HC Deb 13 February 1812 vol 21 cc801-3
Mr. Lockhart

prefaced the motion of which he had given notice for referring the Petition of the suffering American Merchants [See p. 281.] to a committee, by a short history of their claims. The hon. gentleman stated that the Petitioners had, at a very distant period, debts to an immense amount due to them in America, for which, in consequence of an application on their part to the British government, and a remonstrance on the part of the British government to that of America, the American government consented, by an article in the Treaty of Commerce, to render themselves responsible. In 1784, four commissioners were appointed to investigate the nature of these debts, but after sitting ten years they were unable to make an award, as it always happened that when a point was pressed on the American commissioners, they retired, and would not return unless a promise were made them that that point should be abandoned. Again the creditors remonstrated; and in 1802, eight years after the termination of the commission, a convention was formed between the British and American governments, by which the former agreed to accept from the latter 600,000l. in lieu of all the debts for which America had before rendered herself responsible by treaty. He was instructed to state, that had the commissioners whom he had before mentioned, pursued their labours to a successful termination, they would in all probability have awarded two millions as the whole amount of that class of debts to which their investigation was directed. The creditors contended that they had a right to the full amount of their debts, guaranteed as they had been to them by the American government; and that if government, for good and sufficient reasons no doubt, thought proper to commute their claims, government was bound to make good the deficiency, and not to sacrifice their individual interest to the public advantage. There had been many cases (and the hon. gentleman instanced them) in which when the state gave up the rights of any of its citizens in its negociations with other states, it had afterwards felt itself bound to indemnify those citizens from the consequences of the surrender. But it might be asked, why had not the petitioners made an earlier application? The fact was, that in the 43d year of the King, a board of commissioners was appointed to enquire to whom the 600,000l. obtained from the American government was to be distributed. After a very laborious investigation, the lapse of so many years rendering it difficult for many individuals to establish their claims, it appeared to this board that no less than 1,420,000l. was due to the class of creditors respecting whom it had been appointed to enquire. Of the loss of the difference between this sum and 600,000l. the petitioners complained, and this loss, they contended, ought to be made good to them by the country.—They had availed themselves of the first opportunity of submitting to the House their grievances, and he now moved for a Committee, not by any means to consider the justice of the claims of the petitioners, but simply to inquire into the facts, and to lay those facts upon the table of the House. He understood that it was not likely the motion would be opposed.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

, in agreeing to refer the petition to a committee, begged it to be distinctly understood, that his concurrence in the motion was not occasioned by any impression on his mind that the case of the claimants was such as to call on the House to discharge the debt originally due to them in the American States. He was influenced not to withhold the consent of the crown to such a committee by the considerations of the great extent of the case, and the importance "of the circumstance to individuals. He apprehended, however, it would be found, that government having done all that it possibly could to enforce the claims of the petitioners on the American government, and having obtained all that it could for them from that government, without going to war on the subject, the petitioners would ultimately experience it to be impracticable to fix upon the country the obligation of paying them the difference between the sum actually received, and that which they alleged to be due.

Mr. Baring

did not see the necessity of referring the petition to the committee, in order that the facts alone might be laid on the table of the House. The question might be argued on the facts, as stated in the hon. gentleman's speech.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed, that the individuals concerned were desirous rather that the facts, should be reported by a committee of the House.

The motion was then agreed to and a Committee appointed.