Mr. Webster to Mr. Severance.

Sir: I have written you a regular official dispatch, setting forth the principles of policy which will be pursued by the administration here in whatever respects the Government of the Hawaiian Islands.

I now write you a letter of private instructions, made necessary by suggestions contained in your communications by Lieut. Johnson.

In the first place, I have to say that the war-making power in this Government rests entirely with Congress, and that the President can authorize belligerent operations only in the cases expressly provided for by the Constitution and the laws. By these no power is given to the Executive to oppose an attack by one independent nation on the possessions of another. We are bound to regard both France and Hawaii as independent states, and equally independent; and though the general policy of the Government might lead it to take part with either in a controversy with the other, still, if this interference be an act of hostile force, it is not within the constitutional power of the President, and still less is it within the power of any subordinate agent of Government, civil or military. If the Serieuse had attacked Honolulu, and thereupon the Vandalia had fired upon the Serieuse, this last act would have been an act of violence against France not to be justified, and, in fact, if not disavowed at Washington it would have been an act of war. In these cases, where the power of Congress can not be exercised beforehand, all must be left to the redress which that body may subsequently authorize. This you will constantly bear in mind. But, at the same time, it is not necessary that you should enter into these explanations with the French commissioner or the French naval commander.

In my official letter of this date I have spoken of what the United States would do in certain contingencies. But in thus speaking of the Government of the United States I do not mean the executive power, but the Government in its general aggregate, and especially that branch of the Government which possesses the war-making power. This distinction you will carefully observe, and you will neither direct, request, [Page 102] or encourage any naval officer of the United States in committing hostilities on French vessels of war.

Another leading topic in your communication is the proposed contingent surrender by the Government of the islands of their sovereignty to the United States or their annexation to this country.

This is a very important question, and one which you will readily see rises above any functions with which you are charged. It may, indeed, be very proper for you in this case, as well as in all others, to communicate to your Government whatever the Government to which you are accredited desire to have so communicated; but it is very important that on a question involving such deep interests, both domestic and foreign, you should yourself altogether forbear expressing any opinion whatever to the Hawaiian Government. You will see by my official letter, which you are at liberty to communicate to that Government, the disposition of the United States to maintain its independence; beyond that you will not proceed. The act of contingent or conditional surrender, which you mention in your letter as having been placed in your hands, you will please to return to the Hawaiian Government. In this case the Government of the United States acts upon principles of general policy; it will protect its own rights. It feels a deep interest in the preservation of Hawaiian independence, and all questions beyond this, should they arise, must be considered and settled hereby the competent authorities.

You inform us that many American citizens have gone to settle in the islands; if so, they have ceased to be American citizens. The Government of the United States must, of course, feel an interest in them not extended to foreigners, but by the law of nations they have no right further to demand the protection of this Government. Whatever aid or protection might under any circumstances be given them must be given, not as a matter of right on their part, but in consistency with the general policy and duty of the Government and its relations with friendly powers.

You will therefore not encourage in them, nor indeed in any others, any idea or expectation that the islands will become annexed to the United States. All this, I repeat, will be judged of hereafter, as circumstances and events may require, by the Government at Washington.

I do not suppose there is any immediate danger of any new menaces from France; still less of any actual attack on the islands by her naval armament. Nevertheless you will keep us constantly and accurately informed of whatever transpires.

Your account of the prosperity of the islands and the fiscal condition of its Government is interesting, and you can be hardly too full and particular in such statements.

Mr. Allen is at present quite unwell at Boston. As soon as he is able he will return to his post. Lieut. Johnson will take this dispatch to Panama. If Mr. Allen’s illness should continue for any length of time, which we hope may not be the case, Lieut. Johnson will be directed to return without him.

I have the honor, etc.,

Daniel Webster.