« PreviousContinue »
on the Great Lakes or the Atlantic were understood to mean that he desired a war for the purpose of annexing Canada. It was especially unfortunate that such liberalminded and devoted allies of the North as Bright, Cobden, the Duke of Argyll, the Duchess of Sutherland, and others regarded Seward as unfriendly to Great Britain.'
The recounting of two incidents that had occurred within a year greatly prejudiced the minds of the British Cabinet against him. In April, 1861, it was rumored that the Confederates had purchased the Peerless, a ship lying at Toronto, to be used as a commerce-destroyer, and that she was to go down the St. Lawrence under the British flag and be delivered to them at sea. Seward demanded that Lord Lyons should take immediate action to prevent this, but the British Minister explained that his relation to Canada made compliance impossible. Seward then declared that he would have the ship seized by our naval forces, and without informing the British government he despatched George Ashmun to Toronto on an official mission. Lords Russell and Lyons inferred from this action that Seward thought he could overawe Great Britain. They entered their solemn protests. Ashmun was recalled as unceremoniously as he was sent; the Peerless did not go to the Confederates; and perhaps it was Seward's summary course that prevented it. But his first conspicuous act in foreign affairs had made an unfavorable impression.' The other incident was thoroughly trifling except in its effect. During the festivities when the Prince of Wales was in Albany, late in 1860, Seward chaffingly remarked to the Duke of Newcastle that he was soon to be in a position where it would be his duty to insult Great Britain, and he should proceed to do so. The Duke took the remark seriously, and as Colonial Secretary re
1 4 Pierce, 30, 31; 3 Rhodes, 532, 533; 3 Seward, 30, 31.
ported it to his colleagues. The newspapers soon sent the story forth on every breeze.
Under these influences the government and the people were soon ready for action. It was a time for Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, to indulge his passion for driving the wheel close to the precipice so as to show how dexterously he could avoid going over it, as Cobden said. Lord Russell quickly drafted an emphatic ultimatum, and sent it to the Queen for approval. But the benevolent Victoria was in no mood for war, for the Prince Consort was in his last illness. They scrutinized the draft and returned it with recommendations that were wise, charitable, and designed to show that the sole purpose of the demand upon the United States was to protect the dignity and sovereignty of Great Britain.
Russell adopted the suggestions, and, on November 30th, instructed Lord Lyons to demand that the United States should release the four men and make a suitable apology. In another note of the same date he directed that if this should not be done after a delay of seven days, the British Minister should hasten to London with the entire legation and its archives. Russell seems to have concluded, by the next day, that this was too threatening a mode of procedure with a man of Seward's supposed fighting propensities. So Lyons was privately requested not to carry the despatch with him when he first brought the matter to Seward's attention; the President and the Secretary should be left to choose their own course, and anything like menace should be avoided. After the administration had had time to consider the facts, then the formal despatch should be read to Seward. If the Confederates should be liberated the British Cabinet would be "rather easy about the apology." Nevertheless, prepa
1 2 Walpole's Russell, 346.
rations for war were pushed forward in all directions. As one of Palmerston's biographers has said: "In three weeks from ten thousand to eleven thousand troops were on their way across the Atlantic, and our naval force at that station was nearly doubled. The English public was certainly in a great rage.
Perhaps the most significant signs of the time were the expressions of rapture on the part of Confederates in Richmond, London, and Paris alike. But this was not known in the North until a week or two later. They were confident that the Trent affair would involve the United States in a foreign war, turn Great Britain into an ally of the South, and soon bring victory and independence to the Confederacy. In ecstasy A. Dudley Mann congratulated R. M. T. Hunter, Toombs's successor as Confederate Secretary of State, that recognition by Great Britain was not much longer to be delayed, and added: "An hour after the Cabinet decided upon its line of action with respect to the outrage committed by the San Jacinto, I was furnished with full particulars. What a noble statesman is Lord Palmerston !" 2
In the North there was a great outburst of joy over the seizure. "We do not believe the American heart ever thrilled with more genuine delight,” said an editorial article in the New York Times of November 17th. "As for Commodore Wilkes and his command, let the handsome thing be done. Consecrate another Fourth of July to him. Load him down with services of plate and swords of the cunningest and costliest art." Several features that were largely accidental contributed to raise the rejoicing to the highest pitch. Excepting Davis and Floyd, probably Mason and Slidell were at this time the most generally hated of all the Confeder
1 2 Ritchie's Palmerston, 349.
2 115 War Records, 1236.
ates. Mason was the author of the fugitive-slave law, and was supposed to have done most to get Virginia to join the Confederacy; whereas Slidell, a Northerner by birth and education, had become one of the most effective champions of slavery and secession. If they succeeded in reaching Europe they would be strong evidence against the efficiency of the blockade. The supposition that they had gone in a Confederate ship left in the minds of the people of the North only a question of the possibility of their capture, without any thought of interfering with the rights of any neutral nation. There had been so few victories and so many disappointments that the smallest success would have been welcomed and exaggerated. Wilkes's exploit was so picturesque, and it came at a moment when a whole section was anxious, that it acted like touching a match to powder. Wilkes immediately became a hero-a second and victorious Anderson. Grave, learned, and experienced men in Boston applauded his act and fêted him as soon as he came ashore. The Secretary of the Navy rushed with the crowd and sent official and gushing congratulations "for the great public service you have rendered in the capture of the rebel emissaries." When Congress met, on December 2d, the House could not wait to complete the routine of its organization before passing a resolution thanking Wilkes "for his brave, adroit, and patriotic conduct in the arrest and detention of the traitors, James M. Mason and John Slidell." The rejoicing was at first an expression of national pride rather than of defiance of Great Britain, although the popular antipathy to her had become greatly embittered during the past few months. Later, when threatening signs appeared on the horizon, many men became desperate and foolhardy at the prospect of having our blockade broken and our
1 Globe, 1861-62, 5.
cities bombarded. Reckless patriotism seemed to be all-important. The very elements of international law were quite forgotten or strangely misrepresented.
Fortunately there were some important exceptions. Charles Sumner, who was chairman of the Senate committee on foreign affairs, early and repeatedly advised the President that the seizure could not be successfully defended. On November 28th Thomas Ewing wrote to Lincoln that "we ought not to vouch as authority previous aggressive acts of England at a time when she was a swaggering bully on the ocean." If we did, Great Britain, at war ten years to our one, could "stretch the law against us to the same point." He thought the best way to treat the incident would be to let her lay down the law, and for the United States to agree to anything favorable to neutral vessels, their cargoes and passengers.' Lewis Cass telegraphed similar opinions to Seward, December 18th; and in a letter the following day he said that a war with Great Britain would go far toward preventing the restoration of the rebel states; he ridiculed the "laudations bestowed upon Captain Wilkes for his courage in taking three or four unarmed men out of an unarmed vessel," and added: "As for any injury which these rebel agents could do us in Europe, it is all nonsense." On December 16th Robert J. Walker also very forcibly presented the political and national interests involved. Those who would unnecessarily involve the United States in a war with Great Britain were allies of the southern rebellion, he said; and the statesmen who from want of courage and firmness subjected the country to such a war would "meet the execrations of the American people and of the friends of liberty throughout the world, and will join the wretched caravan of infamy of which Buchanan is
1 1 115 War Records, 1103.
2 115 War Records, 1132.