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French Spoliation claims.

For more than a century what are known as the French spoliation claims have been vainly urged on the attention of Congress. These claims originated as follows: In the year 1778, France and the United States entered upon a treaty of “commerce and amity,” by which each government pledged itself to exempt from search or seizure all vessels belonging to the other, even though such vessels were carrying the goods of its enemies; that is, each agreed to permit its commercial ally to carry on trade with an enemy, unless such trade dealt in goods that were known as contraband of war. At that time these two countries were allied in war against Great Britain, but when, some time after the close of the Revolutionary War, France was again involved in hostilities with that country, the United States refused to join her and proclaimed strict neutrality. France now found her American trade interfered with by Great Britain, while she was bound by treaty not to interfere with Great Britain's trade with the United States. Considering this injustice, she broke her treaty with this country, and confiscated the cargoes of American vessels trading with Great Britain. This country was in no mood or condition then to go to war with France, so the government overlooked these hostile acts, and, in 1797, and again in 1799, made overtures for a peaceful settlement. The claims of these American vessel-owners and merchants who had been despoiled of their property were presented by our commissioners, but the French government refused to take any account of them unless we would allow a counterclaim against the United States for a breach of the treaty of alliance. Much diplomatic fencing was resorted to, but there was no changing the French position on the subject.

The change in the government of France by the Revolution of 1830 was a favorable time for Mr. Rives, the American minister to France, to again propose a settlement. The French, as before stated, had set up a counter-claim of the non-fulfilment of the treaty of 1778; but the American government argued that subsequent events had exonerated the United States from all demands under that treaty. Mr. Rives succeeded in negotiating a treaty by which the long-pending controversy was closed. By it the French government agreed to pay to the United States, in complete satisfaction of all claims of American citizens for spoliations, nearly $5,000,000, in six annual instalments, $300,000 to be allowed by the American government to France for French citizens for ancient supplies, accounts, or other claims. The United States Senate ratified the treaty, but the French Chamber of Deputies refused to make the appropriation to carry it out, and an unpleasant dispute arose between the two governments. The matter was finally settled, as between the two governments, on the basis of the treaty in 1836.

Those American merchants, however, who had claims against the French government, objected to yielding up these claims to settle a debt of the government, and accordingly petitioned Congress to indemnify their losses. They argued, and justly, that France had admitted the fairness of these claims in yielding her own claims to satisfy them, and that the United States, in accepting this relinquishment, received a consideration fully worth the sum of the private claims, and thus bound herself in honor to pay them. However, this petition failed of its effect, and though repeated again and again, the claimants have not yet succeeded in securing the settlement of the claims. Committees of both Houses, it is true, have several times reported in favor of the claims, and an act appropriating money for them has twice passed Congress. This was vetoed the first time by President Polk, and the second time by President Pierce, and, but for the lack of one vote in the Senate, the first of these would have passed over the President's veto. Many of our greatest statemen— [478] Daniel Webster, Thomas Benton, Silas Wright, and others—have championed the cause of these claims in Congress with much eloquence. In 1883 a bill passed the Senate authorizing the court of claims to investigate these long-standing cases and report upon them. This bill passed the House in January, 1885, and was approved by the President. The original claimants have long since passed away,

Map of the massacre at Frenchtown.

and, with few exceptions, their children are also dead, but grandchildren and great-grandchildren may at least reap the benefit of tardy justice.

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