Mr. Seward to Mr. McMath.
Sir: Your dispatch No. 61, of the 16th ultimo, relative to the question of precedence which has arisen among the representatives of foreign [Page 173] powers of Tangier, has been received. In reply I have to state that every nation may consult its own pleasure in regard to the grade of its diplomatic or other representative in a foreign country. That grade must be presumed to be measured by its sense of the importance of its relations with the power to which the representative may be accredited.
Consuls have diplomatic functions in the Barbary states. The United States consul is accredited to the Emperor of Morocco. His predecessors were accredited in the same way, and the consuls at Tripoli, Tunis, and in Egypt are respectively accredited to the heads of the governments of those countries.
It is customary, where the rules of the treaty of Vienna and the protocol of Aix-la-Chapelle are acknowledged, for the eldest of the chief grade to take precedence of all others, and the eldest also when they are all of the same grade. Is this rule binding and operative at Tangier?
The French have thought proper to accredit a minister plenipotentiary to the Emperor of Morocco, who resides at Tangier, and who claims precedence over the representatives of other governments there solely in virtue of the superiority of his official grade. Is this claim indefeasible? The rules in regard to precedence above referred to, having been embodied in a treaty and in a protocol, may be technically binding only on the parties to those instruments. The United States were not a party to them. The Emperor of Morocco might disregard them for a similar reason. Those rules, however, may be said to have been merely a formal recognition by the chief powers of Europe of a custom which had been the law of nations upon the subject ever since diplomacy began in modern times. As such they have hitherto been practically accepted even by this government, whenever it may have had occasion to send representatives of any of the grades to which they refer. We have never had any officer at Tangier of a higher grade than consul. If, however, we should accredit a minister plenipotentiary to the Emperor of Morocco, we certainly should expect him to have precedence on public occasions, and in official proceedings, over the representatives of lower grade from other powers. Should not the same privilege be conceded to other states?
The advantage, if it be one, is accidental now in the case of France. It may be claimed by ourselves, or by Mexico, or by Switzerland, tomorrow.
If, as cannot be denied, the grade of a diplomatic agent implies the opinion entertained by his government of the importance of his relations with the government to which he may be accredited, this may, it seems, be properly allowed. It may, however, be taken for granted that, whatever may be the grade of such an agent, his social or public efficiency is by no means always in proportion to his grade, but will be influenced by the comparative importance of the country he may represent, and will also comport with the strength of his character and of his abilities.
It is not supposed that the tardiness of the minister of France in asserting the privileges of his grade precludes him from assuming them whenever he may deem it advisable.
Under these circumstances, the impression is entertained that it will not be contrary to your official dignity, or that of the government which you represent, to acquiesce in the application at Tangier of the conventional rule which prevails here and everywhere else.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
Jesse H. McMath, Esq., &c., &c., &c.