PEACE, AND THE NEWFOUNDLAND FISHERIES
From the Pennsylvania Gazette, June 30, 1779:.
Messieurs Hall and Sellers
A piece of very extraordinary complexion made its appearance in your last paper, under the signature of Americanus, and what is equally as extraordinary, I have not yet met one advocate in its favor. To write under the curse of universal reprobation is hard indeed, and proves that either the writer is too honest for the world he lives in, or the world, bad as it is, too honest for him write in.
Some time last winter a worthy member of the Assembly of this State put into my hands, with some expressions of surprise, a motion which had copied from an original shown to him by another member, who tended to move it in the House. The purport of that, and the doctrine Americanus, bear such strong resemblance to each other that I make hesitation in believing them both generated from the sameparents. The intended motion, however, withered without being put, and Americanus; by venturing into being, has exposed himself to a less tranquil exit.
Whether Americanus sits in Congress or not, maybe the subject of future inquiry; at present I shall content myself with making some strictures on what he advances.
He takes it for granted that hints toward a negotiation for peace have been made to Congress, and that a debate has taken place in that House respecting the terms on which such a negotiation shall be opened.
It is reported, says he, that Congress are still debating what the terms shall be, and that some men strenuously insist on such as others fear will not be agreed to, and as they apprehend may prevent any treaty at all, and such as our ally [France], by his treaties with us, is by no means bound to support us in demanding.
Americanus, after running through a variety of introductory matter, comes at last to the point, and intimates, or rather informs, that the articular subject of debate in Congress has been respecting the fisheries n the Banks of Newfoundland, some insisting thereon as a matter of right and urging it as a matter of absolute necessity, others doubting, or appearing to doubt whether we have any right at all, and indifferentwhether the fisheries be claimed or not. Among the latter of which Americanus appears to be one.
Either Americanus does not know how to make a bargain, or he as already made one, and his affectation of modesty is the dress of design. How, I ask, can Americanus, or any other person, know what claims or proposals will be rejected or what agreed to, till they be made, offered or demanded? To suppose a rejection is to invite it, and to publish our “apprehensions,” as a reason for declining the claim, is encouraging the enemy to fulfil the prediction. Americanus may think what he pleases, but for my own part, I hate a prophesier of ill-luck, because the pride of being thought wise often carries him to the wrong side.
That an inhabitant of America or a member of Congress should become an advocate for the exclusive right of Britain to the fisheries, and signify, as his opinion, that an American has not a right to fish in the American seas, is something very extraordinary.
It is a question, says he, whether the subjects of these states had any other right to fishing than what they derived from their being subjects of Great Britain; and as it cannot be pretended that they were in the possession and enjoyment of the right either at the time of the Declaration of Independence or of signing the Treaties of Paris, nor that it was ever included in any on of the charters of the United States, it cannot be surprising that many, who judge a peace necessary for the happiness of these states, should be afraid of the consequences which may follow from making this an ultimatum in negotiation.
I should be glad to know what Ideas Americanus affixes to the words peace and independence; they frequently occur in his publication, but he uses them in such a neutral manner, that they have neither energy nor signification. Peace, it is true, has a pleasant sound, but he has nibbled it round, like Dr. Franklin’s description of a gingerbread cake, till scarcely enough is left to guess at the composition. To be at peace certainly implies something more than barely a cessation of war. It is supposed to be accompanied with advantages adequate to the toils of obtaining it. It is a state of prosperity as well as safety, and of honor as well as rest. His independence, too, is made up of the same letters which compose the independence of other nations, but it has something so sickly and so consumptive in its constitution, so limping and lingering in its manner, that at best it is but inleading strings, and fit rather for the cradle than the cabinet. But to return to his argument:
Americanus has placed all his reasons the wrong way, and drawn the contrary conclusions to what he ought to have done. He doubts the rights of the States to fish, because it is not mentioned in any of the charters. Whereas, had it been mentioned; it might have been contended that the right in America was only derivative; and been given as an argument that the original right lay in Britain. Therefore the silence of the charters, added to the undisturbed practice of fishing, admit the right to exist in America naturally, and not by grant, and in Britain only consequentially; for Britain did not possess the fisheries independent of America, but in consequence of her dominions in America. Her claiming territory here was her title deed to the fisheries, in the same manner that Spain claims Faulkland’s Island, by possessing the Spanish continent; and therefore her right to those fisheries was derived through America, and not the right of America through Britain. Wedded to the continent, she inherited its fortunes of islands and fisheries, but divorced therefrom, she ceases her pretensions.
What Americanus means by saying, that it cannot be pretended we were in the possession and enjoyment of the right either at the time of the Declaration of Independence, or of signing the Treaty of Paris, I am at a loss to conceive; for the right being natural in America, and not derivative, could never cease, and though by the events of war she was at that time dispossessed of the immediate enjoyment, she could not be dispossessed of the right, and needed no other proofs of her title than custom and situation.
Americanus has quoted the second and eleventh articles of the Treaty of Paris, by way of showing that the right to the fisheries is not one of those rights which France has undertaken to guarantee. To which I answer, that he may say the same by any particular right, because those articles describe no particular rights, but are comprehensive of every right which appertains to sovereignty, of which fishing in the American seas must to us be one.
Will Americanus undertake to persuade that it is not the interest of France to endeavor to secure to her ally a branch of trade which redounds to the mutual interest of both, and without which the alliance will lose half its worth? Were we to propose to surrender the right andpractice of fishing to Britain, we might reasonably conclude that France would object to such a surrender on our part, because it would not only render us a less valuable ally in point of commerce as well as power, but furnish the enemy of both with a new acquisition of naval strength; the sure and natural consequence of possessing the fisheries.
Americanus admits the fisheries to be an “object of great consequence to the United States, to two or three of them more especially.”
Whatever is of consequence to any, is so to all; for wealth like water soon spreads over the surface, let the place of entrance be ever so remote; and in like manner, any portion of strength which is lost or gained to any one or more states, is lost or gained to the whole; but this is more particularly true of naval strength, because, when on the seas it acts immediately for the benefit of all, and the ease with which it transports itself takes in the whole coast of America, as expeditiously as the land forces of any particular state can be arranged for its own immediate defense.
But of all the States of America, New York ought to be the most anxious to secure the fisheries as a nursery for a navy; - because the particular situation of that State, on account of its deep waters, is such, that it will ever be exposed to the approaches of an enemy, unless it be defended by a navy; and if any of the delegates of that State has acted a contrary part, he or they have either designedly or ignorantly betrayed the interest of their constituents, and deserve their severest censure.
Through the whole of this curious and equivocal piece, the premises and arguments have, in themselves, a suspicious appearance of being unfairly if not unjustly stated, in order to admit of, and countenance, wrong conclusions; for taking it for granted that Congress have been debating upwards of four months what the terms shall be on which they shall open a negotiation, and that the House are divided respecting their opinion of those terms, it does not follow from thence that the “public have been deceived" with regard to the news said to have arrived last February; and if they are deceived, the question is who deceived them? Neither do several other conclusions follow which he has attempted to draw, of which the two I shall now quote are sufficient instances.
If, says Americanus, the insisting on terms which neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Treaties of Paris authorized us to challenge as our rights, have caused the late, otherwise unaccountable delays, and prevented a peace, or at least a negotiation being open for one, those who have challenged and insisted on these claims are justly responsible for the consequences.
This I look on to be truly jesuitical; for the delay cannot be occasioned by those who propose, but by those who oppose, and therefore the construction should stand thus:
If the objecting to rights and claims, which are neither inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence or the Treaties of Paris, and naturally included and understood in both, has caused the late, otherwise unaccountable delays, and prevented a peace, or at least a negotiation for one, those who made such objections, and thereby caused such delays and prevented such negotiations being gone into, are justly responsible tor the consequences.
His next position is of the same cast, and admits of the same reversion.
Governor Johnstone, says he, in the House of Commons freely declared he had made use, while in America, of other means to effect the purpose of his commission than those of reason and argument; have we not, continues Americanus, good right from present appearances to believe that in this instance he declared the truth?
To this wonderful supposition I shall apply another, viz. That if Governor Johnstone did declare the truth, whom have we most right to suspect, those who are for relinquishing the fisheries to Britain, or those who are for retaining them?
Upon the whole, I consider the fisheries of the utmost importance to America, and her natural right thereto so clear and evident, that it does pot admit of a debate, and to surrender them is a species of treason for which no punishment is too severe.
I have not stepped out of my way to fetch in either an argument or a fact, but have confined my reply to the piece, without regard to who the author is, or whether any such debates have taken place or not, or how far it may or [may] not have been carried on one side or the other.
Philadelphia, June 26, 1779.