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June 8 1812: Monroe to Foster


On June 8 1812, Secretary of State James Monroe continues to write to the British  Minister in America, Augustus Foster. Monroe is responding to Foster's letter of June 1, 1812 where Foster complained that British seamen were being detained in American vessels. Foster had been trying to counter the American complaints about British navy impressing American sailors by arguing that the American government did the same. Monroe responds: "The principal object of your letter seems to be, to find some analogy between the American practice, with respect to seamen, and the British practice; and to deduce from the former a justification of the latter. Permit me to note the difference, or rather the contrast, between them. The regulations of the United States prohibit the enlistment of aliens into their vessels of war. No such regulations exist on the side of Great Britain." Monroe's full response is reproduced below:


Mr. Monroe to Mr. Foster.
Sir: Department Of State, June 8, 1812.
I have had the honor to receive your letter of June 1st, with the papers enclosed, relating to several British seamen who are stated to have entered into the naval service of the United States.

Without repeating what I had the honor to state to you in a personal interview respecting the deserter from the Gleaner, and the conduct of the armed party from that vessel, who pursued him some distance into the country, I shall confine my remarks to your complaint of the detention of British seamen in American vessels, twenty-eight of whom are said to have been on board the Constitution. Although the fact cannot be admitted on the evidence produced, because it is contrary to the laws of the United States, yet it will be inquired into. It is also possible that the seamen so detained, admitting the fact of their detention, may have become legally American citizens; in which case, they must be protected as such. The Government of the United States can make no distinction between native' and naturalized citizens, as has been already remarked to you. I repeat, also, that your Government cannot object to this rule, because a British statute naturalizes, ipso facto, all alien seamen who shall have been two years on board a British ship of war, and considers them, equally with natives, within the allegiance and entitled to the protection of Great Britain.


The principal object of your letter seems to be, to find some analogy between the American practice, with respect to seamen, and the British practice; and to deduce from the former a justification of the latter. Permit me to note the difference, or rather the contrast, between them.


The regulations of the United States prohibit the enlistment of aliens into their vessels of war. No such regulations exist on the side of Great Britain.

Enlistments by force, or impressments, are contrary to the laws of the United States. This mode of procuring crews for public ships is not only practised by Great Britain within her legal jurisdiction, but is extended to foreign vessels on the high seas, with abuses which aggravate the outrage to the nations to whom the vessels belong.


Most of the States composing our Union have enacted laws providing for the restoration of seamen abandoning the service of merchant vessels, to which they were bound by voluntary engagement. If no provision has been made for the surrender of deserters from public ships, it is because such deserters, although in man}" instances forced into the service, would be deemed malefactors, and punishable as such; and it is not the practice of any country, particularly of Great Britain, to surrender malefactors without a stipulation,'which is always reciprocal. In Great Britain we know from experience that no provision exists for restoring American seamen to our merchant vessels, even to the fulfilment of their voluntary engagements; and if deserters from American ships of war are ever restored, it is by the courtesy, not the legal duty, or perhaps authority, of British naval commanders, and from the policy of recommending a practice which, if mutual, must be evidently in favor of the British service—-the desertion from it being so common, in comparison with that from the service of the United States.

You observe that your Government has charged you to state, that it will continue to give the most positive orders against the detention of American citizens on board British ships of war. If those orders were to prohibit the impressment of seamen from American vessels at sea, the great source of the evil, they would have been a welcome proof of its disposition to do justice and promote a good understanding between the two countries. Nothing short of this can be an adequate remedy, and the United States are known to be ready to substitute to the practice the most liberal arrangements on the subject. But suppose the orders to be given as signified, and in the latitude and form promising most efficacy, how could they restore that portion of the thousands of our citizens who have been impressed or passed into ships stationed or cruising in remote parts of the globe? But it is signified only that your Government will continue to give orders against the detention of American citizens on board British ships of war. It follows that they are to be detained, as heretofore, until formal proof can be produced to the British Admiralty, in each particular instance, that the seaman is a native citizen of the United States; the difficulty and delay in doing which are too obvious to need explanation. Nor is this the only cause of complaint. When such proof has been produced to the British Admiralty, a direct refusal is made to the discharge of the seaman, if he has resided in Great Britain, shall have married there, or shall have accepted the bounty given to seamen voluntarily entering the service, although the American seamen, after having been forced into the service, have accepted the bounty either to relieve their wants, or otherwise to alleviate their condition. I omit other causes of detention which might be mentioned. Add to the whole, that it is not sufficient to prove that the seamen taken from American vessels are not subjects of Great Britain nor the subjects of her enemy. It has been the invariable practice of the British cruisers to include in their impressments from American vessels the citizens and subjects of every neutral nation, even where it was known that they were such; and no instance, it is believed, can be given of the success of an application for the restoration of such neutral aliens to the service of the United States.


These observations cannot fail, as I presume, to satisfy you, sir, how little ground your Government has for the complaints stated in your letter, and how much the United States have for those they have so long and so strenuously, but, at the same time, so ineffectually presented, in behalf of their injured mariners.


I have the honor to be, with great respect and consideration, sir, your most obedient servant,
JAMES MONROE.

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