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The Relations Between the Governments of Great Britain and the United States, from the Treaty of Ghent until the Inauguration of President Lincoln

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1125, p. 19.

January 4, 1862


It is necessary to preface the following catalogue of the principal international questions which engaged the attention of the Governments of Great Britain and the United States from 1814 to 1861 by observing that the object of the editor is not the base one of further inflaming the public mind against the United States' Government and people, but the simple and legitimate one of affording desirable and seasonable information to the readers of this Journal. In order, further, to guard against the possibility of misconstruction, we beg to draw attention to three facts—first, that the seceded States are equally responsible with the loyal States for the past policy of the United States, be it good or evil; secondly, that the present Administration and Congress of the United States are substantially revolutionised organisations which ought not in equity to be held too strictly accountable for the misdeeds of a past with which they do not, in many respects, desire to be identified; and, thirdly, that the great mass of the party now in power in the United States consists of those, or the sons of those, who in former times have loyally striven to preserve peace between the two countries, and without whose co-operation that peace could never have been so long preserved unbroken. If, on the present occasion, the conduct of the Republican Administration and Senate on this their first trial only rises to a level with the maxims of the extinct Federalist and Whig parties, whose political heirs they are, there is no danger of the affair of the Trent being allowed to drift into the last extremity of war.

In 1817 General Jackson, of Tennessee, warring against the Seminole Indians in Georgia and Alabama, marched into Florida, then a Spanish possession, without declaring war, seized two Indian traders named Arbuthnot, a Scotchman, and Ambrister, an Englishman, whom he accused of inciting the Indians to hostilities, and tried them by a court-martial, which sentenced the former to imprisonment, the latter to death. General Jackson took upon himself the responsibility of executing both. The Marquis of Lansdown, at the opening of the Session in 1819, brought the subject before the House of Lords, and stigmatised the act as "one of those naked acts of violence which disgraced those by whom it was committed." Lord Liverpool stated in reply that the execution took place without the authority of the American Government, and that the act was not such as necessitated a demand for reparation, the refusal of which would necessarily bring on a war between the two countries. The action of General Jackson in overruling the milder sentence of the court-martial could not, he said, be spoken of without horror. No more notice was taken of the event in Parliament; but the Opposition party in Congress loudly condemned the conduct of General Jackson. It is a little singular that this outrage, which is narrated in every school history in the United States, where the unfortunate victims figure as "English emissaries," is not even alluded to either in our "Annual Register," "Knight's Pictorial History of England," or Miss Martineau's "Thirty Years' Peace."

In 1818 a commercial treaty was made between the two Governments.

In 1823 President Monroe and Mr. Canning co-operated in securing the independence of the revolted Spanish American colonies. It was on this occasion that the celebrated "Monroe doctrine," directed against European interference on the American continent was first broached.

In 1837 the Canadian rebellion broke out and engendered a plentiful crop of troubles. American "sympathisers" on the northern frontier, after robbing the United States' Arsenal at Buffalo of its store of arms, crossed the border and joined themselves to the rebels. A party of them took possession of Navy Island, in the Niagara River, two miles above the Falls, and within the jurisdiction of Canada. They were supplied by a small steamer called the Caroline. One night a party of Canadian militia, under the command of Sir Allan M'Nab, crossed the river, cut the Caroline from her moorings in American waters, set her afire, and let her float down the Falls. An American citizen, named Durfee, shared the fate of the Caroline; and public opinion in many quarters called on President Van Buren to declare war against Great Britain; but wiser counsels prevailed. No reparation was ever made for this act.

In 1840 this affair was the parent of another singular complication. Alexander M'Leod, a loyal Irishman, while in a tavern at Lockport, in the State of New York, made a foolish boast to the effect that he was one of the party engaged in cutting out the Caroline. A mob arrested him and threw him into gaol on the charge of aiding in the murder of Durfee. The British Minister at Washington protested against this act of the mob, declaring the operation to have been effected in obedience to the colonial authorities, and therefore an international question, for which an individual engaged therein as a soldier was not liable. The British Government assumed the responsibility of the destruction of the Caroline, and demanded the release of the prisoner. The local magistrates were about to release him on bail, but a mob overawed them. A committee of the Federal House of Representatives demanded that the man should be held. As the Federal Government would not prosecute, the State of New York stepped in and tried M'Leod for an offence against one of her citizens. Fortunately there was unquestionable evidence of an alibi, and a verdict of acquittal was procured.

For many years the disputed question of the North-Eastern or Maine boundary had been a chronic source of trouble between the two countries. Fortunately for the cause of peace, the Whig party triumphed in the Presidential election of 1840, and the Administration of President Harrison immediately addressed itself to the task of settling this formidable difficulty. On the British side Lord Aberdeen was actuated by similar feelings, and Lord Ashburton was sent over to the United States charged with this special mission. He and Mr. Webster, the then Secretary of State, negotiated a treaty (ratified in 1842) which settled the boundary line as it stands at present. There were parties on both sides who were discontented with this negotiation. Lord Palmerston stigmatised it as "the Ashburton Capitulation." In reply to analogous attacks in the United States' Senate, Mr. Webster produced a map with the boundary line marked in the handwriting of George III, which proved he had made a good bargain. His conduct in concealing this map from Lord Ashburton was unfavourably commented on in England, though defended by the chiefs of the Conservative party.

At the same time the treaty for the suppression of the African slave trade was entered into. The "right of visit" was tacitly allowed, and the Americans agreed to keep a squadron on the African coast to guard against the abuse of the American flag.

The case of the Virginian brig Creole arose in October, 1841. While this vessel was on its way from Norfolk to New Orleans, some slaves, who formed part of the cargo, obtained possession of the ship, wounded the captain and some of the crew, killed a passenger who owned some of the slaves, aud [sic] and carried the vessel into the British port of Nassau, New Providence. Of the 123 slaves on board nineteen were arrested, on the requisition of the American consul, on the charge of mutiny and murder. The case against the negroes was pressed with zeal by the Federal Government, but the law officers and law peers of Great Britain were unanimous that there was no law by which the negroes could be tried or detained. The nineteen prisoners were therefore set free.

The Maine boundary question had hardly been settled when the Oregon or North-Western boundary dispute acquired highly-dangerous proportions. Even so early as 1822 Lord Castlereagh told the American Minister in London that such was the condition of this question that war could be kindled by holding up a finger. In 1818 an agreement had been entered into opening the Oregon territory to the occupation of settlers from both countries. On this footing things had remained until 1844. The partisans of war sent out thither a numerous American emigration, which greatly added to the difficulty of a peaceful settlement. The American war party claimed the whole territory up to 54 deg. 40 min.; and in the Presidential election of 1844 Mr. Polk, who was pledged to enforce this claim by war, if necessary, was elected in preference to Mr. Clay, the Whig candidate, who favoured a compromise. Mr. Polk's Message in December, 1845, was substantially a war message; but, thanks to the moderation of the Senate, where the Whig and Southern Democratic senators acted in alliance, a compromise was agreed to settling the line to the Pacific at 49 deg., and giving the island of Vancouver to Great Britain. President Polk, in assenting to this arrangement in 1846, threw the responsibility upon the Senate.

In 1850 the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty was made, about the true construction of which a serious difference was to arise a few years later.

In 1852 the Newfoundland fishery dispute broke out. Lord Derby's Government sent instructions to the commanding Admiral to protect the exclusive rights of the colonists within three marine miles of the coasts of British North America, as provided for by the Treaty of 1818. The execution of these instructions caused great excitement in the United States, which was increased by the inflammatory popular speeches of Mr. Webster, then Secretary of State. American ships of war were ordered to the spot and a collision was imminent.

The final settlement of this question was effected by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, negotiated at Washington by Lord Elgin. According to this arrangement the legislation affecting the commerce between the United States and British America was altered in a free-trade direction, the navigation of the St. Lawrence was opened to American bottoms, and the exclusive right of shore-fishing was abandoned.

In consequence of the filibustering expedition of Lopez against Cuba, the Governments of Great Britain and France, in 1853, invited the Government of the United States to enter into a tripartite treaty to guarantee the possession of Cuba to the Spanish Crown. Mr. Everett, then Secretary of State, refused to accede to the proposal.

In 1854 President Pierce, on some trifling pretext, ordered the bombardment of Greytown, a city under the protection of Great Britain. This act received the reprobation of the principal Governments of the civilised world.

In 1856 the differences between Great Britain and the United States on the Central American question came to a crisis. Under the provisions of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty the American Government claimed that Great Britain was bound to surrender her possessions in British Honduras, the Bay Islands, and the Mosquito Protectorate. Lord Clarendon declined to accede to this interpretation, but offered to abide by the award of a third party. To this the American Government would not listen, and at the commencement of 1856 war seemed imminent. Nevertheless, the American Government did not press its requisitions to the point of war, and, after some fruitless attempts to negotiate on a more moderate basis, this question has been settled by the abandonment by Great Britain of the Mosquito Protectorate and the Bay Islands, the former by treaty with the State of Nicaragua, the latter by treaty with the State of Honduras.

In 1856 occurred the dismissal of the British Minister at Washington (Mr. Crampton), on the false charge of having engaged in the enlistment of soldiers for the British service on United States' soil, Great Britain then being at war with Russia. On a similar charge of breach of the neutrality laws three British Consuls had their exequaturs withdrawn from them.

In the same year the resolutions of the Congress of Paris in reference to maritime law were submitted to the United States' Government for adoption. The Administration of President Pierce refused to assent to that article which abolished privateering, unless a clause were added exempting private property from seizure at sea. To this proposal the Government of Lord Palmerston refused to assent, and it was afterwards withdrawn by Mr. Buchanan, the successor of Mr. Pierce.

In the same year the United States' Government purchased of the salvors the derelict British barque Resolute, of the Arctic Expedition, equipped and refitted her, and sent her back to England.

During Mr. Buchanan's term of office, with the close of which this resumé will terminate, but two points of difference arose. In 1858 the British Government, in the desire of stopping the slave trade off the coast of Cuba, exercised "the right of visit" in the Gulf of Mexico. This caused a unanimous burst of indignation from both the great parties of the United States, and the practice was formally abandoned by the British Government. All propositions for adopting means by which the nationality of vessels suspected of being engaged in the slave trade could be ascertained were rejected by the Administration of Mr. Buchanan.

In the same year the Atlantic cable was laid, and messages of mutual good will were exchanged between the Queen and the President and the Mayors of London and New York.

In 1859 General Harney seized the island of St. Juan, the right to which is claimed by both nations under the treaty relating to the North-western boundary. This act of General Harney, being contrary to an express understanding between the two Governments that neither party should occupy the island until the right of possession had been determined, led to a remonstrance by the British Government. General Scott was sent to the Pacific coast to overrule General Harney. The affair terminated in the joint occupancy of the island, and in the recall of the offending General.

In 1860, on the invitation of President Buchanan, the Prince of Wales made a tour through the Northern and Western States. The incidents of this memorable tour are still so fresh in the public mind that it is unnecessary to dwell upon them. It will be a terrible irony on the civilisation of the age, a standing reproach against human nature, if this visit of reconciliation— which seemed to be a fitting finale to a bitter and long-standing international feud—should, after all, be nothing but a mocking prelude to a third war with the United States—war so often imminent, yet, as we have seen, as often avoided.

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