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John Tyler Presidential ALS to Daniel Webster Disputing Lord Ashburton’s Claim that their Treaty Established a Right to Search American Ships on the High Seas
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“I have read and now return the private dispatches with which you favored me from Mr. [Edward] Everett and your letter in reply. Lord Ashburton must certainly be under great mistake in relation to what passed between you on the right of visit and of search. Most certainly but one language has been held in all our Cabinet consultations, which was uniformly in negative of any such right.”

President John Tyler writes to his former Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who had resigned from Tyler’s cabinet under pressure from fellow Whigs two weeks earlier.

The Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842 resolved a number of issues between the U.S. and Britain’s Canadian colonies. It settled the nonviolent “Aroostook War” over the Maine–New Brunswick border, agreed to borders and shared use of the Great Lakes, reaffirmed the 49th parallel border in the western frontier up to the Rocky Mountains. It also defined crimes subject to extradition, and called for a final end to the slave trade on the high seas. The British negotiators had wanted to make a “right of search and visit” part of the treaty but its final language failed to establish such a new right in international maritime law.  

JOHN TYLER. Autograph Letter Signed as President, to Daniel Webster. Charles City County, Virginia, May 22, 1843. 2 pp.

Inventory #23993.02       Price: $5,000

Complete Transcript

                                                                        Chs City County Va May 22, 1843.

My Dear Sir;

I have read and now return the private despatches which you favoured me from Mr Everett and your letter in reply. Lord Ashburton must certainly be under great mistake in relation to what passed between you on the right of visit and of search. Most certainly but one language has been held in all our Cabinet consultations, which was uniformly in negation of any such right.

When I left Washington, being much straightened for time, I desired Mr Spencer to answer for me in regard to the Bunker Hill celebration, and since I have been here he sent me on a draft of a letter which I approved. I presume ere this the committee has received it. I certainly propose to be with you upon that occasion.

I received a letter a few days since from Mr Legare making known to me your objections to the appointment of <2> Doctor Martin as Chief Clerk in the State Department. I was not aware before that you had any personal objections to the Doctor, and it occurred to me that his appointment to that place would leave me more at liberty upon the subject of the Head of the Department. I had not perceived either that the Spectator had taken any personal ground. Most certainly if such had been known to me, I would not for a moment have encouraged the idea of his appointment I have desired Mr Cushing who has just left me to converse with you on this subject and if your feelings remain unchanged, I must look out for another place for Doctor Martin.

Be assured of my constant regard and esteem.

                                                                        John Tyler

Mr Webster

Historical Background

For ten months in 1841 and 1842, Webster negotiated with British diplomat Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton (1774-1848) at the Ashburton House on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. The Treaty called for a final end to the slave trade on the high seas, so the “right of visit and of search” mentioned in Tyler’s letter refers to, among other things, the boarding and searching suspected slave-trading ships. The Atlantic Slave trade was banned by British law in 1807, and a year later under U.S. law in 1808. It was the first year that Congress was allowed to end the onerous practice because of a clause in the U.S. Constitution. However, neither the British nor the American act banned slavery itself, which encouraged a robust clandestine trade. In 1808, the British Royal Navy established, at considerable expense, the West Africa Squadron to patrol the coast and intercept the illegal slavers. During the same period, tensions between Britain and the United States were coming to a head over the impressment of American sailors. The issue would lead to the War of 1812.

Three decades later, as diplomats were hammering out details of the Webster-Ashburton treaty, the U.S. Brig Creole, involved in the internal U.S. slave trade, was taken over by the enslaved Africans in an 1841 revolt on board. They forced the vessel to Nassau, Bahamas, where the slaves were freed under British law, which had ended slavery in most of the Empire in 1833. Naturally, the American slaveowners were incensed that their valuable human property had been taken. 

The issue remained during the negotiations over the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. British negotiators attempted to establish a new tenet of international maritime law—the right of visit and search. If recognized in international law through treaties with individual nations (both European and American), the signatories offered a reciprocal right of search on the high seas.

The British insisted that the “right” went beyond the illegal slave trade and tried to get around the problem by adding the right of “visit” to the right to search. American negotiators balked, rightly understanding that the relative naval power of the two nations was not equal and the right was likely to be abused in cases far beyond the West Africa Squadron. Further, the Americans were leery of the implications after having already fought one war over the issue of the British boarding American ships. The negotiators refused to concede on a point of what was, in effect, a violation of national sovereignty.

The diplomats ultimately punted on the Creole issue: the final treaty contained a clause establishing seven extraditable offenses, including “crime of murder, or assault with intent to commit murder, or Piracy, or arson, or robbery, or Forgery, or the utterance of forged paper” but not slaver revolts. On the issue of slavery and the slave trade itself, the nations agreed to cooperate to decrease the demand that drove the illegal market, as well as on the interdiction of illegal slave traders by allowing their respective Africa Squadrons (the U.S. Navy’s squadron was established in 1819) to work in concert off the West African coast. The right of search and visit was nowhere in the treaty.

On June 17, 1843, the Bunker Hill Monument Association held a celebration for the dedication of a monument commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette set the cornerstone for the monument, and Daniel Webster delivered an oration. The 221-foot obelisk was completed seventeen years later. Webster, again the principal speaker, noted President Tyler’s attendance:  “An occasion so National in its object and character, and so much connected with that Revolution, from which the Government sprang, at the head of which he is placed, may well receive from him this mark of attention and respect.... And while all assembled here entertain towards him sincere personal good wishes, and the high respect due to his elevated office and station, it is not to be doubted, that he enters, with true American feeling, into the patriotic enthusiasm, kindled by the occasion, which animates the millions which surround him.”

John Tyler (1790-1862) was born in Virginia and graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1807. He studied law and was admitted to the bar at the age of 19. At that time,  his father was the governor of Virginia, and the younger Tyler started a law practice in Richmond. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1816 to 1821, as Virginia governor from 1825 to 1827, and as U.S. Senator from 1827 to 1836. In 1841, he became the tenth President of the United States and the first president to be elevated to office from the vice presidency after William Henry Harrison died only a month into office. Tyler’s ascension led to the Constitutional question of whether he was actually president or still the vice president merely performing presidential duties. From his perspective, he had properly assumed the office, and he delivered an inaugural address. Dubbed “His Accidency” by critics, Tyler refused to fall under Henry Clay’s influence and instead charted his own course as president, which led to vetoes, Cabinet resignations, and an impeachment attempt. Tyler retired to a Virginia plantation he named Sherwood Forest. In February 1861, he chaired a convention in Washington to avert civil war but disapproved of the convention’s proposed resolutions. He then presided over the Virginia Secession Convention, which removed that state from the Union. He later served in the Provisional Confederate Congress until his death.

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was born in New Hampshire and graduated from Dartmouth College. Admitted to the bar in Massachusetts in 1805, he became one of the most prominent attorneys of the era. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives both from New Hampshire (1813-1871) and Massachusetts (1823-1827), in the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts (1827-1841 and 1845-1850). He twice served as Secretary of State under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (1841-1843) and Millard Fillmore (1850-1852).

In 1842, he negotiated the Webster–Ashburton Treaty with Great Britain, which settled the long-standing issue of the Maine and New Brunswick boundary and ended a threat of war between Great Britain and the United States. Webster resigned in May 1843. In 1844, he refused his party’s nomination for President and supported Henry Clay. In 1850, he stated that he abhorred slavery, but was unwilling to break up the Union to abolish it. Famous for his oratory, he was a powerful force for nationalism in the U.S. Senate. His whole career was marked by a deep reverence for established institutions and accomplished facts, and for the principle of nationality. Generally considered one of the greatest U.S. Senators, his “Reply to Hayne” in 1830 is considered one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the U.S. Senate.

Hugh S. Legaré (1797-1843) served as Tyler’s Attorney General from 1841 until his death and also as Secretary of State ad interim following Webster’s resignation on May 8, 1843, until Legaré’s death six weeks later, on June 20. Webster objected to Tyler’s appointing Dr. Jacob L. Martin as chief clerk in the State Department because Martin had abused Webster in his Spectator newspaper. Tyler wrote to Legaré on May 21 that he was “exceedingly reluctant” to give up on Dr. Martin and hoped that fellow Massachusetts Congressman Caleb Cushing (1800-1879) could convince Webster to waive his opposition. Tyler had nominated Cushing as Secretary of the Treasury, but the Senate refused to confirm him, and Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer (1788-1855) took over the office instead.

Jacob L. Martin (1804-1848) was a physician, a North Carolina Democratic party activist, and a supporter of John C. Calhoun. He had been chief clerk of the State Department from July 1840 to March 1841. In 1842, Martin established the Spectator in Washington as a newspaper that supported Calhoun and was critical of Webster. Martin was secretary of the legation at the French court, and in 1848, President James K. Polk appointed Martin as chargé d’affaires to the Papal States. He presented his credentials in August 1848 but died a week later of malaria.


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