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THE ALABAMA NEGOTIATIONS,
AND THEIR JUST REPUDIATION BY
THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES.
BY GEORGE BEMIS.
MR. REVERDY JOHNSON:
THE ALABAMA NEGOTIATIONS.
The extraordinary avowal of Mr. Reverdy Johnson in vindication of his rejected “ Alabama” convention, that the United States “obtuined, by the convention in question, all that we have ever asked”.
-an avowal contained in a dispatch to Mr. Secretary Seward on the 17th of February last, but which has but recently found its way into circulation on this side of the water-is one so calculated to embarrass the country in its further negotiations with England, and to disparage American reputation abroad for fair dealing in diplomacy, that I feel called upon, as an advocate of American rights and American honor, to expose its groundlessness, and to uphold the perfect fairness and propriety of the Senate's repudiating alike Mr. Johnson's words and his works.
It is bad enough to have such a compromising assertion as this of the late Minister to England, caught up and echoed by our English opponents and European ill-wishers, generally; but to have it started by our own diplomatic representative, in the first instance, and that out of apparent pique, because the country had not approved of his doings, constitutes an offense against official propriety and national loyalty such as I believe has never before been witnessed on the part of an American Minister. I trust that the exposé which I am about to attempt of the justice of Mr. Johnson's extraordinary avowal, will be so conclusive, that the most charitable deduction to be made in his favor, after reading it, will be, that either his mind and memory had failed him, or that his ignorance of the subject which he was treating, may have left room for his honestly believing in the truth of what he was so rashly and unwarrantedly asserting.
The letter or dispatch of the 17th of February, referred to, contains various other obnoxious assertions of Mr. Johnson's, upon which I may have occasion to comment in the course of my remarks, such as, “ at no time during the war, or since, has any branch of the Government [of the United States) proposed to hold Her Majesty's Government responsible, except to the value of the property destroyed" by the" Alabama" and similar vessels; "the Government [of the United States] never exacted anything on its own account”—“ to demand more now
would be an entire departure from our previous course, and would, I am sure, not be listened to by this Government (the British), or countenanced by other nations,” etc., etc.; and I would gladly reprint the whole of it, except for its length, and for the reason that the letter itself has, doubtless, already had a wide circulation through the American press—at least in the United States. The whole dispatch, I venture to predict, will be a memorable one in our diplomatic annals, and will hereafter set the seal of history, as I must think, upon the character of Mr. Reverdy Johnson's " Alabama" negotiations.
For the information of those of my readers who may not have happened to see it, I would say that it is to be found (at least) in the New York Herald of July 3, where it first met my eye, and where some editorial introduction shows that it had been recently furnished to that journal-apparently by Mr. Johnson himself—to meet, what was said to have been, “a garbled extract " from it published in some other New York newspaper. The whole letter, itself, would seem to have been laid before the Senate, in secret session and confidentially, prior to its action on the “ Alabama” Convention; and I gather from other American journals (other than the Herald), which have happened to come within my observation here, that Mr. Johnson, before publishing it, asked the President's permission so to do. Whether President Grant actually gave that permission, or whether he could have constitutionally authorized the publication of a Senate confidential document at all, supposing him to have been indulgently inclined to grant the ex-minister's request, is more than I have ascertained ; but I am confident that Mr. Reverdy Johnson's worst enemy could not have persuaded him to a more injurious step, for his own reputation, than that of thus giving this letter an unnecessary, and perhaps unjustified publicity.
Before entering upon my criticism of this extraordinary dispatch of the 17th of February, I must first premise a word of comment upon the circumstances attending Mr. Johnson's appointment as Min
ister to England, and also call the reader's attention to the dates of the two conventions which he afterward negotiated in that capacity.
As to the appointment itself, which was made and confirmed in the early part of the month of July, 1868, I believe that even Mr. Reverdy Johnson's own friends will hardly contend that the English mission was offered to him on any other footing than as a graceful compliment for previous political services (probably, on the part of the President, for having so warmly befriended him during the Impeachment trial), or that his unanimous confirmation by the Senate afterward, was due to anything so much as to a feeling of kindly personal regard toward him on the part of his fellow-Senators, coupled with the belief that his functions would be mainly nominal and honorary. At any rate, as I shall presently have occasion to show, his original instructions, after he was so confirmed, gave him no latitude to do more than “sound Lord Stanley upon the subject” of the “ Alabama” claims, and, as Mr. Seward adds, only “after the two more urgent controversies previously mentioned [the Naturalization and “San Juan' questions) can have been put under process of adjustment.”
Mr. Johnson, thus confirmed and thus instructed, negotiated two conventions (or treaties, as they are more popularly called), viz. : one signed by Lord Stanley and himself, dated November 10, 1868, which was “ unanimously” repudiated by every member of Andrew Johnson's cabinet ; and a second, with Lord Clarendon, dated January 14, 1869, which was the one acted upon by the United States Senate, April 13th following, and rejected by a vote of fifty-four to one.
Now, in answer to Mr. Reverdy Johnson's assertion, that we obtained by his conventions—one or both—"all that we ever asked," I hope to show by official documents--some of them being Mr. Johnson's own dispatches
1. That he himself was not originally authorized“ to ask " for anything; instead of which he proposed, at one of his earliest interviews with Lord Stanley, “ the payment of a lump sum of money,” or some cession of territory,” in settlement of the Alabama claims.
2. That starting thus with asking money or territory, he dropped all mention of both in his convention of November 10th, which amounted to such a total abandonment of the American claims, national and individual, that even “ President Johnson and his colleagues (to quote Mr. Thornton's account of the reception of the treaty at Washington) “were unanimously of the opinion that in its present form the convention would not receive the sanction of the Senate,” and “ its contents were not in accordance with the instructions which had been given to Mr. Reverdy Johnson.”