Title: "The Congo Diplomacy"

Journal: New York Times

Place of Publication: New York

Date: January 31, 1885

People: Frelinghuysen, Frederick T. (Frederick Theodore), 1817-1885; Kasson, John A. 1822-1910

Place: Belgian Congo


Most Americans did not have access to Congressional debates about whether the U.S should recognize the sovereignty of King Leopold II of Belgium's Congo Free State—which prompted the convening of the Berlin Conference—or discussions of U.S. engagement with the "African Question." [note 1] They turned to newspapers to glean any information about the major international issue for the West at the time—the present and future state of African affairs. U.S. media coverage of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 was extensive, with articles published in the major coastal newspapers and dailies in the South, West, and Midwest, attesting to the scope of American interest in European designs on Africa.

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The Congo Diplomacy

This Country's Departure From Early Principles.

Mr. Herbert's Criticism of the Danger of the Attitude of the United States in the Congo Conference.

Washington, Jan. 30. -- The Foreign Affairs Committee of the House was surprised this morning to find the public in possession of the report of the Secretary of State on Mr. Belmont's resolution of inquiry about the Congo conference before it had reached the House. As intimated in these dispatches, there is a determination to make use of this motion to discuss the question of the propriety on the part of the United States of entering into diplomatic alliances which may become entangling.

Mr. Herbert, of Alabama, who introduced the first resolution of inquiry into this subject, and who has been very much interested in it, is disposed to doubt that Secretary Frelinghuysen has spoken freely, and, in a chat to-day on the subject, expresses the desire to know more about it.

"What do you think, Mr. Herbert, of the President's answers to the Congo resolutions?"

"Well, it is apparent the Secretary of State ought to have more clerical help. He had the resolutions about 23 days and then sent in less than 30 pages of manuscript. He gives his opinions and Mr. Kasson's very fully;of course, they think they have not violated the traditional policy of the country. But the information the House wanted is doled out very scantily. We are given mostly extracts, not even the full instructions sent to Mr. Kasson."

"Are these extracts sufficient to enable you to form an opinion about the matter?"

"Yes, the extracts seem to be fairly given, and I think that, though it may not so far be very serious, they show still the Government has made a mistake. It seems to me we had better kept hands off. What Washington and Jefferson meant by warning us against entangling alliances with foreign nations, and European powers especially, was that, except in so far as was necessary for the preservation of our own interests, we should have nothing to do with European diplomacy, Which bas bred so many wars. One leading idea of the Secretary of State and our Minister seems to be that while it might be wrong to enter into a treaty which had for its purpose the establishment of a State in Africa and fixing its boundaries, it is all right to meet with European powers and discuss and agree upon such propositions as will tend to effect these results. This loses sight of the fact that obligations are of different degrees. International obligations may arise from agreements which have not taken the form of treaty. They may arise even from conduct. Estoppel is an equitable doctrine, which applies as well between nations as between individuals. John Quincy Adams had the correct idea when he refused to consider a proposition for mixed commissions to try charges under the laws declaring the slave trade to be piracy. Mr. Adams was very anxious to enforce the laws and abolish the slave trade, but even to accomplish this great result he would enter into no complications with European powers."

"Do you think," was asked, "that he would have approved the course of the present Administration in this matter?"

"Certainly not. If he would not agree to joint Judges to punish violations of the law prohibiting the slave trade, he would most certainly not have consented to take part with European powers in a conference intended to aid in establishing and fixing the boundaries of a State to be erected in Africa."

"But does not the Secretary deny that he has done this?"

"I don't see how he can. Here are his own words in the instructions to Mr. Kasson: 'Whether the approaching conference can give further shape and scope to this project of creating a great State in the heart of Africa, whose organization and administration shall afford a guarantee that it is to be held for all time, as it were, in trust for the benefit of all peoples, remains to be seen.' This shows plainly enough what was in the Secretary's mind when he instructed Mr. Kasson. He hoped the conference would give 'shape and scope to the project of establishing a great State,' &c. Now, this was the very idea I gathered from the newspaper reports and put into the resolutions. When Mr. Kasson saw these resolutions, the telegraph at once reported his denial. Not only was this idea broached in the instructions by the Secretary, but that the conference was designed to subserve that ulterior purpose is plainly inferable from the Secretary's answer. He lays stress on the fact that Stanley, the great explorer, was an American citizen; that he had acquired rights in Africa by discovery. This Congo association is a joint stock enterprise, a sort of East India association, and the inference is clear that all the nations which shall participate in the Berlin conference and stand as godfathers to the enterprise are to have the benefit of free trade with the infant State. This seems to be the price the joint stock holders in this new venture are willing to pay to all these nations which will ally their joint influence for the success of the enterprise. For this reason, it seems, the President thinks we ought to be counted in as one of the sponsors. But then both the President and Mr. Kasson protest all along that, as many fashionable modern godfathers think, the whole thing is a mere ceremony, nothing but a form, as nobody is bound.

"It is very certain," continued Mr. Herbert, "that the stockholders of this association think there is something substantial in this conference. Their purpose is to get all the powers to agree upon and sanction beforehand what they intend to do with their claims in Africa. It might have been well enough for Hastings, when he had determined to rub the people of India, to get the approval of the British Government beforehand. These stockholders have learned wisdom from his example. They ask this conference even to settle their boundaries. Mr. Kasson tells us this conference is all about possessory rights, &c. Now, if the association is in possession of any definite and distinct rights, why should it ask the conference to determine where their boundaries ought to be? We find Mr. Kasson introducing Stanley as an expert to testify that the arrangement ought to embrace the several mouths of the Congo -- what he called the commercial delta. If the association had been in possession of this delta, Stanley would have said so. It will probably turn out, when all the facts come to light, that Portugal or some other Government has some claim to the country about the delta. Whether she will be bullied out of it by any agreement of the combined powers at the conference remains, in the language of the Secretary, 'to be seen.' So far as the United States are concerned, our attitude at the conference, the Secretary intimates, is that we are just talking, and not bound by anything; but then the other powers may take it into their heads that they ought to enforce whatever may be agreed upon as right. But as for us, we simply believed in free speech, that is all.

"It is said our interest in the Congo country is like that in the question of the sound dues or the navigation of the Danube. If that is so, why say anything about the rights acquired by Mr. Stanley? Is it not clear that the conference is rather a joint effort to further and maintain and even to broaden the rights of the joint association? The cases mentioned are entirely different from this. Denmark claimed the right, by prescription, to collect tolls or sound dues for the navigation of the channel along her border. The question was simply as to the sum in gross to be paid her for the relinquishment of the right she claimed, and the proportion of that sum to be paid by the United States. The navigation of the Scheldt and of the Danube were similar questions. The United States never before took part in a conference of nations which had any such purposes in view as this. If we are to let an enterprising citizen like Stanley lead us into such diplomacy as this, then it seems to me we must get ready for a new departure."

"What do you think the House will do about it?"

"That I don't know. We ought to have the documents in full. As we have not got them the Committee on Foreign Affairs, to which the answer is referred, ought to go on with such information as it can get and report its opinion. Probably the question cannot be reached in the House so late in the session, but it would be interesting to know at least what the committee thinks of this piece of new diplomacy."