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Monroe, James (1758-1831) to John Quincy Adams

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC00969 Author/Creator: Monroe, James (1758-1831) Place Written: Washington, D.C. Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 20 May 1824 Pagination: 3 p. ; 24.5 x 20 cm.

Summary of Content: Written by Monroe as President to an unnamed recipient. The recipient is likely John Quincy Adams, however; this is inferred based on the content and on information in John Quincy Adams diary, discussing his meeting with Monroe on this topic on this day. Monroe says he is afraid that the treaty with Great Britain in which slave trading would be equated to piracy would be rejected. Says "the rejection of this convention, would in my opinion, produce very serious mischief." Claims that he heard "some of our estimable friends to the South" are against the treaty, but that he doesn't know why. Says the British want to extend the right to search, which is only a belligerent right at the moment, into a right during peace. Monroe says he is against it because Britain, as the dominant naval power, might abuse it. Says if treaty is passed it will make Europe think American and Great Britain can cooperate on other important issues and provide a boost to American prestige. Says that the party of William Wilberforce is pushing for the abolition of slavery and that George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, would like this treaty to go through to show that party he is on the right side of the issue. Monroe says he would like to strengthen Canning's ministerial party and not Wilberforce's abolition party and claims ratification of the treaty would assist the slave power in the United States that way. Says every way he can look at the issue that rejection would be a bad idea.

Background Information: Pressure to abolish slavery within the British Empire was already mounting in Britain in the mid-1820s. This effort would achieve success in 1833, when Britain emancipated 780,000 slaves, paying 20 million pounds ...sterling compensation to their owners and requiring the former slaves to work for a term as "apprentices."
In an effort to assist opponents of the African slave trade, the United States came close to agreeing in 1824 to allow Britain to search the ships of American slave traders. In this letter, President Monroe explains the agreement. By defining the slave trade as piracy, British ships would be allowed to stop and board American slave trading vessels, without arguments over sovereignty or affronts to American shipping. The measure was defeated, however, in the Senate.
Monroe was a sincere enemy of the African slave trade and was more liberal on the slavery issue than many historians have thought. Yet in this letter he expresses the clear view that emancipation in the British colonies would provide a dangerous precedent for the future. This document is valuable for suggesting that slavery was the supreme political issue in the United States, even if discussion was largely suppressed. In 1825, Congress decided against sending two U.S. delegates to the 1826 Panama conference where the issues of slavery and the slave trade would be discussed.
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Full Transcript: [draft]
I hear that the convention lately concluded with G. [B.], whereby the crime of piracy, is attached to the slave trade, is in danger of being rejected. As Congress ...made that trade, piratical, by law, and the H. of R. recommended it, by a resolution, wh. passed almost unanimously, to the Executive, to endeavour, by negotiation & treaty, with other powers, to make the trade piracy by the law of nations, the rejection of this convention, would in my opinion, produce very serious mischief. I hear with deep concern, that some of our estimable friends, to the South, are opposed to it, but on what grounds I know not. The British govt. wished, to adopt, & make general, a different plan, that is, to extend the right of search, which is a belligerent right, to a time of peace, & to board vessels on that principle. We feared that this [inserted: right thus] sanctioned, would be subject to abuse, in the hands of the superior naval power, and therefore declined it. under the authority, of Congress, we went further; the trade was made piratical, and the right of entry wod. rest on the crime, which if it became the law [2] of nations would be common to all. How make it the Law of nations otherwise than by treaty, commencing with one, & [proceeding] with others, as we have done with g. Britain, & are now attempting, with every other power. After what has passed, if we recede from the ground taken, & reject this treaty, in what light, will it place, Congress, the Ex: and the nation? It would be mo re to be lamented because, the sanction of this convention, at the present [epoch], with g.B., would afford an evidence of [illegible] with her, on one good subject, which would arrest the attention of Europe, that might afford a presumption that like [illegible] would as extended with this same power to other important objects, & particularly to So. America. If the trade is made piratical, you must enter the vessel, & search [far] for slaves. The project was formed here, & has been subjected to little modification, to none which touched any principal. As to the motives imputed to Mr. Canning, of acceding to our project, to sustain himself in Engld., admit the fact, & what the consequences? The Wilberforce party are pushing the policy of liberating the slaves in the W. Indies, to which Mr. Canning is opposed. By adopting our treaty, and making the trade piratical, he show d to that party, that he was as averse to the trade as they were, altho' he was not willing, to disturb the existing [state] in the Colonies, & ruin [3] the people there. Which of these parties, the wilberforce or ministerial, ought we to strengthen, or in other words, ought we to promote the emancipation of slaves in the W. Indies, or the retaining things in their present state there? In every light, that I can view the subject, I should consider the rejection of this treaty as a most dangerous measure. Will you call this morning that we may confer on it?
Sincerely yours
James Monroe
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People: Monroe, James, 1758-1831
Adams, John Quincy, 1767-1848

Historical Era: National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860

Subjects: African American HistorySlaveryPresidentPiratesCommerceSlave TradeTreatyGlobal History and US Foreign PolicyGlobal History and US Foreign PolicyDiplomacyNavyCivil RightsAbolitionGovernment and CivicsReform Movement

Sub Era: The First Age of Reform

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