Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
[The Alexandra was a three-masted wooden vessel, which was seized by the Commissioners of Customs at Liverpool, on the ground that it was being equipped contrary to the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act. The case which arose out of the seizure formed the subject of a trial in the Exchequer before Chief Baron Pollock, on June 22, and ended in a verdict for the defendants.]
The legal points that have been discussed in connection with this question are, undoubtedly, of the greatest importance; but I apprehend that no one will expect that any conclusive result will arise from this passage of arms between Gentlemen learned in the law in this House upon a question which is, I believe, now pending before the Law Courts. When the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Horsfall) gave notice of his motion, I had no idea he could have contemplated any such result, or that he could have wished this question to be confined to the mere technical aspect which has been sought to be given to it. I think a larger and more important question is before us. It is not merely the vessel (the Alexandra) now under consideration, that public report charges with being intended to commit a breach of the Statute Law. It is said there are many vessels now building with the same object in view, and I apprehend that this is a proper time in the interests of this country—in the interests of this country, and no other country—to offer a few remarks upon this subject. I expressly speak of the interests of this country, because we are constantly met by phrases such as, 'You are consulting American interests;'—'You are neglecting the honour of this country.' I wish to consider British interests in my observations on the Foreign Enlistment Act, and I will consider no other interest; and I maintain, at the outset, there is no other country in the world that has a quarter—I say deliberately a quarter—of the interest in upholding the system of international law, of which the Foreign Enlistment Act is the basis.
Now, the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Horsfall) has to-night—as was done by the hon. and learned Solicitor-General (Sir W. Atherton) on a former occasion—mixed up another question which has tended to bewilder and confuse the public mind here and out of doors, and the world over, as to two questions which are totally distinct. The hon. Member opposite has referred—and the greater part of his speech was made up of that subject—to the practice of buying and selling and exporting arms and munitions of war. I am sorry that topic was touched upon, both now and on a former occasion, when I was not present, though I have read the proceedings. There is no law in this country that prohibits the buying and selling or manufacturing or exporting arms and munitions of war. It has been truly said by the hon. and learned Member for Plymouth (Mr. Collier), and by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General (Sir W. Atherton), that there is no country that has furnished such high authorities upon that subject as America itself. From the time of Jefferson, who, in that admirable passage read by the hon. Member for Plymouth, exhausted the whole argument in a few lines, down to the present time, every great authority in that country has clearly and distinctly laid down, that a Government is not responsible for the dealings of its subjects in the munitions of war. They carry on such a traffic at their own risk, and, if they attempt to run a blockade, the Government is not responsible, and their act never ought to be made the subject of diplomatic communication or complaint. I am astonished that Mr. Adams and Mr. Seward should have mixed that question up in their correspondence with that of equipments for war. I will not say I was astonished at Mr. Seward, because he writes so much, that he is in danger of writing on every subject, and on every side of a subject; but I am astonished that Mr. Adams should have mixed this question up with what is really a vital question—that of furnishing and equipping ships of war. There is only one reason why I am not sorry Mr. Adams has touched upon that subject. He has alluded to large and systematic operations being carried on in this country for sending munitions of war to blockaded ports. That involves the risk of being seized by the cruisers of the Federal States; and, as the only mode of punishing those who violate the blockade is in the hands of those who are maintaining the blockade (and we know the blockade is violated systematically—we know there are joint-stock companies to do it)—as the only authority that can punish the guilty parties, by the confiscation of their property, is the Federal Government, through the Prize Courts; and as the only police that can seize them are the Federal cruisers, it is well the country should know what is going on; because, if in the crowd of steamers sent out now, for the first time, to carry on our commerce with the West Indies—though a few years ago we were obliged to pay 250,000l. a year for a line of steamers to carry our letters there—if, I say, in that crowd of steamers, one or two innocent vessels should be detained by the blockading squadron, I think Mr. Adams has so far done good in showing that their Government is entitled to some forbearance from us if those one or two innocent vessels should suffer with the guilty. I am not going into the question of the blockade now. I promise that I will deal with that question separately another time, and I shall be just as ready to meet your arguments on English grounds then as I am on the question now before us.
Now, coming to the real and only question before us—the infringement of our own Foreign Enlistment Act—what are the grounds upon which I desire to see the Government exercise the greatest vigilance in preventing the violation of that law? I say, first, it is because we, of all other countries, have the most at stake in seeing that law observed. How do I hope ever to see the Government supported—how do I hope to see public opinion sanction the vigilant observance of that law, but by making it clear to this House and to the country, that the Americans have a claim upon us for the due observance of that law, inasmuch as they have themselves at all times exercised a fair reciprocity towards us when we have had occasion to appeal to them, when we have been in their present position? I am glad to hear hon. Gentlemen who sit opposite say, 'No, no.' I like to hear an opponent say 'No,' if he will listen to me. And when he has listened, I challenge him, in all the records of our State papers, to show an instance, in our diplomatic correspondence, of a despatch having been written complaining of any unredressed grievance under the Foreign Enlistment Act of the United States. Now, what has been the conduct of the American Government with reference to this system of legislation? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Plymouth stated truly, that all the legislation that has taken place in America upon the question of foreign enlistment has been at the instance, and in behalf, I may say, of European Governments; and I will add, that in a majority of cases, it has been at the instance and for the benefit of England. I will take the first Act, passed in 1794. I am not going to dwell on historical subjects, or to repeat the familiar history of Mr. Genet, and his proceedings in 1793; but the passing of that Act so remarkably illustrates the good faith of the American people, that it cannot be passed over without notice. The United States had then been ten years an independent nation, owing its independence mainly to the assistance given by France. In the course of these ten years France had gone through a revolution; it had become a sister Republic; and it sent out an envoy to America, claiming assistance, and for the right of fitting out cruisers in American ports. It was against England, the old enemy of both, that it sought this advantage. What was the conduct of America under these circumstances, the most trying that could be imagined? Why, we know that it required all the moral power of Washington to enforce this law. Not the law of America, for in 1793 the United States had no enlistment law; but they put themselves under the common law of England, or what may be called international law, and they gave us all the protection which they now ask us to give them. In 1794, they passed a Foreign Enlistment Act, and at whose instance? I will not weary you with long extracts, or historical references of my own; I will give you what was said by an English statesman, whose views will probably be heard with some respect on the other side. Mr. Canning, speaking of the passing of our Foreign Enlistment Bill, in 1819, said:—
'In 1794, this country complained of various breaches of neutrality committed on the part of citizens of the United States of America. What was the conduct of that nation in consequence? Did it resent the complaint as an infringement of its independence? Did it refuse to take such steps as would insure the immediate observance of neutrality? Neither. In 1794, immediately after the application from the British Government, the Legislature of the United States passed an Act, prohibiting, under heavy penalties, the engagement of American citizens in the armies of any belligerent Power.'
That was not merely an Act to prevent enlistment, it was a Foreign Enlistment Act, embracing our own provisions with reference to ships of war. That was the opinion of Mr. Canning.
I come now to the next case, in which the Americans carried out and enforced, in its entirety, the principle of neutrality, under the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act in the year 1818. At that time, the Spanish American Republics were in revolt against the mother country. We generally sympathise with everybody's rebels but our own. Mr. Canning and Lord Castlereagh brought into this House, in 1819, a Foreign Enlistment Bill, which was intended to make provision for the more faithful observance of our neutrality towards the Spanish colonies. This Bill met with great resistance from the Whig party ; and, among others, it was opposed by Sir James Macintosh. I will read an extract from the speech of Lord Castlereagh, whom hon. Gentlemen opposite—even those below the gangway—will probably deem an authority. Lord Castlereagh, speaking on that Bill on the 13th of May, and using the mode of argument that would tell effectually with his Whig opponents, said:—
'It was a little too much in the hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir James Macintosh) to censure the Government of this country, as being hostile to the South Americans and partial to Spain, while we had delayed doing what another Government, which he would allow to be free and popular, had done long ago. He would ask him, had the United States done nothing to prevent their citizens from assisting the South Americans? They had enacted two laws on the subject, nearly of the same tendency as that now proposed.
Now, I beg to remind the House, that not only is it true, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Plymouth says, that the American Government has passed its Foreign Enlistment Acts at the instance of European countries, but there is this remarkable fact also to be borne in mind, as proving the good faith of that Government and people, that they have passed those Acts in direct opposition to the sympathies and even to the supposed interests, of the country. In every one of the three cases to which I have to refer, they went against the national sympathies, and it required all the influence of the leading and authoritative politicians of the United States to carry the law against the popular feelings of the country. But now I come to the strongest case of all. I am going to bring as a witness a person who is present—the noble Lord (Palmerston) at the head of the Government. In 1837, as most of us are old enough to remember, a rebellion broke out in Canada, and when this House met in January, 1838, we were in a state of great apprehension with reference to the state of affairs on the North American Continent. Our apprehensions arose, not so much with respect to the rebellion in our own colonies, as on account of what was passing on the frontier of the United States. Great excitement prevailed among the border population, which sympathised strongly with the rebels; and the danger we felt was, that that state of things might lead to a collision with the United States. Soon after the meeting of the House, Sir Robert Inglis, interpreting the general anxiety of the country, rose and asked the noble Lord, who is now at the head of the Government, but who was then Foreign Minister, if he had any objection to state what were at that moment the relations between Mr. Fox, our representative at Washington, and the Government of the United States. Lord Palmerston replied, that fortunately he was able to give exact information, as he had received a despatch from Mr. Fox the day before; from which I infer, that the noble Lord and Sir Robert Inglis had agreed beforehand that this important question was to be put. The noble Lord went on to describe the state of excitement and dangerous agitation prevailing on the frontiers of Canada; how the rebels had taken possession of a place called Navy Island; how they had flocked there, and been joined by citizens of the United States, and how arms had been furnished to them; and how there existed, in fact, a most dangerous state of excitement. The noble Lord further said, that the Governor of Canada, Sir Francis Head, had sent a despatch to Mr. Fox, at Washington, complaining of this most unfortunate and menacing state of affairs; and now I will read the continuance of the noble Lord's speech with reference to the conduct of the American Government on that occasion:—
'Mr. Fox immediately communicated these facts to the President of the United States, and received in reply a most friendly communication. In the first instance, he had a verbal communication from Mr. Forsyth, the United States' Foreign Secretary, containing an expression of sentiments such as might be expected from the friendly spirit of the United States' Government, and the high sense of honour by which that country has been actuated in its dealings with foreign countries. On the 5th ult. Mr. Fox received a note from Mr. Forsyth, in which was a passage to this effect:—"That all the constitutional Powers vested in the Executive would be exercised to maintain the supremacy of those laws which had been passed to fulfil the obligations of the United States towards all nations which should unfortunately be engaged in foreign or domestic warfare." In addition to this assurance, that all the powers now vested in the central Government should be used to preserve neutrality, the President, on the 5th, sent down a special Message to Congress, stating, that though the laws as they stood were quite sufficient to punish an infraction of the neutrality, they were not sufficient to prevent it, and asking Congress to give the Executive further power for that purpose. Upon the receipt of this communication, a short discussion, in which many of the leading men, including Mr. Clay, Mr. Calhoun, and others of high character, participated, took place in Congress, an without exception, all who spoke expressed sentiments of a most friendly disposition towards this country; stating a strong opinion that the laws should be enforced, and that if, as they stood, they were insufficient, stronger powers should be given to the Executive.'
Now, let us pause to do justice to those great men, Mr. Clay, Mr. Calhoun, and others, who brought their great influence to bear at a time of immense excitement and dangerous animosity, and who threw their temporary popularity to the wind, in order that they might—as every man of public influence ought to do—make themselves the depository of the influence which they possessed for their country's advantage. I am going to put an hypothetical case. Let us suppose, that instead of the friendly answer which the American Government returned, the President had replied to Mr. Fox in these terms: 'I hope the people and Government of the United States will believe that we are doing our best in every case to execute the law, but they must not imagine that any cry which may be raised will induce us to come down to Congress with a proposal to alter the law. If this cry is raised for the purpose of driving the President's Government to do something which may be contrary to the dignity of the country, in the way of altering our laws, for the purpose of pleasing another Government, then all I can say is, that such a course is not likely to accomplish its purpose.' Now, with the simple alteration of the words 'United Kingdom' for 'the United States,' 'this House' for 'Congress,' and 'Her Majesty's Government' for 'the President's Government,' we have exactly the language which was used by the noble Lord three weeks ago.
I wish now to draw your attention to what was done in consequence of that promise of the American Government. Why, notwithstanding that the Foreign Enlistment Act, as it stood, was much more stringent than ours, and gave greater powers than ours now does, they passed a supplementary Act for the year, which gave such powers to the Government that one would hardly believe that such arbitrary powers would have been given to the Government of the United States. I hear cries of 'Hear, hear!' of a rather doubtful tone from the other side; but let hon. Gentlemen remember that that Act was passed twenty-five years ago, and nobody then said that the Americans were fond of submitting to tyranny. By this temporary Act, which received the assent of the President on the 10th of March, 1838, it was enacted—
'That the several collectors, naval officers, surveyors, inspectors of customs, marshals and deputy-marshals of the United States, and every other officer who may be empowered for the purpose by the President of the United States, are hereby respectively authorised and required to seize and detain any vessel which may be provided or prepared for any military expedition or enterprise against the territories or dominions of any foreign Prince or Power,' &c.
It gives them power to seize a vessel without any proof—an absolute power to seize on suspicion, and detain any vessel for ten days, during which time they may gather evidence on the matter. If there was no proof the vessel was then to be released; but she was liable to be seized again if any new case should arise. To carry out this arbitrary and temporary Act, the whole powers of the militia and the volunteers of the country were placed at the disposal of these officers. That affords the third instance of the mode in which the American Government has legislated for the benefit of European States. But there is a fourth case, which affords another example, which occurred on the occasion of the Crimean war. On the breaking out of the war with Russia, in 1854, we sent a communication to the American Government, and a duplicate of it was sent from the French Government. We asked the American Government—
'In the spirit of just reciprocity to give orders that no privateer under Russian colours shall be equipped, or victualled, or admitted with its prizes in the ports of the United States, and also that the citizens of the United States shall rigorously abstain from taking part in armaments of this nature, or in any other measure opposed to the duties of a strict neutrality.'
I will not now refer to the conduct pursued by the American Government in reference to the ship that was about half built for the Russian Government in America, and the building of which was suspended. I heard some person whisper, that the building of that vessel was suspended because the Russian Government could not find the money to finish it; but will any one believe that, when it is known that the Russian Government were at the time spending millions a week at Sebastopol? The vessel was not finished until three years after the war with Russia. There was another vessel, called the Maury, which was suspected of being intended for the Russian Government, and was stopped under circumstances which showed a great deal more activity and vigilance than we have exhibited in the case of the Alabama. What I want to deduce from all these facts is this:—First, that the American Government have, from the very formation of their Union, shown a willingness to observe, maintain, and enforce a strict neutrality in reference to the wars which have frequently taken place amongst European States. Next, that they have done it under circumstances of the utmost difficulty. It is easy enough to maintain neutrality when you have no feeling the other way to contend with. They did it in spite of their sympathies, and in opposition to their wishes. There can be no doubt, that in the case of the Canadian rebellion, there was a strong feeling amongst the mass of the American people that a successful rebellion in Canada would have led to the annexation of Canada to the United States. There is no doubt that the strongest national yearnings were enlisted on the side of the Canadians; and I want to call the attention of the House to the fact, that, in spite of these temptations to go wrong, the United States have uniformly gone right on this question. We may have had other grounds of complaint—I think, for instance, that in regard to our enlistments in America, they persisted in their resentment against us in a manner that partook of unfriendly severity, if not of direct hostility; but in the matter of their Foreign Enlistment Acts, I repeat again, and let no one answer me with a vague statement of what he has heard somewhere or other—I challenge any one to show me in all our diplomatic correspondence a despatch which complains of an unredressed grievance under those Acts.
I have mentioned these circumstances in the hope that they may become generally known, and in order that they may bring the sentiments of this House, and the public opinion of this country, to a temper which shall incline us to act by the United States as they have acted by us. If the motives which I have appealed to in this statement of facts will not have that effect, then I do not know that I ought to spend another minute in trying to bring any other motives to bear upon the minds of my countrymen. I do not intend to appeal to your fears, that would be out of the question; but I will not sit down without saying a word or two with reference to the interest we have in the question. If gratitude for the past observance of an honourable neutrality is not sufficient, let us look at what will be the consequence of pursuing another course. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General, in a speech from which I may not quote, as it was delivered in a previous debate this session, and which he has published as a pamphlet, laid it down, that we have only to deal with municipal law, and that the Foreign Enlistment Act was passed at our own will and pleasure, and that we may repeal it in like manner at our own pleasure. The Solicitor-General laid it down broadly, that the Foreign Enlistment Act was simply a measure of municipal law, which we might repeal at our own will and pleasure. Now, I join issue with the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I say we are bound as distinctly to the United States by the rules of honourable reciprocity in this case as if treaty engagements existed. We have gone to the Americans, begging them not to allow their citizens to molest us; begging them not to allow privateers to be fitted out; and when it is clear that there has been no violation of their law, we are, I contend, bound to observe the same honourable neutrality. The hon. and learned Gentleman says, that if we choose to allow both parties to come and buy ships of war here, no infringement of our neutral position would, as a consequence, take place. That may be an abstract legal truth; but what must we say of a statesman who stands up in the House of Commons and gives expression to such a dictum as that, to be quoted hereafter in Washington? I am not going to discuss points of law with the hon. and learned Gentleman; that would be an act of presumption on my part; and we may possibly observe neutrality either by abstaining from assisting either party in the contest, or by rendering assistance to both. Is that, however, let me ask, a state of things which we ought to covet?
I should like to know from hon. Gentlemen opposite what would be our fate if any of those numerous wars in which we have been engaged, and to the recurrence of which we are liable, if this doctrine were carried fully into effect? If, for instance, the little dark cloud which threatened a rupture with Brazil, had burst upon our heads, America would, according to the theory of the hon. and learned Gentleman, be entitled not only to build ships for us, but might fit out vessels for the Brazilian Government, to cruise in the name of that Government and with the commission of the Brazilian Emperor, against our commerce. But I will not rest my argument merely on the ground that this is a thing which might possibly happen, if we were to adopt the line of policy to which the hon. and learned Gentleman has, as I think, so unwisely referred. Can we, I would ask, look for the maintenance of the law relative to foreign enlistment in America or elsewhere, unless we ourselves set the example of good faith? You have not only in America, but in France, a most stringent law on this subject. I wrote to a friend in France to ascertain what was the mode of proceeding there, in order to prevent vessels slipping from their ports, as the Alabama had done from ours; and I was told, that they required no Foreign Enlistment Act for the purpose. By a penal code, which I believe all the nations of the Continent imitate more or less, any citizen of France, who, without the consent of the Government, commits an act of hostility against a Foreign Power, by which the country incurs the risk of war, is liable to transportation. The law further provides, that anybody who fits out a ship of war, or does any hostile act, owing to which an enemy inflicts reprisals on a French citizen, will likewise be held subject to the same penalty. This, you may say, is very severe; but then you want reciprocity with that country. The French do not ask you to pass a law in accordance with their model; but what both France and America will require is this—that you will, in the event of war, as far as lies in your power, prevent privateers from going out and preying upon their commerce. You may choose any way you please to do it; but surely you have too much common sense to imagine that you can induce America to abstain from such a system in the future, unless you observe the laws of a fair reciprocity in her regard.
Now, is there, let me ask, no way in which you can prevent ships of war from sailing from your ports, threatening, as they do, the commerce of a friendly country, all of them built in England, manned from England, armed and equipped from England, that were never intended for any destination, but are roaming the seas without any fixed goal, and marking their track by fire and devastation? That is the question to which you have to address yourselves; and, unless you are prepared to set your face against this system, the Foreign Enlistment Act will be, as the hon. and learned Member for Plymouth said, a dead letter; and if it be made a dead letter here, most assuredly the same state of things will result elsewhere.
Who, then, I should like to know, has the most to lose by the adoption of this system? I will show, by giving some figures, which tell us how large a proportion of the property afloat on salt water belongs to British capitalists. The lowest estimate I have heard formed of the value of this property, as entered through the insurance offices in the City and other quarters, shows that we have upon an average 100,000,000l. to 120,000,000l. sterling worth of the property of British capitalists on the seas. Rest assured, no other country has 30,000,000l. worth, and that you have as much property at stake upon the ocean as all the rest of the world put together. You have, moreover, 10,000,000 people in these islands to feed upon food brought from foreign countries. You get three-fourths of the tea and four-fifths of the silk from China; more than one-half of the tallow and hemp from Russia; there is more cotton, more wheat, more Indian corn, brought to us than to any other country. You, who are so powerful here, and can set the world at defiance in your island home, are, the moment a war of reprisals is made on your commerce, the most vulnerable. The hon. Gentleman who says 'No,' does not understand the position of the commerce of England. But be that as it may, is there, I would ask, nothing we can do to show our good faith in this matter? Is it not derogatory that we should have any one in this country, and especially in this House, claiming to be educated and reflective, who would for a moment consent to put himself on the side of those who are committing those acts against the law of the country and its future welfare? I want public opinion to be ranged on the side of law in this as well as in every other matter. Is there any person who wishes to give his sanction to an offence against the law of the country? Every person engaged in the building of ships of war, under the circumstances to which I have referred, subjects himself to penal consequences—to fine and imprisonment. Is there any person who will encourage such a practice as that? Is there nothing we can do to show that we wish to put it down? The case of the Alabama is one that is, perhaps, clearer than the case of the Florida, or the Japan. The last-mentioned vessel was, however, one not only built here for the Confederate Government, but manned by Englishmen surreptitiously conveyed on board the ship. The Alabama, it was said, escaped from our port under the pretence of going on a trip of pleasure, and it was stated in one of the despatches that orders were issued to have the vessel stopped at Nassau. If she was to be stopped at Nassau, why was she not stopped elsewhere? That vessel has been paying visits to our ports in other islands, and has been received with something like favour and consideration. There is a legal difficulty, I know, raised—that you cannot stop a vessel after her first voyage; but my answer is, that the Alabama has never made a voyage at all; she has been cruising about, and has no home. Why do you not forbid the reentry of those vessels into your ports, that left them, manned by a majority of English sailors, in violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act? Would any person have a right to complain of that? Proclaim the vessels that thus steal away from your ports outlaws, so far as your ports are concerned. If you were to do what I suggest, other countries would follow your example, and put an end to those clandestine proceedings by making them unprofitable.
It is our duty, in reference to the obligations of the past—it is our duty, in reference to the stake we have in future, to put an end to the present state of things. The whole system of the Foreign Enlistment Act is, I may add, only two hundred years old. The ancients did not know the meaning of the word 'neutrality,' as we know it at the present day. In the middle ages, people were hardly aware of such a thing as neutrality; the first Foreign Enlistment Act is hardly two hundred years old, and since that time that system of legislation has grown up. It has been a code of legislation that has gradually grown up, and is now looked to by the nations to assist in keeping the peace, and preventing the catastrophe of a general war. Shall we be the first to roll back the tide of civilisation, and thus practically go back to barbarism and the middle ages, by virtually repealing this international code, by which we preserve the rights and interests of neutrality? I cannot but think that this House and the country, when they reflect on the facts of the case, will consider, that if they in any way lend their sanction to such a retrograde policy they would be unworthy of themselves, and would be guilty of a great crime against humanity.
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