HC Deb 17 February 1862 vol 165 cc380-94

Before you leave the chair, Sir, I should like to make one or two observations. I am not going to object to the Vote, of course; I have had too much experience of such matters to attempt any such thing; but after the prodigious sums voted last year, and in past years, I think we are now driven to the point at which it may be worth while to consider whether the expenditure of an additional million has been necessary and wise, or not. Now, I am not about to find fault with the course of Her Majesty's Government with regard to the recent transaction with the Government of the United States, so far as I can see any- thing, or expect to see anything, in the blue books and in the correspondence between the Foreign Office in England and the Department of State at Washington. So far as the despatches which are signed by Earl Russell go, I make no complaint about them. It does not appear to me that the request made of the American Government was one they could reasonably object to, nor does it appear to me that the language in which it was couched was such that they could be entitled to complain of. Therefore, so far as that goes, I have no charge to bring against Her Majesty's Government. But, Sir, it does appear to me clearly that there was great inconsistency between the conduct of the Foreign Office, as exhibited in these despatches, and certain other portions of the conduct of the Government. It is not customary in ordinary life for a person to send a polite messenger with a polite message to a friend, or neighbour, or acquaintance, and at the same time to send a man of portentous strength, handling a gigantic club, making every kind of ferocious gesticulation, and, at the same time, to profess that all this is done in the most friendly and courteous manner. Now, that seems to me precisely what has been done by Her Majesty's Government in this par ticular case; and I am anxious for a moment to explain to the House how I think this million has been worse than thrown away, and that, besides being thrown away, it leaves behind it consequences of much more evil and of much more harm than the loss of the million itself. Now, the House will recollect that, at the very time, I think on a Friday or Saturday, when the Cabinet were said to be meeting for the purpose of discussing the despatch to be sent by the Saturday's boat from Liverpool to America, there appeared in the newspapers that are the especial organs of the Government language of the most violent and offensive character; and that instantaneously—probably on the very day when the despatch itself was written—steps were taken with regard both to the army and navy which were exactly such as would have been taken if the despatch itself had been, not a courteous demand for a just object, but rather a declaration of war. Now the effect of that in this country was very obvious. It created almost a universal impression that there was something which the Government knew and which the country did not know; and though nobody thought—nobody but Go- vernment could imagine—that a cause of war could arise out of that question, that the Government cither knew war was all but inevitable, or that they intended war, if war could by any possibility be made out of it. Now, I suppose, if I am to take the answer which would be made to my statement from the statements made at the time, I shall find it based on two theories, which J undertake to say are about as false and about as ignorant as any ever offered to Parliament in justification of any public proceeding. It was said by certain organs which affect to represent the Government—and which are apparently sometimes the Government slaves, and sometimes its masters—it was said that the Government at Washington, or Mr. Seward particularly, was anxious to get into war, or difficulty, with this country, with the view of enabling him, with something like credit, to get out of the difficulty in the South—in fact, under cover of a war with England, peace upon, I presume, terms of separation of the Union, was to be made with the South. That was one of the theories. Nothing in the world was ever offered to rational men more absurd and more impossible. Mr. Seward cannot make war; the President himself cannot make war; Mr. Seward and the President together cannot make war; but the President and the Congress of the United States can make war; and we may be perfectly certain, and might have been then, that it did not rest in the brain of one man, however eminent or ingenious, to consent to the dismemberment of the American Union undercover of a war with this country.

Well, the other theory was this. The Government at Washington was so entirely under the influence and direction of a mob, that the courteous demand of the English Government would not be listened to, dared not be listened to by the Government, and that it was necessary to have all this display of power, not for the purpose of overawing the Government of Washington, which might, possibly, wish to be just, but for the purpose of overawing the mob of the United States, which was supposed to overrule and overawe the Government at Washington. ["Hear !"] I see that I have hit exactly the idea which hon. Gentlemen, no doubt, had arrived at. Hon. Gentlemen might know, if they had observed the course of the United States, from its early history to this war, there probably never has been a great nation in which what is familiarly termed mob-law is less known or has had legs influence. Wherever men have votes, club-law, mob-law, necessarily disappears. ["Oh, oh!"] Understand, I confine my observations always to the free States of the North; and if any hon. Gentleman thinks that I am not fairly describing the case, I ask him to look to the circumstances which occurred, and he must come to the conclusion that the Government at Washington, whether in the removal of a distinguished and popular general, or in the removal of a Minister, or in the recognition of the fairness of the demand of England and the surrender of the two men, perhaps more hateful to them than any other two men existing in the world—I say, looking at all that, the man must be prejudiced beyond all power of conviction who says that the Government of Washington in this matter, or in anything else during the last few months, has been influenced by the action of the mob to an extent which exceeds that which is found to prevail in this country and in almost every other country of Europe. Now, the noble Lord at the head of Her Majesty's Government will have this advantage of me—so will any of his Friends who chance to take a different view from me—they will say—and, of course, I cannot prevent their saying it—that whatever has been wrong in their policy, the policy was crowned with a certain success. But that is not always conclusive proof that a policy has been right; and I have not the smallest doubt myself that the only thing which made it a question whether these men would be surrendered and war avoided was not the tenor of the despatch from the Foreign Office, but the tone of the organs of the press which are known to represent a section of the Government, and the movements of regiments and ships in a manner which must have been intended and understood as a menace to the Cabinet of Washington. Why, any man in the world who had access to what is to be found on the shelves of the Foreign Office of England must have known, when the question came to be discussed as to the right to seize these men, or the right to take them, whatever might be said as to the precedents in England's previous conduct, nothing could be said but that it was contrary to American practices and American principles; and it is clear as anything can be to any man who has read the speech which Senator Sumner delivered in the Senate of the United States—in which he collected the authorities on both sides of the question, all of which authorities must have been known to the English Foreign Office—that the American Government would have been utterly unable to resist the demand of the English Government, in accordance with their past practices and principles, however courteously that demand was made. It is well known, indeed, to those who were in Washington at the time that the influence of these military preparations was not felt upon the Government at Washington, or on the American people, but upon the Ministers of European Powers residing there; and I have reason to know that no fewer than two of those Ministers expressed their decided opinion that there was an intention on the part of some section of the Government, or of some powerful classes in this country, if opportunity offered, to engage in war with the United States. And the immediate effect of such a statement and such an opinion was this—that every man who either felt aggrieved or felt humiliated by the course taken by Her Majesty's Government, asked himself—shall I gain anything by this surrender? or shall I only have to wait for some other opportunity for the occasion of hostility that is now so apparent? Now, I do not bring this charge against the Government; I do not say they intended war; but I am quite sure of this, that very many persons in the country were led to that conclusion. I think it is very likely the noble Lord at the head of the Government, bringing down his traditions from times of past wars, when law and justice were little regarded amongst the most civilized nations of Europe, thought probably that the only mode of securing what he wished was by this great demonstration of force. Now I believe on this question, as well as on some others—on this more than on any other—there is no other Government, powerful Government, in the world, that has uniformly been so much disposed to abide by known, and, as far as possible, defined law, as the Government of the United States. And when I heard that this demand was being made upon them, with my knowledge of their previous course in respect of these questions, I had no doubt, whatsoever, that the matter would be amicably settled, except the menaces from this side might make it difficult for them to concede to the demand of Her Majesty's Government.

But, now, with regard to the effect of these demonstrations on British interests I would say one word. I will not count up how much the funds fell, how much railway stocks and other securities fell, but I believe that in one market of England—Liverpool—the effect, not of what was done on board the Trent, or of the despatch of the Foreign Office, but of the warlike preparation of the Government, was to reduce the value of the stock of one article to the market by no less than £3,000,000 sterling. Only to-day a friend of mine has been telling me the contents of a letter he has seen from Bombay or Calcutta. The letter states that on a certain day news arrived that war between England and America was imminent; the whole trade of Bombay and Calcutta was immediately paralysed; and from that time up to the date of the latest advices, the paralysis continued, and persons concerned in the enormous commerce between England and India had for some weeks been suffering great loss and inconvenience from the transactions of that time. Doubtless when we hear from Australia we shall learn that the moment war was considered possible or likely between England and America, not an ounce of gold would be shipped, as no man would know that the vessel might not meet an American ship of war or privateer. The panic which seized upon the commerce of India will also have seized upon the commerce of Australia. This is a view of the question worth looking at. Your people are employed by the operation of this commerce, and by the security of the capital employed in it; and when any transaction like this most unhappy accident of the Trent arises between two friendly countries—[laughter]—I do not know whether anybody on the Treasury bench laughs because I call it so—I say it was an unhappy accident. As regards the United States Government and our Government it was nothing but an accident; and nobody knows it better than the noble Lord at the head of the Government; and when an accident of this nature or of any kind arises which may possibly cause jarring between the two countries, it is the policy and the duty of the Government certainly, in the first place, to try all those moderate and courteous means which it would like to have tried with regard to itself, before it has recourse to measures which send a paralysis through all the ramifications of the greatest commerce in the world, and create immense loss to almost all classes of the people. Now I may say, with the utmost satisfaction and truth, that the noble Lord at the head of the Government can- not possibly be more pleased than I am with the favourable termination of that untoward event. If the noble Lord believed there was no course of preventing war but that which he took, of course it would be harsh and very unfair in me to blame him for that course; but I do think, knowing how much the United States Government has been bound up—has been committed to humane and moderate principles of international and maritime law—he might have trusted more to their desire to act in accordance with that law, and less to the force which he exhibited against them. He probably does not remember that the people, now for a moment partially disabled and crippled, yet owning the supremacy of the Washington Government, consists of twenty-two millions of people; that for ten, twenty, or thirty years hence, whether the Union be restored or not, the Northern States will probably continue to increase as rapidly as they have ever increased, in population and in power. They are our countrymen to a great extent. We have there but few enemies, except it be those who have left our shores with a feeling of discontent against this Government, which perhaps in their generation cannot be removed; and, I say, it is worth our while, on all moral grounds and on all grounds of self-interest, that we should—iu all our transactions with that people—acknowledge our alliance and our kinship, and not leave behind, if we can avoid it, an ineradicable, undying sting, which it may take many years, perhaps a generation or two, to remove. The War of Independence eighty years ago left such a sting; the war of 1812 inflicted upon both countries a similar mischief. The course taken by the Government, not in the demand, not in the despatch, not in the courteous way in which Lord Lyons managed everything he had to do with regard to it, but in the instantaneous and alarming menace of war, followed and accompanied every day by incessant and offensive charges from the press supposed directly to represent the Government—I say that that tends to leave on the minds of even the most moderate men in America the feeling that England, in the hour of her I trial, has not treated them in the magnanimous and friendly manner which they had a right to expect from us. Now, I am I glad to see there is a remarkable change operating from day to day in opinion in this House and out of it. It is obvious that, since the course taken in that transaction by the American Government, a great change has taken place in the opinions of a large portion of the people of this country. There is a more friendly feeling towards the Washington Government; they see in it a Government, a real Government, not a Government ruled by a mob, and not a Government disregarding law. They believe it is a Government struggling for the integrity of a great country. They believe it is a country which is the home of every man who wants a home; and, moreover, they believe this—that the greatest of all crimes which any people in the history of the world has ever been connected with, the keeping in slavery 4,000,000 of human beings, is, under the providence of a Power very much higher than that of a Prime Minister of England, or of a President of the United States, marching on, as I believe, to its entire abolition.


said, that although he entertained the same friendly feeling towards the Government of Washington which the hon. Member for Birmingham had just expressed, and, although he could not but deprecate the strong language used in many of the newspaper articles in this country in reference to the Northern States, he could not concur with his hon. Friend in the censure he had passed on the measures taken by the Government. He had no doubt that the Estimates would meet with the unanimous concurrence of the Committee, because they were a part of that policy which the Government had pursued in the affair of the Trent, and which the people of this country had undoubtedly most heartily approved. It was no part of their business, nor was it part of the business of the Government to defend newspaper articles, and he concurred with his hon. Friend in thinking that the language made use of by some organs of public opinion in this country was quite as discreditable as that which had been used by the Press in New York. But not only did he think that Her Majesty's Government acted rightly when they took a determined and decided stand in the Trent affair—and he understood his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham to take the same view—but he would go further, and say that he believed Her Majesty's Government did perfectly right when they backed their demand by such a display of energy and strength as showed that Great Britain was in earnest. And having some slight acquaintance with the institutions and the working of the political machinery in the United States, he must say that he had come to a very different conclusion from that which had been arrived at by his hon. Friend, for his firm impression was—and it was an impression that had been confirmed by various private communications which he had recently received—that, after the first feeling of annoyance and irritation had passed away, the manner in which this most lamentable accident had been settled, so far from leaving any feeling of bitterness, so far from leaving what his hon. Friend had called "an ineradicable sting," would, before long, lead to a better understanding between the two countries. At all events, what had taken place would have this effect, it would show our friends on the other side of the Atlantic that there could in future be no possible question with regard to the attitude which, in a similar emergency our great colony of Canada would assume. He was sure there was not a man in that House who did not feel proud of the patriotic loyalty which had been displayed by the colonists of British North America. But there was one point upon which he wished to get some information. The force which had been lately sent to the colonies in North America would have to remain there for perhaps five or six years. He wished to know if the taxpayers of this country were to be asked to pay for the permanent maintenance of troops in the North American colonies? Now, he wished it to be borne in mind that the colonists of British North America did not contribute one single farthing in the shape of contribution to our military expenditure, and until the origin of the Volunteer movement in this country there was no military force whatever in Canada for the defence of the colony itself. Now that country was populous, and to all intents and purposes independent—so independent that it had imposed a very high tariff on British goods, and yet we bad undertaken up to the present time to provide for its defence. During the last few months, it was true, when they found the danger near their own doors, the colonists set about defending themselves in earnest. He had found that in matters of that sort the Colonial Office required a little pushing to get them out of the old track. They did not appear to understand that self-government and self-defence should go together, and it was too bad that this country should be called upon to pay for the defence of a colony with the concerns of which we were not permitted to interfere. His object in rising was merely to ask Her Majesty's Government what representations had they made or did they intend to make to the colonists with a view to induce them to contribute more than they had hitherto done to the maintenance of the large military establishments engaged in their defence?


Sir, I am not going to answer the latter part of the speech of my hon. Friend who has just sat down; that is a topic which will be more properly handled by my right hon. Friend near me (Sir George Lewis) when he comes to make his statement on the Estimates. But I am unwilling to let a longer time elapse without making some observations on what has fallen from the hon. Member for Birmingham. I said on a former occasion that it was desirable that in this House we should not only pass laws and vote Estimates, but should also be the organs of the opinions and feelings of large masses of the community. I go further, and I admit that it is sometimes useful that this House should hear the views and opinions of individuals, and to-night we have had an example of the singular opinions of one instead of the general opinion of many. But I think that with all deference to my hon. Friend it must be admitted that the opinions which he has expressed are as nearly as possible confined to himself. Sir, my hon. Friend does justice to the course which the Government pursued in making their demand for redress from the American Government. Upon that point there is no difference of opinion. He has done full justice to the courtesy and the consideration which influenced my noble Friend at the head of the Foreign Office when he instructed Lord Lyons to make the communication, and to the delicacy, judgment, and good taste with which Lord Lyons complied with his instructions. It is well, therefore, to know that the ground is cleared of any objections upon those pre luminary points. But my hon. Friend thinks that we were wrong in those military and naval preparations which have been made; that we were wrong in sending out to Canada troops who went with what I think he called "ferocious gesticulations." I do not know to what particular circumstance he alludes, but the weather was cold when they were going, and if they did make "any gesticulations," it must have been in the customary mode of warming their hands. But, Sir, the point of my hon. Friend's argument is this—if I rightly understand it—that the United States were bound, and that we ought have known they were bound, by obligations of international law to give up those persons who were taken from on board the Trent, and that in the course which they took they were not likely to be swayed by mob influence. My hon. Friend says where everybody is a voter there can be no mob. I do not quite agree in that theory. But he contends that the United States Government were bound by their own principles to do that which we asked of them, and that they were quite free, nor was any control exercised over them by any class of the community. But, now, I would just ask him if the United States Government held all along that they were bound by their own principles to disavow any act contrary to those principles, and therefore to afford redress, why did they keep those four gentlemen so many weeks in prison? Was it because, as he states, those gentlemen happened to be the objects of great hatred to the United States Government? That is not a reason why an act of injustice should be committed. Why should those gentlemen have been kept in prison, if according to the acknowledged principles of the Government, they were entitled to their freedom from the first moment they were taken? That is to my mind a proof that the United States Government had not come, in the earlier stages of the matter, to the decision that this was an act which they must disavow, and that they were bound to restore those persons to freedom. But my hon. Friend says that no compulsion was exercised upon the United States Government; that as to war, Mr. Seward and Mr. Lincoln could not make it upon their own authority—we know that very well; it requires the sanction of the Senate—and that therefore it was quite foolish—nay, worse than foolish—it was criminal in us to take measures ostensibly in defence, but in reality calculated to provoke a war with the United States. But, Sir, had we no ground for thinking that it was very doubtful whether our demand would be complied with? And will any man tell me who remembers the indignant feeling that prevailed throughout the whole country at the insult and outrage which had been committed that the people of Great Britain would tamely have submitted to a refusal? Well, then, if that refusal came, we should have been bound to extort by the usual means, as far as we were able to do so, that compliance which had been refused to a courteous application. Well, what reason had we to think that a refusal would not be given? My hon. Friend cannot have forgotten transactions so recent and events so fresh in the memory of every one. Why, what was the tone and temper of the Northern Slates? We Knew that Captain Wilkes had done this act upon his own authority, and that the United States Government were quite at liberty to disavow it if they chose. Mr. Adams told my noble Friend that in a despatch which he received from Mr. Seward it was stated that the United States Were free to act as they pleased, and that its conduct might depend upon that which the British Government might think fit to follow. The despatch went no further. [Mr. BRIGHT: It did go further.] I do hot know that. Well, Captain Wilkes declared that he had done the act without authority and instructions. But did the people, did the public of the United States hesitate as to whether what had been done was right or wrong? Did they wait to be informed whether it was consistent or not with what my hon. Friend states to be the acknowledged, well-known, and universally-established international code. It is well known that Captain Wilkes was made a hero of; and for what? Why, the reason was distinctly avowed and put forward—namely, because he had had the courage to insult the British flag. There was a great ovation at Boston, where, I believe, persons holding judicial situations, among whom was a person in high office, the Governor of the State, joined in the general chorus of approbation. But you may say that that took place at a public meeting, and that we have heard many foolish speeches made at public meetings, and a great many opinions there expressed which were not backed or re-echoed by the rest of the country. But did things stop there? When Captain Wilkes went to the theatre in New York, the whole audience rose, as they might have done at the entrance of a great liberator of his country; they rose in honour of Captain Wilkes, and cheered him, I believe. Well, were the American Government entirely free from participation in such demonstrations? With respect to some Governments, it is said that one department does not know what another department does, and it is sometimes made a reproach here that depart- ments conduct their affairs at cross-purposes; but, in America, the Naval Department—the Secretary of the Admiralty—actually approved Captain Wilkes's conduct, and thanked him, and only ventured to hint a fault in that Captain Wilkes had shown too great forbearance, and hoped that the example would not, in that respect, he brought into a precedent in future. Then, let us go a step higher. The House of Representatives, if I mistake not, voted thanks to Captain Wilkes, and approved his conduct. Here, then, were the American public, the Government, a branch of the Legislature, all approving the act committed. Well, with all these facts before our eyes, should we have been justified in supposing that a mere courteous application, asking the American Government to have the goodness to deliver the four captured persons into our hands, would have induced them to say, "We were quite right in taking them; the whole American people are with us; they see that we have insulted your flag and are glad of it; but as you ask for the delivery of the prisoners as a favour, as a favour we assent to the delivery?" I really think that we should have been deserving of condemnation and censure as shortsighted men, not actively alive to the interests of the country, if we had simply rested our case on the demand. Moreover, it is well known that it was generally said by persons in America, and also, I believe, by some Americans in this country, that the four prisoners were not to be delivered—"that they won't and shan't be given up." What was considered by the Americans to be our weak point, and what was the circumstance which made the United States always more difficult to deal with by England than by France? It was the thought that the British North American colonies were defenceless, and would readily fall before them. What, then, was it our duty to do? It was to strengthen those provinces, and make the Americans see that we were able to defend ourselves on that point which they thought to be the most vulnerable and most easily accessible to them. That, Sir, was not "ferocious gesticulation." It was simply a defensive measure; it was simply strengthening that part which had been weak and might be attacked, and the knowledge of the weakness of which might induce the Americans to maintain that position which they had up to that moment occupied—to retain these men in prison and refuse to comply with our demand for their restoration to British protection. Therefore, so far from Her Majesty's Government being obnoxious to blame, I think that the Government are deserving of commendation for what they did; and, though they performed no more than their duty, they performed it promptly and efficiently, and have met with, I believe, the approbation of the country at large. I think, then, that the censure of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham is not deserved and that what we did was not at all calculated to provoke the people or Government of the United States. It was simply a measure which it was our bounden duty to take, seeing the uncertainty of the result of the communications carried out from this country. So far from any feeling of ineradieable irritation between the two countries being engendered by the course pursued, I believe that a contrary course would have produced such a result. If Her Majesty's Government had submitted to a declared and gross insult, no doubt a vote of censure would have been passed on them. Still tike act would have been done, and a sense of humiliation and degradation would have been perpetually in the minds of at least the present generation, on account of the gross and unatoned-for insult committed against the country. I agree with my hon. Friend who has just sat down, that the course actually pursued is one much more likely to produce peace between the two nations. There is no doubt that all nations are aggressive; it is the nature of man. There start up from time to time between countries antagonistic passions and questions of conflicting interest, which, if not properly dealt with, would terminate in the explosion of war. Now, if one country is led to think that another country, with which such questions might arise, is from fear disposed on every occasion tamely to submit to any amount of indignity, that is an encouragement to hostile conduct and to extreme proceedings which lead to conflict. It may be depended on that there is no better security for peace between nations than the conviction that each must respect the other, that each is capable of defending itself, and that no insult or injury committed by the one against the other would pass unresented. Between nations, as between individuals, mutual respect is the best security for mutual goodwill and mutual courtesy; and there fore, in my opinion, the course pursued by Her Majesty's Government is one much more likely than that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham to secure the continuance of peace.

Motion agreed to.

House in Committee of Supply.