Mr. Patenôtre to Mr. Sherman.


Mr. Secretary of State: Referring to the notes which you were pleased to address to me, under date of June 4 and 5, for transmission to the French Telegraph Cable Company, and the receipt of which I have already acknowledged, I think proper, without waiting for explanations from the interested parties, which can only reach you after considerable delay, to submit to you now, with a view to the prevention of unfortunate misunderstandings, certain observations which have been suggested to me by the perusal of these two communications.

For greater clearness, and at the risk of repetition, I will briefly recall the origin of the matter which has served as a basis for this exchange of communications.

In 1879 the French Telegraph Company from Paris to New York, of which the French Telegraph Cable Company is now the legal heir, received authority from the President of the United States to land at Cape Cod a submarine telegraph cable intended to connect America and France. This telegraph cable, like all submarine cables, the working of which becomes impossible after a certain number of years, unless a second cable is added which renders it possible to make good the inevitable breaks in the first one, allowed, in the opinion of those who laid it, the subsequent addition of a supplementary cable. In other words, once in possession of the concession which had been granted it, and the duration thereof not being limited, the company thought that it had an incontestable right to avail itself of the practical means of utilizing said concession, and it still holds this opinion. The American lawyers whom it has consulted since then have confirmed it in the view originally taken by it. If the case were otherwise, the right to operate the line, which was granted to it in 1879, and which has been in no respect impaired since that time, would, in fact, become illusory.

Under these circumstances—the necessity of a supplementary cable having been superabundantly demonstrated—the company, as you are aware, addressed the Department of State on the 3d ultimo, making application, in view of the speedy lauding of the said supplementary cable, for the various facilities (exemption from customs duties, etc.) [Page 165] which had been granted when the first cable was laid. It was informed in reply that—

In the absence of legislative provisions on the subject, the present Executive did not consider himself invested with the authority necessary to enable him to form a decision in regard to this application, and that, until Congress should see fit to invest the President with power to act in questions of this nature, he would be compelled to abstain from doing so.

In view of this declaration of incompetency and of abstention the French company gave up all expectation of the exemption from the payment of customs duties which it had solicited from the Federal Government, and, in consideration of the concession granted it in 1879, decided to proceed in the ordinary way to the performance of the operations which had become indispensable to the continuance of the working of its line. The usual formalities for the landing of the cable had been complied with by it, when I received your note of June 4, the object of which was to advise it that, in the absence of a special authorization from the President or the Congress, the work which it proposed to do would be done at its peril. I have transmitted this note to the representative of the company at New York, but its receipt has not yet been acknowledged.

I received last evening (Saturday, June 5) your second note, requesting me to inform the company that it must discontinue the work of landing the cable until it had received a special authorization either from the President or from Congress. I have likewise forwarded the latter note to the agent of the French Telegraph Cable Company at New York. This order to discontinue the work, which is hardly reconcilable with the declaration of incompetency contained in your note of May 11, seems to me, in a legal point of view, to call for certain observations which you will allow me to formulate here. The company has violated no law of the United States, so far as I know, at least. It does not propose to establish a new telegraph line, for which it might require a previous authorization. The supplementary cable which it desires to lay is designed solely to assure the operation of an old line which it possesses in virtue of the authority granted by the President in 1879. The prohibitory measures with which it is now threatened seem, under these circumstances, to be scarcely justifiable. They would be the less justified inasmuch as the two American companies whose submarine lines connect the United States with France have obtained from the French Government all desirable facilities for operating their double cable.

I take the liberty to submit these views to your impartial consideration, trusting that they may contribute toward preparing the way to an amicable settlement of this matter.

Be pleased to accept, etc.,