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Message to the Senate on the Arrest of William Walker in Nicaragua

January 07, 1858

To the Senate of the United States:

I herewith transmit to the Senate a report from the Secretary of the Navy, with the accompanying documents, containing the information called for by the resolution of the Senate of the 4th instant, requesting me "to communicate to the Senate the correspondence, instructions, and orders to the United States naval forces on the coast of Central America connected with the arrest of William Walker and his associates," etc.

In submitting to the Senate the papers for which they have called I deem it proper to make a few observations.

In capturing General Walker and his command after they had landed on the soil of Nicaragua Commodore Paulding has, in my opinion, committed a grave error. It is quite evident, however, from the communications herewith transmitted that this was done from pure and patriotic motives and in the sincere conviction that he was promoting the interest and vindicating the honor of his country. In regard to Nicaragua, she has sustained no injury by the act of Commodore Paulding. This has inured to her benefit and relieved her from a dreaded invasion. She alone would have any right to complain of the violation of her territory, and it is quite certain she will never exercise this right. It unquestionably does not lie in the mouth of her invaders to complain in her name that she has been rescued by Commodore Paulding from their assaults. The error of this gallant officer consists in exceeding his instructions and landing his sailors and marines in Nicaragua, whether with or without her consent, for the purpose of making war upon any military force whatever which he might find in the country, no matter from whence they came. This power certainly did not belong to him. Obedience to law and conformity to instructions are the best and safest guides for all officers, civil and military, and when they transcend these limits and act upon their own personal responsibility evil consequences almost inevitably follow.

Under these circumstances, when Marshal Rynders presented himself at the State Department on the 29th ultimo with General Walker in custody, the Secretary informed him "that the executive department of the Government did not recognize General Walker as a prisoner, that it had no directions to give concerning him, and that it is only through the action of the judiciary that he could be lawfully held in custody to answer any charges that might be brought against him."

In thus far disapproving the conduct of Commodore Paulding no inference must be drawn that I am less determined than I have ever been to execute the neutrality laws of the United States. This is my imperative duty, and I shall continue to perform it by all the means which the Constitution and the laws have placed in my power. My opinion of the value and importance of these laws corresponds entirely with that expressed by Mr. Monroe in his message to Congress of December 7, 1819. That wise, prudent, and patriotic statesman says:

It is of the highest importance to our national character and indispensable to the morality of our citizens that all violations of our neutrality should be prevented. No door should be left open for the evasion of our laws, no opportunity afforded to any who may be disposed to take advantage of it to compromise the interest or the honor of the nation.

The crime of setting on foot or providing the means for a military expedition within the United States to make war against a foreign state with which we are at peace is one of an aggravated and dangerous character, and early engaged the attention of Congress. Whether the executive government possesses any, or what, power under the Constitution, independently of Congress, to prevent or punish this and similar offenses against the law of nations was a subject which engaged the attention of our most eminent statesmen in the time of the Administration of General Washington and on the occasion of the French Revolution. The act of Congress of the 5th of June, 1794, fortunately removed all the difficulties on this question which had theretofore existed. The fifth and seventh sections of this act, which relate to the present question, are the same in substance with the sixth and eighth sections of the act of April 20, 1818, and have now been in force for a period more than sixty years.

The military expedition rendered criminal by the act must have its origin, must "begin" or be "set on foot," in the United States; but the great object of the law was to save foreign states with whom we were at peace from the ravages of these lawless expeditions proceeding from our shores. The seventh section alone, therefore, which simply defines the crime and its punishment, would have been inadequate to accomplish this purpose and enforce our international duties. In order to render the law effectual it was necessary to prevent "the carrying on" of such expeditions to their consummation after they had succeeded in leaving our shores. This has been done effectually and in clear and explicit language by the authority given to the President under the eighth section of the act to employ the land and naval forces of the United States "for the purpose of preventing the carrying on of any such expedition or enterprise from the territories or jurisdiction of the United States against the territories or dominions of any foreign prince or state or of any colony, district, or people with whom the United States are at peace."

For these reasons, had Commodore Paulding intercepted the steamer Fashion, with General Walker and his command on board, at any period before they entered the port of San Juan de Nicaragua and conducted them back to Mobile, this would have prevented them from "carrying on" the expedition and have been not only a justifiable but a praiseworthy act.

The crime well deserves the punishment inflicted upon it by our laws. It violates the principles of Christianity, morality, and humanity, held sacred by all civilized nations and by none more than by the people of the United States. Disguise it as we may, such a military expedition is an invitation to reckless and lawless men to enlist under the banner of any adventurer to rob, plunder, and murder the unoffending citizens of neighboring states, who have never done them harm. It is a usurpation of the war-making power, which belongs alone to Congress; and the Government itself, at least in the estimation of the world, becomes an accomplice in the commission of this crime unless it adopts all the means necessary to prevent and to punish it.

It would be far better and more in accordance with the bold and manly character of our countrymen for the Government itself to get up such expeditions than to allow them to proceed under the command of irresponsible adventurers. We could then at least exercise some control over our own agents and prevent them from burning down cities and committing other acts of enormity of which we have read.

The avowed principle which lies at the foundation of the law of nations is contained in the divine command that "all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you do ye even so to them." Tried by this unerring rule, we should be severely condemned if we shall not use our best exertions to arrest such expeditions against our feeble sister Republic of Nicaragua. One thing is very certain, that a people never existed who would call any other nation to a stricter account than we should ourselves for tolerating lawless expeditions from their shores to make war upon any portion of our territories. By tolerating such expeditions we shall soon lose the high character which we have enjoyed ever since the days of Washington for the faithful performance of our international obligations and duties, and inspire distrust against us among the members of the great family of civilized nations.

But if motives of duty were not sufficient to restrain us from engaging in such lawless enterprises, our evident interest ought to dictate this policy. These expeditions are the most effectual mode of retarding American progress, although to promote this is the avowed object of the leaders and contributors in such undertakings.

It is beyond question the destiny of our race to spread themselves over the continent of North America, and this at no distant day should events be permitted to take their natural course. The tide of emigrants will flow to the south, and nothing can eventually arrest its progress. If permitted to go there peacefully, Central America will soon contain an American population which will confer blessings and benefits as well upon the natives as their respective Governments. Liberty under the restraint of law will preserve domestic peace, whilst the different transit routes across the Isthmus, in which we are so deeply interested, will have assured protection.

Nothing has retarded this happy condition of affairs so much as the unlawful expeditions which have been fitted out in the United States to make war upon the Central American States. Had one-half the number of American citizens who have miserably perished in the first disastrous expedition of General Walker settled in Nicaragua as peaceful emigrants, the object which we all desire would ere this have been in a great degree accomplished. These expeditions have caused the people of the Central American States to regard us with dread and suspicion. It is our true policy to remove this apprehension and to convince them that we intend to do them good, and not evil. We desire, as the leading power on this continent, to open and, if need be, to protect every transit route across the Isthmus, not only for our own benefit, but that of the world, and thus open a free access to Central America, and through it to our Pacific possessions. This policy was commenced under favorable auspices when the expedition under the command of General Walker escaped from our territories and proceeded to Punta Arenas. Should another expedition of a similar character again evade the vigilance of our officers and proceed to Nicaragua, this would be fatal, at least for a season, to the peaceful settlement of these countries and to the policy of American progress. The truth is that no Administration can successfully conduct the foreign affairs of the country in Central America or anywhere else if it is to be interfered with at every step by lawless military expeditions "set on foot" in the United States.


James Buchanan, Message to the Senate on the Arrest of William Walker in Nicaragua Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/202519

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