File No. 711.6221/153
The Secretary of State to Chargé Grew
Washington, November 9, 1916.
Sir: The Department encloses 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.
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, had 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 overseas traffic, in relation to the safety of passengers, and in relation to the necessity for the protection of seamen in their natural rights as a class of laborers, theretofore discriminated against in comparison with all other classes of workmen. The terrible disaster to the steamship Titanic, with the resultant loss of human life, 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 [Page 15] 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, and abolishing involuntary servitude imposed upon seamen in the merchant marine of the United States while in foreign ports and 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 fulfil 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 seamen 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.
The bill above referred to, which was not enacted into law, contained in substance the amendments to the navigation laws of the United States subsequently incorporated and passed in the Act of March 4, 1915.
Section 4 of this act, which is applicable to seamen on foreign vessels while in the harbors of the United States, provides, among other things, for the enforcement of certain specified rights of seamen respecting their wages and declares that the “courts of the United States shall be open to such seamen for its enforcement.”
Sections 16 and 17, contain provisions abolishing the arrest or imprisonment of seamen for desertion from merchant vessels of the United States in foreign countries or from foreign vessels in American waters and authorizes the President to take steps looking to the termination of treaty stipulations between this country and other nations providing for the arrest and imprisonment of seamen deserting or charged with desertion.[Page 16]
It appears that Article 13 of the Consular Convention concluded December 11, 1871, between the United States and the German Empire, Article 10 of the Treaty concluded May 1, 1828, between the United States and Prussia, and Article 9 of the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation concluded December 9, 1847, between the United States and Mecklenburg-Schwerin, which contain stipulations relative to the jurisdiction of consular officers over merchant vessels, are affected by Section 4 of the act. And it appears that Articles 13 and 14 of the Treaty with the German Empire, Article 11 of the Treaty with Prussia and Article 9 of the Treaty with Mecklenburg-Schwerin, which contain stipulations relating to the arrest and imprisonment of deserting seamen, are affected by the terms of Section 16 of the act.
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 stipulations as are inconsistent therewith. It is hoped that an understanding regarding this matter may be reached with but little inconvenience by a willingness on the part of the Government of Germany to consent to such abrogation as will leave intact all the other provisions of the treaties in question.
It is obvious that the Government of Germany 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 to the general advance of 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 on 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 veiw of the greater body of their fellow countrymen in whose regard generally reposes the welfare of individuals.
You are therefore instructed to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and you will explain to him that the President, using the discretion which he deems is granted to him under the Act of March 4, 1915, instructs you to propose an arrangement between the two Governments which will effect the purpose of the act by the abrogation of the treaty stipulations above referred to.
It is believed that the general observations made in a previous part of this instruction will convince the Government of Germany of the wise and humane purposes toward which the legislation in question is directed. That Congress did not contemplate the least infringement of the rights of foreign Governments respecting the control of their merchant marine while in the ports of the United States in a manner inimical to those Governments is evidenced by the reports from the various committees to which the bill was referred before its passage. It is likewise clearly shown by Section 16 of the act that the intent of Congress was not to disturb the valuable treaties now existing between the Government of the United States and [Page 17] other countries, negotiated from time to time with much care and with much patience, but by appropriate legislation to correct and regulate the long existing and varying methods of procedure in matters affecting seamen. That such methods of procedure and standards of conduct towards seamen generally have not advanced as they should have, coincident with the improved treatment of other classes of labor, is believed to be so well established as to need no comment, and the President feels, therefore, that when all the facts and circumstances attendant upon the passage of the act are fully considered by the Government of Germany, no serious difficulties will be found to delay or to prevent an agreement for the mere abrogation or omission of the respective articles found to be inconsistent with the provisions of the act.
The President, although deeply anxious that an agreement be reached with the Government of Germany on this subject, is not concerned as to the particular method by which it may be consummated, whether by exchange of notes or by a short treaty annulling the treaty stipulations heretofore referred to which are affected by the act. The former course seems preferable because more easily effected. In case no satisfactory understanding can be arrived at for the abrogation of the treaty stipulations affected by the Act of March 4, 1915, other provisions of the treaties in question remaining in affect, it would appear that a solution of this matter can only be found in the denunciation of these treaties in their entirety.
In bringing this matter to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, you will hand him a copy of this instruction and express to him the earnest hope of this Government that the sympathetic consideration which the Government of Germany will undoubtedly bestow upon its proposal may result in an understanding as to the abrogation merely of those treaty stipulations which are affected by the Act of Congress of March 4, 1915, with as little disturbance as possible of the conventional relations now happily existing between the two countries.
I am [etc.]