Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs, Accompanying the Annual Message of the President to the Second Session of the Fortieth Congress
Mr. Adams to Mr. Seward.
Sir: I have the honor to transmit a copy of the London Times of the 4th instant, on account of the leading article on the disputed questions between the two countries. I think the disposition there indicated is becoming general enough in the governing classes to sanction any course which the ministry would be likely to take to effect a settlement of them.
I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.
There is but one cloud on the horizon of our foreign policy at the opening of this new year, and that cloud is not so threatening but that it may be dispersed by a very moderate effort of diplomatic skill. We are not only at peace, but on amicable, if not cordial, terms with all the continental powers. Not the shadow of a misunderstanding exists between ourselves and the French government, and the German war has given a new direction to any military ambition which may linger among the French people. The infatuation which led Austria to reject the proposal of a conference on the German and Italian questions saved us from the danger of becoming involved in either, and we have since maintained the most friendly relations with all three belligerents. All is quiet at St. Petersburg and Constantinople, in spite of the insurrection in Cândia; and if the eastern question is destined to be solved this year, there is every reason to hope that it will be solved peaceably. It is long since the foreign office has had less cause of anxiety about European affairs, and though many regret the supposed loss of our ancient prestige by persistent non-intervention, the influence of England, for any good purpose is probably as great as ever. The only nation which, so far as we know, harbors any grudge against us is that which of all others and for every reason we should [Page 42] least desire to make our enemy. A hostile rupture between Great Britain and the United States would be more gratuitous, more ruinous to commerce, more repugnant to private feelings and interests, and far more disgraceful to civilization, than any quarrel in which we could be engaged. There may be circumstances under which it would be inevitable, there may be sacrifices too great for us to make in order to avoid it, but there is certainly no war against which the reason and conscience of the public are so decisively enlisted. It might be forced upon us, for there is a degree of injustice to which no community can submit; but unless forced upon us by a high sense of patriotic duty it would be too unpopular to be undertaken by the strongest government. Perhaps American politicians have sometimes presumed too far upon this sincerely pacific disposition, but at the present time we have no such complaint to make. Whatever bitterness of feeling still prevails in the United States towards this country was not fomented, at least in the first instance, by interested agitators; it sprang from a real, though possibly erroneous, belief that we have inflicted a wrong upon them. The suspicious circumstances attending the equipment of the Alabama were interpreted by the light of contemporary speeches expressing sympathy with the south, and the complicity of our government with that unscrupulous transaction was not so much inferred from their actual conduct as assumed to be self-evident. No Englishman can for a moment admit this construction of the facts, but no one capable of distinguishing between a legal right and a moral claim will be disposed to deny that a fair case was made out for arbitration. Lord Russell’s unqualified rejection of that proposal was partly justified by the form in which. Mr. Adams’s demands were presented, but it also betrayed a somewhat narrow and one-sided view of the question at issue. It was, in short, a false step, however defensible on grounds of law or precedent, and the sooner false steps are retraced the better.
We have yet to learn what may have passed between Lord Stanley and Mr. Seward on this delicate subject, which is one that is surely capable of a prompt settlement honorable to both parties. There are those who imagine that, having been adjourned so often, it can be adjourned indefinitely, and that it will be all the easier to deal with at last. We cannot but express most earnestly our dissent from this opinion, and our conviction that a more favorable opening for an arrangement is now presented than is ever likely to be presented again. We have pointed out on a former occasion the obvious advantage which a new government and a new foreign secretary possess in retrieving a diplomatic mistake of their predecessors; but there is a still more important aspect of the matter that remains to be considered. The present domestic embarrassments of the United States are such as to make a graceful concession on the part of Great Britain peculiarly opportune. The conflict between the President and Congress weakens the whole nation, and even if it should be terminated by a compromise, of which there appears no prospect as yet, the reconstruction of the south will tax the energies of both for some time to come. The States of the late confederacy have greatly increased the President’s difficulties, and disappointed the hopes of their moderate supporters in the north, by refusing to accept the constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, troubles have broken out in Missouri, and so many elements of discord are still at work throughout the Union as to concentrate the attention of American statesmen on internal politics. Whatever inclination there may be to meddle with foreign affairs is just now engrossed by Mexico, and France has for once become the object of greater jealousy than England. This very exceptional state of things appears to constitute a strong argument for waiving any punctilios of national dignity, and making overtures for arbitration of our own accord. Such an act, we venture to predict, would be appreciated by all parties in America. Hostility to England is no part of republican traditions, and the republicans have a selfish motive for avoiding a breach with any foreign power, since it would strengthen the hands of the President. The President, on the other hand, has always shown a desire to cultivate amity with this country, and, if we may judge from recent indications, this feeling is shared not only by Mr. Seward and General Grant, but also by Mr. Stanton and Mr. Welles. The latter has expressly acknowledged the conciliatory course taken by the British government on the fishery question; and Mr. Seward gave proofs of his pacific sentiments at a most critical period, which cannot be cancelled by the intemperate language to be found in some of his despatches. Such a combination of favorable conditions cannot be expected to repeat itself. Lord Stanley is in a better position for negotiating on our behalf than Lord Clarendon was, or than any future secretary of foreign affairs would be. We have far more to lose than to gain by a change in the United States government, and it is but too probable that such an event would be followed by a revival of these claims in a more peremptory form. They are not forgotten by the American people, and they never will be forgotten until they have been submitted to some impartial adjudication. By proposing this ourselves, we tacitly confess that Lord Russell erred in declining to entertain it last year; but we put ourselves in the right, which is a vantage ground worth any effort to obtain. By waiting until it is again proposed by the United States, and then consenting to it, we shall justly incur, the suspicon of yielding under compulsion.
There will, no doubt, be practical difficulties to be encountered in defining the points for arbitration, as well as in selecting an arbitrator equally acceptable to both nations. They are difficulties, however, of the very same kind which always occur, and are easily overcome, in the settlement of disputes between private gentlemen. Of course no allegation implying a suggestion of bad faith on the part of our late government would be admissible in the statement to be laid before the arbitrator. On the other hand, it would be unreasonable, as well [Page 43] as impossible, to exclude the question whether, under given circumstances, a greater degree of vigilance ought not to have been exercised by the government, and whether this country is not morally responsible to some extent for the neglect of it. No one, we presume, supposes that if the thing had to be done over again a second Alabama would be allowed to escape, and, if not, it is worth while to ask ourselves what expedients would now be adopted to prevent it. Probably, as in the case of the rams, the executive would resort to measures beyond those prescribed by the foreign enlistment act; but if the executive would, in fact, employ, and would be supported by public opinion in employing, such powers in a future emergency, it is, to say the least, a presumption that our present neutrality laws are found to be inadequate. Now, unless we hold to the heresy, which Sir Roundell Palmer has expressly disclaimed, that international obligations can be limited by municipal enactment, it does not appear so utterly monstrous that damages resulting in part from a defect in our laws should be defrayed in part by ourselves. At all events, an implicit confidence in the justice of one’s own cause is a strange reason for declining the test of arbitration, to the principle of which, be it remembered, Great Britain, in common with other great powers, has solemnly declared her adhesion.