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State of the debt arising from the sale of the public lands-Western banks→→ Proceedings of the secretary of the treasury-Charges against him-Report of a committee thereon-Piracies in the West India seas-Their originPrincipal haunts-Armament for their suppression-Commodore Porter appointed to the command-Key West-Proceedings of the squadronSickness of the crews-Foxardo affair-Commodore Porter ordered homeCourt of inquiry-Its report-Court martial-Its proceedings and sentenceCommodore Porter engages in the Mexican service-Objections to such a measure-His conduct at New Orleans.
Western debts. In the year 1816, the debt due to government from the western section of the union, arising principally from the sale of public lands, exceeded twenty millions. As most of the expenditures of government were in the Atlantic states, it became necessary to transfer these funds from the west to the east. In this operation, the treasury experienced great difficulties. The course of exchange was uniformly against the west. The states in that section had followed the example of the east, in incorporating numerous banking institutions, with little specie capital. Previous to the commencement of the operations of the bank of the United States, the local banks of the west had necessarily been made the depositories of the government moneys, by the aid of which, they sustained a doubtful credit, and extended their operations. By the charter of the government bank, that institution was made the exclusive depository of the public funds, in consideration of its engagement to transfer them, free of expense, from the place of collection, to that of disbursement. In the year 1817, the operation of transferring the public moneys from the local banks, to the branches of the United States bank in the west, commenced; and was attended with great difficulties and embarrassments. The state banks were obliged to stop discounts; call in heavy instalments from their customers, and suspend specie payments where it had not already been done. Some of the least cautious became insolvent. Great pecuniary embarrassment and consequent irritation ensued. A determined hostility against the United States bank pervaded the west. Attempts were made to
drive its branches from the state of Ohio, by an enormous tax, which, however, was adjudged to be unconstitutional by the supreme court of the United States.
Proceedings of the secretary of the treasury. The secretary of the treasury, desirous, as much as was in his power, to mitigate these evils, made an arrangement with some of the local banks, which he considered the most safe, to continue them as the depositories of the public funds, with the consent of the bank of the United States. A certain portion of these deposits the banks were authorized to consider as permanent, and count upon as active capital. In twelve banks, deposits of this description amounted to $900,000. For this accommodation, the banks agreed to pay government drafts when presented, and transfer the funds which were not to be considered as permanent, to such places as the secretary should direct. Subsequent to this arrangement, several of the banks stopped payment, with public money in their hands amounting to $440,820, a considerable portion of which was finally lost.
No financial operations had been attended with greater difficulties, since the commencement of the government, than the management of the unavailable funds in the west. During the period of Mr. Crawford's administration of the treasury department, from 1816 to 1824, twenty-one millions of dollars had been collected in that section, and realized; admitting, then, the whole sum in the hands of the insolvent banks to be lost, it would not much exceed two per cent. on the whole amount collected, a sum less than could be expected, taking into view the state of the currency during that period.
Charge against Mr. Crawford. The whole course of Mr. Crawford's administration had proved him to be a man of the strictest integrity, and an able and skillful financier. His conduct, however, did not escape the severe animadversion of his enemies. He had become a prominent candidate in the presidential election of 1824; and as is to be expected on such occasions, every thing, true or false, which could be brought to bear on that question with any semblance of probability, was brought forward. Near the close of the first session of the eighteenth congress, Ninian Edwards, formerly governor of the state of Illinois, and then a member of the senate of the United States, in an address directed to the speaker of the house of representatives, and transmitted to him by the writer from Wheeling, after he had left Washington, to prepare for a mission to Mexico,
accused the secretary of the treasury of mismanaging the public funds; violating the law regulating the treasury department; and endeavoring to screen his conduct from the view of congress, by giving incorrect and unsatisfactory answers to their calls for information relating to the government moneys in the west.
Report of the committee of the house of representatives. On this representation, the house of representatives appointed a committee to investigate his conduct, with power to send for persons and papers. Before that committee, Mr. Crawford made an able, satisfactory, and unanswerable defense. In a detailed statement of his transactions with the western banks, he was able to show that his conduct had been regulated by a strict conformity to the law, and a sacred regard to the public interest. That the course he pursued had resulted to the advantage of all concerned. The committee, in their report, say, "that no intentional misstatement has been made to the house; that no document or information has been withheld from improper motives; and that the result does not show in the treasury department any want either of fidelity or prudence in the management of the public funds." The report was the more honorable to the secretary, as a majority of the committee were his political opponents; and though sparing in commendation, contains a complete acquittal of the charges. The investigation silenced his enemies, and placed him on high ground in view of the nation. In the same degree, the character of his principal accuser suffered. The part he took against Mr. Crawford obliged him to abandon his Mexican mission, and retire to private life.
West India piracies. `An alarming system of piracy in the West India seas sprang up out of the war between Spain and the South American republics, destructive to the commerce of the United States. In the early stages of that war, those provinces having very little shipping of their own, granted commissions for privateering against the commerce of Spain, to any foreigner who applied. Numerous vessels were fitted out in the ports of the United States, and elsewhere, commissions taken from the republics of the south, and a destructive war carried on against the navigation of Spain. The business, lucrative at first, became much less so, by the precautions of the Spanish government to guard against it. Privateering and piracy are nearly allied the latter is often the offspring of the former. Foreigners, whose nation is at peace with Spain, who can
make up their minds to rob and plunder her vessels under a Buenos Ayrean commission, will, in most cases where the prospect of greater gain presents itself, readily engage in the same business against the vessels of all nations, without a commission. Desperate gangs of this description, of various nations, and of all colors, infested the American seas from 1818 to 1823, to such an extent as to render their navigation extremely dangerous. Their robbery was often accompanied with the most cool-blooded and barbarous murder. The question, whether they should murder the crew and scuttle the vessel, was determined only by the consideration of its being the safest course, and was often, and probably in the greater number of instances, done.
Their principal haunts were on the northern coast of the island of Cuba, from one to two hundred miles distant from Havana. There they found a region uninhabited, out of the sphere of the operation of the Spanish authorities, indented with numerous small inlets, affording secure places of retreat for their small craft, and inaccessible to vessels of any considerable size. The pirates had their agents at Havana and Matanzas, to give them notice of the sailing of merchant vessels from those ports. Such as sailed without convoy were almost sure of falling a prey to them. The fruits of their plunder were disposed of at those ports with very little attempt at concealment.
The course first taken by the government to protect their commerce in those seas, was to place there the Congress frigate and eight small ships, for the purpose of affording convoys, and suppressing piracies. This force, in the year preceding, November, 1822, captured and destroyed upwards of twenty piratical vessels on the coast of Cuba. But it did not effectually answer the purpose, as it was not provided with the means of following them into their recesses, and breaking up their haunts.
Means taken to suppress piracies. Early in the second session of the seventeenth congress, in December, 1822, an act was passed, making provision for an armament of a different description, to consist of light vessels and boats, calculated to pursue the pirates to their hiding places; and appropriating $160,000 to that object. In execution of this law, an additional force, consisting of the Peacock sloop of war, a steam galliot, and ten small vessels, carrying three or four guns each, was provided for the West India service, and with the vessels then on the station, placed under the command of Commodore Porter. The armament
sailed towards the last of February for St. Thomas, the. place of their first rendezvous.
Proceedings at Porto Rico. Off Porto Rico, the commodore dispatched a letter to the captain general of that island, informing him of the object of the expedition, requesting his co-operation, and wishing for a descriptive list of the privateers from that island bearing regular commissions, that the ships under his command might not interrupt them. The officer charged with the message, not returning as soon as was expected, a second, and a third vessel was sent to the port of St. Johns to learn the cause. The latter, under the command of Lieutenant Coke, was forbidden to enter the harbor. The reason assigned by the lieutenant governor, commanding in the absence of the captain general, was, that as one hostile armament had lately been fitted out from the ports of the Uuited States, under Ducoudray, against Porto Rico, a regard to the safety of the island required, that not more than two vessels of war from that power should be permitted to enter the harbor at once. The Fox, in endeavoring to enter against this order, was fired upon from the fort, and Lieutenant Coke killed. On the return of the captain general, he disapproved of the measure, apologized to Commodore Porter, gave free entrance to his ships, and directed the interment of Lieutenant Coke with military honors.. The little armament was divided into four squadrons and sent to reconnoitre the northern coast of Cuba and St. Domingo. Key West. The commodore then proceeded to Key West, which had been designated as a place of general rendezvous in his instructions. This is the largest of the small islands on the Florida coast, denominated keys because they guard the passages from the main ocean to the shore. It is seven miles long, and two wide, thirty miles distant from the nearest land, and seventy from Havana. It was taken possession of in the preceding year, by Lieutenant Perry, in the schooner Shark, for the purpose of a naval station in the Florida seas. It has a convenient harbor, denominated Port Rodgers. Its name was changed to that of Thompson's island, in honor of the secretary of the navy, under whose direction it was occupied. The settlement was afterwards denominated Allenton, out of respect to the memory of Lieutenant Allen, slain by the pirates.
Success of the expedition. A more difficult and hazardous service was scarcely ever undertaken. A long and constant exposure to a tropical sun by day, and deadly chills