Our Controversy with America.The Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1121, p. 591-592.
December 14, 1861
The attitude and bearing of the people of England under the circumstances which have arisen in connection with the seizure of the Confederate Commissioners on board the Trent have been in all respects worthy of the occasion. This is not the verdict of mere self-complacency, but ample testimony has been borne by the press of France to the mingled dignity, moderation, and firmness of purpose which have been displayed by the whole country, and without exception of class. The bitterest satirists on England and the English have failed to find anything in our conduct on which to base even a sneer; while for an accusation no shadow of a foundation has been discovered. If it were necessary we might quote some of the language of writers in Continental journals in which our national spirit, our unanimity of feeling, and our consciousness of being in the right are held up to admiration in no measured terms; but we only refer to these eulogies for the purpose of illustration, and with no desire to make more of a highly creditable state of things than it deserves. It would certainly have been a melancholy thing if a country like this should on the occurrence of an act of aggression have set about to scold and vapour with all the sound and fury of those, whether persons or nations, who are assured neither of their position nor the rights of the matter in dispute; and therefore, while admitting simply and unostentatiously the justice of any commendation which we have received for our conduct in this juncture of our national affairs, we can afford to be almost surprised that any one should have conceived it could have been other than it has been. It is to be observed that, as the time since the intelligence of the Jacinto affair was
Page 592concession in America have taken place before there has been any knowledge of the manner in which the affair of the Trent has been received in England. Surely the august spectacle of a nation unanimous for the vindication of its honour, and consentaneous in its conviction that that honour has been wounded, cannot be without its effect even on a nation so impulsive as the Americans. It is with a full consciousness of all the disadvantages, present and prospective, to both countries which must follow a war such as that which we are obliged to contemplate, but ready at all points for even such a contingency, that England awaits the result of the intercommunication between the two Governments.
In the mean time, in a spirit of perfect candour, and divesting ourselves of any mere partisanship, it may be worth while to consider some of the disadvantages which this untoward act—for untoward it is from any point of view—is calculated to bring upon the cause for which the Northern States are contending. It is useless to blink the fact that the civil war has assumed a magnitude which probably we in Europe did not contemplate, and which has called forth at the very earliest period all the resources of the North. The visions of a rapid subjugation of the South in one triumphant campaign have faded before the stern reality of the situation; and, while it is broadly stated on all hands on this side of the water that a restoration of the old Union is assuming the aspect of an impossibility, it has been whispered that such an opinion has secretly taken root in the minds of the Cabinet at Washington, and that a contest with England is adopted as a policy out of which may spring a pretext for the ultimate acknowledgment of the independence of the South. If this is really the case, why, all ground for argument is cutaway, and it must be readily admitted that no course more calculated to attain that end could have been selected than that of bringing on a quarrel with this country.
But disregarding the insinuation that a policy so tortuous underlies the conduct of the advisers of Mr. Lincoln, and assuming that the object of the Federal Government is the rehabilitation of the Union, it is impossible not to see the instantaneous damage that would be done to that object if war with England comes to pass. Already we see in the message of Mr. Jefferson Davis indications of the effect which such a dispute would have on the fortunes of the party of which he is the head. His bold assertion of a violation of international law in the case of the Trent is pregnant with suggestion, and its interpretation is that he sees in that act a near prospect of the recognition of the Southern States as an independent Republic by one of the first Powers of Europe. Of the moral force of such a declaration on the cause of which he is the apostle there can be little doubt; but if the matter should come to positive hostilities a glance will suffice to show, in the first place, the whole Southern seaboard practically set free from blockade, the cotton trade in full operation, under the practical convoy of the fleets of England, with a corresponding financial effect on the resources of that part of the American continent; while, on the other hand, the ports of the North will be fast closed, and an equivalent check placed on the commerce and sources of strength and action of the Federal power. This is no idle boast or senseless assertion, for we have the ships, the guns, and, above all, at this juncture of our naval history, we are strong just where we have hitherto been weak; we have the men, the sailors, without whom all the, vessels of war in the world would be inert masses. Already there comes from the great emporiums of trade and commerce, from New York notably, the rumour of mercantile stagnation, and, worse still, the cry of popular distress. Civil war alone has sown the seeds of paralysis in that national prosperity of which Americans were so justly proud, and in the most fortunate future looms a large national debt and years of financial struggle. What may not be predicated as the result of a war with a powerful kingdom like England, added to the internecine strife which is now going on in the States? In the interests of humanity and of civilisation and progress one shrinks from the contemplation of the rebound of a quarter of a century of a nation which, always a world's wonder, possessed within it so many of the elements of advancement to greatness.
Nor, in considering the consequences of an unfriendly termination of the differences between England and the Federal States, can the probable conduct of other nations in Europe be placed out of sight. In the very first rank, of course, must be placed France; and, if the opinions of the Imperial Government be at all truly indicated, there is little doubt of the line which will be taken by that country. If the arguments of the French journals—even those which, as the phrase goes, are "inspired" from the highest quarters—mean anything, they mean that this question is not to be looked at from a merely English point of view at all. It is stated that it is only an accident that the Confederate Commissioners were seized under the British flag; for, supposing they had found it convenient to take passage in a French vessel, the officers of the San Jacinto would have felt themselves equally bound to have captured them under the tricolor. In fact, it is urged that the question is a purely international one, and one on which it is impossible but that the opinion of all the nations of Europe must be consentaneous. The casus belli and its immediate vindication rest on England, but the moral force of international opinion will also be brought to bear on the quarrel, and that in direct opposition to the American side of the question. These considerations take the matter wholly out of the comparatively narrow bounds of a captious dispute between England and the Federal States. The question becomes cosmopolitan, and its bearings and its consequences assume adequate proportions.
If something of all this, which we have, owing to an earnest desire to enter on the discussion with the utmost moderation, perhaps too faintly indicated, could present itself to the American as it most surely does to the English mind, we might yet see a satifactory, because a peaceful, solution of this vexed question. England, resolute and prepared for any eventuality, but more in sorrow than in anger, demands reparation for an international as well as a national wrong. If she had any choice she would have preferred that any other State of Europe should have undertaken the vindication of a principle which she holds only in common with other nations. There are special reasons too obvious and too often dwelt upon which make a quarrel of this kind in the abstract distasteful to her. She does not forget "that blood is thicker than water," but she also remembers that the time has been when in a contest for high principles and rights she could bear to see conflict even between brother and brother on her own soil, and, grievous as was the sacrifice, it was a lustration from which she did not shrink. She wishes to shed no kinsman's blood now: let us hope that that feeling will prove to be reciprocal.
Captain Charles Wilks, the hero of the hour in the United States, was born in the State of New York in 1805, and entered the United States' Navy in 1818. In 1838 he was commissioned by the Federal Government, with the grade of Captain, to take command of a naval expedition to explore the countries bordering on the Pacific and Southern Oceans. Starting from New York, he doubled Cape Horn, visited the Sandwich, Feejee, and other Polynesian groups, and the coast of Oregon; crossed over to Australia and Tasmania, decending as low as the 61st degree of south latitude. He visited Singapore and Borneo, and returned to New York in 1842, by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Several courts-martial were held upon him, from which, however, he issued without loss of rank. The results of his expedition were recounted in a voluminous illustrated work entitled "A Narrative of the United States' Exploring Expedition." In 1848 the Geographical Society of London presented him with a gold medal as a token of their appreciation of his services to science. He has since published a work entitled "Western America," which contains statistical and geographical facts and maps relating to the States of the Pacific Coast. He was returning from the coast of Africa, in command of the San Jacinto, when, hearing at Havannah that the Confederate Coinmissioners intended to take passage in the steamer Trent, he determined to seize them and any despatches they might have with them. In acting as he did he states that he was guided only by his own notions of his duty to his country, and that he had no instructions from his superiors at Washington.
IN our Issue of this week we give Portraits of Mr. Mason and Mr. Slidell, the Commissioners of the Southern States of America, who were arrested by the officers of the San Jacinto on board the British mail- steamer Trent.
This gentleman, the Commissioner to England, is a native of the State of Virginia, and is of direct English descent, this fact of lineage having been always held traditionally in his family. He is the grandson of George Mason, one of the most celebrated of the worthies of Virginia, who was the framer and chief supporter of the first Constitution of that State. The subject of our present memoir was born in the latter part of the last century, and made his first appearance in public life in 1823, as a member of a Convention of the Southern States which was assembled for the purpose of carrying our a favourite plan of Washington for opening up the resources of Virginia by means of a canal between the Ohio and the Chesapeake Rivers. In 1827 he was a member of a Convention under whose auspices the old Constitution of the State of Virginia was altered. In 1846 he was elected to the Senate of the United States, and was afterwards rechosen at every election almost without opposition. Immediately on his becoming a Senator he was appointed a member of that important section of the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee, which position he held without interruption until his retirement from that body, and he was for more than ten years the chairman of that Committee. In 1850 he took part in the discussion which ended in California being declared a Free State, and was one of the seven or eight members who, in conjunction with Mr. Jefferson Davis, was in favour of terminating the Convention of the Southern States with the Federal system by their withdrawal from the Union. In politics Mr. Mason has always been a consistent Democrat. He married the daughter of Mr. Benjamin Chew, a member of a family of some consideration in the State of Pennsylvania. Although not endowed with any remarkable energy or brilliancy, Mr. Mason has always shown capacity for affairs; while on his personal character as a gentleman of high honour and elevated sentiments no slur has ever been attempted to be cast.
Mr. Slidell, the Commissioner to France, was born in the city of New York, and the date of his birth also belongs to the last century. At a comparatively late period of life he commenced the study of the law, and, having formally embraced the legal profession, he removed to New Orleans, where he practised with great success and accumulated a large fortune by the exercise of his ability and industry, which, combined with great energy of character, have always caused him to hold a prominent position in public life. He married the accomplished daughter of a gentleman of Louisiana, the lady who accompanied him in his voyage towards Europe was present at his capture on board the Trent, and is now residing in this country. Under the presidency of General Jackson he was appointed District Attorney for the State of Louisiana. He was subsequently elected to Congress for two terms, and served the first, but before the second had expired he was selected as the head of the mission to Mexico, and continued Minister for the United States in that country until war was declared. In 1853 he was elected a member of the Senate of the United States, and occupied that position until the secession of the Southern States. It should be mentioned that when Mr. Buchanan became President he was desirous of obtaining the services of Mr. Slidell in his Cabinet, and placed any office which might suit his views at his disposal, but that offer was not accepted. Afterwards the acceptance of more than one foreign mission was pressed on Mr. Slidell, and especially the post of United States' Minister to France, but these distinctions he also declined.
The Europa, which took out the instructions to Lord Lyons on the subject of the Trent steamer, left Queenstown on the 1st inst. for Halifax; and the Federal Government most probably knew the nature of those instructions on Wednesday or Thursday. The following are the steamers which will bring important news from America subsequently to the receipt of the instructions in Washington, viz.—The Canada will leave Boston on the 11th, will call off Cape Race for news on the 13th, and reach Queenstown on the 22nd. The North American will leave Portland on the 14th, call off Cape Race on the 15th, and reach Londonderry on the 23rd. The City of Baltimore will leave New York on the 14th, call off Cape Race on the 16th, and reach Queenstown on the 24th. The Bavaria will leave New York on the 14th, call off Cape Race on the 16th, and reach Cowes on the 26th. The Africa will leave New York on the 18th, call off Cape Race on the 20th, and reach Queenstown on the 30th.