Karl Marx in New-York Tribune 1861

The News and its Effect in London

Source: the New-York Daily Tribune, December 19, 1861;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

London, Nov. 30, 1861

Since the declaration of war against Russia I never witnessed an excitement throughout all the strata of English society equal to that produced by the news of the Trent affair, conveyed to Southampton by the La Plata on the 27th inst. At about 2 o'clock p.m., by means of the electric telegraph, the announcement of the “untoward event” was posted in the news-rooms of all the British Exchanges. All commercial securities went down, while the price of saltpeter went up. Consols declined ¾ per cent, while at Lloyds war risks of five guineas were demanded on vessels from New-York. Late in the evening the wildest rumors circulated in London, to the effect that the American Minister had forthwith been sent his passports, that orders had been issued for the immediate seizure of all American ships in the ports of the United Kingdom, and so forth. The cotton friends of Secession at Liverpool improved the opportunity for holding, at ten minutes’ notice, in the cotton salesroom of the Stock Exchange, an indignation meeting, under the presidency of Mr. Spence, the author of some obscure pamphlet in the interest of the Southern Confederacy. Commodore Williams, the Admiralty Agent on board the Trent, who had arrived with the La Plata, was at once summoned to London.

On the following day, the 28th of November, the London press exhibited, on the whole, a tone of moderation strangely contrasting with the tremendous political and mercantile excitement of the previous evening. The Palmerston papers, Times, Morning Post, Daily Telegraph, Morning Advertiser, and Sun, had received orders to calm down rather than to exasperate. The Daily News, by its strictures on the conduct of the San Jacinto, evidently aimed less at hitting the Federal Government than clearing itself of the suspicion of “Yankee prejudices,” while The Morning Star, John Bright’s organ, without passing any judgment on the policy and wisdom of the “act,” pleaded its lawfulness. There were only two exceptions to the general tenor of the London press. The Tory-scribblers of The Morning Herald and The Standard, forming in fact one paper under different names, gave full vent to their savage satisfaction of having at last caught the “republicans” in a trap, and finding a casus belli, ready cut out. They were supported by but one other journal, The Morning Chronicle, which for years had tried to prolong its checkered existence by alternately selling itself to the poisoner Palmer and the Tuileries. The excitement on the Exchange greatly subsided in consequence of the pacific tone of the leading London papers. On the same 28th of Nov., Commander Williams attended at the Admiralty, and reported the circumstances of the occurrence in the old Bahama Channel. His report, together with the written depositions of the officers on board the Trent, were at once submitted to the law officers of the Crown, whose opinion, late in the evening, was officially brought under the notice of Lord Palmerston, Earl Russell and other members of the Government.

On the 29th of November there was to be remarked some slight change in the tone of the ministerial press. It became known that the law officers of the Crown, on a technical ground, had declared the proceedings of the frigate San Jacinto illegal, and that later in the day, the Cabinet, summoned to a general council, had decided to send by next steamer to Lord Lyons instructions to conform to the opinion of the English law officers. Hence the excitement in the principal places of business, such as the Stock Exchange, Lloyd’s, the Jerusalem, the Baltic, etc., set in with redoubled force, and was further stimulated by the news that the projected shipments to America of saltpeter had been stopped on the previous day, and that on the 29th a general order was received at the Custom-House prohibiting the exportation of this article to any country except under certain stringent conditions. The English funds further fell ¾, and at one time a real panic prevailed in all the stock markets, it having become impossible to transact any business in some securities, while in all descriptions a severe depression of prices occurred. In the afternoon a recovery in the stock market was due to several rumors, but principally to the report that Mr. Adams had expressed his opinion that the act of the San Jacinto would be disavowed by the Washington Cabinet.

On the 30th of November (to-day) all the London papers, with the single exception of The Morning Star, put the alternative of reparation by the Washington Cabinet or — war.

Having summed up the history of the events from the arrival of the La Plata to the present day, I shall now proceed to recording opinions. There were, of course, two points to be considered — on the one hand the law, on the other hand the policy, of the seizure of the Southern Commissioners on board an English mail steamer.

As to the legal aspect of the affair, the first difficulty mooted by the Tory press and The Morning Chronicle was that the United States had never recognized the Southern Secessionists as belligerents, and, consequently, could not claim belligerent rights in regard to them.

This quibble was at once disposed of by the Ministerial press itself.

“We,” said The Times, “have already recognized these Confederate States as a belligerent power, and we shall, when the time comes, recognize their Government. Therefore we have imposed on ourselves all the duties and inconveniences of a power neutral between two belligerents.”

Hence, whether or not the United States recognize the Confederates as belligerents, they have the right to insist upon England submitting to all the duties and inconveniences of a neutral in maritime warfare.

Consequently, with the exceptions mentioned, the whole London press acknowledges the right of the San Jacinto to overhaul, visit, and search the Trent, in order to ascertain whether she carried goods or persons belonging to the category of “contraband of war,” The Times’s insinuation that the English law of decisions “was given under circumstances very different from those which now occur;” that “steamers did not then exist,” and mail vessels, “carrying letters wherein all the nations of the world have immediate interest, were unknown;” that “we (the English) were fighting for existence, and did in those days what we should not allow others to do,” was not seriously thrown out. Palmerston’s private Moniteur, The Morning Post, declared on the same day that mail steamers were simple merchantmen, not sharing the exemption from the right of search of men-of-war and transports. The right of search, on the part of the San Jacinto, was in point of fact, conceded by the London press as well as the law officers of the Crown. The objection that the Trent, instead of sailing from a belligerent to a belligerent port, was, on the contrary, bound from a neutral to a neutral port, fell to the ground by Lord Stowell’s decision that the right of search is intended to ascertain the destination of a ship.

In the second instance, the question arose whether by firing a round shot across the bows of the Trent, and subsequently throwing a shell, bursting close to her, the San Jacinto had not violated the usages and courtesies appurtenant to the exercise of the right of visitation and search. It was generally conceded by the London press that, since the details of the event have till now been only ascertained by the depositions of one of the parties concerned, no such minor question could influence the decision to be arrived at by the British Government.

The right of search, exercised by the San Jacinto, thus being conceded, what had she to look for? For contraband of war, presumed to be conveyed by the Trent. What is contraband of war? Are the dispatches of a belligerent Government contraband of war? Are the persons carrying those dispatches contraband of war? And, both questions being answered in the affirmative, do those dispatches and the bearers of them continue to be contraband of war, if found on a merchant ship bound from a neutral port to a neutral port? The London press admits that the decisions of the highest legal authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are so contradictory, and may be claimed with such appearance of justice for both the affirmative and the negative, that, at all events, a prima facie case is made out for the San Jacinto.

Concurrently with this prevalent opinion of the English press, the English Crown lawyers have altogether dropped the material question, and only taken up the formal question. They assert that the law of nations was not violated in substance, but in form only. They have arrived at the conclusion that the San Jacinto failed in seizing, on her own responsibility, the Southern Commissioners, instead of taking the Trent to a Federal port and submitting the question to a Federal Prize-Court, no armed cruiser having a right to make himself a judge at sea. A violation in the procedure of the San Jacinto is, therefore, all that is imputed to her by the English Crown lawyers, who, in my opinion, are right in their conclusion. It might be easy to unearth precedents, showing England to have similarly trespassed on the formalities of maritime law; but violations of law can never be allowed to supplant the law itself.

The question may now be mooted, whether the reparation demanded by the English Government — that is, the restitution of the Southern Commissioners — be warranted by an injury which the English themselves avow to be of form rather than of substance? A lawyer of the Temple, in the to-day’s Times, remarks, in respect to this point:

“If the case is not so clearly in our favor as that a decision in the American Court condemning the vessel would have been liable to be questioned by us as manifestly contrary to the laws of nations, then the irregularity of the American Captain in allowing the Trent to proceed to Southampton, clearly redounded to the advantage of the British owners and the British passengers. Could we in such a case find a ground of international quarrel in an error of procedure which in effect told in our own favor?”

Still, if the American Government must concede, as it seems to me, that Capt. Wilkes has committed a violation of maritime law, whether formal or material, their fair fame and their interest ought alike to prevent them from nibbling at the terms of the satisfaction to be given to the injured party. They ought to remember that they do the work of the Secessionists in embroiling the United States in a war with England, that such a war would be a godsend to Louis Bonaparte in his present difficulties, and would, consequently, be supported by all the official weight of France; and, lastly, that, what with the actual force under the command of the British on the North American and West Indian stations, what with the forces of the Mexican Expedition, the English Government would have at its disposal an overwhelming maritime power.

As to the policy of the seizure in the Bahama Channel, the voice not only of the English but of the European press is unanimous in expressions of bewilderment at the strange conduct of the American Government, provoking such tremendous international dangers, for gaining the bodies of Messrs. Mason, Slidell & Co., while Messrs. Yancey and Mann are strutting in London. The Times is certainly right in saying:

“Even Mr. Seward himself must know that the voices of these Southern Commissioners, sounding from their captivity, are a thousand times more eloquent in London and in Paris than they would have been if they had been heard at St. James’s and the Tuileries.”

The people of the United States having magnanimously submitted to a curtailment of their own liberties in order to save their country, will certainly be no less ready to turn the tide of popular opinion in England by openly avowing, and carefully making up for, an international blunder the vindication of which might realize the boldest hopes of the rebels.