Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 25


Controversy respecting America.—Conduct of American Diplomatists.—Attachés to American Legations.—Unworthy State of Public Opinion in America.

Dear ——,

The recent arrivals from America have brought a document that has filled me with surprise and chagrin. You may remember what I have already written you on the subject of a controversy at Paris, concerning the cost of government, and the manner in which the agents of the United States, past and present, wrongfully or not, were made to figure in the affair. There is a species of instinct in matters of this sort, which soon enables a man of common sagacity, who enjoys the means of observation, to detect the secret bias of those with whom he is brought in contact. Now, I shall say, without reserve, that so far as I had any connexion with that controversy, or had the ability to detect the feelings and wishes of others, the agents of the American government were just the last persons in France to whom I would have applied for aid or information. The minister himself stood quoted by the Prime Minister of France in the tribune, as having assured him (M. Perier) that we were the wrong of the disputed question, and that the writers of the French government had truth on their side. This allegation remains before the world uncontradicted to the present hour. It was made six months since, leaving ample time for a knowledge of the circumstance to reach America, but no instructions have been sent to Mr. Rives to clear the matter up; or, if sent, they have not been obeyed. With these unquestionable facts before my eyes, you will figure to yourself my astonishment at finding in the papers, a circular addressed by the Department of State to the different governors of the Union, formally soliciting official reports that may enable us to prove to the world, that the position taken by our opponents is not true! This course is unusual, and, as the Federal government has no control over, or connexion with, the expenditures of the States, it may even be said to be extra-constitutional. It is formally requesting that which the Secretary of State had no official right to request. There was no harm in the proceeding, but it would be undignified, puerile, and unusual, for so grave a functionary to take it, without a commensurate object. Lest this construction should be put on his course, the Secretary has had the precaution to explain his own motives. He tells the different governors, in substance, that the extravagant pretension is set up flat freedom is more costly than despotism, and that what he requests may be done, will be done in the defence of liberal institutions. Here then we have the construction that has been put on this controversy by our own government, at home, through one of its highest and ablest agents. Still the course of its agents abroad remains unchanged! Here the American functionaries are understood to maintain opinions, which a distinguished functionary at home has openly declared to be injurious to free institutions.

It may be, it must be, that the state of things here is unknown at Washington. Of this fact I have no means of judging positively; but when I reflect on the character and intelligence of the cabinet, I can arrive at no other inference. It has long been known to me that there exists, not only at Washington, but all through the republic, great errors on the subject of our foreign relations; on the influence and estimation of the country abroad; and on what we are to expect from others, no less than what they expect from us. But these are subjects which, in general, give me little concern, while this matter of the finance controversy has become one of strong personal interest.

The situation of the private individual, who, in a foreign nation, stands, or is supposed to stand, contradicted in his facts, by the authorized agents of their common country, is anything but pleasant. It is doubly so in Europe, where men fancy those in high trusts are better authority, than those who are not. It is true that this supposition under institutions like ours, is absurd; but it is not an easy thing to change the settled convictions of an entire people. In point of truth, other things being equal, the American citizen who has been passing his time in foreign countries, employed in diplomacy, would know much less of the points mooted in his discussion, than the private citizen who had been living at home, in the discharge of his ordinary duties; but this is a fact not easily impressed on those who are accustomed to see not only the power, but all the machinery of government in the hands of a regular corps of employés. The name of Mr. Harris was introduced into the discussion, as one thus employed and trusted by our government. It is true he was falsely presented, for the diplomatic functions of this gentleman were purely accidental, and of very short continuance; but there would have been a littleness in conducting an argument that was so strong in its facts, by stooping to set this matter right, and it was suffered to go uncontradicted by me. He therefore possessed the advantage, the whole time, of appearing as one who enjoyed the confidence of his own government. We had this difficulty to overcome, as well as that of disproving his arguments, if, indeed, the latter could be deemed a difficulty at all.[41]

The private individual, like myself, who finds himself in collision with the agents of two governments, powerful as those of France and America, is pretty sure to get the worst of it. It is quite probable that such has been my fortune in this affair (I believe it to be so in public opinion, both in France and at home), but there is one power of which no political combination can deprive an honest man, short of muzzling him:—that of telling the truth. Of this power I have now availed myself, and the time will come when they who have taken any note of the matter may see reason to change their minds. Louis-Philippe sits on a throne, and wields a fearful force; but, thanks to him of Harlem (or of Cologne, I care not which), it is still within my reach to promulgate the facts. His reign will, at least, cease with his life, while that of truth will endure as long as means can be found to disseminate it. It is probable the purposes of the French ministers are answered, and that they care little now about the controversed points at all; but their indifference to facts can have no influence with me.

Before dismissing this subject entirely, I will add another word on that of the tone of some of our agents abroad. It is not necessary for me to say, for the tenth time, that it is often what it ought not to be; the fact has been openly asserted in the European journals, and there can, therefore, be no mistake as to the manner in which their conduct and opinions are viewed by others. Certainly every American has a right to his opinions, and, unless under very peculiar circumstances, a right to express them; but, as I have already said to you in these letters, one who holds a diplomatic appointment is under these peculiar circumstances. We are strangely, not to say disgracefully, situated, truly, if an American diplomate is to express his private opinions abroad on political matters only when they happen to be adverse to the system and action of his own government! I would promptly join in condemning the American agent who should volunteer to unite against, or freely to give his opinions, even in society, against the political system of the country to which he is accredited. Discretion and delicacy both tell him to use a proper reserve on a point that is of so much importance to others, while it is no affair of his, and by meddling with which he may possibly derange high interests that are entrusted to his especial keeping and care. All this is very apparent, and quite beyond discussion. Still circumstances may arise, provocations may be given, which will amply justify such a man in presenting the most unqualified statements in favour of the principles he is supposed to represent. Like every other accountable being, when called to speak at all, he is bound to speak the truth. But, admitting in the fullest extent the obligations and duties of the diplomatic man towards the country to which he is sent, is there nothing due to that from which he comes? Is he to be justified in discrediting the principles, denying the facts, or mystifying the results of his own system, in order to ingratiate himself with those with whom he treats? Are rights thus to be purchased by concessions so unworthy and base? I will not believe that we have yet reached the degraded state that renders a policy so questionable, or a course so mean, at all necessary. It really appears to me, that the conduct of an American minister on all these points ought to be governed by a very simple rule. He should in effect tell the other party, "Gentlemen, I wish to maintain a rigid neutrality, as is due to you; but I trust you will manifest towards me the same respect and delicacy, if not on my own account, at least on account of the country I represent. If you drag me into the affair in any way, I give you notice that you may expect great frankness on my part, and nothing but the truth." Such a man would not only get a treaty of indemnity, but he would be very apt to get the money into the bargain.

The practice of naming attachés to our legations leads to great abuses of this nature. In the first place the Constitution is violated; for, without a law of Congress to that effect (and I believe none exists), not even the President has a right to name one, without the approval of the Senate. In no case can a minister appoint one legally, for the Constitution gives him under no circumstances any such authority; and our system does not admit of the constructive authority that is used under other governments, unless it can be directly referred to an expressly delegated power. Now the power of appointment to office is expressly delegated; but it is to another, or rather to another through Congress, should Congress choose to interfere. This difficulty is got over by saying an attaché is not an officer. If not an officer of the government, he is nothing. He is, at all events, deemed to be an officer of the government in foreign countries, and enjoys immunities as such. Besides, it is a dangerous precedent to name to any situation under a pretence like this, as the practice may become gradually enlarged. But I care nothing as to the legality of the common appointments of this nature, the question being as to the tone of the nominees. You may be assured that I shall send you no idle gossip; but there is more importance connected with these things than you may be disposed at first to imagine. Here, these young men are believed to represent the state of feeling at home, and are listened to with more respect than they would be as simple travellers. It would be far better not to appoint them at all; but, if this is an indulgence that it would be ungracious to withhold, they should at least be made to enter into engagements not to deride the institutions they are thought to represent; for, to say nothing of principle, such a course can only re-act, by discrediting the national character.

In writing you these opinions, I wish not to do injustice to my own sagacity. I have not the smallest expectation, were they laid to-morrow before that portion of the American public which comprises the reading classes, that either these facts or these sentiments would produce the least effect on the indomitable selfishness, in which nine men in ten, or even a much larger proportion, are intrenched. I am fully aware that so much has the little national pride and national character created by the war of 1812 degenerated, that more of this class will forgive the treason to the institutions, on account of their hatred of the rights of the mass, than will feel that the republic is degraded by the course and practices of which I complain. I know no country that has retrograded in opinion so much as our own, within the last five years. It appears to me to go back, as others advance. Let me not, therefore, be understood as expecting any immediate results, were it in my power to bring these matters promptly and prominently before the nation. I fully know I should not be heard, were the attempt made; for nothing is more dull than the ear of him who believes himself already in possession of all the knowledge and virtue of his age, and peculiarly entitled, in right of his possessions, to the exclusive control of human affairs. The most that I should expect from them, were all the facts published to-morrow, would be the secret assent of the wise and good, the expressed censure of the vapid and ignorant (a pretty numerous clan, by the way), the surprise of the mercenary and the demagogue, and the secret satisfaction of the few who will come after me, and who may feel an interest in my conduct or my name. I have openly predicted bad consequences, in a political light, from the compliance of our agents here, and we shall yet see how far this prediction may prove true.[42]

James Fenimore Cooper

Sorry, no summary available yet.