File No. 711.0021/44a.

The Secretary of State to Ambassador Page.

Sir: By direction of the President, I enclose herewith a copy of an act of the Congress of the United States, approved March 4, 1915, entitled “An Act To promote the welfare of American Seamen in the merchant marine of the United States; to abolish arrest and imprisonment as a penalty for desertion and to secure the abrogation of treaty provisions in relation thereto; and to promote safety at sea.”1

It is deemed appropriate that an explanation be made of the origin of the legislation and the causes operating to move Congress to pass the Act of March 4, 1915.

The improvement of the condition of seamen, to bring it into harmony with the enlightened spirit of personal freedom of the modern age, has long been the studious purpose of the Congress of the United States. By the Act of Congress of December 21, 1898, the penalty of imprisonment for desertion of seamen from American vessels in domestic ports and in near-by ports was abolished. That act covered more than nine-tenths of the seamen on American vessels, and antedated by twelve years the resolution of the International Seamen’s Congress at Copenhagen in August, 1911, favoring the abolition of imprisonment for desertion wherever prescribed by the laws of maritime nations.

Again, many events occurred immediately prior to the present legislation which have profoundly influenced and moulded public sentiment in favor of stricter regulation of over-seas traffic, relative to the safety of passengers, and as to the necessity for the protection of seamen in their natural rights as a class of laborers, theretofore discriminated against in comparison with the treatment accorded by law to all other classes of workmen. The terrible disaster to the steamship Titanic, with the resultant loss of human life, [Page 4]attracted universal attention to the need of further legislation to promote the safety of passengers and seamen. The burning of the Volturno, with its disclosure of the lack of life-saving appliances, drilled crews, and of other defective conditions, added to the forces operating to secure remedial legislation. As a result of these tragedies on the high seas, and of the agitation engendered thereby, two great political parties of the United States which express and move public opinion and policy, adopted in their platforms of 1912 declarations respecting the subject. The platform of one contained the following statement:

We urge upon Congress the speedy enactment of laws for the greater security of life and property at sea; and we favor the repeal of all laws, and the abrogation of so much of our treaties with other nations as provide for the arrest and imprisonment of seamen charged with desertion, or with violation of their contract of service. Such laws and treaties are un-American, and violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution of the United States.

The platform of the other contained the following:

We favor the speedy enactment of laws to provide that seamen shall not be compelled to endure involuntary servitude, and that life and property at sea shall be safeguarded by the ample equipment of vessels with life-saving appliances and with full complements of skilled, able-bodied seamen to operate them.

As a consequence of the public sentiment thus manifested, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on May 2, 1912, providing, among other things, for the better protection of life at sea, abolishing involuntary servitude imposed upon seamen in the merchant marine of the United States while in foreign ports and of involuntary servitude imposed upon seamen of the merchant marine of foreign countries while in ports of the United States. As indicating the views of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries of the Congress of the United States, to which the bill was referred, the following extract from its Report is quoted:

There is no other portion of our citizens or residents who can be compelled, under penalty of imprisonment, to fulfill a civil contract to labor. The seamen alone remain as the last remnant of serfdom. * * *

It is needless in this age to argue for the right of men to be free. It is an established fact in our fundamental law and should be applied to seamen as well as others. You can not control man’s labor without controlling the man himself. If he is to be free, he must have the right to labor or not, as best suits his own judgment or convenience. Labor power is a part of man; it is generated within him and can only be exercised and utilized through his brain power and will. To compel him to use it against his will is to make him to all intents and purposes a slave.

This bill relieves him from that condition. By relieving the seaman from any criminal proceedings for violating a contract to labor, leaving only the civil process as a remedy, you place him exactly in the same position as other workmen, and the result will be to gradually improve the standard of the men who go down to the sea, not only of those in our own shipping, but of those in all ships entering our ports, until it has reached the same standard as that of workmen on land.

While the bill above referred to was not enacted into law, it nevertheless contained in substance the amendments to the navigation laws of the United States subsequently incorporated and passed in the act of March 4, 1915.

Sections 16, 17, and 18 of this Act provide as follows:

  • Sec. 16. That in the judgment of Congress articles in treaties and conventions of the United States, in so far as they provide for the arrest and imprisonment [Page 5]of officers and seamen, deserting or charged with desertion from merchant vessels of the United States in foreign countries, and for the arrest and imprisonment of officers and seamen deserting or charged with desertion from merchant vessels of foreign nations in the United States and the Territories and possessions thereof, and for the cooperation, aid, and protection of competent legal authorities in effecting such arrest or imprisonment and any other treaty provision in conflict with the provisions of this Act, ought to be terminated, and to this end the President be, and he is hereby, requested and directed, within ninety days after the passage of this Act, to give notice to the several Governments, respectively, that so much as hereinbefore described of all such treaties and conventions between the United States and foreign Governments will terminate on the expiration of such periods after notices have been given as may be required in such treaties and conventions.
  • Sec. 17. That upon the expiration after notice of the periods required, respectively, by said treaties and conventions and of one year in the case of the independent State of the Kongo, so much as hereinbefore described in each and every one of said articles shall be deemed and held to have expired and to be of no force and effect, and thereupon section fifty-two hundred and eighty and so much of section four thousand and eighty-one of the Revised Statutes as relates to the arrest or imprisonment of officers and seamen deserting or charged with desertion from merchant vessels of foreign nations in the United States and Territories and possessions thereof, and for the cooperation, aid, and protection of competent legal authorities in effecting such arrest or imprisonment, shall be, and is hereby, repealed.
  • Sec. 18. That this Act shall take effect, as to all vessels of the United States, eight months after its passage, and as to foreign vessels twelve months after its passage, except that such parts hereof as are in conflict with articles of any treaty or convention with any foreign nation shall take effect as regards the vessels of such foreign nation on the expiration of the period fixed in the notice of abrogation of the said articles as provided in section sixteen of this Act.

It will be perceived, by the sections above quoted, that it is mandatory upon the President, within ninety days after the passage of the Act, to give notice to the several Governments, respectively, that “so much as hereinbefore described of all such treaties and conventions between the United States and foreign Governments will terminate on the expiration of such periods after notices have been given as may be required in such treaties and conventions.”

The period of ninety days thus established will terminate on June 1, next, and it is therefore necessary that such notice be now given to the Government to which you are accredited.

From an examination of the treaties between the United States and Great Britain it appears that the Treaty of June 3, 1892, is affected by the terms of Section 16 of this Act.

Article 1 of the treaty reads as follows:

The Consuls General, Consuls, Vice Consuls and Consular Agents of either of the High Contracting Parties, residing in the dominions, possessions or colonies of the other, shall have power to require from the proper authorities the assistance provided by law for the apprehension, recovery and restoration of seamen who may desert from any ship belonging to a citizen or subject of their respective countries, while in the ports of the other country. If, however, any such deserter shall have committed any crime or offence in the country where he is found, his surrender or restoration may be delayed until the proper tribunal before which the case shall be pending or may be cognizable shall have pronounced its sentence and the sentence shall have been carried into effect.

It is understood that the preceding stipulations shall not apply to the citizens or subjects of the country where the desertion shall take place.

This article is affected by the provisions of Section 16 of the Act of Congress which directs the President, within ninety days of the passage of the Act, to notify all interested foreign Governments of the termination of articles of all treaties providing for the arrest [Page 6]and imprisonment of seamen deserting from the United States vessels abroad, or foreign vessels in American waters.

The application of the fundamental principles of the Act of Congress to alien seamen within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States involves an abrogation of such treaty provisions as are inconsistent therewith. This, with respect to Great Britain, may be effected without inconvenience inasmuch as the Treaty of June 3, 1892, refers wholly to the matter of deserting seamen and provides in its Article 3 for denouncement by notification.

It is obvious that the Government of Great Britain is aware that sooner or later an amelioration of the legal status of seamen and the practice with regard to their treatment must have come, as a concomitant of the general advance in human liberty in other pursuits, to modify the strictness of the letter of municipal and conventional law existing for centuries in statutes and treaties. That national legislation has been the first to respond to this humane impulse is presumably due to the greater ease of amending local laws; but it is to be expected that international conventional arrangements will not long stand opposed to the complete release of seamen from the artificial restraints upon their personal liberty and pursuit of happiness peculiar to their calling. That so little has heretofore been done in their behalf may be ascribed to the fact that the nature of their calling removes the circumstances and conditions of their lives from the view of the great body of their fellow countrymen in whose regard generally reposes the welfare of individuals.

You are instructed, therefore, to bring this subject to the attention of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and to say to him that, pursuant to the provisions of the Act of March 4, 1915, the Government of the United States hereby gives notice of its intention to abrogate the Treaty of June 3, 1892, with Great Britain, in accordance with the stipulations in the treaty requiring twelve months’ notice.

In this connection it is desired that you propose, as the time when such abrogation shall take effect, July 1, 1916—a period of twelve months’ notice—so as to render the Act effective in the case of Great Britain simultaneously with other Governments concerned.

I am [etc.]

W. J. Bryan.
  1. 38 Stat. L., 1164.