James K. Polk

Special Message

February 10, 1848

To the Senate of the United States:

In answer to the resolution of the Senate of the 1st instant, requesting to be informed whether "any taxes, duties, or imposts" have been "laid and collected upon goods and merchandise belonging to citizens of the United States exported by such citizens from the United States to Mexico, and, if so, what is the rate of such duties, and what amount has been collected, and also by what authority of law the same have been laid and collected," I refer the Senate to my annual message of the 7th of December last, in which I informed Congress that orders had been given to our military and naval commanders in Mexico to adopt the policy, as far as practicable, of levying military contributions upon the enemy for the support of our Army.

As one of the modes adopted for levying such contributions, it was stated in that message that--

On the 31st of March last I caused an order to be issued to our military and naval commanders to levy and collect a military contribution upon all vessels and merchandise which might enter any of the ports of Mexico in our military occupation, and to apply such contributions toward defraying the expenses of the war. By virtue of the right of conquest and the laws of war, the conqueror, consulting his own safety or convenience, may either exclude foreign commerce altogether from all such ports or permit it upon such terms and conditions as he may prescribe. Before the principal ports of Mexico were blockaded by our Navy the revenue derived from import duties under the laws of Mexico was paid into the Mexican treasury. After these ports had fallen into our military possession the blockade was raised and commerce with them permitted upon prescribed terms and conditions. They were opened to the trade of all nations upon the payment of duties more moderate in their amount than those which had been previously levied by Mexico, and the revenue, which was formerly paid into the Mexican treasury, was directed to be collected by our military and naval officers and applied to the use of our Army and Navy. Care was taken that the officers, soldiers, and sailors of our Army and Navy should be exempted from the operations of the order, and, as the merchandise imported upon which the order operated must be consumed by Mexican citizens, the contributions exacted were in effect the seizure of the public revenues of Mexico and the application of them to our own use. In directing this measure the object was to compel the enemy to contribute as far as practicable toward the expenses of the war.

A copy of the order referred to, with the documents accompanying it, has been communicated to Congress.

The order operated upon the vessels and merchandise of all nations, whether belonging to citizens of the United States or to foreigners, arriving in any of the ports in Mexico in our military occupation. The contributions levied were a tax upon Mexican citizens, who were the consumers of the merchandise imported. But for the permit or license granted by the order all vessels and merchandise belonging to citizens of the United States were necessarily excluded from all commerce with Mexico from the commencement of the war. The coasts and ports of Mexico were ordered to be placed under blockade on the day Congress declared the war to exist, and by the laws of nations the blockade applied to the vessels of the United States as well as to the vessels of all other nations. Had no blockade been declared, or had any of our merchant vessels entered any of the ports of Mexico not blockaded, they would have been liable to be seized and condemned as lawful prize by the Mexican authorities. When the order was issued, it operated as a privilege to the vessels of the United States as well as to those of foreign countries to enter the ports held by our arms upon prescribed terms and conditions. It was altogether optional with citizens of the. United States and foreigners to avail themselves of the privileges granted upon the terms prescribed.

Citizens of the United States and foreigners have availed themselves of these privileges.

No principle is better established than that a nation at war has the right of shifting the burden off itself and imposing it on the enemy by exacting military contributions. The mode of making such exactions must be left to the discretion of the conqueror, but it should be exercised in a manner conformable to the rules of civilized warfare.

The right to levy these contributions is essential to the successful prosecution of war in an enemy's country, and the practice of nations has been in accordance with this principle. It is as clearly necessary as the right to fight battles, and its exercise is often essential to the subsistence of the army.

Entertaining no doubt that the military right to exclude commerce altogether from the ports of the enemy in our military occupation included the minor right of admitting it under prescribed conditions, it became an important question at the date of the order whether there should be a discrimination between vessels and cargoes belonging to citizens of the United States and vessels and cargoes belonging to neutral nations.

Had the vessels and cargoes belonging to citizens of the United States been admitted without the payment of any duty, while a duty was levied on foreign vessels and cargoes, the object of the order would have been defeated. The whole commerce would have been conducted in American vessels, no contributions could have been collected, and the enemy would have been furnished with goods without the exaction from him of any contribution whatever, and would have been thus benefited by our military occupation, instead of being made to feel the evils of the war. In order to levy these contributions and to make them available for the support of the Army, it became, therefore, absolutely necessary that they should be collected upon imports into Mexican ports, whether in vessels belonging to citizens of the United States or to foreigners.

It was deemed proper to extend the privilege to vessels and their cargoes belonging to neutral nations. It has been my policy since the commencement of the war with Mexico to act justly and liberally toward all neutral nations, and to afford to them no just cause of complaint; and we have seen the good consequences of this policy by the general satisfaction which it has given.

In answer to the inquiry contained in the resolution as to the rates of duties imposed, I refer you to the documents which accompanied my annual message of the 7th of December last, which contain the information.

From the accompanying reports of the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy it will be seen that the contributions have been collected on all vessels and cargoes, whether American or foreign; but the returns to the Departments do not show with exactness the amounts collected on American as distinguishable from foreign vessels and merchandise.


James K. Polk, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/201387

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