Mr. Seward to Mr. Hale.
Sir: Complaints have of late been addressed to this department from various quarters, against the stern manner in which the custom-house authorities in Cuba carry into effect the very stringent regulations there in regard to importations, and in particular the minute requirements as to the manifests of cargoes.
While it may be allowed that the Spanish government has a perfect right to prescribe any terms which may not be otherwise provided for by treaty, upon which foreign commerce shall be carried on in that quarter, it is certainly for the interest of that commerce, and therefore of the revenue which the government expects from it, that honest traders should be protected from the exercise of arbitrary power, and that a fraud should not be assumed to have been intended, when errors obviously accidental, or occasioned by the different languages of the two countries, creep into manifests.
The literal and rigid execution of law in such cases cannot fail to work serious injustice, which this government will be slow to impute to her Catholic Majesty’s government, or to any person acting in its behalf.
The revenue laws of most countries provide a system of equitable and summary relief in cases where a line or forfeiture may have been incurred, willful negligence, or intention of fraud. The department is unable to say whether this provision exists in Cuba and Porto Rico:
If it does, the complaints above referred to seem to show that it has [Page 9]either been refused, or has been unduly withheld. You will consequently address such representations upon the subject to the minister for foreign affairs at Madrid, as will bring about an inquiry into, and a redress of the grievance adverted to. You will, however, assure him that this government has no intention of seeking to screen any dishonest trader from any willful evasion of the Spanish revenue laws which he may commit. We only desire that the extreme penalty of the law may not be visited upon those who may make accidental mistakes.
It might not be impertinent to refer the minister to the first section of the act of Congress of the 3d of March, 1797, a copy of which is inclosed, which contains the provisions in force in this country in such cases, and which, as we believe, have been found to be entirely satisfactory to individuals concerned, as well as to the government itself.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
John P. Hale Esq., &c., &c., &c.