Friday, August 11, 2017

Gideon Welles to William H. Seward, August 26, 1863

Navy Department,
26 Aug. 1863.

I have had the honor to receive your communication of the 4th Ins't. & 14th Ins't., in relation to the case of the British schooner "Mont Blanc," captured by the U. S. Steamer “Octorara,” Commander Collins, and released by the Prize Court at Key West.

In your letter of the 4th Ins't., which gives a summary of the correspondence in relation to this case, you refer to the order of the prize court, in which “it is declared that the cause of the U. S. against the schooner ‘Mont Blanc’ and cargo, having come on to be heard, it is ordered by consent of all the parties interested that the vessel and cargo be released to the claimant for the benefit of whom it may concern; that there was probable cause for the capture and detention of the vessel and that each party pay his own costs.”

And in the same letter you state that “so far as relates to damages, the ground was expressly taken in the correspondence with Lord Lyons that the master and owner had waived damages by accepting the decree and restitution of his vessel. But there still remained a party and rights which the prize court did not foreclose. That party was the Government of Great Britain, and its claim was one for redress for injuries to its sovereignty and dignity by a violation of her territory. No prize court of our country can try and decide a National claim of this sort."

Your letter of the 14th Ins't. encloses a copy of a note from Lord Lyons, in which he says that on being informed by you that directions to proceed to the assessment of damages in this case would be given to Rear Admiral Bailey, he would on his part take care that proper directions should be sent to Mr. Vice Consul Butterfield and that he, Lord Lyons, is waiting for this information before taking any further steps.

It appears, therefore, that this Depar't is expected to give directions for the assessment of damages in a case where it has repeatedly stated it would be improper for the Department to interfere, where the Judicial tribunal, which had cognizance, had decided that no damages are due, and where it is admitted that the master and owner have renounced all claim to damages.

The Department has been placed in this unfortunate and somewhat anomalous position, partly by its own fault in too readily acquiescing in the proffered reparation by the State Department, and an arrangement that had been made by that Department with Her Majesty's representative, to ascertain and agree upon the damages to be paid, and to consider and dispose of the whole subject.

In consequence of the representations communicated in your letter of the 7th of May, the Department has conveyed to the Commander of the Octorara the Executive censure for doing what the Court has decided he was excusable in doing. Although in this case of the “Mont Blanc,” as on repeated occasions, the impropriety of interfering in matters of prize, which belong legitimately to the courts, was freely expressed, yet under the urgent appeals that were made, an assurance that the amount was small, and the case could be more speedily and satisfactorily disposed of, by referring it to some person at or near Key West to consider and dispose of the whole subject without an appeal to the Court, the Department, without fully considering the effect, and the legal power to afford reparation, was induced, in accordance with your request that some suitable person should be designated to take part in a conference as to damages, to name Acting Rear Admiral Bailey, for it knew no other in that locality unconnected with the Court.

No instructions, however, have yet been given Acting Rear Admiral Bailey, and the case, as it now stands, is such that the Department doubts its power to give the instructions which seem to be required and expected. The powers of the Department are limited by law, and I am aware of no law which authorizes it to decide what you represent as a political claim only to be tried and adjudicated by the two Governments concerned, — “a national claim of this sort.” The authority of the Department extends only to legal, individual claims, in cases where it is clearly responsible in law for the acts of its agents. But in this case the law, or the tribunal which had authority to expound and administer the law, has exonerated the agent of the Department from any responsibility. It is admitted that there is no claim in law — only a political claim: no individual claim, but “a national claim.”

In such a case the Depar't would be perplexed in attempting to assess the damages, or in instructing others how to assess them. If it admits in this case that the legal renunciation of damages was of no effect, and that the claimant retained a legal claim for damages, it must make the same admission in every case, and ignore a well settled rule of admiralty and international law.

If it undertakes to estimate a pecuniary equivalent for an aggression upon the dignity of a foreign government, its action might seem offensive, while it had every disposition to avoid giving offense. An apology for an injury to “sovereignty and dignity” may be more or less earnest, but how can such injuries be estimated in dollars and cents, or pounds, shillings and pence? It is to be presumed that the British Government does not desire the claim to be considered in this light.

It may be said the amount of damages in this case would be the amount which the Court at Key West would have awarded, had its decision been what a foreign government claims would have been righteous. But the Department cannot assent to this, for it has no authority to repudiate or set aside the decision of a Court of the United States. That can be done only by a Superior Court or by Congress. It is the duty of this Department to respect and obey the decisions of the Courts of the United States.

It is said that the decree “did not foreclose” the rights of the Government of Great Britain to claim redress in this case. In one sense — to a certain extent — this is true. The decision of the highest court in the land would not be conclusive on a foreign government. But if a claimant voluntarily renounces his claim, or right to appeal, can his government claim that justice has been denied him? Does not ordinary comity “foreclose” any government from taking it for granted that it cannot obtain justice from the tribunals of another, until it has at least made the attempt? In this case of the “Mont Blanc” there was an appeal open to the Supreme Court of the United States. Had it been taken, the result might possibly have been that the decree of the lower court would have been set aside and the case remanded with directions to grant ample damages; or, on the other hand, the decree of the lower court might have been confirmed, for reasons so clear and convincing that the claimant himself would have acquiesced, and his government have been foreclosed by its own sense of justice.

Viewing the matter in this light, it appears to me that the right of the British Government to claim damages in this particular case has been foreclosed, not by the decision of the Prize Court at Key West, but by the acquiescence of the claimants in that decision. The question of damages for injuries to “sovereignty and dignity” is one which this Department has no authority to investigate or settle, and should pecuniary amends be required, it has no fund at its disposal to which the disbursement could be charged.

Acting Rear Admiral Bailey having been designated as a suitable person to confer on the subject of damages, before it was known that the Court had adjudicated the case, I have the honor to enclose herewith a copy of the order which has been sent to that officer, directing him to attend to the duty, should it be further prosecuted, whenever he shall receive instructions from the Secretary of State in the premises.

Very respectfully,
Gideon Welles,
Secty. of Navy.
Hon. Wm. H. Seward,
Secty. of State.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 423-6

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