Mr. Williamson to Mr. Fish.
Guatemala , September 28, 1873. (Received November 4.)
Sir: I have the honor to inform you that the opportunity of quite a long and free conversation has been afforded me with President Barrios, his chief minister, Mr. Samayoa, and the minister of foreign affairs. It occurred at the house of the President. Our first subject of discussion was civil marriage. Certain Swiss citizens had applied to me to marry them, under the impression they had the same rights that American citizens have. I informed them that according to my construction of the Circular No. 15, and of international law, the citizens of Switzerland in Guatemala, by reason of the act of their government in asking the protection of our minister here to be extended to them, and the consent of the government of Guatemala that such protection should be extended, were in nowise changed in their relations to their own government or to mine; that the only object sought to be accomplished, or that could be [Page 100] accomplished, by the asking and granting said protection was that the good offices of my government should be interposed in behalf of the citizens of Switzerland whenever this could be legitimately done without injury to my own Government; that the right of American citizens to be married at the legation, or rather the right of the minister to celebrate the marriage of such citizens of his country in Guatemala, was derived exclusively from that extraterritorial jurisdiction granted by international comity and sentiment by consent and law. Hence I declined to celebrate the marriage as requested, but promised myself to present the matter to the government of Guatemala in an unofficial way, if the Swiss gentleman could afford me the opportunity of doing so without impropriety, by addressing a letter to the proper authority requesting that a decree be issued authorizing him to be married by any civil magistrate of Guatemala. The Swiss did so, and in the interview with the President and members of his cabinet, which I am attempting to describe, the subject of civil marriages was presented and discussed. I took the liberty of saying: In my country we were opposed to all special legislation, and therefore upon principle I could not advocate the issuance of a decree for the benefit of the Swiss citizens whose case had given rise to the discussion, but that in our opinion, which was sustained by the legislatures of the most civilized countries of Europe, and by the advanced ideas lately promulgated in laws by the neighboring state of Mexico, marriage was a civil contract, and should be permitted to be entered into by strangers in Guatemala as any other contracts, by the consent and act of the civil authorities, whether the clergy were disposed or not to assist; it was a sacrament and without effect unless they secured their fees by pronouncing the benediction.
President Barrios expressed his hearty concurrence in these views, and said he would issue the decree tomorrow authorizing civil marriages between foreigners residing in Guatemala. He said he hardly thought the time had arrived for him to extend this privilege of civil marriage to his own people. I replied, it would in all probability soon come; * * * * that in our country we considered the civil law supreme, and would neither furnish a hierarchy of Romanists or Protestants to assert that its sanction was necessary to give validity to a contract which the law pronounced good. * * * * I then said there were three rivers in Guatemala which I thought my government, with the permission of Guatemala, would be glad to have explored, if the Government of Mexico would give its joint consent to the exploration of one of them, the Usumacinta, which empties itself through Mexican territory into the Bay of Cam peachy. The rivers alluded to, running entirely through Guatemala soil, are the Motagun and Potochic, both flowing eastward and emptying into the Gulf of Dolce and Bay of Honduras. Both are reputed to be navigable for a considerable distance, and the former is said to be navigable at all seasons for vessels drawing six feet up to a point within fourteen leagues, or forty-two miles, of this city. The President and ministers said the government would be glad to grant the permission, if asked. I remarked that we should also, probably, wish to sound, explore, and map such portions of the coast of Guatemala as were adjacent to the Gulf and Bay of Dolce. They said there would be no objection, and would be gratified if the United States would undertake the work. I replied, I would communicate with you on the subject before opening my correspondence with them in regard to it. The three rivers named, the Usumacinta, Potochic, Motagun, if navigable, as reputed, are very valuable as commercial outlets of the trade and products of Guatemala and the provinces of Tabasco and Chiapas to the ports of [Page 101] the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea nearest our cities on the Gulf coast. I recommend to your consideration, therefore, whether it would not be advisable to address the Secretary of the Navy upon the subject of the explorations mentioned, after taking the views and instructions of the President thereon.
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I have, &c.,