Mr. Adams to Mr. Seward.

No. 1275.]

Sir: I have the honor to inform you of my return last evening to this place, and of the resumption of my duties. I am happy to find that the government has experienced no sensible inconvenience from the permission so kindly granted to me of a brief period of relaxation, which I think may prove of some benefit to me in continuing my labors at this post.

I perceive that Mr. Moran has kept you well informed of the progress of opinion in regard to the expediency of reopening the chief question at issue between the two countries, so far as it may be gathered from the expression of the press. The significant intimation given by Lord Derby at the Guildhall dinner, followed by the semi-official leader in the Times of the 17th instant, a copy of which has been transmitted to you, seem to leave little doubt that some change is contemplated of the past policy of the government on this subject. The great difficulty, probably, is in devising some practicable mode of shaping it which will not too seriously wound the pride of the nation. In the only conversation which I have had with Lord Stanley he asked me, with reserve as to our official character in making the inquiry, if I knew whether my government had any plan in view. To which I replied that I had no information extending beyond the two already agitated, which had been arbitration or else the establishment of a commission embracing the consideration of all claims without exception. I thought that we should have accepted either of these. Here the matter dropped. Considering the nature of the later development, it is no more than reasonable to presume that it is this point more than the general principle which is now occupying the attention of the cabinet. Hence, I suppose that there will not be much more delay in reaching a result and communicating it in the form of an official reply to your despatch to me of the 27th of August. Knowing your anxiety to obtain this reply, I shall seize the earliest opportunity after reception to transmit it to the department.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.


An impression has of late prevailed that a royal commission is about to be appointed with a view to the settlement of the Alabama claims. Probably Lord Derby’s conciliatory speech at the Mansion house may have contributed to give currency to the rumor, which is not destitute of a certain foundation in fact. We are enabled, however, to state that her Majesty’s government have no present intention of referring these particular claims to a royal commission—a course which, if adopted at all, ought to have been adopted in the first instance. What is really in contemplation is to empower such a commission to inquire generally into the operation of our own neutrality laws, and to report upon the possibility of amending’ them, so as to bring them into more complete conformity with our international obligations. [Page 26] We have reason to believe that this decision, which was announced at the end of last session, and differs little in principle from the alternative since advocated in our own columns, will shortly he carried into effect, and that Lord Cranworth will probably be the chairman of the proposed commission. “We need hardly add that an inquiry thus limited in no degree precludes or prejudices any future step that may be taken for the adjustment of the Alabama claims, which are still under the consideration of the government, and must be entertained upon their own merits.

This mode of dealing with two questions independent, indeed, of each other, but closely connected in their practical bearings as well as in the public mind, has, doubtless, some advantages, though it is also open to some objections. To reopen the Alabama case after having obtained a report of a commission on the efficiency or non-efficiency of our neutrality laws is one thing; to reopen it in deference to representations from the United States government, and without awaiting that report, is another. If the grounds upon which Lord Russell declined arbitration were conclusive last year, they are conclusive now, for there has been no change since in the facts, and no fresh light has been thrown upon the law. At the same time, we are far from blaming Lord Stanley for reconsidering the whole matter upon his own judgment and responsibility. We have not concealed our doubts whether Lord Russell’s statement of it, though very convincing from one point of view, was not tacitly founded on a false assumption, that assumption being that our international duty and liability are measured by the municipal law of this country. It cannot be considered otherwise than a misfortune that Sir Roundell Palmer, then attorney general, should have so early committed his great authority to this view. It is not, to the best of our belief, in accordance with the better opinion among lawyers, and, even if it were, it would be manifestly contrary to the dictates of natural reason and equity. To hold that a belligerent can demand of a neutral state no more than a due execution of the neutral’s own laws is to hold that neutrals are the sole judges of their own obligations. The neutral state might have no law applicable to the subject at all, or a law authorizing piracy, and yet, upon this supposition, there would be no right of redress. Now, although international law is a very indefinite thing, consisting of little more than usages and duties, sanctioned with more or less uniformity by occasional conventions, it is not so wholly illusory as this conception of it would imply. A fundamental distinction has always been recognized between the sale of contraband of war and the equipment of armed vessels within neutral territory, and this distinction would have no meaning if both would be equally innocent but for the special prohibition of the latter by municipal law. In contending, therefore, that we could not accept arbitration because it would put in issue the justice of the construction of our own foreign enlistment act by our own law officers, Lord Russell overlooked the previous question, whether the foreign enlistment act itself is adequate for its purpose. It may or may not be undignified to submit such a question to the judgment of a foreign prince or a body of foreign jurists, but it cannot be set aside, and was, in fact, treated as proper for discussion when the late government offered to revise, in concert with the United States, the neutrality laws of both nations. Had we acceded to Mr. Seward’s proposal, the point to have been decided by the arbitrator would not have involved a judicial interpretation of any British statute, still less would it have involved an inquisition into the motives of our government. It ought to have been so presented as to exclude the hypothesis of mala fides, and to involve only one consideration—whether, according to known principles of international law, the circumstances attending the escape of the Alabama were such as to impose any liability for her depredations, legal or equitable, upon Great Britain. It is this consideration, we presume, which is now engaging the attention of our government, and we may be permitted to express the hope that in any future discussion of it more stress may be laid on grounds of policy, and less on grounds of precedent. Precedent is a far safer guide in ordinary litigation than in controversies between sovereign states. It can be shown that America has refused compensation in cases somewhat analogous to that of the Alabama, but unless it can also be shown that her refusal was justified by that higher code of international morality which rests upon the common interest of all civilized nations, little will have been gained by the demonstration.

The difficulty in framing a more effective neutral law for these islands is twofold. First, there is the danger that any highly penal legislation against the enlistment of British subjects in the service of a foreign power would practically be a dead letter whenever it happened to conflict with popular sympathy. For instance, the foreign enlistment act could hardly have been enforced against the English volunteers who joined Garibaldi, even if they had technically violated it; and we know that, for similar reasons, the United States government has reluctantly tolerated many open breaches of the American act by the Fenians. Secondly, there is the old difficulty, already mentioned, of distinguishing sales from equipments of vessels. So strongly has this been felt by some jurists that a sweeping enactment against the exportation of all articles contraband of war has been suggested as the only remedy. It is evidently an anomaly that one foreign belligerent may arm all its land forces with rifles from Birmingham, subject only to the risk of capture at sea, whereas the agents of another cannot, without breaking the law of the land and incurring the risk of heavy penalties, fit out a vessel of war at Birkenhead. Morally, the two actions are on a par, and if any attempt be made to place them on the same legal footing, it should certainly be rather directed to regulate the former than to encourage the latter. It would, however, vastly increase the injury [Page 27] entailed by war on neutrals if, while it paralyzes such a branch of commerce as our cotton trade, other branches, such as the manufacture of small-arms for warlike purposes, should be deprived of their legitimate development. For the present, we must acquiesce in the maintenance of the existing line between ordinary contraband and ships of war, and the problem is, how to control the building and sale of these so as to check abuses of neutrality. Experience has shown that, partly owing to the enormous profits that may be realized by such ventures, and partly to the facility of evasion where the proof of guilt must chiefly depend on intention, the prospect of punishment is of little avail. The one remaining expedient is to arm the executive government with more stringent, if not more arbitrary, powers of prevention.