Should American diplomats be careful never to offend the sensibilities of the illegitimate “governments” which oppress so many nations of the world? Should the United States avoid even the appearance of attempting to undermine a dictatorship, because the United States must respect the national “sovereignty” of the thugs who “govern” a particular territory and control its United Nations delegation? Many of President Bush’s opponents — including his opponents within the Department of State — would answer “yes” to these questions. An entirely different answer, however, was provided a century and a half ago by one of America’s greatest statesmen, Secretary of State Daniel Webster. When an overseas dictatorship threatened the United States for supporting freedom fighters, Secretary Webster created a political and diplomatic sensation by warning the dictatorship that the United States would assert its own interests, regardless of the opinion of foreign “governments.”
Today, Daniel Webster is best remembered as one of the great senators of the antebellum era, and one of the most brilliant orators of all time. Yet Webster’s long public career was capped by service as secretary of state from 1850 to 1852, under President Fillmore. Secretary Webster’s first year in office climaxed with a harsh diplomatic confrontation that became one of the year’s political sensations.
Webster’s famous “Hulsemann Letter,” dispatched on December 21, 1850, responded to allegations from Austrian ambassador to the United States Chevalier Johann Georg Hulsemann.
Hulsemann had complained in a letter to Webster that the United States had violated the Law of Nations by meddling in the affairs of Austria as Austria attempted to crush a Hungarian freedom movement. Hulsemann further accused the United States of violating its own policy of not involving itself in foreign disputes or problems.
The conflict had begun on March 15, 1848, when a bloodless revolution in Hungary brought to power a government which, while not formally seceding from the Austrian empire, began to reform and run Hungary autonomously. When the Austrians invaded, the Hungarians declared independence, but were defeated in August 1849 by the Russian army, which had intervened in support of the Hapsburg monarchy. While the attempted revolution was in progress, U.S. president Zachary Taylor’s secretary of state, John Clayton, commissioned A. Dudley Mann on June 18, 1849, to proceed to Hungary to see if the nation could maintain its independence. Mann was also told to investigate the viability of commercial relations with the embryonic nation.
Mann was considered a spy by the Austrian government. Additionally, the Austrians suspected that Mann was in Hungary to aid the freedom movement. To the Austrians, Mann’s presence was proof of American support of Hungarian independence. Mann’s findings were reported by President Taylor to the Senate in March 1850.
Before the year was out, President Taylor had died, and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore. Fillmore’s new secretary of state, Daniel Webster, faced the job of answering the furious accusations from Austrian ambassador Hulsemann. “The Hulsemann Letter,” as it quickly became known, rejected the Austrian accusations, and affirmed America’s founding principles. (We’ve posted the full text on the web.)
Webster began by reminding Hulsemann that Secretary Clayton had already told the Austrian ambassador that “Mann’s mission had no other object in view, than to obtain reliable information, as to the true state of affairs in Hungary, by personal observation.”
While America was a neutral power, Webster affirmed, “The Government and People of the United States, like other intelligent Governments and communities, take a lively interest in the movements and events of this remarkable age, in whatever part of the world they may be exhibited.”
After American independence, most European monarchs, Austria’s included, recognized that the principles of the American founding were antithetical to those of the European sovereigns. While American believed human rights to be inherent, the European rulers claimed that “all popular, or constitutional rights, are holden no otherwise than as grants and indulgences from crowned heads.” In the 1821 Laybach Circular, the monarchies of Austria, Russia, and Prussia had jointly declared that “Useful and necessary changes in legislation and administration ought only to emanate from the free will and intelligent conviction, of those whom God has rendered responsible for power.” The former Austrian Emperor Francis II had complained that “the whole World has become foolish, and are leaving their ancient laws . . . in search of imaginary Constitutions.”
Webster pointed out that these European theories implied that the origin of the United States was unlawful, for the “Government was established in consequence of a change which did not proceed from Thrones, or the permission of crowned heads.” However, the United States “heard these denunciations of its fundamental principles without remonstrance, or the disturbance of its equanimity.”
Established in violation of European theories of “order,” the United States was thriving. Blessed with one of the most fertile lands on the globe, the population of the United States was growing at a tremendous rate that “will exceed that of the Austrian Empire.” The navigational and commercial presence of the United States worldwide was rarely exceeded by the oldest and most commercial nations. The maritime power of the United States could be seen in the ports of the Hapsburg Empire. Most important, “Life, liberty, property and all personal rights, are amply secured to all Citizens, and protected by just and stable laws.”
Webster reiterated that the United States would maintain its policy of abstaining from interference in the affairs of Europe. However, the United States would always hold a “lively interest in the fortunes of Nations, struggling for institutions like their own.” “If the United States wish success to Countries contending for popular constitutions and National Independence, it is only because they regard such constitutions and such National Independence, not as imaginary, but as real blessings.” For Webster and other Americans, it would be impossible to remain an indifferent spectator to the worldwide struggle for freedom.
Webster then returned to the complaints lodged by Hulsemann. Many Hungarian visitors had called on the U.S. president to recognize Hungary as a free and independent nation. Webster reminded Hulsemann that the Law of Nations does not prohibit an independent nation from recognizing a new nation, even before the parent nation has made such a recognition. That said, Webster detailed the prudence shown by the United States with the issue of Hungarian independence.
Mann’s mission was solely one of enquiry; he was to determine if the United States could formulate a viable commercial agreement with Hungary. Mann’s job was to estimate if Hungary could maintain a stable independence, not to establish relations himself.
Hulsemann had complained that Mann was a spy. Webster, in response, hoped “that the word used in the original German, was not of equivalent meaning with ’spy’ in the English language or that in some other way the employment of such an opprobrious term may be explained.” For if Mann had been held and treated as a spy, it was assured by Webster that the American populace would have called for appropriate hostile measures against the Austrian government immediately.
Webster reminded Hulsemann how the Austrian Imperial Court had received American emissaries with great courtesy during the American Revolution, even though Austria was at peace with England. Accordingly, what could be wrong with Americans finding out for themselves the status of the revolution in Hungary?
Webster closed with a stern response to Hulsemann’s threats. The Austrian had warned that if the United States interfered in the “domestic” situation of Austria and Hungary, the United States “would be exposed to acts of retaliation, and to certain inconveniences which would not fail to affect the commerce and the industry” of the United States. Webster shot back: “The people of the United States are quite willing to take their chances, and abide their destiny.”
As only a regional power in 1850, the United States had little practical ability to help the Hungarians win independence. That struggle did not achieve complete success until the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. From 1944 to 1989, Hungarian independence was more nominal than real, as the nation suffered under Nazi and then Soviet hegemony. Soviet nuclear weapons ensured that the Americans could offer little more practical support to the 1956 Hungarian uprising than had been offered during the 1848-49 revolution.
Yet by proudly affirming the moral and practical superiority of American principles of free government — and by declaring the sympathy of the American people for oppressed peoples on the other side of the globe, American leaders from Daniel Webster to Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan helped keep hope alive for Hungarian freedom and independence. When the Soviet Union did finally collapse — thanks to the policies begun by Harry Truman and brought to fruition by Ronald Reagan — Hungary was free at last.
Although America gained global power it had not previously enjoyed after World War II, the exercise of that power was and is, at its best, the expression of the same great standards of universal freedom defended so sincerely by Daniel Webster: This great nation was not founded by thrones or by the grace of crowned heads or despots; rather, the United States were founded upon what Webster called “the broadest principles of civil liberty.” When autocrats warn us of the destabilizing consequences of holding fast to our principles, the reply must be the same as Webster’s: “The people of the United States are quite willing to take their chances, and abide their destiny.”