The French Government and the Outrage on the Trent.The Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1124, p. 676.
December 28, 1861
M. Thouvenel, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, has addressed the following highly important despatch to the representative of France at Washington:—
Monsieur,—The arrest of MM. Mason and Slidell on board the English packet Trent by an American cruiser has produced in France, if not the same emotion in England, at least great astonishment and an extreme sensation.
Public opinion at once inquired, with anxiety for the consequences, whether such an act could possibly be legitimate, and there cannot be the slightest doubt of the general impression. The act seems to the public so entirely at variance with the ordinary rules of international law that it throws the responsibility exclusively upon the commander of the San Jacinto.
We cannot know yet whether this supposition is well founded, and the Emperor's Government has therefore felt called upon to consider the question raised by the capture of the two passengers on board the Trent. The desire to contribute to prevent a conflict, which is perhaps imminent, between two Powers towards whom it is animated by equally friendly sentiments, and the duty of maintaining—with a view to put the rights of its own flag beyond the danger of attack—certain principles essential to the security of neutrals, have, after mature reflection, convinced the French Government that it cannot remain completely silent under existing circumstances.
If, to our great regret, the Washington Cabinet should be disposed to approve the conduct of the commander of the San Jacinto, they must consider MM. Slidell and Mason either as enemies or as rebels. In either case there would be an extremely regretable forgetfulness of principle, on which we have always found the United States agreed with us.
On what ground, in the first supposed case, can the American cruiser have arrested MM. Mason and Slidell? The United States have admitted, with us, in treaties concluded between the two countries, that the freedom of the flag extends to persons found on board, even though they be enemies, except in the case of military men actually in the service of the enemy. MM. Mason and Slidell were, therefore, by virtue of this principle, which we have never found any difficulty in getting inserted in our treaties of friendship and commerce, perfectly free under the neutral flag of England.
It will not, doubtless, be presented that they could be considered as contraband of war. What constitutes contraband of war is not, it is true, precisely settled; the limits are not absolutely the same for all Powers; but, as far as regards persons, the stipulations found in treaties relative to military persons clearly define the character of the individuals who alone are liable to be captured by belligerents.
Now, it cannot be necessary to demonstrate that MM. Mason and Slidell can in no way be assimilated to persons in this category. There would, therefore, remain no ground to explain their capture but the pretext that they were bearers of official despatches from the enemy. But this is the place to call to mind a circumstance which overrides the whole case, and shows the conduct of the American cruiser to have been unjustifiable.
The Trent was not bound to a point belonging to either of the belligerents. It was carrying its cargo and passengers to a neutral country; and, moreover, it was at a neutral port that it had taken them up. If it were admissible that, under such circumstances, the neutral flag did not completely cover the persons and goods transported under it, the immunity of that flag would be a vain word; the commerce and navigation of third Powers would be liable to suffer at any moment for their innocent, or even indirect, relations with either of the belligerents. The latter would not only have a right to require from the neutral the most complete impartiality, and to interdict him from being mixed up in any way with acts of hostility, but they would inflict restrictions upon the liberty of commerce and navigation which modern international law refuses to acknowledge as legitimate. There would be a return, in a word, to those vexatious practices against which, in former times, no Power protested more energetically than the United States.
If the Washington Cabinet should regard the two persons arrested as rebels, whom it has always a right to seize, the question, though shifting its ground, could not be more resolved in a sense favourable to the commander of the San Jacinto. In such a case there would be a contempt of the principle in virtue of which a ship is held to be a portion of the territory whose flag it bears, and there would be a violation of the immunity which forbids a foreign Sovereign to exercise jurisdiction on that territory. It cannot doubtless be necessary to call to mind the energy with which the United States has, on every occasion, defended this immunity and the right of asylum which is a consequence of it.
Without wishing to enter upon a more thorough discussion of the question raised by the capture of MM. Mason and Slidell, I have said enough, I think, to show that the Cabinet of Washington cannot, without infringing those principles which all neutral Powers are alike interested in maintaining, nor without putting itself in contradiction with its own conduct up to the present time, give its approbation of the conduct of the San Jacinto. In this state of things the Cabinet of Washington cannot, in our opinion, hesitate as to the course to be taken.
Lord Lyons is already charged to present the demand for satisfaction which the English Cabinet is under the necessity of making, and which consists in the immediate release of the persons taken from the Trent, and explanations which shall relieve the act of the Captain of the San Jacinto of its offensive character to the British flag. The Federal Government would be inspired by a just and elevated sentiment in yielding to these demands. It is impossible to conceive any object or any interest that it could have to run the risk of provoking a rupture with Great Britain by assuming a different attitude.
For ourselves, who would see in such a rupture a complication in every way deplorable of the difficulties with which the Cabinet of Washington has already to struggle, and a proceeding calculated to occasion serious uneasiness to all the Powers not parties to the present conflict, we think we are giving a testimony of loyal friendship to the Cabinet of Washington in not concealing from it our opinion.
I request you. Sir, to take the first opportunity of speaking frankly with Mr. Seward, and, if he should desire it, to leave him a copy of this despatch.— Receive, &c.,