Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 10 Treaty Files 1817-1861

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Chapter 10. Records of the Committee on Foreign Relations, 1816-1988

Records of the Committee on Foreign Relations, 1816-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Committee on Foreign Relations: Other Records, 1817-61 (14th - 36th Congresses)

10.9 The pre-Civil War records of the Committee on Foreign Relations consist of three series: Committee reports and papers, 1817-47 (9 in.); committee papers, 1851-60 (10 in.); and petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures that were referred to the committee, 1817-61 (5 ft.). There are no extant committee reports and papers for the 22d and 30th Congresses, but there are at least some records in the other two series for each Congress. The records are arranged by Congress, thereunder by series, and thereunder chronologically by date of petition, memorial, or report or by bill number. For some Congresses, petitions and memorials have been partially arranged by subject if warranted by volume.

10.10 Many of the committee papers and petitions referred to the committee during the pre-Civil War period concern claims. A file may occasionally contain correspondence, business and financial records, and affidavits and other written statements as exhibits to substantiate a claim.

10.11 Three types of claims were referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. One type includes claims from diplomatic and consular officers for additional compensation or relief for personal expenses incurred in the conduct of their official duties. These may detail certain aspects of the diplomatic relations between the United States and the host country. Some claims dragged on long after the claimant (minister, consul, or agent) left Government service or even after his death. For example, the heirs of Thomas Sumter, U.S. Minister to Brazil (1809-11) and Senator from South Carolina (1801-9), submitted 9 inches of correspondence and exhibits, mostly dated 1833, relating to their claim (25A-G7.2). While the volume of documentation in this case is atypical, many such officials, including Edmund Roberts (23A-G5) and Commodore Matthew C. Perry (33A-E5), who were instrumental in opening up the Far East to the United States, submitted petitions or had bills introduced on their behalf. Both the Roberts and Perry files contain correspondence and other records in addition to the bill or petition.

10.12 The second type includes claims of nondiplomatic personnel for contributions they believed they had made, directly or indirectly, to the U.S. Government through their overseas activities. For example, James Morrow, an agriculturist on Perry's China expedition, collected specimens for the Smithsonian Institution, and upon his return a bill to compensate him was introduced (34A-H7). Similarly, when John Reeves, an American naval architect residing in Turkey, was forced by the Sultan to construct vessels for the Ottoman Navy, he sought financial relief from the U.S. Government (36A-H7).

10.13 The third type of claims concerns damage to or loss of private property of Americans at the hands of foreign nationals or damage to foreign-owned property resulting from the action of the U.S. Government. One set of claims, known as the French spoliation cases, resulted from French attacks chiefly on American merchant vessels during the French Revolution through 1800, including the period of the so-called undeclared war. Between 1826 and 1860, four separate select committees considered these claims; however, many such claims were referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

10.14 Other than claims, the subjects of the papers referred to the committee most often relate to diplomatic relations with Great Britain, Spain, and their respective colonies (e.g., Canada, West Indies, Mexico, Cuba) and matters concerning present and future States, chiefly Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas.

10.15 Great Britain: Much of the diplomatic activity of the United States between the Treaty of Ghent and the onset of the Civil War concerned Great Britain, including British colonies such as Canada and the British West Indies. The records concern commercial relations with the West Indies (17A-D6), U.S. reaction to the 1854 reciprocity treaty with Great Britain (36A-H5.1), U.S. policy of neutrality in the 1837 Canadian rebellion against the British and modification of U.S. naturalization laws to challenge the British principle of perpetual allegiance (25A-G7.1), and U.S.-Canadian boundary disputes. The records document the long-running border dispute between the United States and Canada over the Maine-New Brunswick border and include a copy of a report of the Joint Select Committee of the Legislature of Maine on the boundary, 1828 (20A-D5); an original Senate report on the boundary issue (26A-D5); and petitions concerning American prisoners of war taken in the Aroostook War (27A-G6). The Maine border dispute was resolved in 1848 upon ratification of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

10.16 Spain and Spanish colonies: Also prominent during the period are U.S. relations with Spain and her former and then-existing colonies, including Mexico and Cuba. Many are private claims, but among the major subjects are: Implementation of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 (23A-D6), Texas independence (24A-D6, 24A-G5), relations with Cuba (32A-E4, 32A-H7.2), and implementation of conventions with Costa Rica and with New Grenada (36A-E5). Numerous records in both the committee papers and petitions concern U.S.-Mexican relations, especially the Mexican War, l845-48, including several petitions opposing the war (29A-G6, 30A-H6).

An 1844 Memorial to raise a body of armed volunteers to protect citizens in the territories.  An 1844 Memorial to raise a body of armed volunteers to protect citizens in the territories. (P.2)
Memorial of Joseph Smith, praying to be authorized to raise a body of armed volunteers for the protection of citizens of the United States emigrating to the adjoining territories, March 26, 1844 (SEN28A-G5.1) from NARA's National Archives Catalog  

10.17 Territory and State relations: Also referred to the committee were papers relating to boundary disputes and annexation claims between States and territories. These include a memorial of the legislature of Alabama seeking to annex part of West Florida in 1821 (16A-G5) and an original report on a boundary dispute between Louisiana and West Florida (23A-D6). The annexation of Texas, which narrowly passed the Senate on February 27, 1845, is documented by the committee papers and by petitions and memorials of the 28th and 29th Congresses (28A-D5, 28A-G5, 29A-D5). Also relating to territorial affairs, though not boundary disputes, is a petition from Mormon leader Joseph Smith "praying to be authorized to raise a body of armed volunteers for the protection of citizens of the United States emigrating to the adjoining territories," chiefly Texas and Oregon, dated March 26, 1844, only 3 months before his death at the hands of a mob in Carthage, IL. Accompanying the Smith petition is an April 1834 letter to President Andrew Jackson from three Mormon leaders in Missouri, A. S. Gilbert, W. W. Phelps, and E. Partridge, describing their mistreatment by the citizens and officials of Jackson Co., MO, and requesting Federal protection. How this letter became associated with the Smith petition dated 10 years later is unknown (28A-G5.1).

10.18 Other subjects: There are also a significant number of petitions supporting a more general peace movement. The American Peace Society and various religious groups supported the adjudication of international disputes by a "Congress of Nations" or similar international body, beginning in the late 1830's (25A-G7, 26A-G6, 27A-G6, 31A-H6). Other petitions supported recognition of the independence of Liberia and Haiti (29A-G6.1, 31A-H6.1, 35A-H5.1).

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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.