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BILL FOR ENFORCING NEUTRALITY,
January 24, 1817.
The house in committee of the whole, Mr. JACKSON, of Virginia, in the chair
Mr. FORSYTH, of Georgia, the chairman of the committee who reported the bill, rose for the purpose of explaining the views of the committee on this subject. The attention of the house had been called to this subject, Mr. F. said, by the president of the United States, who, by his message of the 26th of December, had apprized both houses that the existing laws did not enable him to preserve the peace of the United States with foreign powers. The subject of that message having been referred to the committee of foreign relations, they, in the ordinary mode, had applied to the secretary of state for information spécially on the subject. They enquired what information had been given to the department of state of violations or intended viola. tions of the neutral obligations of the United States to foreign powers by the arming and equipment of vessels of war in our ports; what prosecutions had been commenced under the existing laws to prevent the commission of such offences; what persons prosecuted had been discharged in consequence of the defects of the laws now in force, and the particular provisions that had been found insufficient, or for the want of which, persons deserving punishment had escaped. On the 6th of January, an answer had been received from the secretary of state, referring to certain verbal communications to the chairman of the committee, and stating what were the defects in the laws. As the chairman of the committee of foreign relations had not thought himself at liberty to state, on his own authority, the verbal communications referred to by the secretary, on the 10th of January, the secretary of state had addressed to the committee another letter, more particular as to the facts, stating the prosecutions commenced, how far they had been successful, and how far they had failed. The information collected by the committee, Mr. F. said, was defective in some particulars, but it was no fault of the committee. It did not appear, from the documents, from what causes some of the prosecutions had failed. However, taking it for granted, as it was their duty to do, that the information of the president was correct, the committee had turned its attention to existing laws, to ascertain the provisions seeming to them necessary to remedy these defects. Vol. II.
It was found that the act of 1794, which the circumstances then occurring had called for, forbade, under heavy penalties, citizens of the United States from accepting commissions from foreign powers within the United States; forbade persons, in like manner, from enlisting or causing others to enlist in the service of foreign powers; from fitting out armed vessels within the United States to cruize, or issuing commissions therefor; from augmenting the force of an armed vessel within the United States belonging to a belligerent in regard to whom the United States were neutral; from setting on foot military expeditions in the United States against friendly powers; and further provided that the land and naval force of the United States might be employed to enforce the law, and also to compel the departure from ports of the United States of foreign armed vessels which ought not to remain there, &c. The act of 1797, emendatory of that act, prohibited citizens of the United States without the limits thereof, from fitting out armed vessels, to cruize against a friendly power, &c. These laws were found to be defective, on examination, because they only applied the act of 1794 to certain deeds' within the waters of the United States;' the supplementary act of 1797 to deeds of the same character (without the limits of the United States. But there was no provision in either to forbid a citizen from arming and equipping a vessel within the United States, and then selling it to a foreigner to be taken out of the United States and used contrary to law. In other words the citizen and foreigner may do that conjointly which neither of them could separately do under the former laws.
To remedy that defect the first section of the bill now before the house was framed, the amount of which that
any person fitting out or concerned in furnishing, fitting out or arming any private vessel of war, or selling or contracting to sell any such vessel, with intent or previous knowledge that the said vessel is to be employed to cruize or to commit hostilities upon the subjects, citizens or property of any state with whom the United
States are at peace, such person shall be liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding ten years.
The second section of the act, was to remedy another defect obvious to the committee, and which had been suggested by the executive of the United States. The present laws were defective in not authorising the interference of the executive to prevent the commission of the offence, nor unless there was sufficient proof to justify punishment for commission of the offence. This was the reason of the 2d section of the act, calling on the owners of armed vessels to give security that they will not violate the neutral obligations of the United States. The committee had been induced to offer this general provision, in preference
to authorising collectors at their discretion to call on the owners of armed vessels to give bonds, for obvious reasons. Persons engaged in a fair commerce, where there could be no suspicion of an improper intention, would be at no loss in obtaining the security required; and, though they would be subjected to some little inconvenience, it was not such an objection as to prevent the adoption of an important general measure. And the provision was made general, further, because the committee were unwilling to throw on the collectors, on the one hand, the responsibility of making discriminations, and on the other were not willing to trust the collectors, &c. in all cases, because they were not always discreet, and, by the general provision, the effect of connivance or indiscretion on the part of any officer of the United States would be obviated.
But, inasmuch as it was obvious that the evil would not wholly be remedied, without some discretionary power being vested in the collectors, that discretion was given in the 3d section, to restrain from sailing any vessel in such condition as that, though not armed, it may be as soon as it leaves the waters of the United States. That section authorises the collector to detain such vessel, until permission be given by the president of the United States, for its proceeding to sea, or until the party enter into the obligations required of the owners of armed vessel, by the second section of this bill. The fourth and last section of the bill forbade any foreign ship or vessel to be armed and equipped, or the force of any foreign armed ship or vessel to be increased or augmented in the ports of the United States, under any pretence whatsoever.
This was, he said, a simple question of internal policy: whether we ought or ought not to carry into effect our own laws? The claims of Spain on our justice or honour, or the merits of the contest between her and her colonies, had nothing to do with it. We have laws already in existence, such as all civilized nations have, to restrain unauthorized military expeditions. The president, whose duty it was to execute these laws, had informed the house that the provisions were not sufficient. Is the law defective or not? If it is, the defect ought to be remé. died. If the law be not defective, the defect is in the execution of the law, and the blame ought to rest on the president of the United States, for not causing it to be executed. But, Mr. F. said, if he understood the subject, the law was defective, and the defect ought to be remedied.
He begged gentlemen to beware how they indulged their feelings on this subject, at the expense of the laws of their own country. It was no sufficient answer, when the law of the country was violated, that it was right, on account of a violation of the law of justice by any foreign power. If this were allowed, the door would be open to every excess on every pretence.
Laying out of the case the odious character which the government of the United States would necessarily incur, if these things were permitted with impunity, and viewing this as a matter of simple internal regulation, the principle was already established in our laws; and the question was, whether the fault of the non-execution of the law should rest on the president of the United States, or on the legislative body?
Mr. Smith, of Maryland, said, that it appeared to him, that the 3d section of the bill had not been completely understood. The 3d section did not forbid, nor at all restrain, our citizens from selling munitions of war to whomsoever they pleased. The object of that section was merely to carry into effect the second, which, without it, would be very easily eluded. A vessel pierced for guns, and capable in every respect of being a private vessel of war, manned completely, might, under existing laws, go to sea without any appearance of arms on her deck (her armament of cannon being concealed beneath the deck)—and, the moment she was out of sight of the coast, or clear of detection, take out her guns, evade the laws, and become at once a completely equipped, armed vessel. By this bill, it was proposed to authorize the collector to examine any vessel going to sea, and see whether she had such an armament as would enable her, when she got to sea, to fit herself for war. If so, the collector was authorized to stop such until he could make report of her to the president of the United States, and receive his decision respecting her. If proper, she would be permitted to proceed to sea-if otherwise, she would and ought to be detained. The necessity for this provision, Mr. S. illustrated by examples familiar to his mercantile experience. The exportation of arms, in vessels not prepared to fight their way, was, he said, a simple business of commerce, and not affected at all by this bill—the only restraint upon it being the risk of capture for carrying contraband of war. Where then could be pointed out an injury to the honest merchant, as likely to flow from this 3d section? It could do no harm, on the one hand; but without it, on the other, the second section of the bill would be of no use. We (said Gen. S.) who are engaged in the East India trade, must arm for defence against the pickaroons that infest the islands along the coast of that country. To such vessels there will be an inconvenience in giving the bond required by the third section; but one must submit to the inconvenience, to prevent abuses by persons who, for the sake of gain alone, implicate the government in a conduct which must be reprobated by all considerate men.
An honourable gentleman was mistaken in saying that this bill would prevent the supplying of munitions of war to men who were fighting for their liberty. This bill, Mr. S. said, provided only that the government should not be implicated by the citizen in his enterprizes. Arms might still be exported to any
extent, but in the common way of merchants, not by force of arms, but by swift sailing. We are not authorized by the laws of nations, to arm and force a trade in munitions of war with one of two belligerents, in respect to both of whom we are neutral.
Had Spain any right to require of us the passage of such a bill? Was it called for by the acts of that government. She has a right to make a demand of us, said Mr. S., similar to that which we made of her, when she permitted French privateers to fit out in her ports and commit depredations on the commerce of the United States. We made a representation on the subject, and demanded of the Spanish government that the practice should not continue, and that they should pay us for every depredation which had been so made on our commerce. What may the Spanish minister demand in return? That you should not permit your citizens to fit out and man with your seamen vessels within the ports of the United States to depredate on her commerce. When, Mr. S. said, we had subsequently made a treaty with Bonaparte, then First Consul, we released France from all demands on her as to depredations on the high seas. We gave them up for what we considered a quid pro quo. We were bound to guarantee the French West India islands, rather than continue which guarantee, Mr. S. said, we had agreed to give up our claims for depredations committed on our commerce prior to that treaty by France. When Spain then had heard that we had agreed to give up all claims for depredations committed by France, she argued that she could no longer have claims on France for her depredations since we had released her, and that therefore she (Spain) was no longer bound to indemnify us. What had been since done on this question, Mr. S. said, he knew not; but he took it for granted, that our government would persist in that demand, and never relinquish it.
He should deprecate a war with Spain, because it would deprive us of the best customer we have. We now supply Old Spain with great quantities of rice and cotton, and, since the war with her colonies, with tobacco; with flour to a great amount--150,000 barrels a year being exported to Havanna alone, and with all the products of the country. She was one of the best customers we had, he said, because from her alone could we get specie in return. We enjoy a free trade with Cuba, and, by a late order, with Vera Cruz. He did not, therefore, desire a war with Spain, but he would not shrink from a war with her, if she gave us just cause for it.
Mr. S. went on to reply to the objections to this bill. He showed that without this 3d section, the laws might be evaded; that the United States sustained great injury by the violation of this law, by the loss of her seamen, (as well as by violations of