Articles by Karl Marx in Die Presse 1861

The Principal Actors in the Trent Drama

Source: MECW Volume 19, p. 101;
Written: December 4, 1861;
First published: in Die Presse, December 8, 1861.

London, December 4

At the present moment it is of interest to get acquainted in some measure with the leading figures in the Trent drama. On one side stands the active hero, Captain Wilkes, the commander of the San Jacinto; on the other, the passive heroes, J. M. Mason and John Slidell. Captain Charles Wilkes is a direct descendant of the brother of the celebrated English demagogue, [John] Wilkes, who threatened for a moment to shake the throne of George III. The struggle with the North American colonies saved the Hanoverian dynasty at that time from the outbreak of an English revolution, symptoms of which were alike perceptible in the cry of a Wilkes and the letters of a Junius. Captain Wilkes, born in New York in 1798, forty-three years in the service of the American navy, commanded the squadron that from 1838 to 1842 explored the North and South Pacific Ocean by order of the Union government. He has published a report on this expedition in five volumes. He is also the author of a work on Western America, which contains some valuable information on California and the Oregon district. It is now certain that Wilkes improvised his coup de main independently and without instructions from Washington.

The two intercepted commissioners of the Southern Confederacy — Messrs. Mason and Slidell — form a contrast in every respect. Mason, born in 1798, is descended from one of those old aristocratic families of Virginia that fled from England after the Royalists had been defeated at the battle of Worcester. The grandsire of our hero belongs to the circle of men who, along with Washington, Jefferson, etc., are designated by the Americans as “the revolutionary fathers”. John Slidell is neither, like Mason, of aristocratic lineage, nor, like his colleague, a slaveholder by birth. His native town is New York, where his grandfather and his father lived as honest tallow-chandlers. Mason, after he had occupied himself for some years with the study of law, stepped on the political stage. He figured repeatedly since 1826 as a member of the House of Representatives of Virginia; made his appearance in 1837 in the House of Representatives of the American Congress for a session; but his importance only dates from 1847. In that year Virginia elected him to the American Senate, in which he held his scat until the spring of 1861. Slidell, who is now sixty-eight years old, was obliged to leave New York as a young man in consequence of adultery and a duel, in short, of a scandal. He betook himself to New Orleans, where he lived first by gambling, later by practising law. Having become first a member of the legislature of Louisiana, he soon made his way to the House of Representatives and finally to the Senate of the American Congress. As a director of election rogueries during the presidential election of 1844 and, later, as a participant in a swindle in state lands, he had even somewhat shocked the sort of morals that prevail in Louisiana.

Mason inherited influence; Slidell acquired it. The two men found and supplemented each other in the American Senate, the bulwark of the slave oligarchy. In accordance with the American Constitution, the Senate elects a special Committee of Foreign Relations, which plays about the same role as the Privy Council formerly played in England, before the so-called Cabinet, a quantity theoretically unknown to the English Constitution, usurped the Privy Council’s functions. Mason was for a long time chairman of this committee; Slidell, a prominent member of it.

Mason, firmly convinced that every Virginian is a demi-god and every Yankee a plebeian rascal, never sought to conceal his contempt for his Northern colleagues. Haughty, overbearing, insolent, he knew how to knit his brows in a somber, Zeus-like frown and in fact transported to the Senate the manners native to the plantation. A fanatical eulogist of slavery, a shameless slanderer of the North and particularly of the Northern working class, a blusterer against England, Mason wearied the Senate with the prolix importunity of a persistent flow of speech that vainly sought to hide its complete vacuity under a hollow pomp. As a sort of demonstration, he went around in recent years in Virginian home-made gray linen; but, and this is characteristic of the man, the gray coat was adorned with loud buttons, all of which came from a state of New England, from Connecticut.

Whilst Mason played the Jupiter Tonans of the slave oligarchy on the proscenium, Slidell worked behind the scenes. With a rare talent for intrigue, tireless perseverance and an unscrupulous lack of regard, but at the same time wary, covert, never strutting, but always insinuating himself, Slidell was the soul of the Southern conspiratorial conclave. One may judge the man’s repute from the fact that when in 1845, shortly before the outbreak of war with Mexico, he was sent there as Ambassador, Mexico refused to treat with such an individual. Slidell’s intrigues made Polk President. He was one of the most pernicious counsellors of President Pierce and the evil genius of Buchanan’s administration. The two, Mason and Slidell, were the chief sponsors of the law on runaway slaves; they brought about the bloodbath in Kansas, and both were wirepullers for the measures whereby Buchanan’s administration smuggled all the means to secession into the hands of the South, whilst it left the North defenceless.

As early as 1855 Mason declared on a public occasion in South Carolina that “for the South only one way lies open — immediate, absolute and eternal separation”. In March 1861 he declared in the Senate that “he owed the Union government no allegiance”, but retained his seat in the Senate and continued to draw his senatorial salary as long as the safety of his person allowed — a spy in the supreme council of the nation and a fraudulent parasite on the public exchequer.

Mason’s great-grandmother was a daughter of the celebrated Sir William Temple. He is therefore a distant relative of Palmerston. Mason and Slidell appeared to the people of the North not merely as their political opponents, but as their personal enemies. Hence the general jubilation over their capture, which in its first days even overwhelmed regard for the danger threatening from England.