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Past Danger and Present Duty

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1127, p. 57-58.

January 18, 1862


To our inexpressible relief and gratification we were able to announce in our last Number that the Government at Washington had definitively acquiesced in the claim made upon them by the British Government for the restoration of the persons taken from on board the Trent by the Captain of the San Jacinto to the protection of the flag beneath which they were illegally seized. A calm review of the facts of the case, an attentive and dispassionate perusal of the diplomatic correspondence, and a fresh survey of the fearful calamity from which this decision has rescued both countries, have increased rather than lessened our thankfulness for this peaceful issue of the difference which three weeks ago looked so threatening. Both the countries concerned have reason to rejoice, for, in the event of war, no matter which of the two may have been the victor, it could have become so only by passing over the mangled remains of its own most cherished policy.

Besides the usual and inevitable evils inseparable from a hostile collision between two great Powers—the waste of blood and treasure, the interruption of trade, and the demoralisation of the people on both sides—war with the Federal States of America would have forced upon Great Britain an immediate, and perhaps a permanent, sacrifice of one of her foremost national purposes—namely, the extinction of the slave trade and the discouragement of slavery all the world over. Whatever may have been the grounds upon which the States of the North have come into conflict with those of the South—whatever may be the professed object for which they are carrying it on, at such immense cost to themselves, and hitherto with so little apparent success—at whatever time and in whatever way it may be ultimately decided—one thing is certain, that as slavery was the remote cause of the quarrel between North and South, so, but for foreign intervention, slavery will be weakened, and in the end destroyed, by the prosecution of the struggle. Quite apart from the will of either of the belligerents, this seems to be one of the unavoidable consequences of the present civil war—the only one, we may add, which the people of England have contemplated with anything approaching to a feeling of satisfaction. A war with the Federal

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States would instantly have coerced us into unwelcome but not the less mischievous complicity with the bitterest opponents of that policy with which, more than any other nation upon the face of the earth, we have identified the name and fame of England, for which we have made the largest sacrifices and braved the ill-will of other maritime Powers, and the final success of which seemed even to the most moderate expectation to be very close at hand. England, allied with a confederation of slaveholding States, the corner-stone of whose constitution is not merely the lawfulness but the expediency of slavery, and the thinly-veiled object of whose policy is the wide extension of slave territory and the speedy revival of the slave trade—England, recognising such a confederation, and thereby imparting to it a vitality and strength which it neither possesses nor deserves, and assisting it to make good its position against the Free States of the North, from which, for the sake of perpetuating and extending slavery, it wantonly seceded;—such a position as this would have been for our country a cruel necessity, entailing upon it a humiliation, and exhibiting to the world a scandal, for which no military nor naval success could have been accepted as adequate compensation. Thank God, we have escaped the danger.

And yet, with this miserable contingency before their eyes, we do not see how the British Government could safely or honourably have declined to front it, nor how they could have met the embarrassment in which it placed them more wisely or with more dignity than they have done. As soon as the facts relating to the capture of Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board the Trent steamer had been laid before them, they were calmly referred to the law officers of the Crown for judicial investigation as to the bearing in which they stood to the law of nations; and, on the report of those responsible officers that the Captain of the San Jacinto had taken upon himself to execute judgment on his individual, and of course unrecognised, authority, without appealing to the decision of a Prize Court, and had thereby offered an affront to our flag, Earl Russell immediately forwarded to Lord Lyons, our Minister at Washington, a despatch, couched in the most courteous terms, assuming that the act of aggression could not have been committed with the authority or approbation of the Federal Government, and intimating that the only reparation which this country could accept would be a restoration of the captured gentlemen to the protection of the British flag. Confident as her Majesty's Ministers may have been in the expectation that Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward would see not only the justice but the policy of admitting this claim, it behoved them in common prudence to make instant and effectual preparation for the disagreeable alternative. Winter was setting in. Canada, in the event of war, would lie exposed to the first hostile blow from the Federal States. She was wholly unprepared. The quarrel was not hers. England was bound to place her, if possible, in a position of security before the rigour of the climate should preclude all access to her along her own coasts. Hence the despatch to Washington was immediately followed by the dispatch of troops to Quebec and Halifax. All available means were taken to strengthen the fleet. In short, while earnestly desiring peace, and shaping their course so as to facilitate to the utmost its preservation, the British Government exhibited the greatest promptitude, activity, and forethought in making ready for war. In both respects, we believe, they secured the approbation of the country.

Mr. Seward's despatch to Lord Lyons has happily averted the dreaded rupture of amicable relations between the two peoples. He has justified our claim—he has surrendered the prisoners. Let us accept with generosity what has been conceded with a show of cheerfulness. His able despatch might, under other circumstances, provoke criticism. Its conclusion should disarm any such desire. A mutual analysis of national motives would do neither nation the least good, and would probably exhibit neither to unmixed advantage. On both sides irritating questions might be asked which it would be difficult to answer in any way that would not exasperate. We have asked the Federal Union to do us right, and they have done it, openly admitting that what we asked was justifiable and reasonable. Between individual gentlemen such a course is held to bury the offence out of sight, and the propriety of the rule is equally recognised by nations. We should be sorry, therefore, to demean ourselves by raking among the ashes of the past for matter of offensive comment, or food for self-complacency. There is in any such attempt a revolting malignancy and pettiness of spirit which true and magnanimous Englishmen will scorn to countenance. Reparation having been made, bygones become bygones. The wretch who shakes hands over his antagonist's apology and concession, and thereupon begins to reopen his complaint, displays himself as a pitiable example of impotency in the government of his own passions. If the amende honorable fails to satisfy him, he is justly believed to be nursing a wicked design beneath a pretended regard for the unsullied purity of his name. Great Britain, we are certain, will not be guilty of that unspeakable meanness. What has been frankly yielded, even though more tardily than she could have wished, will be as frankly received. Why it was not offered before she will forbear to inquire; and no one better then she knows, and none more fully than she can appreciate, the difficulty of at once closing the ears and the heart against the whispered insinuations of national pride. The last American war was occasioned by our failing to determine in time what we resolved, when too late, to surrender. We have reason to be thankful that Mr. Lincoln did not delay his decision beyond the limit allowed him for deliberation.

We may extract if we will from the anxious experience through which we have just passed two or three lessons that may be of service to the world generally as well as to ourselves in particular. We have already recorded our emphatic approbation of the steps taken by her Majesty's Ministers to obtain redress for the injury inflicted upon us by Captain Wilks. We sincerely wish that, inasmuch as it was well known that they had sent out to the Government at Washington a courteous but firm demand for reparation, and inasmuch as it could not be known that such demand would be rejected, there had been less of angry excitement during the interval. That portion of the public press which for the last month has been labouring with great power, and, we are compelled to confess, with too much success, to inflame the warlike passions of the British people by parading before them as a premeditated and defiant insult what turns out to have been the rash and foolhardy act of a naval captain, committed on his own responsibility, has done itself and the people of this country but little credit. Had it been necessary to stimulate our own rulers to the performance of what was due to the honour of this nation, some extenuation, if not excuse, might have been pleaded for pursuing this course. But no such necessity existed, or was believed to exist. Neither could the extravagant and fierce denunciation of the American people and their institutions contribute in the smallest degree to the pacific decision of the Federal Government; for the greater part of it will have been read across the Atlantic only after the offence has been disclaimed and the reparation made. Unhappily, we have allowed ourselves to be goaded into an unseemly display of passionate indignation, without any obvious necessity and before the fitting occasion for it had arisen, to the manifest danger of increasing the ill-will of America and the exposure of ourselves to ridicule in the eyes of foreign nations. The inconvenience which will, no doubt, accrue to us from this want of self-restraint may well teach us that, when a people have taken the proper steps to vindicate their national honour, it becomes them to await the issue with self-possession and calm forbearance.

The events of the past month will, we trust, impress upon the minds of our countrymen another lesson. The occasion has been one on which the Emperor of the French, if actuated by the secret hostility to this country which not a few have persistently laid to his charge, might, without going out of his way, have turned to a selfish account by leaving it to take its course. A war between England and America would have made him master of the situation in Europe. Once more, as in the presence of the Indian mutiny, he has rebuked our distrust by the loyalty of his behaviour. He chose to throw the whole weight of his immense influence with the Cabinet at Washington into the scale of peace by urging a frank concession of our demand. We trust the fact so honourable to his Government will be borne in mind when next an attempt is made to sow between him and ourselves the seeds of a groundless suspicion.

Lastly, let us, in parting from this subject, express our earnest hope, as we have taken occasion to do more than once already, that the difficulty from which we have just escaped will lead to a liberal revision of maritime law. It is susceptible of vast amendments in favour of neutral commerce, and, we believe, the policy of Great Britain has hitherto been the chief obstacle to their being effected. If the painful excitement through which we have passed should conduce to the framing and establishment of a clear and reasonable maritime code, the benefit will have been cheaply purchased by the outlay to which we have been subjected by the affair of the Trent. In that case the event will have furnished the happiest modern solution of Samson's riddle, "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness."

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