in these terms:

To avoid unpleasant discussions in future upon a point of diplomatic etiquette, which was not settled at the Congress of Vienna, it is decreed by the five courts that ministers resident accredited to them shall form an intermediate class, according to rank, between ministers of the second order and chargés d’affaires.

These rules have been observed up to this time with general satisfaction; accepted by all civilized nations, they govern the reciprocal relations of their representatives, whenever assembled together. They plainly fix four classes of diplomatic employés, whose respective ranks of precedence are determined by the dates of their commissions among agents of the same class, but not among agents of a different class. Consuls and consuls general were not mentioned, because they are not considered as diplomatic employés, and are certainly subordinate to them; although we cannot now refuse them the title of public agents or ministers of the nations by which they are commissioned.

The principle which has served as a basis for this regulation is, that the rank of public ministers does not now depend, as formerly, upon the title of the prince they represent, or in the antiquity of his crown, or extent of his domain; for modern international law proclaims the juridical equality of all sovereign nations, by virtue of their independent existence, without regard to their comparative power. These nations have the right to fix the nature, title, and rank of their agents accredited to foreign governments. The relative inferiority of this title and of this rank does not disparage the dignity of the nations which these agents represent.

The authors of this reclamation at Tangier do not ignore the authority of these universally admitted maxims; but, by a strange interpretation, they undertake to establish the equality of rank among the ministers plenipotentiary and consuls general at that place. They contend that the latter have not only consular powers, but that they are political [Page 458] agents, accredited by their sovereigns to the Sultan of Morocco, and, by the protocol of Vienna, are diplomatic employés of the second order.

As all the representatives of the foreign powers in Morocco are in the same condition, according to that assertion, they must all be regarded as belonging to the same rank, without regard to the difference in their titles.

It is plain that such a system is contrary to the spirit of the protocols of Vienna and Aix-la-Chapelle, and tends to destroy the classification those acts have established.

When the members of the Congress of Vienna had placed envoys and ministers plenipotentiary in the second class of diplomatic employés, and then added “and others accredited to sovereigns,” it is plain they meant agents of the same kind, such as the internuncios of Austria to Constantinople, and they used the terms common at European courts at that time, for their definitions.

For certain easily explained reasons, the custom never prevailed in the Barbary States, where the instability of government and the uncertainty of everything oblige Christian nations to require the protection of the sovereign for their representatives as the only way to secure a continuance of friendly relations, and that is why those representatives are accredited to the sovereign. But this exceptional circumstance, based on local necessity and old traditions, cannot after the reciprocal position of the agents of the different Christian nations as established by common consent.

Assuredly the government of the Emperor does not pretend that consuls shall not be clothed with a diplomatic character; for France has consuls general in many countries, particularly in the South American republics, who are clothed with diplomatic powers; yet they have always given precedence to ministers plenipotentiary and resident of other powers, and have never contended with them for the place of dean. Such, also, seems to be the situation of the consuls general of different countries who are charged, in Morocco, with the double care of commercial and political affairs. The title they bear proves the rank their governments assign to them, and which cannot be changed by an accidental formality. If it had been the intention of the government to mean otherwise, nothing would have been easier than to give those agents a higher title.

For these reasons the government of the Emperor hopes the government of the United States will instruct its representative at Tangier to put an end to this useless discussion.

It is proper that the status of such persons should be determined, so that the good understanding so necessary to success in all joint affairs may no more be disturbed. The honorary functions of dean are of less importance in Morocco than anywhere else; for it has long been customary in most joint questions, as health regulations, for the ministers and consuls to take turns at presiding over meetings for the settlement of such questions, without regard to his rank. But what is of the greatest importance to all Christian powers, is to preserve the standing of their representatives in the eyes of the natives, and not compromise it by futile rivalry.

Accept, Mr. Secretary of State, the assurance of my very high consideration.


Hon. William H. Seward, &c., &c., &c.