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Earl Russell on American Affairs

The Illustrated London News, vol. 43, no. 1224, p. 347.

October 3, 1863


Earl Russell, who has been residing with his family at Meikleour House, Perthshire, for some weeks, was entertained by the tenantry on the estate to a public dinner, which was held in the Public Hall at Blairgowrie last Saturday afternoon. His Lordship was met at the outskirts of Blairgowrie by a procession consisting of the different trades and headed by the magistrates. On reaching the town he was presented with an address by the magistrates, in which allusion was made to his many and successful efforts in the cause of civil and religious liberty. Earl Russell then proceeded to the Public Hall, where the chair was taken by the Earl of Airlie; and Sir George Ramsey, Sheriff Barclay, and Mr. Kinloch, of Kinloch, were croupiers. The Rev. Mr. Marshall presented an address to the noble Earl, on behalf of the tenants of Meikleour, which referred at considerable length to various important measures in the carrying of which his Lordship had taken a part, and to his present difficult and delicate duties as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

At the dimmer the noble Earl, in replying to the toast of his health, reviewed at considerable length the foreign policy of her Majesty's Government.

Referring first to the Polish question, he insisted that Russia had not complied with the conditions on which Poland was secured to her by the Treaty of Vienna; nevertheless, neither the obligations nor the interests of England required that we should go to war for Poland, and he therefore thought it unbecoming for us to rail at Russia when we were not prepared forcibly to resist aggression.

With regard to Mexico, his Lordship pointed out the distinction between intervention for the redress of wrong and for the purpose of forcing upon a people a particular form of Government. France had chosen the latter form of interference in Mexico, and our Government had consequently felt it to be their duty to part company with the Emperor as soon as his real object was disclosed.

Earl Russell next spoke of what is going on in America, and defended the policy of our Government since the outbreak of the civil war. His Lordship's remarks on this subject are, on account of their importance, given entire.

American Affairs.--Our Concession of Belligerent Rights.

I come now to another question, a question interesting to us all--a question to which I beg your attention, because I wish to explain some circumstances in which I think the character of this country has been maligned. I am speaking of what occurred in what a few years ago were the United States of America. Then we were exulting in the prosperity of that country; we were happy to see a people, derived from the some ancestors as ourselves, enjoying free institutions, enjoying apparent harmony with one another, and with whom we had--at least just before the civil war broke out--hardly a difference. There was a difference about a small island called St. John, and which we proposed to refer to the arbitration of the Swiss Republic. Such was the state of affairs when the war broke out. Nine of the Southern States of America declared that they would form an independent Republic. Our course on that subject has been attacked and blamed, sometimes in the bitterest terms--blamed sometimes by the Federals, sometimes by the Confederates.

The first offence was felt by the Federals. They say that we had no right to grant, as far as we were concerned, to the Confederate States, the rights of belligerents. Well, gentlemen, that question of the rights of belligerents is a question of facts; and I put it to you whether, with five millions of freemen declaring themselves, in States and collectively, an independent nation, we could pass it over as a petty rebellion. Our Admirals asked whether the ships they met bearing the Confederate flag should be treated as pirates or not. If we had treated them as pirates, we should have been taking part in that contest. It was impossible, looking at it as a community of five millions of people, to treat it as a mere petty insurrection, or as not having rights which at all times have been given to those who, by numbers and importance and the extent of territory they possessed, were entitled to those rights.

Well, it was said that we ought not to have done it, because it was a community of slaveholders. I trust our abhorrence of slavery is not in the least abated or diminished. For my own part, I consider that it is one of the most horrible crimes that yet disgrace humanity; but when we are treating of the relation which we bear to the communities of men I doubt whether it would be expedient or useful for humanity to introduce that new element, declaring that we will have no relation with a people that permits slavery to exist among them. We have never adopted it with Spain or Brazil, and I do not believe the cause of humanity would be served by adopting it.

But then, it was said, the Confederate States were rebels against the Union; perhaps we are not so nice as we ought to be on that subject. But I recollect we rebelled against Charles I., against James II., and that the people of New England, not content with these rebellions, rebelled against George III. I do not say now whether all these were justifiable or wrong. I do not say whether the rebellion of the Southern States is a justifiable insurrection--whether it is a great fact or a great crime; but I state the mere fact that a rebellion is not in itself a crime of so deep a dye as to cause us to renounce our relations with people guilty of rebellion. But, to look at the orations of the New England orators, and I have been reading lately, if not the whole, at least the greater part of a long speech by Mr. Sumner in New York, and I cannot but wonder that this man, the offspring of three, as we are of two, rebellions, should be speaking like the Czar of Russia or Louis XIV. of the dreadful guilt of a crime of rebellion.

Confederate Complaints of the Blockade.

Then comes another complaint, and it comes from the so-called Confederate States. It is said we have, contrary to the declarations of Paris, contrary to international law, permitted the blockade of three thousand miles of American coast. It is quite true we did so; and the presumable cause of complaint is quite true that although the blockade is kept up by a sufficient number of ships, yet those ships were sent into the United States Navy in a hurry, and are ill-fitted for the purpose and did not keep up, so completely and effectively as was required, an effective blockade. Still, looking at the law of nations, it was a blockade we, as a great belligerent Power, in former times should have acknowledged. We ourselves had a blockade of upwards of two thousand miles; and it did seem to me that we were bound in justice to the Federal States of America to acknowledge that blockade; but there was another reason that weighed with me. Our people were suffering severely for the want of that material which was the main set-off of their industry, and it was a question of self-interest whether we should not break that blockade.

But in my opinion the men of England would have been for ever infamous if, for the sake of their own interest, they had violated the law of nations and made war in conjunction with these slave-holding States of America against the Federal States. I am not speaking sentiments which are peculiar to me who had no interest in the question, but such I believe to be the sentiments of that noble-hearted people of Lancashire who lived and flourished by that industry, but would not allow a single spot on their escutcheon in order to the maintenance of that industry.

The Alabama.

Well, gentlemen, we come to new complaints on the part of the Federals, that we allowed ships to leave the port of Liverpool which afterwards commit depredations on their commerce. It would lead too far if I were to enter into all the particulars; but you must know that in order to prove, you require evidence, such evidence as might be sifted in a court of justice; and it was not until the day the vessel left that we had an opinion of lawyers sufficient to stop that vessel, and I doubt if even then we had brought it before a court of law whether there would have been evidence sufficient to condemn her, because, by an evasion of the law, the ship was fitted up without arms or equipment, and that equipment was conveyed to her in the waters of a foreign country, very far from the jurisdiction of England.

Gentlemen, these questions must be weighed; but I think they will be weighed, as they have been by the Government of the United States of America, in the balance of equity. We know that the Foreign Enlistment Act and the whole law respecting that subject is one of difficult application. The principle is clearing up; if you are asked to sell muskets, you may sell them to one party or the other--guns, powder, cannons in the same way. If you are asked to sell a ship you may sell a ship in the same manner; but if you train and drill a regiment with arms in their hands, and allow that regiment to go out with arms in their hands, and to take part with one of two belligerents, you violate the neutrality and commit an offence against the other belligerent. So with regard to ships: if you allow a ship to be armed, and to go at once and make an attack on a foreign belligerent, you are thus, according to your own law, taking part in the war, and that is an offence which is punished by the law.

But these questions will lead, as you will see, to most difficult problems--as, for instance, a thousand persons here may go out as labourers to the Federal States in one ship; there may be a thousand muskets go out in another ship; and when they arrive, those thousand labourers, having had an understanding before, now make a formal engagement with these States and are armed with these thousand muskets. But if that had been done in the territory of this country it would have been an offence.

There are other matters with regard to ships that have lately been prepared within this country, because these ships are not like ships that receive the usual equipment. They are not like vessels you sent in former times of war; but are in themselves, without any further armament, formed for acts of offence and war. They are steam-rams, which might be used for purposes of war without ever touching the shore of a Confederate port. Well, gentlemen, to permit ships of this kind knowingly to depart from this country--not to enter a Confederate port, not to enter the ports of a belligerent--would, as you see, expose our good faith to great suspicion; and I feel certain that, if during our war with France the Americans had sent out line-of-battle ships to break our blockade at Brest, whatever reasons they might have urged in support, we would have considered it a violation of neutrality. Such is the spirit in which I am prepared to act.

Everything that the law of nations requires--everything that the present Foreign Enlistment Act requires--I am prepared to do, even if it should be proved to be necessary for the preservation of our neutrality that the sanction of Parliament should be asked to further measures that her Majesty's Ministers may still add. In short, to sum up all, we are prepared to do everything that the duties of the neutrality require--everything that is just to a friendly nation, taking as a principle that we should do to others as we should wish to be done unto ourselves. But this we will not do, we will not adopt any measures that we think to be wrong. We will not yield a jot of British law or British rights in consequence of the menaces of a foreign Power.

State of Feeling in America.

And now referring again to the complaints that have been made, it is singular to observe how jaundiced the mind of some of those who speak in the New England States are upon the subject.

There were some persons in the House of Lords who thought fit to complain, upon an apparent grievance, of ships of ours that had been seized, in some cases passing from neutral ports, in other cases on the high seas, but apparently on legitimate voyages; and it was urged that we might not submit to have our vessels this seized and interrupted. I had to deal with that case, and my answer was that, according to the law of nations, if a ship had an ostensible voyage to a destination, which was not her real destination--if she was bound in effect to the enemy's port with munitions of war--that belligerents had a right to stop that vessel on the high seas; and said that that law had been laid down by Lord Stowell and other great English authorities; but it had been laid down by these authorities in time of war, and that now we were neutrals I did not think we should depart from the law we had laid down as belligerents. I said that although in America there were some of the local courts which did not know the authority of such men as Lord Stowell and Sir William Grant, there was a court of appeal--the Supreme Court of the United States, which contained, and had contained for many years, men as learned, of as high reputation for law, and as unsullied a reputation for integrity as any that had sat in our English courts of justice, and that we ought to wait patiently for the decision of these tribunals.

Now, what was my surprise, and what will be your surprise, to find that Mr. Sumner has his mind so prejudiced as to bring against me the charge that have attempted to diminish the reputation of the American courts, and show myself biased against the American States by the declaration I had thus made.

I will not detain you further on this subject; but one remark I must make, one remark on the general tendency of these speeches and of these writings in America. The Government of America discusses these matters very fairly with the English Government. Sometimes we think they are quite in the wrong, and sometimes they say we are quite in the wrong. We discuss them fairly. With regard to the Secretary of State, I see no complaint to make. I think he weighs the disadvantages and difficulties of our situation in a fair and equal balance; but not so these others, and that speech of Mr. Sumner is one of them, being an epitome of almost all that has been contained in the press of America on the subject. There are others by whom our conduct is very differently judged.

I say, with regard to all these matters, they are difficult questions. We may have reason to complain in some instances, and the Federal Republic of America may have reason to complain in others; but let us recollect that we are, as I have said, descended from the same ancestors; that in the courts of justice in America the common law of England is constantly cited, the decisions of whose Judges are constantly referred to as decisions ever respected; that our Shakspeare and Milton are to them the classic books they are to us; that we have the same inheritance of freedom; that many of our institutions--as you may see by reading that excellent book of Tocqueville's, as he shows many of our institutions--are identical; that the same spirit of liberty animates us both; that though we, after our revolutions, chose constitutional monarchy as our form of government, and that though, after theirs, they chose a Republic as their form of government, yet this community, having the same spirit of law, having the same spirit of liberty, having the same spirit of freedom, we ought, when these unhappy days are over, to embrace one and other as friends; that we in the Old World, and they in the New, ought to be the lights to promote the civilisation of mankind.

Now, gentlemen, with this feeling, I own I almost lose my patience when I see men in what is called an oration heaping up accusation, misrepresentation after misrepresentation, all tending to the bloody end of war between these two nations. I cannot but say, are they not satisfied with the blood that has been shed in the field in the last two years--with that field of Gettysburg, where 10,000 corpses of men, mostly in the prime of manhood, lay stretched on the ground, who had been vigorous in the early morning?--are they not satisfied with this bloodshed, but would they seek to extend to the nations of Europe new days on which fresh sacrifices are to be made of human life, human interest, and human happiness? Gentlemen, I trust that will not be the case. I know, at all events, that my efforts, such as they are--weak they may be, ineffectual I hope they will not be; but my efforts, such as they are, will be directed to keep peace between these two nations--to do everything which I think is just, everything which I think is right, towards this people. I trust we shall be ready to meet an attack, if we are unjustly attacked--ready to bear our part in the contest, if contest there must be, but yet not believing that we ought to make every effort that all these various complications may end in peace to the nations and in friendship. I say, at all events, I shall have a conscience that I have done my best to preserve peace between these mighty nations.

Gentlemen, this is a great subject. It affects the people of our part of the world and of America. It affects the future state of civilisation. It affects the well-being of the black race whom it was the crime of our ancestors to introduce into America, and who--if these matters are well ended, as I believe they will--are fitted to be peaceable and intelligent members of a free country, and on behalf of whose welfare we have been ready to make great efforts and to sacrifice much. But we will not sacrifice any of those views of ours to mere pretence. We have as strong a feeling for the good of mankind as any people can have; but we must maintain our own position; and my belief is that the people of what were the United States, whether they are now called Federals or Confederates, will finally do us justice; that they will observe--as, indeed, they cannot help observing--that in this free country, where there is so much discussion and so much difference of opinion, there are parties, very considerable in number, who sympathise with the Confederates, and there are other large masses, I believe superior in numbers, who sympathise with the Federals. But, whether sympathising with the one or the other, we have all impressed in our hearts the sentiments of justice, and that we will do to others the justice we expect for ourselves. And I hope I interpret the feelings of your minds when I say that justice ought to prevail.

The noble Lord sat down amid prolonged cheering.

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