Peace and the Newfoundland Fisheries

(FIRST LETTER - This letter appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette of June 30, 1779. -Editor.)



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 with one advocate in its favour. 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 to write in.

Some time last winter a worthy member of the Assembly of this State put into my hands, with some expressions of surprize, a motion which he had copied from an original shewn to him by another member, who intended to move it in the House. The purport of that, and the doctrine of Americanus, bear such strong resemblance to each other that I make no hesitation in believing them both generated from the same parents. 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, may be the subject of future enquiry; at present I shall content myself with making some strictures on what he advances.

He takes it for granted that hints toward a negociation 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, 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 particular subject of debate in Congress has been respecting the fisheries on 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 indifferent whether 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 has 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 fulfill the prediction. Americanus may think what he pleases, but for my own part, I hate a prophecier 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 one 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 a negociation.”

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 honour 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 in leading 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 right 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 2d and 11th 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 Americans undertake to persuade, that it is not the interest of France to endeavour 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 and practice 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 defence. 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 negociation, 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 negociation 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 negociation for one, those who made such objections, and thereby caused such delays and prevented such negotiations being gone into, are justly responsible for 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, who 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 not admit of a debate, and to surrender them is a species of treason for which no punishment is too severe.

I have not stept 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 not have been carried on one side or the other.


Philadelphia, June 26.

(SECOND LETTER - The second letter appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette of July 14, 1779. -Editor)

Messieurs HaALL & SELLERS.

AMERICANUS, in your last, has favored the public with a description of himself as a preface to his piece. “I am, says he, neither a member of Congress or of the Assembly of this State, or of any other, but a private citizen, in moderate circumstances in point of fortune, and whose political principles have never been questioned.” All this may be very true, and yet nothing to the purpose; neither can the declaration be admitted either as a positive or negative proof of what his principles are. They may be good, or they may not, and yet be so well known as not to be doubted by those who know the writer. Joseph Galloway formerly wrote under the signature of Americanus, and tho’ every honest man condemns his principles, yet nobody pretends to question them. When a writer, and especially an anonymous one, really means to declare his political principles as a reinforcement to his arguments, he ought to be full, clear, and decisive, but this declaration is so ambiguously constructed and so unmeaningly applied, that it may be used by any and every person either within or without the enemy’s lines, for it does not declare what his principles are, but that, be they what they may, they are not questioned.

Before I proceed, I cannot help taking notice of another inconsistency in his publication of last week. “In my last,” says he, “I said that it was very unhappy that this question has been touched on or agitated at all at this time, to which, continues he, I will now add, it is particularly so, that it is become a subject of discussion in the public papers.” This is very extraordinary from the very man who first brought it into the public papers. A short piece or two, on the importance of fisheries in general, were anonimously published some time ago; but as a matter of treaty debate in Congress, or as a matter of right in itself, with the arguments and grounds on which they proceeded, Americanus is originally chargeable with the inconvenience he pretends to lament. I with some others had heard, or perhaps knew, that such a subject was in debate, and tho’ I always laid myself out to give it a meeting in the papers whenever it should appear, I never hinted a thought that might tend to start it.

“To permit the public,” says Americanus, “to be made acquainted with what are to be the ultimate demands in a proposed treaty is really something new and extraordinary, if not impolitic and absurd.” — There is a compound of folly and arrogance in this declaration, which deserves to be severely censured. Had he said, that to publish all the arguments of Congress, on which any claim in a proposed treaty is founded or objected to, might be inconvenient and in some cases impolitic, he would have been nearly right; but the ultimate demand itself ought to be made known, together with the rights and reasons on which that demand is founded.

But who is this gentleman who undertakes to say that to permit the public to be made acquainted is really impolitic and absurd? And to this question I will add that if he distinguishes Congress into one body, and the public into another, I should be glad to know in what situation he places himself, so as not to be subject to his own charge of absurdity. If he belongs to the former, he has, according to his own position, a right to know but not to tell, and if to the latter, he has neither a right to know nor to tell, and yet in some character or other he has done both. If this gentleman’s political principles were never questioned before, I think they ought to be questioned now; for a man must be a strange character indeed, whom no known character can suit.

I am the more inclined to suspect Americanus, because he most illiberally, and in contradiction to every thing sensible and reasonable, endeavoured, in his former piece, to insinuate that Governor Johnstone had bribed a party in Congress to insist on the right of the United States to fish on the Banks of Newfoundland. An insinuation so impolitic and absurd, so wide and foreign to the purpose of Governor Johnstone’s commission, can only be understood the contrary way; namely, that he had bribed somebody or other to insist that the right should not be insisted on.

The expression of Governor Johnstone, as printed in the English papers, is literally this. “I do not, says he, mean to disavow I have had transactions, where other means have been used besides persuasion.” Governor Johnstone was in no places in America but Philadelphia and New-York, and these other means must have been used in one or other, or both of these places. We have had evidence of one application of his, with an offer of ten thousand guineas, which was refused, and treated with the disdain it deserved; for the offer of a bribe contains in it, to all men of spirit, the substance of an affront. But it is strange indeed, if the one that was refused was the only one that was offered. Let any person read Americanus in your paper of June 23, and if he can after that acquit him of all suspicion, he must be charitable indeed.

But why does not Americanus declare who he is. This is no time for concealment, neither are the presses, tho’ free, to become the vehicles of disguised poison. I have had my eye on that signature these two months past, and to what lengths the gentleman meant to go himself can best decide. In his first piece he loosely introduced his intended politics, and put himself in a situation to make further advances. His second was a rapid progress, and his last a retreat. The difference between the second and last is visible. In the former of those two he endeavours to invalidate the right of the United States to fish on the Banks of Newfoundland, because, forsooth, it was not mentioned in any of the former charters. It is very extraordinary that these same charters, which marked out and were the instruments of our dependence, should now be introduced as describing the line of our independence. In the same piece Americanus likewise says, “it is a question whether the subjects of these states had any other right to that fishery, than what they derived from being the subjects of Great Britain.” If this be not advocating the cause of the enemy, I know not what is. It is news-paper advice to them to insist on an exclusive right to the fisheries, by insinuating ours to be only a derivative one from them; which, had it been the case, as it is not, would have been very improper doctrine to preach at the first instance of a negctiation. If they have any right, let them find those rights out themselves. We shall have enough to do to look to our own side of the question, and ought not to admit persons among us to join force with the enemy either in arms or argument. (1)

Whether AMERICANUS found himself approaching a stormy latitude, and fearing for the safety of his bark, thought proper to tack about in time, or whether he has changed his appetite, and become an epicure in fish, or his principles, and become an advocate for America, must be left for his own decision; but in his last week’s publication he has surrendered the grounds of his former one, and changed the argument from a matter of right to a matter of supposed convenience only. He no more speaks of our right to the fisheries as derivative right from Britain, in consequence of our formerly being subjects. Not a syllable of the charters, whose silence he had produced as invalidating or negativing our independent right. Neither has he endeavoured to support, or offered to renew, what he had before asserted — namely, that we were not in possession of the right of fishing at the time of the declaration of independence, or of the signing the treaties of Paris; but he has admitted a theorem which I had advanced in opposition to his suggestions, and which no man can contradict, viz. that our right to fish on banks of Newfoundland is a natural right. Now if our right is natural, it could not be derived from subjection, and as we never can but by our own voluntary consent be put out of the possession of a natural national right, tho’ by the temporary events of war we may be put out of the enjoyment of such a right, and as the British fishery Act of Parliament in seventy-six to exclude us was no act of ours, and universally denied by us, therefore, from his own admission, he has contradicted himself, and allowed that we were as fully in possession of the right of fishing on those Banks, both at the time of the declaration of independence, and at the time of signing the treaties of Paris, as at any period preceding them.

That he has admitted the natural right in his last piece, in contradiction to his supposed derivative right in his former one, will appear from two or three quotations I shall make.

1st. He says, “The giving up of our right to this object (the fisheries) and the making an express demand to have it guaranteed to us, or the passing it over in silence in negociation, are distinct things.”

2d. “I am well assured,” he says, “that there is not a member in Congress any ways disposed to give up or relinquish our right to the Newfoundland fishery.

The “right” here admitted cannot be a right derived from subjection, because we are no longer British subjects; neither can it be a right conveyed by charters, because we not only know no charters now, but those charters we used to know are silent on the matter in question. It must therefore be a natural right. Neither does the situation of America and Britain admit of any other explanation, because they are, with respect to each other, in a state of nature, not being even within the law of nations; for the law of nations is the law of treaties, compounded with customary usage, and between America and Britain there is yet no treaty, nor any national custom established.

But the third quotation I shall make from his last piece will prove, from his own words, his assent to the natural right which I contended for in behalf of these states, and which he, in his former piece, impliedly disowned, by putting our whole right on a question, and making our former subjection the grounds on which that question stood.

“I drew no conclusion,” he says, “to exclude these States, or bar them from the right which by nature they are entitled to with others, as well to the fishery on the Banks of Newfoundland as to those in the ocean at large.” As he now admits a natural right, and appears to contend for it, I ask, why then was his former piece published, and why was our right there put in the lowest terms possible? He does not in that piece even hint, or appear to think of, or suppose such a thing as a natural right, but stakes the issue on a question which does not apply to the case, and went as far as a man dared to go, in saying we had no right at all. From all this twisting and turning, this advancing and retreating, and appearing to own at last what it impliedly disowned at first, I think myself justified in drawing this conclusion, that either Americanus does not know how to conduct an argument, or he intended to be a traitor if he dared.

The natural right of the United States in those fisheries is either whole or in part. If to the whole, she can admit a participation to other nations. If to a part, she, in consequence of her natural right to partake, claims her share therein, which is for as much as she can catch and carry away. Nature, in her distribution of favors, seems to have appointed these fisheries as a property to the northern division of America, from Florida upwards, and therefore our claim of an exclusive right seems to be rationally and consistently founded; but our natural right to what we can catch is clear, absolute and positive.

Had Americanus intended no more than to consider our claim, whether it should be made or not, as a matter of convenience only, which is the stage he has now brought it to, he ought by no means to have made even the slightest stroke at the right itself; because to omit making the claim in the treaty, and to assign the doubtfulness of the right as a reason for the omission, is to surrender the fisheries upon the insufficiency of the pretension, and of consequence to exclude ourselves from the practice by the silence of the treaty, and from the right by the reasons upon record.

Had I time to laugh over my fish, I could in this place set Americanus up to a very agreeable ridicule. He has all this while been angling without a bait, and endeavouring to deceive with an empty hook, and yet this man says he understands fishing as well as any man in America. “Very few,” says, he, “and I speak it without vanity, are better acquainted with the fisheries than myself.” If this be true, which I hope it is not, it is the best reason that can be given for relinquishing them, and if made known would, on the other hand, be a great inducement to Britain to cede the whole right, because by our being possessed of a right without knowing how to use it, she would be under no apprehensions of our thinning the ocean, and we should only go out with our vessels to buy, and not to catch.

If Americanus wished to persuade the Americans to say nothing about the fisheries in a treaty with Britain, he ought, as a politician of some kind or other, to have baited his hook with a plausible something, and, instead of telling them that their right was doubtful, he should have assured them it was indisputable, that Britain never meant to question it, that it was needless to say anything about it, that all nations knew our rights, and naturally meant to acknowledge them. But he, like a wiseacre, has run against the post instead of running past it, and has, by the arguments he has used, produced a necessity for doing the very thing he was writing to prevent; and yet this man says he understands fishing as well as any man in America — It must be a cod indeed that should be catched by him!


Philadelphia, July 12, 1779.


  1. *I shall, in this place, quote the argument I used in my former publication of June 30, in reply to what Americanus had advanced respecting the right, the charters, and our situation at the time of the declaration of independence and the signing of the treaties of Paris. —

“Americanus has placed all his reasons the wrong way, and drawn the contrary conclusions to what he ought to have done. He doubts the right 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.

(THIRD LETTER - From the Pennsylvania Gazette, July 21, 1779. -Editor.)

COMMON SENSE on the FISHERIES, Concluded from our last.

THE importance of the fisheries Americanus has kept almost totally out of sight. Why he has done so, his readers will contrive to guess at, or himself may explain. A bare confession, loosely scattered here and there, and marked with the countenance of reluctance, is all he gives on the subject. Surely, the public might have expected more from a man, who declares “he can, without vanity say, that very few are better acquainted with the nature and extent of the American fisheries than himself.” If he really possesses the knowledge he affirms, he ought to have been as prolific on the subject as the fish he was treating of: And as he has not, I am obliged to suspect either the reality of his knowledge, or the sincerity of his intentions. If the declaration be not true, there are enough to fix his title; and if true, it shews that a man may keep company all his life-time with cod, and be little wiser. But to the point —

There are but two natural sources of wealth and strength — the Earth and the Ocean — and to lose the right to either is, in our situation, to put up the other to sale. Without the fisheries, independence would be a bubble. It would not deserve the name; and however we might, in such a condition, please ourselves with the jingle of a word, the consequences that would follow would soon deprive us even of the title and the music.

I shall arrange the fisheries under the three following heads:

First. As an Employment.

Secondly. As producing National Supply and Commerce, and a means of National Wealth.

Thirdly. As a Nursery for Seamen.

As an employment, by which a living is procured, it more immediately concerns those who make it their business; and in this view, which is the least of the three, such of the states, or parts thereof, which do not follow fishing, are not so directly interested as those which do. I call it the least of the three, because as no man needs want employment in America, so the change from one employment to another, if that be all, is but little to him, and less to any body else. And this is the narrow impolitic light in which some persons have understood the fisheries.

But when we view them as producing national supply and commerce, and a means of national wealth, we then consider the fish, not the fishermen, and regard the consequences of the employment more than the employment itself; in the same manner that I distinguish the coat that clothes me, from the man that made it. In this view, we neither enquire (unless for curiosity) who catch the fish, or whether they catched themselves — how they were catched, or where? The same supply would be produced, the same commerce occasioned, and the same wealth created, were they, by a natural impulse, to throw themselves annually on the shore, or be driven there by a periodical current or storm. And taking it in this point, it is no more to us, than it was to the Israelites whether the manna that fed them was brought there by an angel or an insect, an eastern or a western breeze, or whether it was congealed dew, or a concretion of vegetable juices. It is sufficient that they had manna, and we have fish.

I imagine myself within compass, when I suppose the fisheries to constitute a fourth part of the staple commerce of the United States, and that with this extraordinary advantage, it is a commerce which interferes with none, and promotes others. Take away a fourth from any part and the whole United States suffers, in the same manner that the blood taken from the arm is drained from the whole man; and if, by the unskilfulness of the operation, the wounded arm should lose its use, the whole body would want its service. It is to no purpose for a man to say, I am not a fisherman, an indigo planter, a rice planter, a tobacco planter, or a corn planter, any more than for the leg to say, I am not an arm; for as, in the latter instance, the same blood invigorates both and all by circulation — so, in the former, each is enriched by the wealth which the other creates, and fed by the supply the other raises. Were it proposed that no town should have a market, are none concerned therein but butchers? And in like manner it may be asked, that if we lose the market for fish, are none affected thereby but those who catch them? He who digs the mine, or tills the earth, or fishes in the ocean, digs, tills and fishes for the world. The employment and the pittance it procures him are his; but the produce itself creates a traffic for thousands, a supply for millions.

The Eastern States by quitting agriculture for fishing become customers to the rest, partly by exchange and partly by the wealth they import. Of the Middle States, they purchase grain and flour; of Maryland and Virginia, tobacco, the food and pastime of the fisherman; of North and South-Carolina, and Georgia, rice and indigo. They may not happen to become the client of a lawyer in either of these states, but is it any reason that we are to be deprived of fish, one of the instruments of commerce, because it comes to him without a case?

The loss of the fisheries being at this time blended with other losses, which all nations at war are more or less subject to, is not particularly felt or distinguished in the general suspension: And the men who were employed therein being now called off into other departments, and supported by other means, feel not the want of the employment. War, in this view, contains a temporary relief for its own misfortunes, by creating a trade in lieu of the suspended one. But when, with the restoration of peace, trade shall open, the case will be very and widely different, and the fisherman like the farmer will expect to return to his occupation in quietude.

As my limits will not allow me to range, neither have I time if I had room, I shall close this second head, and proceed to the third, and finish with some remarks on the state the question is now said to stand in Congress.

If as an employment one fourth of the United States are immediately affected, and if as a source of national supply and commerce and a means of national wealth all are deeply interested, what shall we say when we consider it as a nursery for seamen. Here the question seems to take almost a reversed turn, for the states which do not fish are herein more concerned than those which do. It happens, by some disposition of providence or ourselves, that those particular states whose employment is to fish are thickly settled, and secured by their internal strength from any extensive ravages of an enemy. The States, all the way from thence to the southward, beginning at New-York, are less populous, and have less of that ability in proportion to their extent. Their security, therefore, will hereafter be in a navy, and without a fishery there can be no navy worthy of the name.

Has nature given us timber and iron, pitch and tar, and cordage if we please, for nothing but to sell or burn? Has experience taught us the art of ship-building equal to any people on earth to become the workmen of other nations? Has she surrounded our coast with fisheries to create strength to our enemies, and make us the purchasers of our own property? Has she brought those fisheries almost to our own doors, to insult us with the prospect, and at the same time that she bar us from the enjoyment to threaten us with the constant approach of an enemy? Or has she given these things for our use, and instructed us to combine them for our own protection? — Who, I ask, will undertake to answer me, Americanus or myself?

What would we now give for thirteen ships of the line to guard and protect the remote or weaker parts? How would Carolina feel deliverance from danger, and Georgia from despair, and assisted by such a fleet become the prison of their invaders? How would the whigs of New-York look up and smile with inward satisfaction at the display of an Admiral’s command, opening, like a “key,” the door of their confinement? How would France solace herself at such a union of force, and reciprocally assisting and assisted traverse the ocean in safety? Yet all these, or their similar consequences, are staked upon the fisheries.

Americanus may understand the “nature of fisheries,” as to season, catching and curing, or their “extent” as to latitude and longitude; but as a great political question, involving with it the means and channels of commerce, and the probability of empire, he is wholly unequal to the subject, or he would not have, as he has done, limited their effects to “two or three states especially.” By a judgment acquired from long acquaintance, he may be able to know a cod when he sees it, or describe the inconveniences or pleasures of a fishing voyage. Or, “born and educated” (1) among them, he may entertain us with the growling memories of a Newfoundland bear, or amuse us with the history of a foggy climate or a smoaky hut, with all the winter chit-chat of fatigue and hardship; and this, in his idea, may be to “understand the fisheries.”

I will venture to predict that America, even with the assistance of all the fisheries, will never be a great, much less a dangerous naval power, and without them she will be scarcely any. I am established in this opinion from the known cast and order of things. No country of a large extent ever yet, I believe, was powerful at sea, or ever will. The natural reason of this appears to be that men do not, in any great numbers, turn their thoughts to the ocean, till either the country gets filled, or some peculiar advantage or necessity tempts them out. A maritime life is a kind of partial emigration, produced from a portion of the same causes with emigrations in general. The ocean becomes covered, and the supply kept up from the constant swarmings of the landed hive; and as we shall never be able to fill the whole dominion of the Thirteen States, and there will ever be new land to cultivate, the necessity can never take place in America, and of course the consequences can never happen.

Paradoxical as it may appear, greatness at sea is the effect of littleness by land. Want of room and want of employ are the generating causes. Holland has the most powerful navy in the world, compared with the small extent of her crowded country. France and Spain have too much room, and the soil too luxuriant and tempting, to be quitted for the ocean. Were not this the case, and did the abilities for a navy like those for land service rise in proportion to the number of inhabitants only, France would rival more than any two powers in Europe, which is not the case.

Had not nature thrown the fisheries in our way and inflicted a degree of natural sterility on such parts of the continent as lie contiguous thereto, by way both of forcing and tempting their inhabitants to the ocean, America, considering the present cast of the world, would have wanted the means of defence, for the far greater part of our seamen, except those produced by the fisheries, are natives of other countries. And shall we unwisely trifle with what we ought to hug as a treasure, and nourish with the utmost care as a Protector? And must the W. H. D. forever mean that We Have Dunces?

We seek not a fleet to insult the world, or range in foreign regions for conquests. We have more land than we can cultivate; more extent than we can fill. Our natural situation frees us from the distress of crouded countries, and from the thirst of ambitious ones. We covet not dominion, for we already possess a world; we want not to export our labouring poor, for where can they live better, or where can they be more useful? But we want just such a fleet as the fisheries will enable us to keep up, and without which we shall be for ever exposed, a burthen to our allies, and incapable of the necessary defence. The strength of America, on account of her vast extent, cannot be collected by land; but since experience has taught us to sail, and nature has put the means in our power, we ought in time to make provision for a navy, as the cheapest, safest, best, and most effectual security we can hereafter depend on.

Having in my first and second publications endeavoured to establish the right of America to the fisheries, and in this treated of their vast importance, I shall conclude with some remarks on the subject, as it is now said to stand in Congress, or rather the form in which it is thrown out to the public.

Americanus says (and I ask not how he came by his knowledge) that the question is, “Whether the insisting on an explicit acknowledgment of that right (meaning the right of fishing on the Banks of Newfoundland) is either safe, prudent or politic.

Before I enter on the discussion of this point, it may not be improper to remark, that some intimations were made to Congress in February by the Minister of France, Mr. Gerard, respecting what the claims of America might be, in case any treaty of peace should be entered on with the enemy. And from this, with some account of the general disposition of the powers of Europe, the mighty buz of peace took its rise, and several, who ought to have known better, were whispering wonderful secrets at almost every tea table.

It was a matter very early supposed by those who had any clear judgment, that Spain would not immediately join in the war, but would lie by as a mediatorial power. If she succeeded therein, the consequence would be peace; if she failed, she would then be perfectly at liberty to fulfil her engagements with France, &c.

Now in order to enable Spain to act this part, it was necessary that the claims of Congress in behalf of America should be made known to their own Plenipotentiary at Paris, Dr. Franklin, with such instructions, public or private, as might be proper to give thereon. But I observe several members, either so little acquainted with political arrangements, or supposing their constituents to be so, that they treat with Mr. Gerard as if that gentleman was our Minister, instead of the Minister of his Most Christian Majesty, and his name is brought in to a variety of business to which it has no proper referrence. This remark may to some appear rather severe, but it is a necessary one. It is not every member of Congress who acts as if he felt the true importance of his character, or the dignity of the country he acts for. And we seem in some instances to forget, that as France is the great ally of America, so America is the great ally of France.

It may now be necessary to mention, that no instructions are yet gone to Dr. Franklin as a line for negotiation, and the reason is because none are agreed on. The reason why they are not agreed on is another point. But had the gentlemen who are for leaving the fisheries out agreed to have had them put in, instructions might have been sent more than four months ago, and if not exactly convenient, might by this time have been returned and reconsidered. On whose side then does the fault lie?

I profess myself an advocate, out of doors, for clearly, absolutely, and unequivocally ascertaining the right of the States to fish on the Banks of Newfoundland, as one of the first and most necessary articles. The right and title of the States thereto I have endeavoured to show. The importance of these fisheries I have endeavoured to prove. What reason then can be given why they should be omitted?

The seeds of almost every former war have been sown in the injudicious or defective terms of the preceding peace. Either the conqueror has insisted on too much, and thereby held the conquered, like an overbent bow, in a continual struggle to snap the cord, or the latter has artfully introduced an equivocal article, to take such advantages under as the turn of future affairs might afford. We have only to consult our own feelings, and each man may from thence learn the spring of all national policy. And he, who does not this, may be fortunate enough to effect a temporary measure, but never will, unless by accident, accomplish a lasting one.

Perhaps the fittest condition any countries can be in to make a peace, calculated for duration, is when neither is conquered, and both are tired. The first of these suits England and America. I put England first in this case, because she began the war. And as she must be and is convinced of the impossibility of conquering America, and as America has no romantic ideas of extending her conquests to England, the object of the part of England is lost, and on the part of America is so far secure, that, unless she unwisely conquers herself, she is certain of not being conquered; and this being the case, there is no visible object to prevent the opening a negociation. But how far England is disposed thereto is a matter wholly unknown, and much to be doubted. A movement toward a negotiation, and a disposition to enter into it, are very distinct things. The first is often made, as an army affects to retreat, in order to throw an enemy off his guard. To prevent which, the most vigorous preparations ought to be made for war at the very instant of negociating for a peace.

Let America make these preparations, and she may send her terms and claims whenever she pleases, without any apprehension of appearing or acting out of character. Those preparations relate now more to revenue than to force, and that being wholly and immediately within the compass of our own abilities, requires nothing but our consent to accomplish.(2)

To leave the fisheries wholly out, on any pretense whatever, is to sow the seeds of another war; and I will be content to have the name of an ideot engraven for an epitaph, if it does not produce that effect. The difficulties which are now given will become a soil for those seeds to grow in, and future circumstances will quicken their vegetation. Nations are very fond of appealing to treaties when it suits their purpose, and tho’ America might afterwards assign her unquestioned right as a reason for her silence, yet all must know that treaties are never to be explained by presumption, but wholly by what is put in, and never by what is left out.

There has not yet been an argument given for omitting the fisheries, but what might have been given as a stronger reason to the contrary. All which has been advanced rests only on supposition, and that failing, leaves them no foundation. They suppose Britain will not hereafter interrupt the right; but the case is, they have no right to that supposition; and it may likewise be parried by saying — suppose she should? Now the matter, as I conceive it stands thus —

If the right to the States to fish on the Banks of Newfoundland be made and consented to as an article in a treaty with Britain, it of consequence becomes expressly guaranteed by the eleventh article of the present treaty of alliance with France; but if it be left out in a treaty with the former, it is not then guaranteed in the present treaty with the latter, because the guaranteeing is limited to “the whole of their (our) possessions, as the same shall be fixed and assured to the said States at the moment of the cessation of their present war with England.” Art. II.

Were the states to claim, as a memorial to be recorded with themselves, an exclusive right to those fisheries, as a matter of right only, derived from natural situation, and to propose to their allies to guarantee to them expressly so much of that right as we may have occasion to use, and the States to guarantee to such allies such portions of the fisheries as they possessed by the last treaty of peace, there might be some pretence for not touching on the subject in a treaty with Britain; because, after the conclusion of the war, she would hardly venture to interrupt the States in a right, which, tho’ not described in a treaty with her, should be powerfully guaranteed in a treaty with others. But to omit it wholly in one treaty, and to leave it unguaranteed in another, and to trust it entirely, as the phrase is, to the chapter of accidents, is too loose, too impolitic a mode of conducting national business.

“Had nothing,” says Americanus, “been said on the subject of the fisheries, our fishermen, on the peace, might have returned to their old stations without interruption.” Is this talking like an American politician, or a seducing emissary? Who authorized Americanus to intimate such an assurance; or how came he to know what the British ministry would or would not hereafter do; or how can he be certain they have told him truth? If it be supposition only, he has, as I before remarked, no right to make it; and if it be more than supposition, it must be the effect of secret correspondence. In the first of these cases he is foolish; in the second worse. — Does he not see that the fisheries are not expressly and only conditionally guaranteed, and that if in such a situation they be omitted in a treaty with Britain, and she should afterwards interrupt our right, that the States stand single in the question, and have no right on the face of the present treaties to call on their Allies for assistance, and yet this man is persuading us to say nothing about them.

Americanus like some others is mightily fond of amusing his readers with “the law of nations,” just as if there really was such a law, fixed and known like the law of the ten commandments. Whereas the law of nations is in theory the law of treaties compounded with customary usage, and in practice just what they can get and keep till it be taken from them. It is a term without any regular defined meaning, and as in some instances we have invented the thing first and given the name afterwards, so in this we have invented the name and the thing is yet to be made.

Some gentlemen say, leave the fisheries to be settled afterwards in a treaty of commerce. This is really beginning business at the wrong end. For a treaty of peace cannot precede the settlement of disputes, but proceeds in consequence of all controverted points respecting right and dominion being adjusted and agreed on. There is one kind of treaty of commerce which may follow a treaty of peace, but that respects such articles only and the mode of trafficking with them as are produced within, or imported into the known and described dominions of the parties, or to the rules of exchange, or paying or recovering debts, but never to the dominion itself, and comes more properly within the province of a consul than the superior contracting powers.

With these remarks I shall, for the present, close the subject. It is a new one, and I have endeavoured to give it as systematical an investigation as the short time allowed and the other business I have on hand will admit of. How the affair stands in Congress, or how the cast of the House is on the question, I have, for several reasons, not enquired into; neither have I conversed with any gentleman of that Body on the subject. They have their opinion and I mine; and as I chuse to think my own reasons and write my own thoughts, I feel the more free the less I consult.

Who the writer of Americanus is I am not informed. I never said or ever believed it to be Mr. Gouverneur Morris, or replied to it upon that supposition. The manner is not his, neither do I know that the principles are, and as that gentleman has disavowed it, the assurance is sufficient. I have likewise heard it supposed that Mr. Deane is the author, and that his friend Mr. Langworthy carried it to the press. But I know not who the author is. I have replied to the Piece rather than to the Man; tho’ for the sake of relief to the reader and amusement to myself, he now and then comes in for a stroke.

Philad. July 17, 1779. COMMON SENSE.


  1. King of England’s first speech to the British Parliament.

  2. A plan has been proposed, and all who are judges have approved it, for stopping the emissions and raising a revenue, by subscription for three years without interest, and in lieu thereof to take every subscriber’s taxes out of his subscription, and the balance at the expiration of that time to be returned. If the states universally go into this measure, they will acquire a degree of strength and ability fitted either for peace or war. It is, I am clearly convinced, the best measure they can adopt, the best interest they can have, and the best security they can hold. In short, it is carrying on or providing against war without expense, because the remaining money in the country, after the subscriptions are made, will be equal in value to the whole they now hold. Boston has proposed the same measure.