CLAIMS OF INDEMNITY FOR SLAVES AND OTHER PROPERTY UNDER THE FIRST ARTICLE OF THE TREATY OF GHENT.
COMMUNICATED TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES MARCH 10, 1828.
To the honorable the House of Representatives:
A Memorial on behalf of the Virginia and Maryland claimants under the first article of the treaty of Ghent.
The claim for slaves and other private property grew out of the first article of the treaty of Ghent. The Governments of the United States and Great Britain, widely differing as to the construction of the said article, submitted the whole subject to the decision and award of the Emperor of all the Russias. Upon the rendition of his award, his further mediation was invoked to have prepared a convention at St. Petersburg, to carry into effect the objects of his award, as expounding the first article of the treaty of Ghent. A mixed commission was constituted soon after, which met in the city of Washington. After continuing from 1824 until 1826, it was well ascertained that the British and American Commissioners would never agree as to the true construction of the said convention. They submitted the points of difference and their arguments to their respective Governments, and Mr. Gallatin, the minister of the United States, concluded with the British Government the convention of London, in November, 1826, which was duly ratified. In the said last convention it was stipulated, in effect, that the British Government was to be wholly released and exonerated from all claims for slaves and other private property, upon the payment of "twelve hundred and four thousand nine hundred and sixty dollars."
This amount has been paid. Congress, about the 1st of March, 1827, passed a law constituting a Board of Commissioners to carry into effect the first article of the treaty. The St. Petersburg convention was dissolved, save only as to two particulars:
1. The definitive list was not to be disturbed.
2. The average value of the slaves was to remain the same as fixed upon by the mixed commission.
The commission, recently appointed, was untrammelled by any other of the provisions of the convention concluded at St. Petersburg, and were left free to act in conformity with the stipulations of the first article of the treaty of Ghent, as expounded by the Russian Emperor.
The board, composed of the Honorable Langdon Cheves, James P. Pleasants, and Henry Sewell, formed in the city of Washington in July last, and proceeded to the discharge of their duties.
The southern claims were mainly put down for decision. There were doubts upon two very important points: First, whether the ships that lay off the islands of Cumberland and Amelia were within the jurisdictional limits of the United States at the time of the ratification of the treaty? Secondly, whether Dauphin island, at the time of the peace, was in the possession of the United States?
The board decided both questions in favor of the claimants, and forthwith some two or three hundred thousand dollars were awarded and paid over. Much, very much, depended upon the decision of these two questions, as they related to the interest of the south; and I dare say that the Virginia and Maryland
claimants and agents would have thought it improper and unfair to have interfered in the least to hurt the interest, or to defeat the claims of their south countrymen.
The Chesapeake claimants had lost their property at various times during the war and up to the return of peace. They and their friends were almost broken down by the frequent calls of the military authorities to defend the repeated and annoying invasions of the predatory and incendiary enemy, who burnt their houses, despoiled their improvements, and robbed them of their property; amid all these ills they were the truest and the most devoted patriots. I cannot forbear to give one instance which occurred in the northern neck of Virginia.
In July and August, 1814, the enemy made several landings, and, with increased fierceness, inflicted numerous wrongs upon the people. All the militia in this peninsula were called into service, and the property was pretty well protected. On a sudden, an order came (I think it was from General Winder) that all the troops should forthwith be marched to the defence of Washington; which order was promptly obeyed; and this neck of eighteen miles wide, upwards of one hundred miles long, washed by bold and navigable waters, a hostile fleet in sight, was emptied of all its efficient forces for nearly six weeks. None but our women, children, and old men remained. During the absence of the forces there was nothing to restrain our slaves, and they flocked in hundreds to the enemy.
But to return. It had been urged, during the time of the mixed commission, upon the part of the claimants, that, when they had proved the taking of their slaves by the enemy, it would then devolve upon the British Government to show, by satisfactory evidence, the precise point of time when the slaves were deported. But we are told now that this is a new point: it is as old as the existence of the mixed commission.
The Virginia and Maryland claimants could never produce but very little positive evidence of the exact place where their slaves were at the time of the return of peace. It was not within the nature of the relation in which they stood with the enemy for them to do so. But it was within the power of the British Government, through their naval records; and that Government had stipulated, in the St. Petersburg convention, to furnish the evidence, if in her power. In conformity with this stipulation, a formal call was made upon the British Government by a resolution offered before the mixed commission, (a copy of which resolution will accompany this address.) That call has been answered by sending a parcel of copies, deranged, and almost unintelligible. But it is now pretended that better evidence can be got; that is to say, evidence to defeat the claims of those who have not yet succeeded.
It was understood in July last that Mr. Wirt would prepare an argument in support of the Virginia and Maryland claims, involving chiefly the old question of the onus probandi. When the board met, on the 1st of November last, this argument was offered, and copies printed. There were others who wrote arguments on the same side of the question, which were filed with the board. A decision was at that time pressed; but it was asked by an agent, who is largely concerned on behalf of the Georgia claimants, of the board, to wait a short time, that the Hon. Mr. Berrien was preparing, or would prepare, a reply to the argument of the Hon. William Wirt. It is stated that, in order to give as much effect as possible to the reply, leave of the Senate was obtained to make public the views of the Government in the creation of the convention of London of November, 1826. The argument of Mr. Berrien has been printed and laid before the board, and Mr. Wirt has rejoined.
It seems by this new attempt to get this law passed that the southern claimants, their agents, and their distinguished counsel, are afraid to risk a decision even now before the board.
In the argument before the Senate I understand there were two reasons urged in support of the bill: one was, that some of the claimants were not prepared to try their cases. If this be a fact, I do not know it: at all events, they can have time; but those who are ready should not be postponed. Secondly, that if the claims from Virginia and Maryland are allowed, there will not be a sufficient fund to pay the principal sums awarded. I am sure there is an ample fund, and I do invoke the members of the House of Representatives to require information on this point. So certain am I of the fact that, so far as I am concerned, I am willing that a law be immediately passed directing the payment of the twenty-five per cent. unpaid upon awards heretofore entered up, and that awards shall be wholly paid as they may be entered up hereafter.
There are about $600,000 dollars awarded, and, as far as I can make the estimate, (it is true I have not certain data before me,) there will not be claims established to the amount of more than about $500,000 more; which will then leave a surplus of upwards of $100,000 to be distributed, in the nature of interest or otherwise, among the successful claimants.
Whatever were the real motives of those who originated the bill which passed the Senate I do not know; but it is stated that the south claimants are desirous to destroy the claims from the Chesapeake and its waters, under the hope that the residue of the British money would then be divided among those who had succeeded before the commission. The subject of interest upon their claims is only secondary to the main object they have in view. It has been urged that some new question has arisen; therefore, further time is required. Why, the main evidence in support of the undecided claims has been filed ever since the years 1822, 1823, or 1824. A few depositions were filed in November last, with the arguments upon the general question, and to which every person had access, if required.
In November and December last some hundreds of cases were put down for trial and decision. The board waited, at the intimation of the south claimants' agents, till the next meeting, (which was to be in March,) in order to receive arguments and to hear evidence in opposition to the claims from Virginia and Maryland. Rules for the taking of evidence were prescribed in December and January, and a gentleman (and there probably were many others) of great industry and intelligence has made a tour in pursuit of this evidence. He has now returned, and, I understand, was wholly disappointed. It may be inferred that, anticipating this result, the said bill was offered to the Senate.
I have come here now, and it is the sixth time since the constitution of the mixed commission, as agent on behalf of claimants for more than six hundred slaves, and other private property; and it was confidently expected that a final decision would now be had of all the cases ready for trial. I put down some one or two hundred cases for trial in November and December last. I was then postponed till March, and it is now asked to postpone us till November next, without any sufficient reason. The south claimants have seventy-five per cent. of their money in their pockets, and now demand that Congress will estop us, or lay an injunction, in effect, upon our claims until they can traverse the seas and distant lands in search of evidence to destroy our claims. A more ungracious and selfish proceeding I cannot well conceive. For thirteen years we have been anxiously hoping for compensation for some of our losses. We always expected some resistance from the British Government, but never from our fellow-
citizens. When they received awards for a great number of slaves upon Dauphin island, at the value of $580 each, we did not say that that island was not in the possession of the United States at the time of the ratification of the treaty; nor did we say that if that island were in the possession of the United States it was within the jurisdiction of Alabama, and, therefore, the claimants were entitled only to the sum of $390 each—the average value fixed upon for Alabama slaves. No; we only wished to succeed in our just claims, and never wished to defeat the claims of our fellow-sufferers.
I am willing that the duration of the commission shall be extended to some future day, even to the 30th of November next, to permit claimants (if there be any such) to obtain evidence in support of their claims now pending before the board; but I do utterly loathe the idea that the claimants whose cases are ready for trial shall be postponed in order to permit the successful claimants to search the habitable globe for evidence to destroy the rights of their co-claimants. If it should be so, (which justice and reason forbid!) four or five hundred thousand dollars, which have long since been deposited in the Treasury, will be enjoined from the use of the rightful owners to indulge the caprice of a pecuniary, selfish speculation which has no parallel. The money has been paid by Great Britain; and those who have succeeded now ask that others who have not shall be delayed until, perchance, some evidence can be got to defeat their claims.
We have been anxiously waiting for a decision of this subject for thirteen years. Last November the question was urged; the Georgia claimants asked to be heard; the board has been waiting; arguments have been written and read, and new evidence sought after; agents scouring the country in the search; and now, the issue being doubtful, an application is made to Congress to interfere, on behalf of those who have succeeded, to defeat fair claimants upon the definitive list who bore more hardships of the war and suffered more losses than those gentlemen who have been successful before the board.
In conclusion, I do most respectfully ask that a law may be enacted authorizing the payment of the twenty-five per cent. remaining unpaid upon awards heretofore entered up by the board; and that in future the whole amount of the awards may be paid as soon as they are concluded.
That further time may be given to such claimants upon the definitive list who are desirous to procure more evidence in support of their claims; but that the board shall forthwith proceed to decide any and every case which is docketed or which shall be docketed before them for examination and decision, and that the bill sent from the Senate may be amended to that effect.
Agent for many claimants before the Commission to award indemnity for slaves and other private property under the treaty of Ghent.