Dramatic Moments in American Diplomacy/Chapter Ten

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Dramatic Moments in American Diplomacy by Ralph W. Page
Chapter Ten: The "Trent" Affair

Righting An Old Wrong—Introducing an Ultimatum, Including the Story of a Hold-Up at Sea—Two Ambassadors Captured and Imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston—A Lesson in International Law Proves an Example of International Joke—A National Celebration—A National Indignation—A National Retraction. Abraham Lincoln's Way—Anecdotes vs. the Rattling Sabre—A Conference of State—Salmon P. Chase States a Principle.


I am now about to exhibit an example of that interesting document, an ultimatum. It is the only thoroughly business-like ultimatum we ever received. I have to confess that to the uninitiated it will prove a great disappointment. That is, if they expect as I did, to find an ultimatum bristling with threats and fascinating thunder-bolts of defiance, in Hector's vein. It was presented with great politeness, as if it had been a bunch of jonquils, by

 

Lord Lyon, British Ambassador in Washing- ton, to William H. Seward, Secretary of State, in the cabinet of Abraham Lincoln. It read more or less like a story book, and was embodied in instructions the ambassador re- ceived from home, which he was to give the

Secretary. This is the way it went:

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Foreign Office, Nov. 30, 1861. My Lord:

"Intelligence of a very grave nature has reached Her Majesty's Government.

  • 'This intelligence was conveyed officially to

the knowledge of the admiralty by Commander Williams, agent for mails on board the con- tract steamer Trent,

"It appeared from the letter of Commander Williams, dated 'Royal Mail Contract Packet Trent, at sea, November, 9,' that the Trent left Havana on the 7th instant, with Her Majesty's mails for England, having on board numerous passengers. Commander Williams states that shortly after noon, on the 8th, a steamer having the appearance of a man of war, but not show-

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ing colours, was observed ahead. On nearing her, at 1:15 P. M., she fired a round shot from her pivot-gun across the bows of the Trent and showed American colours. While the Trent was approaching her slowly, the American ves- sel discharged a shell across the bows of the Trent exploding half a cable's length ahead of her. The Trent then stopped, and an officer with a large armed guard of marines boarded her. The officer demanded a list of pas- sengers, and, compliance with this demand be- ing refused, the officer said he had orders to arrest Messrs. Mason, Slidell, McFarland, and Eustis, and that he had sure information of their being passengers in the Trent, While some parley was going on upon this matter, Mr. Slidell stepped forward and told the American officer that the four persons he had named were then standing before him. The commander of the Trent and Commander Wil- liams protested against the act of taking by force out of the Trent these four passengers, then imder the protection of the British flag.

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Eut the San Jacinto was at that time only two hundred yards from the Trent, her ship's com- pany at quarters, her ports open and tompions out. Resistance was therefore out of the ques- tion and the four gentlemen before named were forcibly taken out of the ship. A further demand was made that the commander of the Trent should proceed on board the San Jacinto, but he said he would not go unless forcibly com- pelled likewise, and this demand was not in- sisted upon.

"It thus appears that certain individuals have been forcibly taken from on board a Brit- ish vessel, the ship of a neutral power, while such vessel was pursuing a lawful and innocent voyage — an act of violence which was an af- front to the British flag and a violation of in- ternational law.

"Her Majesty's Government, bearing in mind the friendly relations which have long existed between Great Britain and the United States, are willing to believe that the United States naval officer who committed the aggres-

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sion was not acting in compliance with any au- thority from his government, or that if he con- ceived himself to be so authorized he greatly misunderstood the instructions he had received. For the government of the United States must be fully aware that the British Government could not allow such an affront to the national honour to pass without full reparation, and Her Majesty's government is unwilling to be- heve that it could be the deliberate intention of the government of the United States unneces- sarily to force into discussion between the two governments a question of so grave a character, and with regard to which the whole British nation would be sure to entertain such unanim- ity of feeling.

  • 'Her Majesty's Government, therefore,

trusts that when this matter shall have been brought under the consideration of the govern- ment of the United States, that government will, of its own accord, offer to the British Gov- ernment such redress as alone could satisfy the British nation, namely, the liberation of the

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four gentlemen and their delivery to your Lordship, in order that they may again be placed under British protection, and a suitable apology for the aggression which has been com- mitted.

Should these terms not be offered by Mr. Seward, you will propose them to him.

"You are at liberty to read this dispatch to the Secretary of State, and, if he shall desire it, you will give him a copy of it.

"I am, etc., "Russell."

With this went the fuse to set the charge.

"Should Mr. Seward ask for delay in order that this grave and painful matter should be deliberately considered, you will consent to a delay not exceeding seven days. If at the end of that time, no answer is given, or if any other answer is given except that of a compliance with the demands of Her Majesty's Govern- ment, your Lordship is instructed to leave Washington with all the members of your lega- tion and repair immediately to London."

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This document was a poser, and gave the Secretary of State about as hvely and as ex- acting a seven days as he ever had. Diplom- acy became an active and important function in the City of Washington.

In so far as this country or any other is gov- erned in its quarrels and conflicts by interna- tional law the problem was a very easy one. The joke was on Great Britain. It was simply splendid. For here was Lord Palmerston in the most concise and unequivocal manner stak- ing everythmg he had and the seven seas upon the proposition that to stop a neutral boat and take off a passenger was an outrage and a scandal. Now that was just exactly what this country had contended for a century more or less, and it was this very kind of action that had called forth the resentment of the Frigate Constitution in the days of 1812. Provided my Lord's facts, so clearly put, were true, and provided we wished to follow the law in all its holy inviolability, all we had to do was politely acquiesce, and congratulate the Queen upon

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having finally arrived at a proper conception of the rules of the sea.

The facts were true — ^to a letter. And the law as I stated. It was as clear as noonday, as contended for in America, that nobody but soldiers of a belligerent power could be re- moved from under a neutral flag. Maybe, then, you will conclude that was all there was about it. That was not even the beginning. For my Lord overlooked a few trifling facts. He was quite right in doing so. They were what the lawyers call irrelevant to the interna- tional issue, and he was not writing a romance. But in human afl*airs, American as well as others, the law has less to do with conduct than the lawyers or the professors would have us believe. And irrelevant testimony is quite often that which controls not only the jury, but the judge.

Mr. Seward's problem was intensified by the identity of these same four passengers. Mr. James Murray Mason was a gentleman of credit and renown. He had shortly before

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been chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the United States Senate, and was the descendant of a long line of famous states- men in Virginia since before the Revolution. Mr. Slidell had also recently been a senator, and was known to be a gentleman of great polish and address, forensic skill and diploma- tic acumen. These two masters of the arts of the politician, if not of the statesmen, were versed to the minute in the affairs of the world and the accepted methods of procedure, and would make a very telling team sent out from some country on a deep diplomatic errand. So Jefferson Davis, President of the Confed- erate States believed, and William H. Seward agreed with him.

When the news reached New York and Bos- ton that these two depraved and dangerous "traitors" representing a wicked rebellion had actually left Charleston on the Nashville as "ambassadors" bent upon making alliance for their government with Great Britain and France, and to get warships and cannon and

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heaven knows what instruments of the devil, the people were furious. When they learned that the Nashville was only a blind, and that the perfidious wretches had sneaked by the blockade in the Theodora, while the fleet chased the other boat, they were drunk with indigna- tion. It seemed as if they could part with their inlieritance if only they could get hold of these arch rebels.

Meanwhile, another style of man came into the game. Captain Charles Wilkes, in com- mand of the first-class screw sloop San Jacinto, of fifteen guns, was animated by no motives whatever. Through a long career he had up- held the highest traditions of the United States Navy. Action was his long suit. The case was still to be recorded where the American Navy has not struck on the spot if it had half an excuse. Well, he came cruising into Ha- vana from the west coast of Africa about this time, on his way home from hunting slave trad- ers. At Havana, his second officer ran into his old acquaintance. Mason, in the Hotel

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Cubana. And every bell boy was full of the entertaining story of how the Confederates had fooled the Yankees, and were now about to sail under the certain protection of the Eng- lish flag. No secret was made of it. Every- body was to see them off on the Trent bound for Bermuda.

Captain Wilkes made up his mind. Lieu- tenant Fairfax suggested some doubts. Doubts constituted no argument against a life- time of decision. When the British packet sailed into the Bahama Channel she found Cap- tain Wilkes waiting for her, and her distin- guished guests were provided with other quar- ters in short order, flag or no flag.

When this news reached Broadway, Back Bay and points north and west, there was the greatest demonstration ever seen. The hated prisoners were led to a secure resting place, while bells rang, and orators spoke, and the Captain was wined and dined and thanked by Congress and forty Chambers of Commerce. The Revere House in Boston was the scene

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of a tremendous welcome, and the papers burst forth into pseans of thanksgiving. The mirac- ulous had happened. The arch rebels were caught. The right had been vindicated and everybody was happy.

Not only that, but the national legislature in all-but-unanimous vote declared the capture a splendid achievement. In the heat of a civil war the great legal lights of the country, men like William Evarts and Senator Hale, main- tained with vehemence that it was not only justifiable but that any other course would have been degrading. And every editorial writer with hardly an exception swore that he would die in abject poverty fighting all Europe before he would give up the scoundrels.

To this solid body of popular opinion and enthusiasm were added the cold, calculating and deliberately treasonable propaganda and efforts of Vallandigham in the House of Rep- resentatives, who worked on the public passion with all his might, in the hope of bringing on war, and so helping the Confederates. Very

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much as certain of his kind are now working to damage the United States in war from that same body.

The demand of Lord Lyon and the ancient American doctrine on the one hand, and the people flushed with triumph, a new hero and the human booty on the other — this was the problem of seven days for Seward.

The records of the time, including the public press, the thunder of Congress, the innumera- ble speeches before assemblies, and the diaries and biographies of the many historic figures on the stage reveal only one man quite calm and placid through it all. He sat in the White House, and outraged decency by relating an- ecdotes which he considered apropos of the situation. When told in tragic tones that there would surely be war between England and the United States his reply was a parable:

"My father had a neighbour from whom he was separated by a fence. On each side of that fence there were two savage dogs, who kept running backward and forward along the

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barrier all day, barking and snapping at each other. One day they came to a large opening recently made in the fence. Perhaps you think they took advantage of this to devour each other. Not at all; scarcely had they seen the gap, when they both ran back, each with his tail between his legs."

The cabinet met to discuss the affair on Christmas day, five days after Lord Lyon had made his demand. This left two days to go, with the British guns before and the warlike mob behind. And, not an unusual occurrence, the President was the only man present who had expressed no violent sentiments, and so had none to withdraw.

As a matter of fact, in spite of the hot blood and the natural resentment, there was never really any doubt of the outcome of this meet- ing. It has been assumed by rampant parti- sans of the Union disguised as historians that Seward finally yielded in this matter with creditable bad grace in the face of a dire nec- essity, chargeable to the tyrannical government

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of perfidious Albion. This explanation is not borne out either by the known character of the Americans, who have never been known to re- fuse a fight because the odds were against them, nor by the accounts of the cabinet meeting which are extaiit. Stripped of the high feel- ings of the moment, the temper of the people and the political dangers at home attendant upon a yielding decision, the case was plain enough. And it appears that from the first Abraham Lincoln had perceived this. And it is not the least of the many great decisions to his credit. He decided to yield because the English were right. Not because they were strong. And because the United States was wrong, and not because she was weak.

The prevailing view in the cabinet after the discussion was expressed by Secretary Salmon P. Chase. He sacrificed his feelings to his sense of justice. Here is the way he expressed it:

"It is gall and wormwood to me. Rather

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than consent to the liberation of these men I would sacrifice everything I possess. But I am consoled by the reflection that, while nothing but severest retribution is due to them, the surrender, under existing circumstances, is but simply doing right — simply proving faith- ful to our own ideas and traditions under strong temptation to violate them — simply giv- ing to England and the world the most signal proof that the American nation will not, under any circumstances, for the sake of inflicting jiist punishment on rebels, commit even a technical wrong against neutrals."

This position was courageous and manly. And if Seward had seen the point he could probably have turned the occasion into the in- ternational joke of the century. Perhaps he did see it, but feared the political effect at home of a simple, straightforward admission of error. At all events, his answer was a book full of bad English precedents instead of good Amer- ican law, and long-winded arguments of a na-

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ture to assuage the feelings of his constituents. It contained just one sentence of any conse- quence :

  • 'The four persons in question are now held

in military custody, at Fort Warren, in the State of Massachusetts. They will he cheer- fully liberated. Your Lordship will please to indicate a time and place for receiving them."

The incident was closed. The only perma- nent effect upon international relations was the inevitable end of the doctrine of "visit and search." The only flaw in the proceedings from the American point of view was our fail- ure to point this out with vigour and good hu- mour.

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