Articles by Karl Marx in Die Presse 1861

The Anglo-American Conflict

Written: November, 1861
Source: Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 19;
Publisher: Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964;
First Published: Die Presse No. 332, December 3, 1861;
Online Version: 1999;
Transcribed: S. Ryan;
HTML Markup: Tim Delaney.

London, November 29, 1861

The law officers of the Crown had yesterday to give their opinion on the naval incident in the Bahama Channel. Their records of the case consisted of the written reports of the British officers who have remained on board the Trent and of the oral testimony of Commodore Williams, who was on board the Trent as Admiralty agent, but disembarked from the La Plata on November 27 at Southampton, whence he was immediately summoned by telegraph to London. The law officers of the Crown acknowledged the right of the San Jacinto to visit and search the Trent. Since Queen Victoria's proclamation of neutrality on the outbreak of the American Civil War expressly lists dispatches among articles of contraband, there could be no doubt on this point either. There remained, then, the question whether Messrs. Mason, Slidell and Co. were themselves contraband and therefore confiscable. The law officers of the Crown appear to hold this view, for they have dropped the material legal question entirely. According to the report of The Times, their opinion blames the commander of the San Jacinto only for an error in procedure. Instead of Messrs. Mason, Slidell and Co., he should have taken the Trent herself in tow as a prize, brought her to the nearest American port and there submitted her to the judgment of a North American prize court. This is incontestably the procedure corresponding to British and therefore to North American maritime law.

It is equally incontestable that the British frequently violated this rule during the anti-Jacobin war and proceeded in the summary fashion of the San Jacinto. However that may be, the whole conflict is reduced by this opinion of the law officers of the Crown to a technical error and consequently deprived of any immediate import. Two circumstances make it easy for the Union government to accept this point of view and therefore to afford formal satisfaction. In the first place, Captain Wilkes, the commander of the San Jacinto, could have received no direct instructions from Washington. On the voyage home from Africa to New York, he called on November 2 at Havana, which he left again on November 4, whilst his encounter with the Trent took place on the high seas on November 8. Captain Wilkes's stay of only two days in Havana did not permit any exchange of notes between him and his government. The consul of the Union was the only American authority with whom he could deal. In the second place, however, he had obviously lost his head, as his failure to insist on the surrender of the dispatches proves.

The importance of the incident lies in its moral effect on the English people and in the political capital that can easily be made out of it by the British cotton friends of secession. Characteristic of the latter is the Liverpool protest meeting organised by them and previously mentioned by me. The meeting took place on November 27 at three in the afternoon, in the cotton auction-rooms of the Liverpool Exchange, an hour after the alarming telegram from Southampton had arrived.

After vain attempts to press the chairmanship on Mr. Cunard, the owner of the Cunard steamships plying between Liverpool and New York, and other high trade officials, a young merchant named Spence, notorious for a work he wrote in support of the slave republic, took the chair. Contrary to the rules of English meetings, he, the chairman, himself proposed the motion to call on "the government to preserve the dignity of the British flag by demanding prompt satisfaction for this affront." Tremendous applause, clapping and cheers upon cheers! The main argument of the opening speaker for the slave republic was that slave ships had hitherto been protected by the American flag from the right of search claimed by Britain. And then this philanthropist launched a furious attack on the slave trade! He admitted that England had brought about the war of 1812-14 with the United States by insisting on searching for deserters from the British Navy on Union warships.

"But," he continued with wonderful dialectic, "but there is a difference between the right of search to recover deserters from the British Navy and the right to seize passengers, like Mr. Mason and Mr. Slidell, men of the highest respectability, regardless of the fact that they were protected by the British flag!"

He played his highest trump, however, at the close of his diatribe.

"The other day," he bellowed, "while I was on the European Continent, I heard an observation made as to the course of our conduct in regard to the United States, and I was unable to reply to the allusion without a blush -- that the feeling of every intelligent man upon the Continent was that we would submit to any outrage and suffer every indignity offered to us by the Government of the United States. But the pitcher goes so often to the well that it is broken at last. Our patience had been exercised long enough! At last we have arrived at facts: this is a very hard and startling fact [!] and it is the duty of every Englishman to apprise the Government of how strong and unanimous is the feeling of this great community of the outrage offered to our flag."

This senseless rigamarole was greeted with a peal of applause. Opposing voices were howled down and hissed down and stamped down. To the remark of a Mr. Campbell that the whole meeting was irregular, the inexorable Spence replied: "I perfectly agree with you that it is a little irregular but at the same time the fact that we have met to consider is rather an irregular fact." To the proposal of a Mr. Turner to adjourn the meeting to the following day, in order that "the city of Liverpool can have its say and not a clique of cotton brokers usurp its name", cries of "Collar him, throw him out!" resounded from all sides. Unperturbed, Mr. Turner repeated his motion, which, however, was not put to the vote, again contrary to all the rules of English meetings. Spence triumphed. But, as a matter of fact, nothing has done more to cool London's temper than the news of Mr. Spence's triumph.