Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONFERENCE. It is difficult to give a complete definition of this term, since it is not always applied to the same thing. In general, conferences are understood to be diplomatic deliberations, either between members of a congress or between the ministers of several powers accredited to the same court. Conferences differ in their jurisdiction according as they have the power of deciding questions, or have merely a consulting voice. It is in the first case only that they can receive the name of congress. It would be difficult, however, to make a clear distinction between a congress and a conference; for a congress has been often made simply a succession of conferences, having no positive result, and conferences have frequently assumed the character of congresses. For example if the congress of Münster had not resulted in the peace of 1648, it would have received merely the generic term of conference given to congresses which fail of their object. Historical examples justify the different meanings which we have noted. Among celebrated conferences is that of Moerdyk in 1709, and of Gertruydenberg in 1710, which preceded the treaties of Utrecht, and, later, those of Vienna in 1855, intended to prevent the Crimean war. In these meetings, held while war was raging, cabinets strove to establish a basis of future peace. But this kind of conference always succeeds with difficulty, for the resolutions of plenipotentiaries are necessarily influenced by news from the theatre of war. Nevertheless, it is necessary most frequently to commence thus in a more or less ostensible way, unless military success takes from events their doubtful character. The treaties of 1648, 1713, 1763, and others, were preceded by negotiations carried on during the course of hostilities. Negotiations are less complicated when the conference, having reference to a special question, takes place in time of peace. In our own century conferences of this nature have been most frequent, owing to the improvement in diplomatic relations, and, above all, to the custom of submitting to the arbitration of the great powers difficulties pending between states of second rank. When a case of this kind presents itself, and the chief cabinets of Europe believe their moral intervention to be necessary, or when their arbitration is requested by the parties interested, it is agreed that the ministers of the great powers accredited, near one of the great courts, shall unite to decide on some course of action. It depends upon special circumstances of the dispute whether the states interested shall be represented in the conference or not. The conference then takes the name of ministerial conference. It is by such conferences that the affairs of Greece have been settled, those of Belgium and Holland, those of the east on many occasions, those of the ancient principality of Neufchâtel, and those of the Danish succession. The term ministerial conference is also applied to reunions composed of representatives of states of the second and third rank, having in view only the special interests of these states. It was by ministerial conferences, composed of representatives from the states of the Germanic confederation, which ended in the final act of May 15, 1820, that the internal organization of Germany was completed. Many other reunions, having a particular object in view, have taken place between the delegates of confederate states, similar to those of Germany, or between states foreign to each other. These conferences concern themselves either with political reforms, economical improvements or commercial interests. The more the life of modern nations develops, in the sense of a solidarity of interests, the more frequent and diversified do these conferences become. It would be too tedious to attempt their enumeration here.


—The term conference is so elastic that it has been given even to the reunions of ministers of the same power. It is sufficient to cite the famous conference of Ostend, in which the ministers of the United States accredited to the courts of London, Paris and Madrid, met to define more clearly the meaning of the Monroe doctrine. But one may doubt the propriety of employing the term conference in this connection. If the term conference is to be applied to all kinds of diplomatic deliberations, it is only on condition that the ministers composing such conference shall belong to different states. (See CONGRESS, PROTOCOL.)


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