Presidential Speeches

January 2, 1841: Special Message about the Desctruction of Steamboat “Caroline”

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Martin Van Buren

January 02, 1841

Source National Archives

Van Buren reads to the House of Representatives a correspondence between the secretary of state and the British minister on the subject of the destruction of the steamboat Caroline and the involvement of Mr. Alexander McLeod.

Presidential Speeches |

January 2, 1841: Special Message about the Desctruction of Steamboat “Caroline”


To the House of Representatives of the United States:

I think proper to communicate to the House of Representatives, in further answer to their resolution of the 21st ultimo, the correspondence which has since occurred between the Secretary of State and the British minister on the same subject.


Mr. Fox to Mr. Forsyth.

WASHINGTON, December 29, 1840


Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 26th instant, in which, in reply to a letter which I had addressed to you on the 13th, you acquaint me that the President is not prepared to comply with my demand for the liberation of Mr. Alexander McLeod, of Upper Canada, now imprisoned at Lockport, in the State of New York, on a pretended charge of murder and arson, as having been engaged in the destruction of the piratical steamboat Caroline on the 29th of December, 1837.

I learn with deep regret that such is the decision of the President of the United States, for I can not but foresee the very grave and serious consequences that must ensue if, besides the injury already inflicted upon Mr. McLeod of a vexatious and unjust imprisonment, any further harm should be done to him in the progress of this extraordinary proceeding.

I have lost no time in forwarding to Her Majesty's Government in England the correspondence that has taken place, and I shall await the further orders of Her Majesty's Government with respect to the important question which that correspondence involves.

But I feel it my duty not to close this communication without likewise testifying my vast regret and surprise at the expressions which I find repeated in your letter with reference to the destruction of the steamboat Caroline. I had confidently hoped that the first erroneous impression of the character of that event, imposed upon the mind of the United States Government by partial and exaggerated representations, would long since have been effaced by a more strict and accurate examination of the facts. Such an investigation must even yet, I am willing to believe, lead the United States Government to the same conviction with which Her Majesty's authorities on the spot were impressed—that the act was one, in the strictest sense, of self-defense, rendered absolutely necessary by the circumstances of the occasion for the safety and protection of Her Majesty's subjects, and justified by the same motives and principles which upon similar and well-known occasions have governed the conduct of illustrious officers of the United States. The steamboat Caroline was a hostile vessel engaged in piratical war against Her Majesty's people, hired from her owners for that express purpose, and known to be so beyond the possibility of doubt, The place where the vessel was destroyed was nominally, it is true, within the territory of a friendly power, but the friendly power had been deprived through overbearing piratical violence of the use of its proper authority over that portion of territory. The authorities of New York had not even been able to prevent the artillery of the State from being carried off publicly at midday to be used as instruments of war against Her Majesty's subjects. It was under such circumstances, which it is to be hoped will never recur, that the vessel was attacked by a party of Her Majesty's people, captured, and destroyed. A remonstrance against the act in question has been addressed by the United States to Her Majesty's Government in England. I am not authorized to pronounce the decision of Her Majesty's Government upon that remonstrance, but I have felt myself bound to record in the meantime the above opinion, in order to protest in the most solemn manner against the spirited and loyal conduct of a party of Her Majesty's officers and people being qualified, through an unfortunate misapprehension, as I believe, of the facts, with the appellation of outrage or of murder.

I avail myself of this occasion to renew to you the assurance of my distinguished consideration.


Mr. Forsyth to Mr. Fox.


Washington, December 31, 1840.

Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your note of the 29th instant, in reply to mine of the 26th, on the subject of the arrest and detention of Alexander McLeod as one of the perpetrators of the outrage committed in New York when the steamboat Caroline was seized and burnt. Full evidence of that outrage has been presented to Her Britannic Majesty's Government with a demand for redress, and of course no discussion of the circumstances here can be either useful or proper, nor can I suppose it to be your desire to invite it. I take leave of the subject with this single remark, that the opinion so strongly expressed by you on the facts and principles involved in the demand for reparation on Her Majesty's Government by the United States would hardly have been hazarded had you been possessed of the carefully collected testimony which has been presented to your Government in support of that demand.

I avail myself of the occasion to renew to you the assurance of my distinguished consideration.


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