The Political Writings of Richard Cobden

Richard Cobden
Cobden, Richard
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F. W. Chesson, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
Pub. Date
Collected essays, 1835-1862. First published as a collection in 1867. 4th edition. Includes Preface by Lord Welby; Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet and William Cullen Bryant.
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IN ordinary years, when nothing occurs to concentrate public attention on this branch of the budget, it will be observed that the expenditure on the "Services" has a tendency to increase in proportion to the prosperity of the country.*16 Taking the amount of our foreign trade as the test of the progress of the nation, we shall find, looking back over the last ten or twelve years, that the amount of exports and the amount of Military and Naval Estimates have been augmented in nearly an equal ratio, both having been about doubled. It would seem as if there were some unseen power behind the Government, always able, unless held in check by an agitation in the country, to help itself to a portion of the national savings, limited only by the taxable patience of the public. A combination of circumstances, however, counteracted this tendency at the period to which we are now referring, the most influential of which was that "the landed interest was in a dissatisfied and uneasy state from anticipations of the great change in the commercial policy of the country, which was to come into full effect at the commencement of the present year"*17 (1849). Moreover, the party which had been for many years engaged in the struggle for the overthrow of the Corn Laws threw its energies into the agitation for a reduction of expenditure, whilst the approaching year of the Great Exhibition tended to hold in check ideas of a warlike nature, and to make it the fashion, for a time at least, to profess a faith in the tendency of the world towards peace.


The consequence of this state of things was a constant reduction of the military and naval expenditure from 1847 to 1851, as will be seen on reference to the preceding tables. During this time, with the exception of the usual letters from Admiral Napier, in the Times, on the state of the navy, and a volume published at the close of 1850, by Sir Francis Head, on "The Defenceless State of the Nation," which was calculated to throw ridicule on the subject by its exaggerations, little was said about a French invasion. Even the Great Duke's letter was for a time forgotten. But only for a time: the occasion alone was wanting to revive the panic with increased violence. The country had been rapidly advancing to that state of prosperity in which its timidity and pugnacity seem equally susceptible of excitement. Under the influence of free trade and the gold discoveries, our exports, which in 1848 had been £52,849,000, amounted in 1851 to £74,448,000; they were destined to reach, in 1852, £78,076,000, and to rise in 1853 to £98,933,000; being thus nearly doubled in five years. The revenue was in a satisfactory state, and the landed interest had nearly recovered from the despondency into which it had been thrown by the repeal of the Corn Laws.


It was under these circumstances that the coup d'état of December 2nd, 1851, and the re-election of Louis Napoleon as President of the Republic, with augmented powers, furnished the occasion for the outburst of the second invasion panic. From that day to the meeting of Parliament, on the 3rd of February, a large portion of the metropolitan journals teemed with letters and articles of the most exciting character. The course pursued by these writers was inconsistent enough. They commenced by assailing personally, with unmeasured invective, the author of the coup d'état, and heaping contemptuous epithets on the French people who had rewarded him with their suffrages; and then forthwith they raised the cry of invasion, and proclaimed our defenceless condition—conduct which, as will be seen, drew on them the animadversions of the leading statesmen on the meeting of Parliament. At the same time there was the usual eruption of pamphlets, written chiefly by military and naval officers, containing projects for every variety of defensive armament.


In the debate on the Address on the first night of the Session of 1852, almost every speaker alluded with disapprobation to the inflammatory language of the press.


"I say that it is more than imprudent," said the Earl of Derby, "that it is more than injudicious, that it is more than folly; that it is perfect madness, at one and the same time to profess a belief in the hostile intentions of a foreign country, and to parade before the eyes of that very people the supposed inability of this country to defend itself; to magnify the resources of your supposed assailant, and to point out how easy would be the invasion if not the subjugation of this country (though, thank God! the most violent have not yet spoken of subjugation); but to speak of that invasion, accompanying it with details of the fearful amount of horror and bloodshed which, under any circumstances, must attend it, and then, in the same breath, to assail with every term of obloquy, of vituperation, and abuse, the public and private character of the man who wields that force which you say is irresistible."*18


And again, speaking of the disposition of the President, he said:—

"My Lords, I will go further, and I will say that I firmly believe that the French President personally is fully disposed to entertain friendly relations and to maintain a pacific policy towards other nations. But, my Lords, I think that if anything could divert him from that course—if he were a man likely to be worked upon by his own personal feelings—if anything were likely to divert him from that course of policy which I believe his inclination and his sense of the interests of France are likely to make him take, it would be the injudicious, and, I may add, unjustifiable language which has been made use of by a large portion of the public press of this country in commenting on the character of the French Government and people."*19


In the House of Commons, on the same occasion, Lord John Russell, then Prime Minister, observed:—

"But really, to hear or read some of the letters, some of the language used by some portion of the press, one would imagine that these two great nations, so wealthy, so similar in enlightenment, were going to butcher one another, merely to try what would be the effect of percussion caps and needle guns."*20


Both these statesmen, however, afforded substantial justification to the alarmists whom they thus eloquently rebuked, by intimating their determination to "prepare our defences," in order to make "invasion impossible." The public, of course, attributed their language to diplomatic reserve, whilst their action was quietly accepted as proof of impending danger.


As we were destined during the year 1852 to witness the re-organisation of the militia, and an augmentation of our army and navy; and as the arguments by which these increased armaments were justified will be found to have exclusive reference to the danger of an invasion from France, it will be well to turn for a moment to the tables, and see exactly what the French Government had been doing since the downfall of Louis Philippe. Though it is rather beside the question—for we have never professed to match our land forces against those of France—it may be premised that the French army was undergoing some reduction, and that the National Guard, whose million of armed men had been referred to with such alarming emphasis by Lord Palmerston in 1845, was being rapidly disbanded, and was destined ere long to disappear, with the exception of a nominal force kept up in a few large cities.


A reference to the tables will show that, during the years 1849, 1850, and 1851, the period which intervened between the first and second panic, the strength of the French navy, whether measured by the total expenditure, the number of men, or the number of ships in commission, was considerably less than in any three years since 1840. It will be seen that the French expenditure, with the number of men and of ships in commission, both absolutely and in proportion to the British, was at the lowest point in 1851, the year which witnessed the renewal of the panic. These facts were stated at the time by those who resisted the increase of our armaments, and confronted the alarm of invasion; but their statements were discredited.


On the 16th February, 1852, Lord John Russell explained to the House his proposed Militia Bill. He alluded, at the outset, to his measure of 1848, the failure of which he frankly attributed to the necessity he was then under of proposing an increase of taxation. To demonstrate that he was not now acting under the pressure of the panic, he thus referred to the state of things under which he had formerly brought forward a similar project:—"At the time at which I then addressed the House, Louis Philippe was on the throne of France; there was no apparent revolution at hand; the disposition of that king was known to be pacific; his counsels were moderate and wise."*21 This is an illustration of that curious feature in these political delusions, that we are always called on to forget them as soon as they have served the purpose for which they are created. A convenient veil is here drawn over the panic caused by Prince Joinville's pamphlet, the Duke of Wellington's letter, the Spanish marriages, the predicted flight of the Guards from London, and every other incident that had played its part prior to 1848. Lord John Russell now proposed a plan by which it should be possible to enrol for the first year not less than 70,000 men; in the next year, 100,000; in the third, about 120,000; with the possibility of increase to 150,000. But the Militia Bill was destined to be fatal to the ministry of which he had been Premier since the fall of Sir Robert Peel's Government in 1846.


A word of explanation is necessary to throw a light on what followed. During the recess of Parliament, Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Minister, had withdrawn from the Government. From the explanations which now took place, it appeared that, although there had been anterior differences between him and his colleagues, indeed between the Sovereign and her Foreign Secretary, the immediate cause of his retirement was the un-authorised expression of his approbation of the coup d'état of December 2nd, 1851. It was foreseen that this secession menaced the existence of a Cabinet already weak, and a few days only were required, after the meeting of Parliament, to verify this view. On the motion to bring in the Local Militia Bill, on the 20th February, 1852, Lord Palmerston carried an amendment for giving a more extended scope to the measure, which was followed by the resignation of Lord John Russell's Government, and the advent of Lord Derby to power.


On the first exposition of his views as Prime Minister, on the 27th February, the Earl of Derby spoke as follows:—

"My Lords, I believe that our naval forces were never in a better or more effective condition than at this moment. I believe that for all purposes, whether as regards the protection of our own shores, the defence of the numerous and distant colonies which form our empire, or for the protection of that extended commerce which crosses every sea and fills every port in the wide world, I believe that, for all such purposes, our navy was never in a more effective state than it is now."*22


As soon as the new ministry were constituted, they prepared another Militia Bill, which was introduced into the House by the Home Secretary on the 29th of March. This measure met the approval of Lord Palmerston, to whose energetic support it mainly owed its success. He could almost, indeed, claim to be its author; for it transpired, incidentally, in the course of the discussion, that his frequent questions in the House, in the time of Sir Robert Peel's ministry, had had the effect of inducing them to prepare a measure for revising the Militia laws, but a change of ministry had prevented them from bringing it forward.*23 Lord Palmerston, moreover, in the course of the debates, identified himself more exclusively with the policy of the Bill, by stating that he had pressed on Lord John Russell, in 1846, the necessity of a similar measure.*24 To him, also, was left the task of finding arguments for the Bill; and it must be admitted that he fulfilled the duties of an advocate with a courage, at least, that could not be surpassed.


The reasons assigned by Mr. Walpole for introducing the measure, however ably stated, were so cautiously guarded by disavowals of any special ground for alarm, and so prudently seasoned with pledges for our peaceful foreign relations, that they were almost as good arguments for his opponents as for his own party; whilst the more general motives assigned, founded on vague and shadowy assumptions of possible danger, would have been equally indisputable if our existing navy had been ten times as efficient as it had just been declared to be by Lord Derby.


Lord Palmerston took a much bolder course. Falling back on his own idea of steam navigation having given an advantage to our neighbour, or, to use his favourite phrase, having "thrown a bridge across the Channel," he now insisted on the practicability of fifty or sixty thousand men being transported, without notice, from Cherbourg to our shores in a single night. Such a declaration had not been before heard from one holding high rank in that House. It overleapt all reliance on our diplomacy, or our fleets; and, strange enough in one who had offered such eager congratulations to the author of the Coup d'État, the assumption of such a danger as this implied that our neighbour was little better than a buccaneer. But this hypothesis of sudden invasion is absolutely indispensable for affording the alarmists any standing ground whatever. Take away the liability to surprise, by admitting the necessity of a previous ground of quarrel, and the delays of a diplomatic correspondence, and you have time to collect your fleet, and drill an army.*25 Admit the argument of suddenness of danger, and the only way of preventing your coasts and metropolis from being invaded by an army of fifty or sixty thousand men, is by being always prepared with an organised and disciplined force to repel them.


It was natural that such views should not pass unquestioned by intelligent professional men; among whom the veteran General who represented Westminster was prominent in showing the practical difficulties of sending large expeditions over sea, and in demonstrating that "the sudden arrival of a French army in this metropolis was simply an impossibility."*26 Here is a specimen of the undaunted courage with which Lord Palmerston set at naught the experience of the hero of a score of battle-fields:—

'My hon. and gallant friend (Sir De Lacy Evans) stated that, in collecting a large force for the purpose of crossing the Channel, such an extensive preparation must be made as would give us ample notice; but he is much mistaken with regard to the want of facilities which neighbouring countries possess for collecting together a formidable force and bringing it over to this country, without our having lengthened, or, indeed, even timely notice. The very ship despatched to convey to this country intelligence of the threatened armament would probably not reach our shores much sooner than the hostile expedition."*27


The naval authorities in the House were also heard on a question in which the character and efficiency of their service were so much involved. Admiral Berkeley, who had been a Lord of the Admiralty under the previous Government, remarked that "Lord Palmerston had spoken of the French being enabled to raise 50,000 or 60,000 men in Cherbourg; but he did not tell the House how these men were to be transported across the Channel;" and the gallant speaker went on to say, "he would tell the noble Lord, the member for Tiverton, that it would take fifty or sixty vessels to embark those men he spoke of as being ready for action at Cherbourg, and it would take as many more vessels to protect them in the Channel." He added, with a view to allay the "absurd panic that had lately run through the country," that with an addition of 4,000 men and 1,000 boys to the navy, he would undertake to say that they would have a fleet of thirty steamers in the Channel, none of which would be under 900 or 1,000 tons, and that in the presence of such a force, he would defy any enemy to attempt a surprise; adding, characteristically, that "he should like to see them attempt to disembark on our shores in the face of such a force."*28


Incidental to these debates was a motion made on the 30th of March, by Mr. Anderson (the head of the great Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company), "to show how invasion might be rendered impossible," in which he called attention to the Report of a Committee, appointed at his instance in 1849, which had recommended the Government to retain the services of our numerous merchant steamers as a reserve force for the defence of our shores. He pointed out the great advantage this country possessed over all others in the number of its merchant steamers; that for every horse-power possessed by France, we had twenty (in sailing vessels our superiority in tonnage being only as five to one); he stated, from evidence before the Committee, that upwards of a thousand of these vessels could be made available in case of war, and pledged himself to produce a private tradesman who, for £200, would fit the largest steamer to carry the heaviest pivot gun; and he alleged that the private company with which he was connected could, alone, furnish vessels enough to form a line within signal distance of each other from the Channel Islands to the North Foreland.*29 Mr. Anderson went into the subject with a thorough practical knowledge of all its details, and carried the House, as he had carried his Committee, with him. His motion was accepted by the Government, but never acted on.


This motion was, however, only an episode in that great debate of the session which reflected the panic that had been excited in certain quarters out-of-doors. In spite of the opposition of the Liberals and the Free-Trade party, the Militia Bill was passing through its various stages; and Lord Palmerston's theory of a nocturnal invasion, by a large army, continued to be the pivot of the debate. The weight of professional authority having gone so strongly against this theory, civilians were now encouraged to speak out; and Lord John Russell, towards the close of the debate on the second reading, remarked, with unwonted bluntness, that "he did not wish to be mixed up with those who entertained apprehensions of the sudden arrival in this country of 50,000 hostile troops in a single night, without notice of any kind being received in this country; or that we should hear of an army marching up to London without our having had any previous symptoms of hostility. Those were notions which were founded upon panic rather than on reasonable calculation."*30 It was natural, too, that those members of the House who were identified with that body of British representatives residing at foreign capitals whom Burke has designated "licensed spies," should have revolted at such an imputation of want of vigilance on their part as was implied in this apprehended sudden invasion, and they found an ardent and eloquent defender in the present Sir Robert Peel, who had just previously withdrawn from the field of diplomacy.


"What, I should like to know," said he, "is meant by the term 'sudden invasion,' which is so often used, but with little consideration? The noble Lord, the member for Tiverton (Lord Palmerston), has defined it thus: 'We have to provide,' he says, 'not against a danger which may happen in six or eight months, but which may happen in a month or a fortnight, from the time when it is first apprehended.' I ask the House, and I ask the country, is it possible to admit this definition of the noble Lord? Let the House for one moment figure to itself the noble Lord sitting in Downing Street, with all the threads of European diplomacy concentrated, like so many electric wires, in his cabinet; and let the House then figure to itself the surprise of the noble Lord, on being told that that day fortnight 150,000 men were to be landed on the shores of Britain! Do you think the noble Lord believes this to be possible? Not at all."*31


Following after nearly the whole of these speakers, and on the last night of the debate on the second reading of the Militia Bill, Lord Palmerston thus manfully stood his ground:—"The application of steam to navigation has in effect made a bridge over the Channel, and has given the means of quick attack—an attack on a scale of magnitude such as did not exist before. Again, it is said we should know beforehand, if any preparations were being made. I say you might not know, because, by the internal arrangements of railways, the distribution of troops is such that 50,000 or 60,000 men might be collected at Cherbourg before you knew anything of the matter; and those who have seen what those immense works are, must be perfectly aware that such a number of men could walk from the quay into their vessels, as easily as they could walk into their barrack yard. A single night would bring them over, and all our naval preparations, be they what they might, could not be relied on to prevent the arrival of such an expedition, as no batteries or gun-boats we might have on our shores could be relied on to prevent the landing of an expedition when it had arrived."*32


With what a grim smile of incredulity would the threat of this nocturnal apparition have been received by both sides of the House, if it had been urged in support of the Militia Bill of 1848! The country gentlemen were then too much haunted by the Free-Trade spectre, and the commercial members too seriously preoccupied with their distresses, to have allowed themselves to be scared by so fantastical an appeal to their imagination; but the "Country Party" were now in power, their Protectionist alarms were dissipated, and they welcomed the Militia Bill with acclamation. An increasing revenue, with a surplus in the Exchequer and a prosperous trade, insured the success of the Bill; which, however, was not passed without a determined opposition, led on by the Free-Trade party. In the course of the struggle, it was mentioned by Mr. Moffatt,*33 as a proof of the unpopularity of the Bill, that nearly 800 petitions had been presented against it, and not one in its favour. It was certainly a singular spectacle, to see the representatives of the great centres of population and wealth, with the metro-politan members at their head, resisting a measure which had been brought forward on the plea that it was indispensable for their security.


Where, then, could have been the "panic"? will be the obvious inquiry. This question was frequently and sarcastically asked in the course of the debate; and it was answered in terms not over-complimentary to the parties referred to. Mr. Hume bluffly remarked that "our present panics were not due, as in times past, to the old women, but to our having too many clubs about London, containing so many half-pay officers, who had nothing to do but to look about for themselves and their friends. These were the people who wrote to the newspapers, anxious to bring grist to the mill somehow or other."*34 And Captain Scobell, alluding to the same subject, said—"If he added a remark not very complimentary to the other branch of the service, it should be jocularly; but the alarm about the invasion was chiefly expressed by soldiers, from the illustrious Duke downwards. Sir Francis Head was a soldier; and so was the 'Swiss Colonel'; and many of them had, by their writings, helped to raise and keep up the alarm. And the reason was plain; they could not comprehend the capabilities of resistance that might be made on the ocean, and especially the resources that had been put into our hands by the power of steam."*35


Lord Derby's Government having passed their Militia Bill, empowering them to raise 80,000 men, besides other measures, a dissolution took place on the 1st of July, and the new Parliament assembled for a short session before Christmas.


In the meantime, two events had taken place—the death of the Duke of Wellington, and the announcement of the approaching re-establishment of the Empire in France—which were exercising a considerable influence on the public mind. The former occurrence had naturally attracted universal attention to the biography of the Great Warrior, whose military exploits filled the pages of the public journals, became the engrossing theme of our public speakers, and even resounded from many pulpits. Public attention was thus carried back to the long and mutually destructive wars which we had waged with France, and it was but natural that some of the old national animosity should have been revived. This feeling received a great impulse from what was occurring on the other side of the Channel. By a singular coincidence, the imposing national tribute of a public funeral in St. Paul's, on the 18th of November, 1852, was followed by the voting for the Empire in France on the 21st. The historical painter might have represented the third Napoleon rising from the yet open tomb of the vanquisher of the first! What wonder, if in some minds there was the irritating consciousness that all the great deeds of the departed hero had not borne permanent fruits? The feeling of apprehension, however, predominated. The traditional terror connected with the name of Bonaparte was revived; people began again to talk of invasion, and before Christmas the alarmists had more complete possession of the field than at any previous time.


On the 6th of December, 1852, Lord Malmesbury formally announced, in the House of Lords, the election of the Emperor of the French. He spoke in terms of the most unqualified confidence of the friendly and pacific intentions of the ruler and people of France. "I believe," said his Lordship, "that the Emperor himself, and the great mass of his people, deeply feel the necessity, for the interests of both countries, that we should be on a footing of profound peace; and, on the other hand, they see the great folly and crime which it would be on either side to provoke war. They must know that a war, as far as it would lead to the subjugation of either country by the other, is an absurdity; that neither country, so great, so powerful, and so independent, could in any manner subjugate the other, and that, therefore, war must be as useless as cruel, and as inglorious as useless."*36


Nothing could have been more satisfactory than this announcement, had it not been accompanied by a practical commentary elsewhere, which, in the eyes of the unsophisticated public, converted these excellent sentiments into hollow diplomatic phrases. On the very same evening on which this communication was made to the Lords, the Government proposed in the Commons an addition of 5,000 seamen and 1,500 marines to the navy, on the ground, as alleged by the Secretary of the Admiralty, that "the time had arrived when, with the most pacific intentions, it was absolutely necessary that we should put our Channel defences in a new position, and man the Channel with a large force."*37 Had it been his studied purpose to furnish arguments to the alarmists out-of-doors, nothing could have been contrived more calculated to swell the panic cry of invasion than the tone of mystery and reserve with which the Naval Secretary deprecated all discussion on this vote:—

"He trusted that, if he should then decline to enter into any detailed information with respect to that vote, no gentleman would attribute such a course to a desire to treat him individually with discourtesy, but would feel that it was owing to the determination at which the Government had arrived, after the most serious consideration, that it would be better, under existing circumstances, not to enter into any particulars with respect to that course. He asked the present vote from the House of Commons, not as a vote of confidence in any particular ministry, but as a vote of confidence in that Executive which, whatever party might be at the head of the Government, must necessarily be charged with the defence of the country, must necessarily be in possession of secret and important intelligence, and must necessarily be the fitting and only judge how far that intelligence ought to be communicated to the House."*38


If anything could add to the mistrust in the public mind which this was calculated to produce, it was the readiness with which the leading statesmen on the Opposition side of the House accepted the doctrine of implicit confidence in the Executive. Sir Francis Baring, in expressing his approval of the proposed increase, remarked that "no one knew more than himself how difficult it was to state the grounds for any increase. It was for the Government to state, on their responsibility, what they thought necessary for the service of the country, and he was not one of those who would oppose what they thought necessary."*39 This doctrine, which, if generally acted upon, would be an abdication of one of the chief functions of the House of Commons, proceeds upon a double fallacy—first, in assuming that the Executive can, in these days, be in possession of secrets unknown to the public, respecting the warlike preparations or the political attitude of other countries; and, secondly, in assuming that, if the Government possessed any such secret information, there could be half as much inconvenience from disclosing it to the House of Commons as from the adoption of this principle of abject confidence in the Ministry.


The proposed increase in the navy was, however, carried without a division. An addition of 2,000 men and 1,000 horses for the artillery was also voted. There had been 3,000 men previously added to the army, and, as we have seen, power was given to the Government to raise 80,000 men for the militia—50,000 for the first year, and 30,000 more for the second. All this was achieved during their few months of office by the Earl of Derby's Government, who, so long as they were engaged in making these additions to our establishments, met with support from their opponents; but, that task achieved, thenceforth the benefit of implicit confidence in the Executive was no longer extended to them, and they were overthrown a few days afterwards in a division on the Budget, which was virtually a vote of want of confidence, and were succeeded by Lord Aberdeen's administration.


This increase in our armaments failed to allay, in the slightest degree, the agitation of the alarmists. It seems to be the peculiar characteristic of these panics, that they who fall under their influence are deprived of all remembrance of what has been already done for their security. This state of mind is natural enough in those who embrace the hypothesis that we are in nightly danger of an invasion, without notice or provocation, by an army of 50,000 men. These persons do not employ their minds in discussing the probable grounds of quarrel with France, or in speculating on the chances of a rupture; but they assume the constant disposition for war on the part of our neighbour, as well as his complete preparation for attack. From the moment that such a theory of invasion as this is adopted, any plan of defence must necessarily be insufficient for security. It is to this state of mind that all the writers and speakers on the subject addressed themselves, as may be seen by a mere glance at the titles of the pamphlets which issued in unprecedented numbers from the press in the present year (1852).*40


The alarm was constantly stimulated by startling paragraphs in the newspapers. One day the French army at Rome was reported to be chafing and dissatisfied because it could not share in the invasion of England and the sack of London. The next there were whispered revelations of a secret plan, divulged by General Changarnier, for invading England and seizing the metropolis (which he publicly contradicted). Then we were told of a plot for securing a naval station in the West Indies. Next, the French Government had sent an order for steam frigates to Messrs. Napier, of Glasgow (which was contradicted on the authority of those gentlemen). There was a cry of alarm at the apparition of a French ship of war at Dover, which, it afterwards turned out, had been driven in by stress of weather. Then there were small French vessels of war seen moving about the Isle of Wight, to the surprise of some of our authorities, who should have known that the French Government are bound by convention to send cruisers into the Channel to see that the fisheries regulations are observed by their fishermen; and then came the old story of French vessels being seen taking soundings in our waters, though, as everybody knows, the most perfect charts of the Channel, published under the authority of the Admiralty, may be purchased for a few shillings.


But these little paragraphs, which flew from journal to journal, would have fallen harmless on the public ear if they had not been accompanied by alarming reports from "our own correspondents" in Paris of the immense increase going on in the French navy. Besides, there was the eloquent silence of our own Secretary of the Admiralty when he proposed the augmentation of our navy. What could that reserve and secrecy mean but something too frightful to reveal? True, the French army had been reduced by 50,000 men, and the National Guard was practically dissolved, but that did not concern us. What object could a Bonaparte possibly have in doubling the strength of his navy if it was not to attack England? To show to what an extent this delusion gained credence, let us quote from an article in that generally accurate historical record, the Annual Register, for September 21, 1852: "The French have been making gigantic efforts to raise their navy to a formidable strength;" and after entering into many details to show the large additions made to their fleet, the article thus concludes: "Their navy seems to have doubled in effective strength within the two years of the Prince President's power."*41 So strong were the feelings of suspicion, jealousy, and apprehension on this subject at the reassembling of Parliament in February, 1853, that Mr. Ewart, with a view of offering a public denial to these alarming rumours, took the extraordinary course of addressing a letter of inquiry to M. Ducos, the Minister of Marine, whose answer, which obtained general publicity at the time, is here reproduced:—

PARIS, February 25, 1853.
"SIR,—The questions which you do me the honour to put in your letter of the 19th of February might perhaps appear to me unusual if my mind really entertained the strange ideas which some persons appear to ascribe to me in England.

"But far from considering these questions indiscreet or inopportune, I rejoice at them, because they afford me an opportunity of giving you the complete assurance of my peaceful sentiments.

"I should consider it as the greatest of misfortunes if a serious misunderstanding should break out between the two nations, and I desire with all my heart that the best intelligence may continue to prevail between them.

"Your newspapers make much stir about our presumed warlike preparations. I confine myself to declaring to you that I have not armed a single gun-boat, stirred a single cannon, or equipped a single sailor. I remain the calm spectator of the enormous expenses which you are making to conjure away an imaginary danger, and I admire the facility with which you augment your Budget when no real necessity prescribes it.

"If the members of your Parliament who are so preoccupied with our projects of invasion would give themselves the trouble of paying us a short visit, they would be more surprised than I am myself, perhaps, at the extreme readiness with which the rumour (almost amounting to a pleasantry) of our supposed warlike preparations has been received among you.

"I thank you, Sir, for allowing me to establish a certain degree of intercourse between us, and I beg you to accept the expression of my most distinguished sentiments.
"Monsieur Ewart, Membre de la Chambre
des Communes, etc."


With M. Ducos the writer of these pages had not the honour of a personal acquaintance, but he happened to be on terms of very intimate friendship with one of his colleagues, with whom he was in correspondence at the time, and from whom he received the following note, which had been written to him by the Minister of Marine at the moment of receiving the letter of inquiry from Mr. Ewart. As this letter was penned by M. Ducos under circumstances which precluded any idea of concealment or misrepresentation, it will be read with probably greater interest than the more formal communication, especially that part which refers to the Cabinet device common to both countries of resorting to imaginary terrors as a means of swelling Budgets and strengthening majorities:

"MY DEAR COLLEAGUE,—Do you read the English journals and the debates in Parliament?

"Verily I am astonished at the din they are making on the other side of the Channel. Will you believe that I have just received a letter from a member of the House of Commons asking me seriously if the armaments we are preparing are destined for a war with England, and if we are pushing this constant augmentation of the forces of the two nations in a spirit of rivalry! I send you the letter, that you may not doubt my veracity. Will you answer it, or shall I?

"Our armaments! forsooth. What does it mean? You know as well as I that to this day we have not armed a poor little boat beyond our ordinary fleet. With a Budget reduced by forty millions (francs) compared with the Budget of Louis Philippe, we are obliged to confine ourselves within the narrowest limits.

"England increases her Budget of this year by sixteen millions (francs); she forms her militia; she recruits her sailors; she makes her coasts bristle with heavy artillery. We look on tranquilly, without comprehending all these efforts, and without having for a single instant the idea or the apprehension that she is going to invade us.

"Mr. Ewart asks me in confidence, and whispering in my ear, if we are actuated by sentiments of rivalry in pushing our armaments! I declare that I cannot understand it. We have not armed one vessel, we have not touched one gun, we have not equipped one soldier, we have not recruited one cabinboy: and they ask us seriously if we are a very thunderbolt of war! It seems to me, that the question might be more seasonably addressed to the members of the English Cabinet, who are covering themselves with armour, and who possibly may not be very much distressed by these imaginary terrors (as we have sometimes seen among ourselves), inasmuch as they enable them to swell their Budget, and serve to strengthen a somewhat uncertain majority in Parliament.

"Ah! my dear colleague, you see that all the geese do not come from the United States, or swim in the Seine. You perceive that the question from London makes me quite merry. Forgive me, my dear colleague. I conclude by asking whether I must write to Mr. Ewart, and tell him, for his great satisfaction, that I am a greater friend to peace than himself, and that I look upon war between France and England as a universal calamity, which every wise man ought to exert himself to prevent.


But this excellent attempt of Mr. Ewart to allay the public excitement produced no apparent effect. Nothing could surpass the childlike simplicity with which any of the above absurd and improbable rumours respecting the hostile preparations of the French were believed, unless it were the stolid scepticism with which all offers to demonstrate their falsehood were rejected.


It will be well to turn for an instant to the tables in the first page, and bring the question of the state of the French navy at this time to the test of those authentic figures. Let us take the specific allegation in the Annual Register for 1852 (Sept. 21), that, during the two years of the Prince President's power, the French navy was doubled in effective force. Louis Napoleon was declared President of the Republic on the 20th of December, 1848, and was proclaimed Emperor on the 2nd of December, 1852. His term of presidency may therefore be said to have extended over the years 1849, 1850, 1851, and 1852. The following figures give the total expenditure, the amount of wages in dockyards, the number of seamen, and the number of ships in commission, for each of those years, and also for the two preceding years, 1847 being the last year of Louis Philippe's reign, and 1848 the first year of the Republic:—

in Dock
No. of
Ships in
1847 448,333 5,145,900 32,169 240
1848 444,085 4,985,872 28,760 242
1849 456,155 3,923,276 27,063 211
1850 432,837 3,406,866 24,679 181
1851 416,773 3,293,737 22,316 166
1852 425,811 3,462,271 25,016 17


Taking 1851, the third year of the presidency of Louis Napoleon, when, it will be admitted, his policy must have had time to develop itself, and comparing it with the sixteen previous years comprised in the table given in the first page, it will be seen that there is only one year (1835) when France had so few ships in commission; only two years (1835-6) in which she maintained so few seamen; and only five years (1835-6-7-8-9) when the total expenditure had been so low. And, instead of the effective force being doubled, it will be seen that a continual reduction had been going on during the first three years of the President's rule, with only an insignificant rise in 1852. The diminution in the dockyard expenditure was, in both countries, proportionately less than in the other items, owing to the more costly nature of the new naval constructions.


If we take the average of the four years 1849 to 1852, it will be found to be very much less than the average of the last ten years of Louis Philippe's reign; and, looking back over the tables of both countries for the whole period, it will be found that scarcely at any time was the French navy so weak, in comparison with that of England, as in 1851. M. Ducos, in the above private letter to his colleague, asserts that his expenditure was forty millions (£1,600,000) less than that of his predecessor in the time of Louis Philippe; and if we compare the year 1852 with that of 1847, it more than verifies his statement.


It is now very well known, apart from the proofs afforded by these figures, that, owing to the embarrassed state of the French finances during the Republic, and the struggle, involving the very existence of social order, then going on, very little attention was paid to the navy. A Parliamentary Commission, of which M. Dufaure was named "Reporter," was appointed by the National Assembly in 1849, to inquire into the state of the navy, and two goodly quarto volumes were the result, with minutes of the evidence and the discussions; but its proceedings were brought to an untimely end by the Coup d'État of the 2nd December, 1851, and they led to but few practical results.


It was under circumstances so little calculated to provoke our fear or resentment, that the cry of alarm and defiance was roused more loudly than ever through the winter and spring of 1852-3. Men of the highest political and social rank resigned themselves to the excitement. Two Cabinet Ministers, who had gone to their constituents for re-election on taking office in Lord Aberdeen's Government, were afterwards called on by their opponents in the House, to explain the violent language uttered by them at the hustings in allusion to the ruler and people of France.*42


"I tell you," said the Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire, addressing the militia of that county, "the time is coming when everybody throughout this realm will have reason to be thankful that you have come forward to defend your hearths and homes."*43


Lord Mount-Edgcumbe, through the columns of a public journal, thus added fuel to the flame:—"I have received positive information, which cannot be doubted, that the French are now striving to the very utmost to increase their naval force in every manner; and that arrangements have now been officially decided upon, to continue, year after year, similar exertions. I cannot give my authority, but trust that I shall be believed when I say that this information can be most thoroughly relied upon." And the writer adds, by way of emphasis, "I repeat that the information I have received, of preparations which can only be made for aggression, may be relied on."*44


At the same time, the strictures of the leading journals assumed a more virulent tone towards the chief of the French people. Such had been the withering influence of legislative restrictions and fiscal exactions upon the periodical press, that the publication of daily newspapers was restricted to the three capitals of the United Kingdom, and their circulation among twenty-six millions of people did not exceed, in the aggregate, sixty or seventy thousand copies daily. A monopoly of publicity was, indeed, virtually possessed by one London journal, whose conductors had thus the power of giving the impress of public opinion to whatever views they chose to espouse. The columns of this paper now teemed with the most violent denunciations of the French ruler, not unmixed with expressions of contempt for the people of France. One writer*45 of a series of impassioned invectives was betrayed into expressions not obscurely suggestive of assassination.


A reaction was at length produced in a quarter supposed to be peculiarly influenced by this journal. That part of the community most slow to enter upon any public movement, the merchants and bankers of London, convened, by circular, a meeting of those "who feel called upon at this time publicly to express their deep concern at witnessing the endeavours continually made to create and perpetuate feelings of mistrust, ill-will, and hostility between the inhabitants of the two great nations of England and France," and they took the unprecedented step of sending to the Emperor of the French a deputation of leading citizens, carrying with them an address bearing more than a thousand signatures.


On the meeting of Parliament, Mr. Disraeli took an opportunity of drawing attention to these manifestations of hatred and terror towards France, declaring that it was "extremely strange and startling, that, under such circumstances, an idea should have seemed to enter into almost every man's brain, and an expression into every man's mouth, that we are on the eve of a rupture with that country." And, alluding to the gross attacks that had been levelled at the ruler of France, he said:—"Remember, that all this time, while the French Government were quietly and diplomatically working with our Government for great objects of public benefit and advantage—that French Government were painted as corsairs and banditti,*46 watching to attack our coasts without the slightest provocation and without the slightest warning."*47


Such was the state of feeling in the spring of 1853. The nation had grown rich and prosperous with a rapidity beyond all precedent. Our exports had risen from £52,849,000 in 1848, to £98,933,000 in 1853, having nearly doubled in five years. History shows that such a condition of things is fruitful in national follies and crimes, of which war is but the greatest. The time is not yet, though it will come, when people will be able to bear the blessings of prosperity and liberty, with peace. Whilst it seemed only a question upon whom we should expend our exuberant forces—whether on France or some other enemy—we "drifted" into hostilities in an unexpected direction. The Turk was allowed to declare war for us against Russia, after we had agreed to the terms of peace offered for us on behalf of the latter country. Could this have happened amid the commercial depression and gloom of 1848?


The sudden change which was now to be witnessed in the temper of the public and the action of the Government was so unlooked for, and so utterly beyond all rational calculation, that it might be compared to the shifting of the view in a kaleidoscope. By way of bringing what took place clearly, and in the fewest words, home to the reader's apprehension, let us illustrate it by an individual case. Let us suppose an invalid to have been ordered, for the benefit of his health, to make the voyage to Australia and back. He left England in the month of February or March. The militia was preparing for duty; the coasts and dockyards were being fortified; the navy, army, and artillery were all in course of augmentation; inspectors of artillery and cavalry were reported to be busy on the southern coasts; deputations from railway companies, it was said, had been waiting on the Admiralty and Ordnance, to explain how rapidly the commissariat and military stores could be transported from the Tower to Dover or Portsmouth; and the latest paragraph of news from the Continent was that our neighbours on the other side of the Channel were practising the embarkation and disembarkation of troops by night. He left home amidst all these alarms and preparations for a French invasion. After an absence of four or five months, during which time he had no opportunity of hearing more recent news from Europe, he steps on shore at Liverpool, and the first newspaper he sees informs him that the English and French fleets are lying side by side in Besika Bay. An impending naval engagement between the two powers is naturally the idea that first occurs to him; but, glancing at the leading article of the journal, he learns that England and France have entered into an alliance, and that they are on the eve of commencing a sanguinary war against Russia!


Leaving our imaginary individual to recover from his surprise, it may naturally be inferred that he would feel some misgivings as to the prudence of placing ourselves at the mercy of a ruler whom he had so recently heard denounced as little better than a bandit and a pirate. It would certainly have required a much smaller effort of the imagination to have suspected a plot between our ally and the enemy, by which the two Emperors—having united their forces at Sebastopol, taken our army captive, and destroyed our fleet—should have seized on Constantinople and Egypt, and made a partition of Turkey, than to have believed in the possibility of an invasion by an army of fifty or sixty thousand Frenchmen in a single night, without notice or provocation.


No such doubts, however, seem to have troubled the minds of our alarmists. They who had been the most vehement in their denunciations of the French Government were now the strongest supporters of the Anglo-French alliance, and the loudest in clamouring for a war with Russia; and, for the next five years, no more was heard of a French invasion.

Notes for this chapter

"I have observed that there is always a great deal of pressure for an increase of the army and navy, and a great complaint about the defencelessness of the country, whenever there is a surplus income over expenditure. Why, it is a tempting thing, a large heap of money at the table of the Exchequer, and the knowledge, on the part of the 'Services,' that if John Bull can be sufficiently frightened into the cry for increased defences, there is a very good chance of some of the money being divided among them and theirs. Now, they have an eye on the surplus at this moment. I have an eye also, on that surplus, which makes me peculiarly interested in this question. I want to apply it to the repeal of the taxes on knowledge; and, by spreading sound information among the people, to do something for their future happiness and prosperity."—Speech of RT. HON. T. MILNER GIBSON, M.P., Manchester, January 26, 1853.
Annual Register, vol. xci. p 2.
Hansard, cxix. 22.
Hansard, cxix. 21.
Hansard, cxix. 102.
Hansard, cxix. 551.
Hansard, cxix. 894.
Mr. Sidney Herbert, Hansard, cxix. 587.
Hansard, cxix. 575.
"Give us a good stout man, and let us have him for sixty days to train him, and he will be as good a soldier as you can have."—Evidence of LORD HARDINGE, Commander-in-Chief, before Sebastopol Committee.
Hansard, cxx. 1040.
Hansard, cxx. 293.
Hansard, cxx. 1136-7.
Hansard, cxx. 369-379.
Hansard, cxx. 1000.
Hansard, cxx. 1078.
Hansard, cxx. 1104.
Hansard, cxx. 1116.
Hansard, cxx. 285.
Hansard, cxix. 1449.
Hansard, cxxiii. 975.
Hansard, cxxiii. 1006.
Hansard, cxxiii. 1006-7.
Hansard, cxxiii. 1013.
The following are specimens:—"A Letter on the Defence of England by Corps of Volunteers and Militia," by Sir CHAS. JAS. NAPIER. "The Invasion of England," by an Englishman and a Civilian. "National Defences," by MONTAGU GORE, Esq. "A Letter to Lord John Russell, containing Suggestions for forming a Reserve Force," signed "GEORGE PAGET." "Memorandum on the Necessity of a Secretary of State for our Defence and War Establishments." "Proposals for the Defence of the Country by means of a Volunteer Force," by JOHN KINLOCH, late Captain 2nd Life Guards. "Defensive Position of England," by Captain CHAS. KNOX. "The Peril of Portsmouth," by JAS. FERGUSSON, Esq. "A Plan for the Formation of a Maritime Militia," by Captain C. ELLIOT. "Observations on Commissariat, Field Service, and Home Defences," by Sir RANDOLPH I. ROUTH. "The National Defence of England," by BARON P. E. Translated by Captain J. E. ADDISON. "Thoughts on National Defence," by Rear-Admiral BOWLES. "Brief Suggestions on the Subject of War and Invasion." "Notes on the Defensive Resources of Great Britain," by Captain FYERS, Half-pay, Royal Artillery.
Annual Register, 1852, p. 148, "Chronicle."
Hansard, cxxiv. 267.
Ibid. cxxiv. 293, quoted.
Times, February 7-12, 1853.
Letters of "An Englishman," in the Times.
Take, as a specimen, the similitude of burglars, under which, when speaking of the danger of invasion, our brave and polished neighbours were described by a well-known writer of the day—a man of rank and a clergyman—"When burglars are about we examine the scullery and cellar windows; we try the fastenings of our doors, hang up bells to warn us, get dogs and police to watch for us, and go to bed in confidence that we are so prepared against an attack, that few are likely to attempt it."—S. G. O., in Times (Hansard, cxxiv. 290).
Hansard, cxxiv. 263.


End of Notes

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