Richard H Dana Junr Esq Boston Mass
London 6 February 1862.
My dear Sir
I thank you heartily for yours of the 19th, the only
one (by the way) that I received by this steamer.
Before this arrives you will have seen the reply of
Lord Russell to Mr Seward’s Despatch, as well as his note to Lord Lyons of the
19th of December giving an abstract of a conversation between him and myself
on that day. You will note, at the close of it, an intimation of mine made
in a much more good natured way than would appear from that naked
statement, that whilst I thought France consistent, as a neutral, with her
general policy in former days, I could not compliment Great Britain so
much upon her latest position. To which his Lordship quietly replied that
they would readily dispense with compliments provided they could secure their
In this nutshell you see comprised the entire public
policy of the country. It is English and nothing else. Hence it is that when
it was convenient to make a law on the ocean which should, so far as it
could, cut up all neutral rights, especially in America, Lord Stowell stood
ready to sanction any and every thing that the ministerial policy of that
day required for the protection of England. But now that it has
pleased their successors to erect themselves into neutrals for the sake
of pushing their navigation into the place of ours, the law officers of the
crown stand equally ready to turn their backs on all the musty decisions
of their predecessors, and to proclaim a bran-new doctrine, precisely suited
to the purpose in hand. In this pursuit they are content to forego the
barren tribute of praise in consideration of their securing the solid pudding
of national profit.
And thus hath it ever been in the foreign dealings of our canny
parent! With much to admire in her both of good and great, it is not to
be denied that in reference to foreign countries her eye is generally set
upon the main chance. Compliments are very well, but results are better.
So far as I comprehend the legitimate position
of Great Britain as taken under the old law recognised between nations
down to this day, it rests upon two desperate quibbles.
The first is that the act of search was not completed.
The violation of law consisted in not doing enough. If the offence had
been greater, the grievance would have been less. If men, despatches and
property had been adjudicated upon, the seisure might have been proved
legitimate, or at the worst, justifiable.
The second is that the men were going to a neutral
country, in a ship starting from a neutral territory. Ergo, there was no
evidence of injurious intention. Surely a man intent on mischief in a
foreign countr ies y could scarcely be caught in any other course than that
which leads towards them it. Neither is the character of that mischief
changed, whether he go on a straight line, or pass on a right angle
at the point of which should be placed another person’s land!
In both cases the spirit of the law is equally
overlooked. The object being one equally interesting to all nations,
the prevention of harm to themselves, from the abuse by their enemies
of the privileges conceded to third parties refusing to mix themselves
up in the quarrel, it is fair to presume that once it was conceded
to be just, the necessary means to attain it were [illegible] of course implied.
Hence the principle of the right of search in time of war. But this
power being in its practical exercise liable to great abuse, the limitations upon
it must be not merely good faith, but the ratifiation of some competent
tribunal. Such being the theory, let us apply it to the case of the Trent.
There is no evidence to show that Captain Wilkes transgressed the limitation
excepting in the failure to leave open his action for subsequent adjudications.
To call his course an outrage is then simply preposterous. And to complain
of it for the reasons given is pretty much on a footing with a quarrel with a
man for pursuing a debt because it may have been contracted on a Sunday.
I am stating this, you observe, simply on the ground
of understood international law as heretofore established by Great Britain. The position
now taken by her that the vessel is sacred because a mail packet is something
wholly new, and grows out of the changed nature of ocean navigation between
the great countries of the world. There is no such exception made in any of the books.
No belligerent heretofore would have hesitated in seising the mail coach and
mailbags of crossing a neutral territory on the continent, if thereby he could possess
himself of the person or the despatches of an enemy’s ambassador. The thing has been
done over and over. The assumption that a mail steamer is free from the right of search
(for it amounts to that) is then a new interpolation into the law for the benefit of
Great Britain which is doing its best to monopolise the article on the ocean. I do
not say that it is a bad principle. On the contrary I approve it. But what I do say
is that it is British law enunciated now as it always has been, to meet the
of the case of the Trent. Whilst I consent to the result as in harmony with
my opinion of the merits of the case, it in no way exalts my ideas of the
system into which it has for the first time been incorporated. Doubtless you
have long since perceived in my turn of mind little tendency to admiration
of the foreign policy of the mother country. She blundered dreadfully in her
course towards us during and immediately after the Revolution. She might have
subdued us morally, after she ceased to attempt force. She preferred a different
course, which was the means of making us a united nation. Still later, she might
have had our sympathy and even our aid in the struggle she carried on so long
and so painfully with the power of Napoleon. Instead of it she chose to irritate us into
enmity and war. And just so is it now. She might have conciliated us by a very
small amount of sincere and hearty kindness in the midst of our distresses. She
has deliberately preferred to sit as a cold spectator, ready to make the best of our
calamity, the moment there is a sufficient excuse to interfere. I do trust that in
this last as in the two former cases, the result may be to bring round a
[illegible] consequence, the direct opposite of all her expectations.
I have written so much on this subject as to cut off
much that I meant to say on the other topics of your letter. As to Sumner’s speech
it was very good, but it has cost him his favor here. No paper has ventured to
print it, and the Times indulges in its customary courtesy when alluding to it.
As to your other observations upon the state of things at Washington, I keenly
feel their justice. But it seems to me from this distance as if the course was
improving all the time, slowly perhaps, but still certainly. In this hope I try to
live, and to bear my troubles here, until the moment come, which I shall hail
with no little satisfaction, when I can return to the quiet life of former times in
our good city of Boston.