to Mr. Evarts.
Vienna, May 3, 1879. (Received May 20.)
Sir: Yesterday the recently installed French ambassador, M. Teisserene de Bort, made me a long visit, accompanied by his son, who is his private secretary.
He opened the, conversation by inquiries respecting the success of the voluntary French effort, still continuing, to secure a commercial treaty between the United States and France, by which mutual special tariff concessions should be secured.
Supposing at the time that it was a chance topic of conversation, I spoke fully of what I believed to be the sentiments of my countrymen, and of my personal opinions on the subject; but in no way attempted to express the opinion of my government. Nor did I at first imagine that he might be expressing the views or displaying the arguments of Ms own. But information which I have since received renders it probable that he was sounding my opinions with a view to ascertain (officially) the chances, so far as my declarations would indicate them, of including the United States within, the sphere of the system of tariffs by bargain.
It seems proper, therefore, that I should communicate to you a summary of the conversation. As it was conducted in the French language, I will only give the general purport:
Referring, as I believed, to the Chotteau propositions, he inquired touching the probable issue of that scheme to establish a special tariff exclusively applicable to the commerce between the two countries. I answered bluntly that it would not succeed. In the course of the interview, he elicited from me the following reasons for that opinion: (1st) That it had been the traditional policy of my country to treat all nations with equal fairness, giving preference to none, applying the “most favored nation” rule and levying duties upon merchandise itself, not upon the place of its production; (2d) that it had long been the dominant policy in the United States to keep the legislative discretion unbound, and free to change commercial duties according to the interior circumstances of the country; (3d) that the United States, at the beginning, were largely dependent for manufactures upon foreign countries, and desired to be delivered from this dependence by producing at home all articles of consumption to which our soil, climate, and conditions were adaptable; and to this end had protected incipient industries by tariffs, in the hope that, with limited protection, they would, [Page 62] later, grow strong enough for independence—a result which had already in various manufactures been attained; and for this object, also, they kept themselves free from conflicting engagements to other nations; (4th) that a most important and permanent object of the tariff policy of the United States was revenue to be derived as largely as possible from luxuries; and in this respect, also, they preferred to be free from embarrassing engagements.
Naturally he objected to the protective system that it tended to increase the cost to the consumer, to which I, also naturally, replied that while that seemed to be its first effect, we observed its ultimate effect to be that successful home manufacture produced domestic rivalry and competition which fully replaced for the consumer the lost benefit of the foreign competition—of which Bessamer steel had furnished a remarkable instance. He also objected to our high duties on wines and silks. I answered that these were regarded as luxuries which should contribute largely to the revenue. I added that the consumption of French wines was not so much affected by the duty as he might believe, inasmuch as they were chiefly drunk by the wealthier people, who would have them equally with or without the duty.
As to silks, there was the additional consideration that there was a large and growing industry (to which he himself alluded) in that fabric in the United States, which it was undoubtedly desired to strengthen by a reasonable present protection. And in that connection I spoke to him of the recent reported American discovery of a machine to replace the costly hand-work in the early stages of the silk spinning, which might change our condition in respect to the French trade.
Toward the close of our conversation he spoke of the possibility of France (he may have included other countries) imposing high duties on our breadstuffs, provisions, &c., in compensation (or retaliation) for the high American duties on French exportations.
To this I answered that if France imposed duties not for the interest of her own people, but against the interest of another people, that would be the initiation of a war of tariff, which might be carried to any extent., That was always possible, and its result was not to be foreseen. Its first manifest effect, however, would be to enhance the cost of the necessaries of life to Frenchmen themselves.
The general tenor of the views I expressed to him, founded upon our tariff history, was that it would too much hamper our freedom of action in respect to both revenue and protection, and too much involve us in difficulties with other friendly nations, should we establish with one of them an exceptional treaty granting exceptional tariff favors.
I beg to add that the present condition of government sentiment in Europe on the subject of tariff, especially in those countries with which we are commercially most connected, gives to American interests occasion for serious care and vigilance. The surprising balance of trade against Europe in favor of the United States, the equally surprising success of Secretary Sherman in advancing the credit of the country, the unexpected development of our financial strength, and the earlier revival of our industries—earlier than in Europe—have attracted the special attention of this continent to the public policy which our country has followed with such beneficial results.
European statesmen appreciate better these visible results of our policy than they appreciate the facts of the interior condition of the United States and the character of their population, with which that policy is in harmony.
The same policy applied to their people and interior condition cannot [Page 63] be trusted to produce similar results. Nevertheless, we must be prepared to witness efforts in some parts of Europe to apply force—retaliatory tariff force—to the United States—with a view to compel us into the system of special commercial treaties. In fact, Canada has already led the way. It is quite possible that enough may yet be accomplished in this direction to embarrass our export trade with Europe, especially in connection with the agricultural interest. It is our good fortune, however, to produce and export leading staples which Europe must have to sustain her own industries; and she cannot carry very far a system of taxing the raw fibers of her own prosperity, or the bread and meat on which her workmen live.
I have, &c.,