Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (January 12, 1861)

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2674842Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IV — Last week (January 12, 1861)
1860-1861Alexander Andrew Knox


The death of the King of Prussia is not an event of any political significance. For many years past this Sovereign had been morally and intellectually dead, and the Government was exercised by his successor—now King of Prussia in name, as he had long been in reality. The daughter of Queen Victoria is one step nearer to the Prussian throne. We ought to like the Prussians better than we do, inasmuch as we have so much in common with them: but the fact seems to be that this is one of the cases in which public considerations materially interfere with private feeling. The vacillating and selfish policy of the Prussians has from time to time been of serious injury to Europe. They have been almost worse than open enemies—they have been uncertain friends. There is a straightforward, honest stupidity about the Austrian Court which almost approaches to genius. The proof of the assertion is the actual existence of the Government of Francis Joseph. In his day, and in the days of his predecessors, the capital of the Austrian Empire has been upon more than one occasion in the hands of a foreign enemy and of an insurgent people. The Hapsburghs have had to fight for their lives in Hungary, and, in fact, only retain possession of that kingdom by the grace of a neighbouring Sovereign. But the other day they were beaten out of Lombardy, and the system of alliances and satrapies, by help of which they retained in their hands dominion over the Italian Peninsula, was shattered to atoms. Despite of all this, the young Hapsburgh remains true to the traditions of his House, and neither for fear nor favour will he consent to shape his course according to the necessities of the time. Soundly beaten in Lombardy, and with the thunder-cloud hanging over Venetia, he maintains the military and police system in Hungary as rigorously as though his exchequer were full, his subjects faithful, and his hands free. He is casting cannon, keeping up the matériel of war in the Quadrilateral, and violating the pledged faith of the Empire by giving a forced currency to paper money after the most solemn promises that no measure of the kind should ever be adopted. The scraps of constitutional powers which he offers occasionally to the notice of his subjects have certainly not found favour in their eyes, but, on the contrary, have rather inflamed the existing discontent. For all this—save in the matter of the Concordat—he will not budge an inch; but for aught that is known appears resolved to maintain the system of his predecessors, even at the risk of adding another and even a more significant name to the long list of banished and wandering Kings. We detest the tyranny of Austria, but we do not therefore look upon Prussia as the fitting implement for the regeneration of Germany. The Junker, or aristocratic party, is more powerful—less under the influence of public opinion at Berlin than at Vienna—and the Court at Sans Souci is more completely in the hands of these unlucky advisers than the Court at Schönbrunn.

What change may follow from the elevation of the Regent to the throne, it would be premature to predict; but certainly the actual King, during his tenure of office as Regent, did not display any very violent sympathy with the popular party, or with liberal ideas. There is just a hope that, though, whilst shining by merely borrowed light, he was unwilling to modify or interfere with the system of his predecessor, still, now that he wears the crown himself, he may adopt a wiser, because a bolder and more liberal policy; but the hope rests upon a very insecure foundation indeed. What the Regent was we know—what the King will be we must guess. It is a pity to write this—it is a greater pity that it should be true.

The late King of Prussia seems to have been, in many respects, a counterpart—though a refined one—of our own James I. He had the same exalted notions of the kingly power,—the same belief in the kingcraft as the first of our Stuart sovereigns. True, that in place of the Scotch dogmatism and pragmatic self-conceit of the first James, the chief characteristic of his mind was a kind of metaphysical dreaminess. This only amounts to saying that he was a German, in place of being a Scotch pedant. No doubt, after all due allowance has been made for the different epochs of history during which the two sovereigns lived, the German was a man of more refined and cultivated intellect than the Scotchman, and of a far purer moral life; but in the essentials of character they were the same. Had the German been Rector of the University at Bonn or Heidelberg, and the Scotchman Provost of Aberdeen, the probability is that each would have acquitted himself respectably enough of his duty in life; but, as kings, they were decided failures. Great hopes were entertained of Frederick William IV., when in the year 1840—being then a man forty-five years of age—he ascended the throne of Prussia. During the days of his Crown-Princedom he had emphatically enunciated liberal ideas, and, as it was then supposed, only wanted the power to carry them out in fact. The brilliant, fickle, dreaming, over-educated Sovereign, was not destined to be any exemption to the usual rule that the Liberal Heir Apparent invariably turns out the Conservative King. Twice this was seen amongst our own rulers since the House of Brunswick have been called to the Three Kingdoms. George IV., as Regent and King, could not have turned a colder shoulder upon Fox and Sheridan whom he had loved and fondled as Crown Prince, than did Frederick William upon the advisers and companions of his earlier days. His schemes for the liberal regeneration of Prussia, after they had remained for seven years as mere dreams, finally obtained consistency in the ridiculous constitution of 1847, so shortly destined to be swept away by ruder hands than any which have yet wielded a German sceptre. The Provincial States were convened in one assembly at Berlin, and there was to be a house of peers in whom should be lodged the small instalment of real power of which the sovereign could make up his mind to divest himself.

A freer and more independent parliament sat in London in the days of Queen Elizabeth than was convened in Berlin in the year 1847. That terrible 1848 with its barricades, and mobs, and street-firing, soon put an end to that delusion, and the poor King of Prussia, who, but a few months before, had been dreaming of a constitutional government, after the fashion of the middle ages, might have been seen riding about the streets of Berlin, and fraternising with the mob, pretty much in the same way as Louis XVI. had done before him with the Poissardes and Sans-culottes of Paris, after he had been dragged away from Versailles. The meeting of the Frankfort Parliament followed. There was a time when, despite of all his mistakes, and all his humiliations, Frederick-William might, to all appearance at the time, have been the ruler of a free and united Germany; but he had neither the resolution, nor the ability,—not even the wish—to seize time by the forelock at so critical a moment. Called upon to make his choice between the princes and the nations, Frederick William deliberately made his election to remain true to his own order, and to defeat the liberal movement in Germany. He would not consent to be the nominee of his people unless the choice was ratified by the assent of the princes, and it was not very probable that they could be induced to endorse their own degradation. Frederick William gained for them that which was all-important for them as matters stood—time. Windischgratz and Felix Schwarzenberg were not men to lose so golden an opportunity; and the revolution was defeated in the south of Germany, whilst Frederick-William was talking fustian and prating about Schleswig-Holstein in the north, to the grief and astonishment of his own subjects and of Europe. The various States gravitated back to their former condition of subjection to the old despotisms, and of freedom in Germany there was an end for another twenty years. It would be idle here to do more than allude to the closing acts of his reign. Prussia was humbled to the dust before the arms of Austria in the affair of Hesse Cassel. She was made the laughing-stock of Europe on the question of Neuchâtel. The King had thought and energy to spare for the foundation of a bishopric at Jerusalem; but when he was called upon to bear a decisive part in that great struggle of the nations, which was finally played out in the Crimea, he was again found wanting to the occasion. It is now notorious enough that had he heartily united in counsel with England and France, that dreadful contest might have been averted, and with it the humiliation of Russia. As far as his Russian friends were concerned, he might in all probability have saved the Emperor Nicholas from a premature death, and the legions of Russia from annihilation.

The military power of Russia for aggressive purposes was broken for one generation at least; and who can tell how much of that internal agitation, which is now fermenting throughout Russia, is not due to the fact that the great military machine was thrown completely out of gear by the results of the Crimean war? That was the way in which Frederick William served those whom he wished to serve; but he generally contrived to order his affairs with such dexterity, that he inflicted the utmost possible amount of injury upon everybody, combining this happy result with the deepest humiliation of his own nation. The worst feature in his moral character was the inveteracy with which he united with the retrograde party in hunting to death the unfortunate liberals on the Upper Rhine, when the revolution had been suppressed—that party, of which, but a short time before, he himself had been the chief!

On the whole, when we look to their history since 1815, a European Liberal may well be pardoned if he doubts whether the Germans are fit for political liberty. Italy, enslaved as she has been for centuries, will in all likelihood be free before the country which so long oppressed her has shaken off the masquerades of the middle ages, and the dreams of the professorial chairs. Had the people been ripe for freedom, it is impossible that two such golden opportunities as 1830 and 1848 could have been so wholly thrown away as they have been in Germany. The Belgians and the Sardinians have put the Germans to shame; the Hollanders we always knew to be a more practical and efficient race. At the present moment, from the Rhine to the Russian frontiers—from the Baltic to the Alps—there is not a vestige of freedom to be found. The Prussians in particular, with some miserable show of constitutional government, are known to be ground down by the police, who trample under foot at their own arbitrary pleasure all guarantees for liberty and property.

In Saxony, again, it was but the other day so foul an aggression was perpetrated upon the person of a Hungarian refugee that a simultaneous cry of indignation was uttered by all civilised nations save those who speak in the German tongue. Even the Austrian Emperor shrank from concluding the foul business in which the King of Saxony had borne part. Such things are done, and the Germans have tolerated them now for well-nigh half a century—can the Liberals of Europe look at them otherwise than with despair?

What the coming spring may bring with it we know not; but it would be much to say that the nations have been reassured by the few words spoken by the French Emperor at Paris to the diplomatic body on New Year’s Day now just past. Louis Napoleon looks forward to the maintenance of peace in consequence of the perfect agreement and harmony which reign among the sovereigns of Europe. The contrary is notoriously the case. Never since the fall of the first Napoleon was Europe more signally divided into two camps. Never did what Prince Metternich used to call “a war of ideas” appear to be more imminent. It is utterly impossible at the present period of the world’s history that Austria can renew the scenes of carnage and oppression in Hungary and Lombardy which marked the resumption of her dominion in those provinces after the last great revolutionary struggle. Nor is there anything to denote that the Emperor and his advisers have abandoned the traditional policy of the House of Hapsburgh. Such being the case, we rather hope for a peaceful year than expect it.

For the moment, however, we are content to adjourn all our anxieties about the future destinies of Europe. Let the shadows—even the shadows which warn us of coming events—be shadows, for just now we are concerned with a terrible fact. On Thursday of Last Week, intelligence was received in England that by a decision of the Canadian judges we were to be made the agents of the Southern Slave-holders in the United States. The Fugitive Slave Law was to be applied to us. The infamous decision in the Dred Scot case was to apply to us. The municipal regulations connected with slavery, which hold good not in all, but in some of the United States, were to apply to us. The famous boast that English soil would never more be outraged by the footsteps of a slave—because with his first gulp of English air the slave was free—is now to be a boast indeed, unless order be taken in the matter. The British nation will answer the challenge, and lift up the gauntlet which has been cast down before them, as with one voice and with one hand. Come what may—this thing shall not be. This is no dispute about a boundary, or an Oregon question, or a fishery, or a distant islet; but in it is involved a principle which is more precious in our eyes than fortune or life. British hands must never wield the scourge, or knot the halter for torture, or stay the slave who has endeavoured to escape from his hard bondage, even if, peradventure, he has shed human blood in the attempt to recover his freedom. Upon such a point we will have no half-measure or compromise—it must not be. What is it to us if a slave-owner, or his agent, who throws himself across the path of a fugitive slave, and compels the unfortunate man to slay him in self-defence, has been stricken to the earth? There let him lie. His blood does not cry to us for vengeance. It is not for us to appease the ghost of him who would have hunted his fellow-man to destruction, because he tried to escape from bonds and torture.

The decision of the Canadian judges is technically wrong, as well as an outrage and a blasphemy against that great common law of Nature which existed before statutes were passed, or treaties agreed upon between nations. Even if the choice were forced upon us of whether we must violate the national faith, or sin against that great canon of Nature which obtained the force of law when man and his fellow first drew the breath of life upon this earth, let our choice be for the lesser, not for the greater crime. As matters stand we are not driven into such a strait. We have bound ourselves by treaty with the United States to give them back their murderers—amongst other offenders—in return for our own; but the question remains—who is a murderer? We are not bound to accept the definition of the United States Courts upon such a point. We are ready to give up all persons who would be considered murderers in the dominions subject to British rule, and in return we only ask for the extradition of those who would be regarded as murderers in the United States, as well as in all civilised nations. We deny the right of the United States to screw up a minor offence, or indeed an act which in no wise bears the character of murder at all, to the degree of a capital crime, and then to force their arbitrary definition upon our acceptance. As our judges read over the affidavits and depositions from which they are called upon to infer the probable guilt of the prisoner, they must read them over, not piecemeal, but from the first word to the last. They must consider whether the offence charged would have amounted to the crime of murder in the dominions of Great Britain. Here are the very words of the treaty, and of the Canadian statute upon which Chief Justice Robinson grounded the decision which, unfortunately, was adverse to Anderson, the fugitive slave. “If a person be charged with the commission of murder, piracy, arson, robbery, or forgery within the United States of America, and ‘charged upon such evidence of criminality as according to the law of the place where the fugitive or person so charged shall be found would justify his apprehension and commitment for trial, if the crime or offence had been there committed,’ he may be apprehended, and his case is to be heard, and considered. If, on such hearing, the evidence be deemed sufficient by law to sustain the charge according to the laws of this province,” the fugitive is to be given up with the usual solemnities, and in the usual way. Such being the law—here are the facts. On the 28th of September, 1853, in Haward county, in the state of Missouri, the coloured man Anderson—so it was charged—wilfully, maliciously, and ferociously stabbed and killed one Seneca T. P. Digges. Anderson was a runaway slave, Digges was endeavouring to arrest him, and it is not contended that Anderson could have escaped capture at the hands of Digges otherwise than by striking him down. We pass over all technical objections to the contents of the depositions, although in the opinion of Mr. Justice McLean—one of the judges who considered the case—these were sufficient to warrant the prisoner’s discharge. Assuming that Digges held a lawful warrant, or was properly authorised by the law of the United States, to arrest Anderson, and that Anderson slew him whilst endeavouring to effect his escape, this would be a primâ facie case of murder. But as the judges read on they would find that Anderson was a runaway slave; and as, according to the law of the place in which he had been found—namely, Canada—the existence of slavery was not recognised, his apprehension was unlawful. The prosecution was, above all things, bound to show that the apprehension, or intended apprehension, was lawful, and according to law—which, in Anderson’s case, by British law and the law of Canada, it clearly was not. If we once permit ourselves to be ousted from this view, any foreign nation with which we may have an extradition treaty may foist on us twenty arbitrary definitions of the crime of murder, and compel us to be the reluctant instruments of their tyranny.

What would become of the political refugees on our shores if this adverse doctrine should prevail? Great Britain would soon be found emulous of the recent infamy of Saxony. After all, it is less disgraceful to give up a Hungarian refugee to the tender mercies of the Austrian Emperor and his police, than to deliver a fugitive slave into the hands of a Missouri slave-owner. We await in extreme anxiety the arrival of the next mail that we may know if the appeal in Anderson’s case has been allowed.