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The history of the Alabama claims page 5


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The Retribution was an American-built steamer, which fell into the hands of the Confederates soon after the war broke out, and, being converted into a cruiser, cruised about the Bahama banks. Her captain, by personation and fraudulent misrepresentation, succeeded in imposing on the magistrate of a small island called Long Cay (one of the Bahama group, but 240 miles from the seat of government), and was thus enabled to sell on the island portions of the cargoes of two American coasters of which he had made prize. He thus rendered himself amenable to British law, since an order issued at the beginning of the war prohibited the sale of prizes made by either belligerent in a British port. But international law does not forbid such sales; it is therefore difficult to understand on what principle; the United States endeavoured to make Great Britain responsible for the hostile acts of this vessel also, which was built, manned, and armed outside of British jurisdiction.

The chief of those specific acts which the United States asserted to be injurious in themselves, incompatible with the faithful maintenance of neutrality, and opposed to the spirit of international law, have now been related. And before we proceed to consider the charge of general unfriendliness advanced against this country by the United States, let us pause to place on record certain specific acts of a character the reverse of unfriendly to the Northern States, on which, as the reader will not be surprised to learn, little light is thrown in the American case. These are, the seizure of the Alexandra, and the sequestration of the iron-clads. Of the former incident, and of the legal proceedings to which it led, we have already spoken, and will only repeat here the remark we formerly made, that the impartial neutrality which it was the aim of such acts as the seizure of the Alexandra to enforce, was "the unalterable choice of the nation." The circumstances connected with the detention of the iron-clads were as follows. Information reached the Government, in the spring of 1863, that two iron-plated steamers, one of which was armed with a projecting-ram, or piercer, were building in the yard of Messrs. Laird and Co., at Birkenhead, and were very nearly finished. The names given to them were El Monassir and El Toussoon - Egyptian designations, which were doubtless given to them in order to give a countenance to the rumour that they were being built for the Egyptian Government. Inquiry being made, it was found that neither the French Government, to the order of which the Collector of Customs at Liverpool at first believed they were building, nor the Khedive of Egypt, had anything whatever to do with them. " While these inquiries were being prosecuted, the vessels were getting ready, and the builders desired to send out one of them on a trial trip. But this proposal was abandoned, on its being notified that she must carry with her a guard of seamen and marines from the Majestic, the commander of which had been directed to keep watch upon their movements. Information was afterwards received that an attempt might possibly be made to elude the vigilance of the Majestic, and carry the two steamers to sea by force. They were then seized; but, considerable difficulty being encountered in proving that they were intended for the Confederates, the Government at last cut the knot by purchasing them, at a cost of half a million sterling."

3. In order to sustain the charge against Great Britain of " unfriendliness and insincere neutrality," the American case prints extracts from a number of speeches made at various times, while the war was proceeding, by leading English statesmen; and as all the " cheers " and " hear, hears" with which the remarks of each speaker were greeted were inserted, many people will consider that it was done in order that the " unfriendliness " might appear to have existed as much in the breasts of the people as in the minds of their representatives. It is not a matter, however, which it has been thought necessary to answer. Of course, if Mr. Gladstone thought and said that the Southern States had succeeded in making a new nation, - and if Lord Russell and Lord Palmerston thought that it would be a dreadful thing, and not for the real good of the North itself, that the Union should be restored by force, - there is nothing necessarily unfriendly in these observations. For argument's sake it might be granted that all the speakers were in the wrong, both in their prognostications and in their judgments, yet the unhappy condition of the South since the termination of the war proves that considerable grounds existed for the opinions which they expressed. And perhaps a generation must pass away before an absolutely just and adequate opinion can be formed of the moral character of that tremendous struggle. It has been urged that we do not differ from the Americans as to the facts, but merely as to the interpretation we respectively put upon the facts; but that when the framer of their case proceeds to sum up these alleged instances of unfriendliness, and to deduce from them a general doctrine, we are compelled to dissent from him toto cœlo. As the logical inference from the facts which he has enumerated, he draws the following conclusion - that, with a few exceptions, "the leading statesmen of Great Britain, and almost the whole periodical press and other channels through which the British cultivated intellect is accustomed to influence public affairs, sustained the course of the existing Government in the unfriendly acts and omissions which resulted so disastrously for the United States." By these "acts and omissions" the writer evidently means proceedings taken by our Government in relation to certain vessels which were inconsistent with a sincere neutrality, since nothing else done or left undone by the Government could be truly said to have " resulted disastrously " to America. He means to say that both we and our Government purposely gave a rigorous construction to our neutrality as against the Federal States, but winked hard at infractions of the same neutrality when they tended to the advantage of the Confederates; that both we and they were not really sorry that the Alabama had escaped from Liverpool in defiance of our laws, and felt a secret satisfaction at hearing of the ravages which she and other vessels of her class committed. Something like this is plainly the writer's meaning, and we can only meet it with a formal and unqualified denial. To those who know anything of the real state of feeling in England, it is notorious that among the serious, conscientious, law-abiding heads of families, who, whether of high or low degree, form the pith and marrow of English society, there was during the whole war, whether their sympathies ran with the Federal or with the Confederate cause, hardly any difference of opinion as to the duty incumbent on the country and the Government to observe a strict and sincere neutrality between the belligerents. Among such persons it is surely no exoneration to say that ninety-nine out of a hundred were troubled and distressed at the evasion of the Alabama, and deemed compensation to be justly due to the friendly country which suffered from her depredations; and if there was no such unanimity of sentiment with regard to the Florida, or any other vessel, the reason was that the facts were imperfectly known to the general public, - the will to act rightly and straightforwardly was as decided in regard to these vessels as in regard to the Alabama.

II. From the foregoing general sketch the reader will gather the nature and the grounds of the complaints which the conduct of our Government during the war gave rise to on the part of the United States. We now proceed to describe the various efforts made to adjust the difference which had arisen prior to the year 1871. Soon after the termination of the war, the American Government preferred a claim to compensation for the damages inflicted by the Alabama on American commerce; but Lord Russell, for reasons which it is not worth while to examine, refused at that time to entertain it; he also declined to refer the question to arbitration. This refusal appears to us to have been a great mistake. Whatever excuses might be made, it was clear that a substantial wrong had been done. The Alabama ought not to have been allowed to leave Liverpool, and yet she was allowed to leave it; our liability, therefore, to make compensation for the damage done by her ought not to have been disputed. Lord Stanley came into office at the close of 1866, and at the close of the year offered, through Sir Frederick Bruce, our Minister at Washington, to adopt the principle of arbitration. Mr. Seward accepted the offer, on condition that the whole controversy between the two Governments should be referred to the arbitrators. It appeared, after the correspondence had continued some time, that, in insisting on this condition, Mr. Seward intended to assert the right of his Government to impugn before the arbitrators the conduct of Great Britain in recognising the belligerency of the South. Lord Stanley could not consent to this point being referred, and the negotiations accordingly (November, 1867) came to an end.

Affairs remained in this state till the arrival of Mr. Reverdy Johnson in England, about the beginning of 1868. The new minister was a man of conciliatory character, and a useful pliancy of intellect; his warm attachment to the policy which would remove all causes of difference, and multiply binding ties and harmonising relations between the two countries, was well known, and his appointment was unanimously ratified by the Senate, though it had vetoed almost every other diplomatic appointment made by President Johnson. The first attempts at negotiation were abortive, but Mr. Reverdy Johnson's benevolent intentions were not easily to be baffled; and after signing protocols with Lord Stanley for the settlement of the questions of naturalisation and the San Juan water boundary, Mr. Johnson at last proposed a scheme for the disposal of the Alabama Claims, which met with the approval of the British Government. Two commissioners were to be appointed on each side, and these four commissioners were then to choose an arbitrator or arbitrators, to whose final decision was to be referred any question upon which, in the course of their examination of the said claims, the commissioners should not be able to come to an agreement. The scheme also provided that neither Government should make out a case in support of its position, and that no person should be heard for or against any such claim, the official correspondence alone being laid before the commissioners. A convention, of which these were the leading features, was drawn up and signed by Lord Stanley and Mr. Reverdy Johnson on the 10th November, 1868. So confident was the American Minister that his Government and the Senate of the United States would approve and ratify this convention, that at the Lord Mayor's banquet on the 9th November, the day before it was formally concluded, he spoke in the following terms: " How that end [the termination of the differences between England and America] has been brought about I forbear to say, except that it has been brought about without touching in the slightest degree the rights or the honour of either nation. From 1846 to the present time, from one cause or other, there were clouds which alarmed the people of both countries. We have removed those clouds, and leave both nations in an undimmed sunshine of peace."

These anticipations, as it turned out, were too sanguine. Although Mr. Seward had telegraphed to Mr. Reverdy Johnson that the convention was entirely acceptable, except that the place of meeting should be altered to Washington (a modification to „which Lord Stanley acceded), when the text was received in America, objections were raised by the Government. In a letter intended for Lord Stanley, but which, as it arrived after the resignation of the Conservative Ministry, was received and acted upon by Lord Clarendon, the British Government was informed that Mr. Reverdy Johnson had misunderstood his instructions, that the President thought several of the articles of the convention inadmissible, and that the Cabinet were agreed that the convention could not, in the form which it then wore, be ratified by the Senate. Certain modifications were proposed, which, when examined by Lord Clarendon, appeared to him to be variations in form rather than of substance; he did not therefore refuse to entertain them, and a new convention was signed between him and Mr. Johnson on the 14th January, 1869. Everything seemed at last in train for settlement; the convention was laid before the Senate of the United States, and referred by it to the Committee on Foreign Relations, which was expected to report in favour of its adoption. But a speech made by Senator Sumner on the 13th April, vehemently denouncing the conduct and attitude of England towards the United States, in relation to that whole class of acts and omissions out of which the Alabama Claims arose, had so great an effect upon the Assembly, that the convention was rejected by an overwhelming majority - fifty-four to one. That eminent man, in whom warmth of feeling and rectitude of purpose were not adequately seconded by intellectual gifts, had in some manner persuaded himself that the conduct of England during the civil war betokened a real, though suppressed, sympathy with the cause of slavery. Under the influence of this extravagant notion, he indulged in the following piece of declamation. "The truth must be told," he said, "not in anger, but in sadness; England has done to the United States an injury most difficult to measure.... At a great epoch of history [most true that was, it was a great epoch], not less momentous than that of the French Revolution, or that of the Reformation, - when civilisation was fighting a last battle with slavery, - England gave her name, her influence, her material resources to the wicked cause, and flung a sword into the scale with slavery." What more could Mr. Sumner have said if we had recognised the independence of the Southern States, and entered into an alliance with them against the North? Mr. Sumner maintained further, that "the escape and career of the Alabama, and the manner in which her depredations were viewed by the British Government, constituted an offence against the national dignity, for which England ought to offer an apology, or make some similar moral atonement." Mr. Gladstone appears to have become a convert to Mr. Sumner's views in this respect, as we shall see in due time. He also urged that, in estimating the material damages inflicted by cruisers of the Alabama class, the total loss to American commerce, caused by the fear of cruisers, consisting in the abandonment of the carrying trade by American shipowners, and the sale of their ships to foreigners, must be taken into account; and he hinted that the cost of carrying on the war, for at least a portion of the time, as a probable consequence of English sympathy, ought to be taken into account also. Here we have the first foreshadowing of those claims for "indirect losses," the production of which at a later period went near to rendering the Treaty of Washington abortive.

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