Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Diary of Gideon Welles: Monday, May 11, 1863

The President sent a note to my house early this morning, requesting me to call at the Executive Mansion on my way to the Department. When there he took from a drawer two dispatches written by the Secretary of State to Lord Lyons, in relation to prize captures. As they had reference to naval matters, he wished my views in regard to them and the subject-matter generally. I told him these dispatches were not particularly objectionable, but that Mr. Seward in these matters seemed not to have a correct apprehension of the duties and rights of the Executive and other Departments of the Government. There were, however, in this correspondence allusions to violations of international law and of instructions which were within his province, and which it might be well to correct; but as a general thing it would be better that the Secretary of State and the Executive should not, unless necessary, interfere in these matters, but leave them where they properly and legally belonged, with the judiciary. [I said] that Lord Lyons would present these demands or claims as long as the Executive would give them consideration, — acquiesced, responded, and assumed to grant relief, — but that it was wholly improper, and would, besides being irregular, cause him and also the State and Navy Departments great labor which does not belong to either. The President said he could see I was right, but that in this instance, perhaps, it would be best, if I did not seriously object, that these dispatches should go on; but he wished me to see them.

When I got to the Department, I found a letter from Mr. Seward, inclosing one from Lord Lyons stating that complaint had been made to his Government that passengers on the Peterhoff had been imprisoned and detained, and were entitled to damages. As the opportunity was a good one, I improved it to communicate to him in writing, what I have repeatedly done in conversation, that in the present state of the proceedings there should be no interference on his part, that these are matters for adjudication by the courts rather than for diplomacy or Executive action, and until the judicial power is exhausted, it is not advisable for the Departments to interfere, etc. The letter was not finished in season to be copied to-day, but I will get it to him to-morrow, I hope in season for him to read before getting off his dispatches.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 296-7

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