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 containing an editorial comment on the authorized notice, published the day before, of the action of the government in response to your despatch No. 1835, of the 27th of August last.
I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.
It is with hearty satisfaction that we record the friendly overtures made by her Majesty’s government to that of the United States. Lord Stanley, as we announced yesterday, has instructed the British minister at Washington to propose a resort to arbitration on the differences arising out of the American war, and from the language in which this decision has been made public by the foreign office, we may infer that a recent communication from Mr. Seward paved the way for its adoption. It is now for the government of the United States to say whether they will accede to the principle of arbitration, the precise terms and subjects of which are properly reserved for subsequent discussion. Upon the latter point we cannot anticipate that any serious difficulty will be found. Of course the depredations of the Alabama are the real sources of dispute, and the great question for the arbitrator will be to what extent, if any, Great Britain is responsible, legally or morally, under circumstances to be duly set forth in the case, for the consequences of her escape from the Mersey. The law officers of the two countries, if they could meet for consultation, would probably succeed, within a very few hours, in framing a statement perfectly satisfactory to both. There is, indeed, no controversy about the facts; the controversy is about the principles which should be applied to them. Here the amplest discretion should, upon every ground, be left to the arbitrator. The object is not to obtain a judicial determination of a legal doubt, bat to bring about an equitable arrangement between two innocent parties who, being nations and not individuals, have no common superior. So long as the construction of our foreign enlistment act was before the law courts it was inevitable that especial stress should be laid on the legal aspect of the claim preferred by the United States; when it once comes before the arbitrator, it is the moral aspect which should predominate. Municipal tribunals are governed by precedent, even in matters involving national interests, not because precedent is a sounder guide than principles of justice, but rather because an adherence to precedent is the only safeguard against partiality and the only security for uniformity of decision. This reason is manifestly inapplicable to the adjudication of international differences by a sovereign power. Such a proceeding is more analogous to the intervention of a peace-maker between two friends who have disagreed than to any ordinary litigation. The supreme end of a legal judgment is that it should be in strict conformity with the law; the supreme end of international, as of private, mediation is to effect a settlement which can be accepted on both sides with honor.[Page 44]
Will Lord Stanley, however, be supported by public opinion in making a proposal all but identical with that which Lord Russell declined, and thereby incurring the risk of a refusal from the United States? We venture to believe that he will, and further, that his moral courage in taking a course repugnant to a false but plausible sentiment of national dignity will be rewarded by success. It should always be remembered that Lord Russell’s final reply to Mr. Adams was the conclusion of an elaborate correspondence on our alleged liability for injuries inflicted by the Alabama and her consorts. That correspondence was con-ducted, almost exclusively, upon the narrow basis of an appeal to precedents, and as the burden of proof lay upon Mr. Adams, Lord Russell possessed a great advantage, which he turned skilfully to account. There were very few precedents relevant to the argument, but of these one of the most recent and important, in which the United States had occupied the position of defendant, happened to be in our favor. Lord Russell, chiefly relying on this case, had already committed himself to a denial of the American claim before it was ultimately presented in a practical shape, and his prompt rejection of it in that shape followed almost by way of logical consequence. We do not justify this part of Lord Russell’s policy, and we regret the ungracious language in which an unpalatable reply was conveyed. It would have been far better to suggest a change in the form of the claim than to cut off all prospect of its being entertained in any form whatever. At the same time, Lord Russell’s error may be partly explained by the turn which the discussion had taken, and partly excused by the peremptory tone of Mr. Adams’s remonstrances. But an error it was, as we have more than once pointed out, not only in policy, but on principles of reason and right. There are, doubtless, some demands so monstrous that it would be impossible for any nation to consent to arbitration upon them; but when a government on terms of amity with our own complains of having been aggrieved by our default, and offers to submit its alleged grievance to arbitration, it is no sufficient answer to say that we cannot allow a foreign sovereign to sit in judgment on our conduct. We have been parties to a declaration in favor of referring international disputes to arbitration; we have actually referred a late dispute with a much weaker power to arbitration and bowed to the arbitrator’s award, and we should certainly tender arbitration to any state against which Great Britain had a cause of complaint. Then, why demur to arbitration, when proposed by the United States, only because we have implicit confidence in the justice of our cause ? We say again that Lord Russell’s unqualified rejection of Mr. Adams’s tender was a false step, and if a false step, that Lord Stanley was bound to retrace it without needless delay and without unworthy reservations. There is nothing half so undignified as being in the wrong, nor was there any means of placing us in the right except by assuming the initiative and inviting the United States to meet us half way.
Whether they will do so, and if se, in what spirit they will do so, remains to be seen. We can hardly expect that Mr. Seward will lose the opportunity of commenting on our change of attitude, or that some of our New York contemporaries will fail to attribute Lord Stanley’s proffered concession to base motives. It will, perhaps, be said or insinuated, but with an entire oblivion of dates, that we presumed on the weakness of America in the day of her calamity, and truckle to her when she has regained her strength. Now, if this reproach were ever so well deserved, yet it ought not to deter us from acting upon our own convictions of duty. It is, however, wholly undeserved, and capable of being rebutted by plain facts. The moment selected by Mr. Seward for pressing his demands upon Lord Russell was precisely that at which the United States, triumphant by sea and land, had utterly crushed the insurrection, still maintaining a vast army and navy on a war footing, and indulging hopes of a speedy reconstruction, which experience has since disappointed. If there ever was a time at which Great Britain had reason to fear a rupture with America, it was that very lime when Lord Russell in its name repudiated the Alabama claims. But we cannot bring ourselves to dwell on this topic, nor can we suppose that motives so petty and unstatesmanlike will influence the counsels of the United States. Englishmen did not suspect America of cowardice when, in deference to the clear rules of maritime law, she gave up the prisoners wrongfully captured on board the Trent, and Americans of sense will not suspect England of cowardice because, in deference to equally clear dictates of international morality, she retires from an untenable position. The United States government yielded then, although many persons in this country predicted that national pride would be too strong for them. It is the turn of our government to yield now, and, whether or not their motives be appreciated, we have confidence in the result of their efforts to renew those friendly relations with a kindred people which should never have been interrupted.