HC Deb 06 May 1841 vol 57 cc1493-8

Mr. Hume moved for a Copy of the Correspondence between the Legation of the United States in London and the Secretary of State for the Foreign Department in relation to the Destruction of the Steamboat Caroline; also a copy of the correspondence between Mr. Fox, the British Minister at Washington, and the Secretary of the United States, in relation to the destruction of the steam-boat Caroline, also a copy of the correspondence between the Lieutenant-governors of Upper Canada and the Governor-general of the Canadas, and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in relation to the destruction of the steamboat Caroline. He would not enter into the merits of the question, but he certainly was of opinion, that the correspondence which had been publicly laid before Congress, ought to be likewise before that House, and that if it had been produced at an earlier period it would have tended to prevent much of the excitement which prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lord J, Russell

said, that motions relating to matters still in course of negotiation with foreign governments were so entirely unusual, and so much inconvenience to the public service would attend the production of the correspondence now moved for, that he was sure the House would not support the hon. Member for Kilkenny, who, in fact, required the production of the most confidential portion of the correspondence between the Governors of Upper and Lower Canada and the Secretary of State. He did not think the hon. Member was precisely aware how the matter stood. The Government of the United States had made a complaint of the conduct of certain individuals and officers belonging to Upper Canada, who were said to have taken a part in the destruction of the steam-boat Caroline. The result of that complaint was the transmission of a great quantity of correspondence, and various statements made by the Governor of Upper Canada and several individuals who were concerned in the transaction. The American government sent counter-statements, but they did not persist in asking for a final answer to their demand; the effect of which was, that the acts of the British Government ceased to be matter of discussion between the two Governments. It was not for the British Government to follow up these negotiations by saying to the American. Government, that they must desist from their former demands; or for the United States to say, that they had been in the wrong in making such demand. All that could be expected was, that the United States Government should have allowed the subject to drop; and he was convinced, that it would have dropped, and no longer have been discussed between the two Governments, had it not been for the unfortunate arrest of Mr. M'Leod, which completely revived it, and the discussions regarding it. With regard to the correspondence now moved for, he could only say, that the production of it would be inconvenient to the public service—would tend to embarrass the negotiations which were now going on between the countries in a most amicable spirit, and might have the effect of weakening the friendly relations of two mighty and intelligent nations.

Mr. Hume

said, that if the papers he moved for were laid upon the Table they would prove the reverse of what the noble Lord the Secretary for the Foreign Department had stated. That noble Lord had asserted, that the American government, had not persisted in demanding an answer to their communication of the 22nd of May, 1838, whereas, Mr. Forsyth distinctly stated, in the correspondence which was before the world, that Mr. Stevenson would not be instructed to press for an answer, because Mr. Fox had told him, that he expected an answer direct from this country in a few days. What he wanted was, to have on the Table of the House those papers which would convince the House that the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who on a former occasion stated, that he had transmitted an answer to the American government, never had transmitted any answer up to that hour. The right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth stated, some time ago, that there must be a limit to the patience of the House regarding the refusal of public documents; and, in his opinion, that time had now arrived. Had the documents connected with the affairs of Syria been produced, when he had moved for them he was convinced that the affairs of the East would have been settled much sooner, and much of the loss which the country had since sustained would have been avoided. He only wanted, in the present case, the printed correspondence; he wanted no secrets, and he hoped the House would support him in endeavouring to compel the noble Lord to produce it. Had he been furnished with it sooner, the question would have been forced upon the attention of the Government, and might before this have been completely settled.

Lord John Russell

said, that the production of the correspondence in question would not enable the hon. Gentleman to attain the object he had in view. The American government had asked for redress for the burning of the Caroline, and to that demand her Majesty's Government had deliberately, and not through any neglect, thought it proper not to give a formal and final answer. But his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had since informed the American Minister at the Court of London, that the British Government had justified the destruction of the Caroline; upon which the American Minister made a communication to his government, which communication had not yet transpired. His noble Friend (Lord Palmerston) was therefore perfectly justified in the statement he had made on a former occasion.

Mr. Hume

said, that since the 22nd of May, 1838, when the American Government sent a communication to Lord Palmerston, requesting satisfaction up to the present, or, at least, up to the period at which he (Mr. Hume) last introduced the question to the notice of the House, no answer had been given, verbally or by letter, to that communication; so that the House had been entirely misled and abused by the allegation of the noble Lord, that in answer had been given.

Sir Robert Peel

understood the noble Lord the Secretary for the Colonies to meet the motion of the hon. Member by declaring, that negotiations connected with the subject were now pending, that they were conducted on both sides in an amicable spirit, and that the production of the correspondence moved for would be prejudicial to the public service. Now, he confessed that a statement of that kind, coming from the Minister of the Crown, was, with him (Sir Robert Peel), conclusive. Without offering any opinion upon the unfortunate state of ignorance they were in at present respecting our foreign relations; he must say, that it would be most unwise to attempt to force a Minister of the Crown to produce a correspondence after such a declaration as the noble Lord had made. He wished to ask the noble Lord what position Mr. M'Leod himself was in at present. He understood that the British Government had avowed the destruction of the Caroline as a public act, and had called on the Government of the United States to release Mr. M'Leod. In what position did the matter now stand? Would he be released, or would the law be allowed to take its course?

Lord John Russell

said, that the statement made in answer to Mr. Fox was, that the attorney-general of the United States government had proceeded to the place at which the trial of Mr. M'Leod was expected to take place, and would there act according to certain instructions he had received from the American government, which he (Lord John Russell) did not deem it necessary to state to the House; that the Attorney-general had not himself taken any steps in the matter; but that the counsel for M'Leod having stated, that one of his defences was, that the act had been authorised by the British Government, applied to have the case removed to a federal court, and that that application was granted. He trusted that the American government would, when in a federal court, do that which he was told they could only do in a federal court.

Mr. W. S. O'Brien

hoped the noble Lord would not refuse those documents which had already appeared in the American papers. Surely no inconvenience would arise from their production.

Sir Robert Peel

hoped the noble Lord would refuse them, as he thought that the application for or granting of just so much information as another country published would be very derogatory to the British Parliament. The statements already pub- lished were of an ex parte character, and might give a most unfavourable view of the case as regarded this country. So that by agreeing to the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman, they might be giving their sanction to these unfavourable and perhaps unjust statements.

Sir D. L. Evans

could not understand the object of pressing for papers which hon. Gentlemen had already read, after the declaration of the noble Lord.

Mr. P. Howard

thought, that at a time when this country, as well as the United States, were deploring the loss of the able chief magistrate of that country, it was highly indelicate to press such a motion us this just as the new governor was under-taking the management of the United States. He believed that there was a strong feeling on both sides of the Atlantic for the preservation of the amicable relations between the two countries. The great commercial body was particularly anxious on the subject, and was particularly desirous that the greatest deliberation should attend the conducting of those negotiations. He trusted the motion would not be pressed.

Mr. T. Duncombe

observed, that according to the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth, this country should not possess the same information as was possessed by other countries. They only asked for the papers relating to the arrest of Mr. M'Leod, and why the British Parliament should not have them as well as the Congress of the United States, he was at a loss to conceive. Whether that information were withheld or not, he wished to know if the Government intended to allow the trial of Mr. M'Leod to be proceeded with; because the feeling throughout the country was this—that our national honour was compromised by the detention in prison of Mr. M'Leod. The guilt or innocence of Mr. M'Leod had nothing to do with the question, as it was notorious that the Government would escape from the dilemma by the proof of Mr. M'Leod's not having been present at the destruction of the Caroline. But Mr. M'Leod had been arrested and detained in prison, and if they had a right to detain him, they had a right to try him, and if to try him, to execute him, should he be found guilty. What he wanted to know, therefore, was, whether, in the event of such a verdict, the Government intended to allow Mr. M'Leod to be executed? Because, if not, they should have stopped the matter in limine, and not al- lowed him to be thrown into prison. Suppose Captain Drew was travelling in the United States, was arrested, tried, and found guilty, would it be borne, that an English officer was so to be treated by a foreign country for obeying the orders of his own Government? He asked, therefore, did the Government mean to allow Mr. M'Leod's trial to proceed? He had been already imprisoned for six months, and the people of England had a right to know why.

Sir R. Peel

observed, that the question was; not whether Mr. M'Leod—respecting whose arrest and imprisonment he (Sir R. Peel) would give no opinion whatever—ought to be released or not, but whether these papers, the production of which the noble Lord had told them, would be prejudicial to the negotiations which were now being carried on in an amicable spirit between the two countries, should lie laid upon the Table of the House.

Motion negatived.