Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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ALABAMA CLAIMS (IN U. S. HISTORY). April 16, 1856, the representatives of Great Britain, Austria, France, Russia, Prussia and Turkey, assembled in congress at Paris, adopted the following declaration, to which nearly all other civilized nations afterwards acceded: 1st. Privateering is and remains abolished. 2nd. The neutral flag covers enemy's goods, with the exception of contraband of war. 3rd. Neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under enemy's flag. 4th. Blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective; that is to say, maintained by forces sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the country. To this Declaration of Paris the United States refused to accede, being unwilling, by abolishing privateering, while other nations maintained enormous fleets, to accept the necessity of keeping up a large fleet in self-defense, but the President offered, July 29, 1856, to go further and adopt an additional article which should entirely exempt private property, even of citizens of belligerents, from capture on the sea, either by privateers or national vessels. Great Britain refused to agree to this, and the negotiation failed. The United States was therefore, in 1861, the only commercial nation not committed to the abolition of privateering.


—The fall of Fort Sumter, in April, 1861, (see REBELLION), was followed by a series of retaliatory measures, to which the use of the telegraph gave an extraordinary swiftness of succession. On the 15th of that month the President, by proclamation, announced the existence of the rebellion, and called for volunteers to suppress it; on the 17th Jefferson Davis offered letters of marque and reprisal, against the commerce of the United States, to private armed vessels, and privateers at once began to issue from southern ports; and on the 19th, by proclamation, the President declared a partial blockade of the southern ports, which was made general on the 27th. On the 24th Secretary Seward applied to the powers which had made the Declaration of Paris for permission to accede to it without qualification. To this Great Britain, acting in unison with France, consented, on condition that the engagement should not "have any bearing, direct or indirect, on the internal differences now prevailing in the United States." As this seemed to imply that the de facto government of the southern confederacy should still be allowed to keep privateers afloat, the United States declined to accept it and allowed this negotiation to drop, with the following concluding monition, May 21: "Great Britain has but to wait a few months, and all her present inconveniences will cease with all our own troubles. If she take a different course she will calculate for herself the ultimate as well as the immediate consequences." In the meantime the Queen's proclamation of May 13 had announced her neutrality between the United States and the confederate states, had forbidden her citizens to take part with either, and had ordered her official servants to accord belligerent rights to both. This included the refusal of warlike equipments to the vessels of both parties, the preservation of the peace between their vessels in British harbors, and the detention of a war vessel of either for twenty-four hours after a hostile vessel had left the port. Under this proclamation the position of Great Britain was difficult at the best, because of the great number and extent of her colonies in every part of the world, for whose action she was responsible; but the active, notorious and undisguised sympathy of many of her colonial officers and citizens for the rebellion and its cruisers contributed very largely to the difficulties of the home government and to the subsequent American demands upon it for damages. While the rule prohibiting the obtaining, in British harbors, of warlike equipments, and particularly of coal except within certain limits, was stringently enforced against federal vessels, confederate privateers generally found little difficulty in evading them by the connivance of colonial officials; and several colonial harbors, particularly that of Nassau, became depots of supplies for this species of vessel, to which they resorted to prepare for new voyages of destruction. However impartial the treatment of belligerent vessels may have been in the ports of Great Britain, in the ports of British colonies United States war vessels found a neutrality so rigorous in its exactions as to be, in contrast with the open or hidden privileges accorded to rebel cruisers, fully tantamount to unfriendliness. They were frequently denied the privilege of taking coal on board which had been left on deposit in British harbors by the United States government, while rebel privateers, though without a port of their own, found no great difficulty in obtaining in British harbors the same "article of warlike equipment," without which they could not have kept the sea a single month. On these grounds the American minister to Great Britain, C. F. Adams, repeatedly warned the British government that the United States had a fair claim for compensation for the damage done to its commerce; and this was subsequently enlarged by the claim that the queen's proclamation of May 13 was itself issued precipitately and in violation of treaties, and that it gave possibility to rebel depredations which would have been impossible without it. It is but fair to add that the proclamation was defended by the Queen's ministers on the ground that rebel privateers were already upon the sea, and that it was necessary to free British officers who should meet them from the necessity of treating them as pirates.


—The British foreign enlistment act of July 3, 1819, (59 Geo. III., cap. 69), prohibits under penalties, and empowers the government to prevent the equipment of any land or sea forces within the British dominions to operate against the territory or commerce of a friendly nation. In the United States the act of April 20, 1818, which is closely similar in its terms, preceded it, and the two governments are supposed to have acted with a common understanding in the matter. During the Crimean war the United States had fulfilled their obligations promptly and fully by seizing and detaining vessels represented to be destined for the service of Russia; and the claim was now advanced, and finally established, (see GENEVA AWARD), that Great Britain did not correspondingly exercise "due diligence" to fulfill its obligations. The first privateers, during the year 1861, were equipped in southern ports, and gained the open sea by running the blockade. When the most formidable of these, the Sumter, was hopelessly blocked up in Gibraltar by the U. S. steamer Tuscarora, and had to be sold in January, 1862, the confederate agents in Great Britain at once began the construction of armed vessels there, evading the provisions of the enlistment act by fictitious ownership. From Feb. 18, until March 22, 1862, minister Adams represented to the British government that a war vessel, then building by the Messrs. Miller, of Liverpool, the Oreto, (afterward the Florida), though nominally destined for Palermo, in Sicily, was evidently and notoriously intended for war against the United States. As she contained no arms or munitions of war, she was allowed to sail, and proceeded to Green Bay, near Nassau, where she enlisted additional men, and was transformed into a confederate privateer, arms and munitions having been brought from Great Britain in another vessel. The Florida was seized by a British steamer, the Greyhound, at Nassau, but released; and the British government refused to satisfy the demands of the United States that the vessel should be seized as a violator of the enlistment act whenever she should come within British jurisdiction.


—Soon after the departure of the Oreto, or Florida, minister Adams began collecting evidence against another vessel then building by the Messrs. Laird at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, and called, from the number of merchants who had subscribed the expense of her construction, the 290 (afterward the Alabama). June 23, he gave notice to Earl Russell of what he believed to be the real character of the vessel, and solicited "such action as might tend either to stop the projected expedition, or to establish the fact that its purpose was not inimical to the people of the United States." That action was never taken. July 16, the American minister submitted to Earl Russell his evidence, and the opinion of distinguished English counsel, that "the evidence was almost conclusive." A week afterward, July 23, he offered fresh evidence, and a most emphatic opinion of the same counsel, to the following effect: "I have perused the above affidavits, and I am of opinion that the collector of customs would be justified in detaining the vessel. Indeed, I should think it his duty to detain her, and that if, after the application which has been made to him, supported by the evidence which has been laid before me, he allows the vessel to leave Liverpool, he will incur a heavy responsibility—a responsibility of which the board of customs, under whose direction he appears to be acting, must take their share. It appears difficult to make out a stronger case of infringement of the foreign enlistment act, which, if not enforced on this occasion, is little better than a dead letter. It well deserves consideration whether, if the vessel be allowed to escape, the federal government would not have serious grounds of remonstrance." The vessel was allowed to escape. The board of customs referred the papers to their counsel; the Queen's advocate, Sir John D. Harding, fell ill; other counsel were called in, who advised the seizure of the vessel; but, before this opinion could be acted upon, the Alabama had sailed, July 29, without register or clearance, to the Terceira, one of the Azores, where she took her equipment from two British vessels and became a confederate war vessel, commissioned "to sink, burn and destroy" the commerce of the United States. No effective pursuit of the vessel was made by Great Britain, and she was hospitably received, without any attempt to arrest her, in several British colonies afterward.


—In April, 1863, the Japan, afterward called the Georgia, left Greenock, and soon after, upon the coast of France, she took an equipment from another steamer and became a confederate cruiser. For over a year she continued her cruise until she was captured off Lisbon, Aug. 15, 1864, by the United States steamer Niagara, after a transfer to a Liverpool merchant.


—In September, 1864, the steamer Sea King, owned by a Liverpool merchant, cleared at London for India. At Madeira she met another vessel, the Laurel, of Liverpool, from which she received her armament and men, and she then became the confederate war vessel Shenandoah. During her career as a cruiser, before her surrender to the British government, Nov. 6, 1865, the Shenandoah took in supplies and enlisted men at Melbourne, Australia, with the connivance, as the American consul asserted, of the British authorities at that port.


—Besides the devastation wrought by the rebel cruisers, the United States considered the toleration by Great Britain of confederate administrative bureaux on British soil, by means of which alone offensive operations against American commerce were possible, as ground of reclamation. The action of the British government in maintaining an official union with France upon questions growing out of the rebellion, was also considered unfriendly to the United States in the absence of any recognition of the confederate states as an independent nation. The whole mass of grievances of which the United States expected satisfaction from Great Britain, and to which the name "Alabama Claims" was commonly given, may best be summed up in the words of the American members of the joint high commission: "Extensive direct losses in the capture and destruction of a large number of vessels, with their cargoes, and in the heavy national expenditures in the pursuit of the cruisers; and indirect injury in the transfer of a large part of the American commercial marine to the British flag, in the enhanced payment of insurance, in the prolongation of the war, and in the addition of a large sum to the cost of the war and the suppression of the rebellion."


—When it first became apparent that the neutrality of Great Britain would be a source of danger to the United States, minister Adams was very active in pressing each fresh violation of neutrality upon the attention of the British government, not, as he explained to his own government, with any hope of obtaining more stringent laws, or greater diligence in the execution of existing laws, but with the intention of "making a record" to which the United States could thereafter appeal. The American ill-feeling toward Great Britain, which was developed by her haste to accord belligerent rights to the confederacy, had grown upon every new grievance until, when the rebellion was at last suppressed, it had settled into a dangerous disposition to leave the matter unsettled for the purpose of applying the British system of neutrality to British commerce in the event of any future war or rebellion against Great Britain. The American government, however, did not share this disposition. It continued to press its claim for compensation in the higher tone which was justified by its altered circumstances, but at the same time, Jan. 12, 1866, offered to submit "the whole controversy" to arbitration. The British government offered to accept an arbitration limited to the depredations of the Alabama and similar vessels, but this was declined by the United States for the reason that it involved a waiver of the position, which they had always held, that the Queen's proclamation of 1861, which accorded belligerent rights to insurgents against the authority of the United States, was not justified on any grounds, either of necessity or of moral right, and therefore was an act of wrongful intervention, a departure from the obligations of existing treaties, and without the sanction of the law of nations.


—Jan. 14, 1869, Reverdy Johnson, American minister to Great Britain, arranged a treaty which, without mentioning the Alabama claims in particular, provided for the submission to arbitration of "all claims" of either country against the other since Feb. 8, 1853 In the senate this treaty had but a single vote in its favor, and was not ratified. Negotiations on this subject then practically came to a stand until Jan. 26, 1871, when the British government proposed the appointment of a joint commission to sit at Washington and arrange the terms of a treaty to cover the disputes as to the Canadian fisheries and other questions at issue between the United States and Canada. The proposition was accepted on condition that the treaty should also make some disposition of the Alabama claims. To this condition Great Britain agreed, and five high commissioners from each country met in joint session at Washington, Feb. 27, 1871. After thirty-four meetings, the commission agreed upon the terms of the Treaty of Washington, which was signed by the commissioners May 8, ratified by the senate, by a vote of 50 to 12, May 24; ratified by Great Britain, June 17, and proclaimed in force July 4, 1871, by president Grant. It provided for arbitration (1) as to the Alabama claims, (2) as to claims of British subjects against the United States, (3) as to the fisheries, and (4) as to the northwest boundary of the United States. The arbitrators upon the Alabama claims were to be five in number, appointed by the president of the United States, her Britannic majesty, the king of Italy, the president of the Swiss confederation, and the emperor of Brazil; and were to hold their sessions at Geneva, Switzerland. (For the constitution and award of the tribunal of arbitration, and the provisions of the treaty governing its deliberations, see GENEVA AWARD)


—See The Case of the United States to be laid before the Tribunal of Arbitration to be convened at Geneva, London, 1872; Case presented on the part of Her Britannic Majesty to the Tribunal of Arbitration, London, 1872; Official Correspondence on the Claims in respect to the Alabama, London, 1867; Bluntschli, Opinion impartiale sur la question de la Alabama, Berlin, 1870; Geffcken, Die Alabamafrage, Stuttgart, 1872; Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (with messages) 1861-71; Cushing's Treaty of Washington. The act of April 20, 1818, is in 3 Stat. at Large, 448. The treaty is in Stat. at Large.


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