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Belligerent Rights

The Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1116, p. 463-464.

November 9, 1861

Among the incidental benefits likely to result from the civil war in America, as some compensation for the incalculable evils it inflicts, we are not without hope that a revision of belligerent rights will be one. Much of what the world now accepts as international law with regard to them is unsuited to modern civilization civilisation . Take the right of blockade, for instance, as it is being illustrated in the unhappy contest between the Northern and Southern States of the great American Republic. The right is held, and no doubt justly held, to be in perfect conformity with the law of nations. But the instincts of mankind will infallibly teach them that the instrument of coercion which cannot be applied to crush the rebellious without at the same time exposing to equal damage the rights and interests of millions innocent of the smallest wrong ought not to be left in the hands of any Power. It is hard that because the Confederate States have renounced their allegiance to the Union, and are strong enough to maintain their separate independence for months, and perhaps for years, large departments of manufacturing industry in England and France, upon which the subsistence of millions depend, should be visited with a calamity little short of destruction. The mischief done by privateering, which the great Powers of Europe have agreed to abolish, is as nothing compared with the wholesale suffering which the blockade now being enforced by the Federal Government is causing to nations not in the least implicated in the pending quarrel. We do not dispute the fact that the Federal Government is only availing itself of what all other Governments have insisted upon as a belligerent right. We should be the last to suggest that we should be justified, in the present instance, in breaking the blockade merely because we happen to be the chief victim of its enforcement. We must make up our minds to bear with patience and dignity the evils which a bad law we have been foremost in sustaining has unexpectedly brought upon ourselves. But we do trust that the severe hardship which has overtaken us will open our eyes to the essential injustice of this belligerent right, and dispose us to take such steps as will preclude the chance of any similar visitation in future.

It is too true, we fear, that we owe our present helpless position in regard to the blockade mainly, if not exclusively, to the policy of our own statesmen. When the Government of the United States was invited, at the close of the Russian War, to agree to the article of the Treaty of Paris which abolishes privateering, the Secretary of State, in declining that proposition on the ground of the obvious disadvantage at which it would place the American Government in relation to other maritime Powers, submitted a counter proposal, unless our memory greatly deceives us, which would have placed the entire commercial marine of all countries beyond the range of international hostilities. If that project had found favour with the Governments of Europe the right of blockade would have been applicable only against vessels of war, and goods contraband of war; and the only obstruction to the usual flow of cotton to this country would have existed in the determination of the Southern States not to sell it—a determination which high prices and the prospect of raising up rival producers in other parts of the world very surely and very speedily have overborne. England alone, we believe, opposed to this reasonable and liberal proposition insuperable objections, and England is now fated to endure the heaviest penalty in consequence of the short-sightedness of her international policy. In our too great anxiety to retain a weapon of offence which we could wield with better effect than any other Power we unconsciously hung up a scourge for our own backs, and we are now smarting under its infliction.

The unfortunate decision at which we then arrived was owing, probably, to our having limited our view of the evils of war to the injuries which belligerents are capable of doing to each other. It was thought at the time, and powerfully argued, that Great Britain, the most formidable of the maritime Powers, would gratuitously fling away her sharpest weapon by acceding to Mr. Marcy's proposition; that, being at the expense of keeping afloat a great naval armament, it would prove comparatively useless, in case of hostilities, unless she could avail herself of it


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to strike a blow at the commerce of her enemy; and that the mere fact of her retaining the right and the power of devastating the commercial marine of any country with which she might chance to be at war would tend to the preservation of peace by compelling other nations to be cautious of embroiling themselves with her. It was not foreseen, or not sufficiently considered, how this determination would bear upon neutrals. It seems not to have entered into the mind of any one that, without being ourselves at war with the United States, our own excessive jealousy in upholding our naval supremacy might involve us in miseries almost as intolerable as those of actual warfare. We were unwilling to see the commercial navy of any contingent foe withdrawn by previous arrangement from the reach of that arm in the strength of which we place our chief reliance; and, in refusing to forego our advantage in this respect, we retained, of course, the right of blockade. But it is as a neutral, not a belligerent, Power that the evil consequences of our own decision have come home to us. We have sided with neither of the contending parties in America—we have carefully abstained from giving just cause of offence to either of them; but we owe it to our own deliberate decision that, in their quarrel the one with the other, our cotton interests are being crushed as between the upper and the nether millstones.

Such being the circumstances, there would seem to be no alternative in the present case but to bear as best we may the calamity we have indirectly brought upon ourselves. We must manfully abide by the results of the exercise by others of the belligerent rights we have insisted upon for ourselves. We hope that her Majesty's Government will loyally and to the end preserve the neutrality they have proclaimed; and that no temptation offered to them by the Confederate States, and no inconvenience entailed upon them by the action of the Federal Union, will prevail upon them to break the blockade, either alone or in concert with other European Powers. The present distress may be great, but we had far better endure it patiently than expose ourselves to the charge of a breach of international morality. Any departure from our present neutral position would be but purchasing immediate relief at the expense of future and much greater suffering. We cannot take direct steps towards putting an end to the existing crisis without sowing the seeds of enmities the bitter fruit of which we should be compelled to reap at no very remote hereafter. We might, it is true, by recognising the South, put a speedy end to the present unnatural contest, and liberate the stores of cotton for which our manufactures are pining. But our intervention to close the dispute whilst the passions of the disputants are yet hot and eager would but precipitate a war of one or both of them with ourselves. The vast army now resting on the Potomac would probably seek employment in Canada, and the Federal States bereft of the territory which they held south of Washington, and that, too, partly by our agency, would infallibly turn to the North for compensation. No, we must not interfere. Cotton is precious, but the price paid for it may be too high. Tha alternative of neutrality is contingently such as may well

Make us rather bear the ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.

England now resembles a man who, having entered into an engagement and refused when opportunity offered to reconsider it, unexpectedly finds that it has an aspect of extreme inconvenience towards himself. She is utterly precluded by all the obligations of national honour from seeking relief by practically dishonouring her own bond. Her true policy lies in another direction. She cannot get cotton from America without breaking open the doors which, as the law of nations now stands, are rightfully barred against her. She must reject every temptation to commit an international burglary, and resolutely look elsewhere for what she wants. No doubt she will feel the pinch; but, having made up her mind to brave it, she will be the better prepared to use every legitimate appliance which will mitigate her sufferings. She is not destined, under any conceivable circumstances, to face the entire destruction of her cotton manufacture. The very extremity of distress to which she seems to be exposed will attract to her markets all the disposable cotton which tropical climates can forward to her. The strain which is put upon her will bear down most of the obstacles which have hitherto indisposed her to seek her supplies elsewhere. Even from America some part of the crop which is locked up by the civil war may find its way hither whenever the Confederate States shall have arrived at the conviction that we have no intention of breaking the blockade, and that they are in danger of losing the monopoly of our markets. The hope of realizing realising high prices on the one hand and the fear of being permanently supplanted by India on the other will operate powerfully towards their discovery of some method by which to convey their produce to Europe. The slave trade has never yet been put down on the western coast of Africa by blockading squadrons, and the cotton trade, no doubt, will be equally fertile in expedients and equally successful in partially evading or surmounting the difficulties by which it is beset. The greater our efforts to render ourselves independent of the Confederate States for our supplies of cotton the more desperate will be their attempts to reach our markets. Indeed, it is becoming a fair question whether even our immediate as well as our remoter interests may not be best subserved by our loyal and steadfast observance of belligerent rights.

The events of the last few months, however, have surely sufficed to demonstrate that the law of nations embodying these belligerent rights is altogether out of tune with the spirit and wants of modern civilization civilisation . We trust the lesson which has been taught us will not have been thrown away. War is now carried on under far different conditions than those which prevailed in olden times. Armies are not now allowed to devastate private property in the countries in which they are engaged, nor is there any sound reason why navies should be permitted to do so at sea. The interests of humanity equally demand the exemption of commerce from warlike liabilities. But justice also demands it; for no one can pretend that the state of things which may involve the most vital interests of neutrals in every international dispute that may trouble the repose of the world is conformable with the first and most obvious principles of justice. England has but to accept a more liberal doctrine to obtain for it universal recognition. She is the first commercial nation in the world, and it would be as much to her interest as it would redound to her honour to place commerce beyond the lawful reach of international hostilities.

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