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Special Message

May 21, 1824

To the Senate of the United States:

Apprehending from the delay in the decision that some difficulty exists with the Senate respecting the ratification of the convention lately concluded with the British Government for the suppression of the slave trade by making it piratical, I deem it proper to communicate for your consideration such views as appear to me to merit attention. Charged as the Executive is, and as I have long been, with maintaining the political relations between the United States and other nations, I consider it my duty, in submitting for your advice and consent as to the ratification any treaty or convention which has been agreed on with another power, to explain, when the occasion requires it, all the reasons which induced the measure. It is by such full and frank explanation only that the Senate can be enabled to discharge the high trust reposed in them with advantage to their country. Having the instrument before them, with the views which guided the Executive in forming it, the Senate will possess all the light necessary to a sound decision.

By an act of Congress of 15th May, 1820, the slave trade, as described by that act, was made piratical, and all such of our citizens as might be found engaged in that trade were subjected, on conviction thereof by the circuit courts of the United States, to capital punishment. To communicate more distinctly the import of that act, I refer to its fourth and fifth sections, which are in the following words:

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That if any citizen of the United States, being of the crew or ship's company of any foreign ship or vessel engaged in the slave trade, or any person whatever, being of the crew or ship's company of any ship or vessel owned in the whole or part or navigated for or in behalf of any citizen or citizens of the United States, shall land from any such ship or vessel, and on any foreign shore seize any negro or mulatto not held to service or labor by the laws of either of the States or Territories of the United States, with intent to make such negro or mulatto a slave, or shall decoy or forcibly bring or carry, or shall receive, such negro or mulatto on board any such ship or vessel, with intent as aforesaid, such citizen or person shall be adjudged a pirate, and on conviction thereof before the circuit court of the United States for the district wherein he may be brought or found shall suffer death.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That if any citizen of the United States, being of the crew or ship's company of any foreign ship or vessel engaged in the slave trade or any person whatever, being of the crew or ship's company of any ship or vessel owned wholly or in part, or navigated for or in behalf of, any citizen or citizens of the United States, shall forcibly confine or detain, or aid and abet in forcibly confining or detaining, on board such ship or vessel any negro or mulatto not held to service by the laws of either of the States or Territories of the United States, with intent to make such negro or mulatto a slave, or shall on board any such ship or vessel offer or attempt to sell as a slave any negro or mulatto not held to service as aforesaid, or shall on the high seas or anywhere on tide water transfer or deliver over to any other ship or vessel any negro or mulatto not held to service as aforesaid, with intent to make such negro or mulatto a slave, or shall land or deliver on shore from on board any such ship or vessel any such negro or mulatto, with intent to make sale of, or having previously sold such negro or mulatto as a slave, such citizen or person shall be adjudged a pirate, and on conviction thereof before the circuit court of the United States for the district wherein he may be brought or found shall suffer death.

And on the 28th February, 1823, the House of Representatives, by a majority of 131 to 9, passed a resolution to the following effect:

Resolved, That the President of the United States be requested to enter upon and prosecute from time to time such negotiations with the several maritime powers of Europe and America as he may deem expedient for the effectual abolition of the African slave trade and its ultimate denunciation as piracy under the law of nations, by the consent of the civilized world.

By the act of Congress above referred to, whereby the most effectual means that could be devised were adopted for the extirpation of the slave trade, the wish of the United States was explicitly declared, that all nations might concur in a similar policy. It could only be by such concurrence that the great object could be accomplished, and it was by negotiation and treaty alone that such concurrence could be obtained, commencing with one power and extending it to others. The course, therefore, which the Executive, who had concurred in the act, had to pursue was distinctly marked out for it. Had there, however, been any doubt respecting it, the resolution of the House of Representatives, the branch which might with strict propriety express its opinion, could not fail to have removed it.

By the tenth article of the treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain, concluded at Ghent, it was stipulated that both parties should use their best endeavors to accomplish the abolition of the African slave trade. This object has been accordingly pursued by both Governments with great earnestness, by separate acts of legislation, and by negotiation almost uninterrupted, with the purpose of establishing a concert between them in some measure which might secure its accomplishment.

Great Britain in her negotiations with other powers had concluded treaties with Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, in which, without constituting the crime as piracy or classing it with crimes of that denomination, the parties had conceded to the naval officers of each other the right of search and capture of the vessels of either that might be engaged in the slave trade, and had instituted courts consisting of judges, subjects of both parties, for the trial of the vessels so captured.

In the negotiations with the United States Great Britain had earnestly and repeatedly pressed on them the adoption of similar provisions. They had been resisted by the Executive on two grounds: One, that the constitution of mixed tribunals was incompatible with their Constitution; and the other, that the concession of the right of search in time of peace for an offense not piratical would be repugnant to the feelings of the nation and of dangerous tendency. The right of search is the right of war of the belligerent toward the neutral. To extend it in time of peace to any object whatever might establish a precedent which might lead to others with some powers, and which, even if confined to the instance specified, might be subject to great abuse.

Animated by an ardent desire to suppress this trade, the United States took stronger ground by making it, by the act above referred to, piratical, a measure more adequate to the end and free from many of the objections applicable to the plan which had been proposed to them. It is this alternative which the Executive, under the sanction and injunctions above stated, offered to the British Government, and which that Government has accepted. By making the crime piracy the right of search attaches to the crime, and which when adopted by all nations will be common to all; and that it will be so adopted may fairly be presumed if steadily persevered in by the parties to the present convention. In the meantime, and with a view to a fair experiment, the obvious course seems to be to carry into effect with every power such treaty as may be made with each in succession.

In presenting this alternative to the British Government it was made an indispensable condition that the trade should be made piratical by act of Parliament, as it had been by an act of Congress. This was provided for in the convention, and has since been complied with. In this respect, therefore, the nations rest on the same ground. Suitable provisions have also been adopted to protect each party from the abuse of the power granted to the public ships of the other. Instead of subjecting the persons detected in the slave trade to trial by the courts of the captors, as would be the case if such trade was piracy by the laws of nations, it is stipulated that until that event they shall be tried by the courts of their own country only. Hence there could be no motive for an abuse of the right of search, since such abuse could not fail to terminate to the injury of the captor.

Should this convention be adopted, there is every reason to believe that it will be the commencement of a system destined to accomplish the entire abolition of the slave trade. Great Britain, by making it her own, confessedly adopted at the suggestion of the United States, and being pledged to propose and urge its adoption by other nations in concert with the United States, will find it for her interest to abandon the less-effective system of her previous treaties with Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, and to urge on those and other powers their accession to this. The crime will then be universally proscribed as piracy, and the traffic be suppressed forever.

Other considerations of high importance urge the adoption of this convention. We have at this moment pending with Great Britain sundry other negotiations intimately connected with the welfare and even the peace of our Union. In one of them nearly a third part of the territory of the State of Maine is in contestation. In another the navigation of the St. Lawrence, the admission of consuls into the British islands, and a system of commercial intercourse between the United States and all the British possessions in this hemisphere are subjects of discussion. In a third our territorial and other rights upon the northwest coast are to be adjusted, while a negotiation on the same interest is opened with Russia. In a fourth all the most important controvertible points of maritime law in time of war are brought under consideration, and in the fifth the whole system of South American concerns, connected with a general recognition of South American independence, may again from hour to hour become, as it has already been, an object of concerted operations of the highest interest to both nations and to the peace of the world.

It can not be disguised that the rejection of this convention can not fail to have a very injurious influence on the good understanding between the two Governments on all these points. That it would place the Executive Administration under embarrassment, and subject it, the Congress, and the nation to the charge of insincerity respecting the great result of the final suppression of the slave trade, and that its first and indispensable consequence will be to constrain the Executive to suspend all further negotiation with every European and American power to which overtures have been made in compliance with the resolution of the House of Representatives of 28th February, 1823, must be obvious. To invite all nations, with the statute of piracy in our hands, to adopt its principles as the law of nations and yet to deny to all the common right of search for the pirate, whom it would be impossible to detect without entering and searching the vessel, would expose us not simply to the charge of inconsistency.

It must be obvious that the restriction of search for pirates to the African coast is incompatible with the idea of such a crime. It is not doubted also if the convention is adopted that no example of the commission of that crime by the citizens or subjects of either power will ever occur again. It is believed, therefore, that this right as applicable to piracy would not only extirpate the trade, but prove altogether innocent in its operation.

In further illustration of the views of Congress on this subject, I transmit to the Senate extracts from two resolutions of the House of Representatives, one of the 9th February, 1821, the other of 12th April, 1822. I transmit also a letter from the charge' d'affaires of the British Government, which shows the deep interest which that Government takes in the ratification of the treaty.

JAMES MONROE.

James Monroe, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/207204

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