« PreviousContinue »
THE CASE OF THE "TRENT."
Since the publication of the first edition of this work, a case of historic interest and importance has arisen, growing out of the civil war in the United States, connected with the subject of the foregoing chapter, which demands something more than a cursory notice, for it involves a virtual abandonment by Great Britain, of certain belligerent rights, as against neutral commerce, always theretofore: pertinaciously asserted and maintained by that nation, and the consequent vindication of the position hitherto assumed by the United States government, in the negation of such asserted rights.
On the 8th of November, 1861, the United States war steamer San Jacinto overhauled the British merchant steamer Trent, in the Bahama Channel, pursuing a voyage from Havana to Southampton, England, via St. Thomas. In the legitimate exercise of the belligerent right of search, the merchant steamer was brought to, and upon being boarded, a demand was made for the exhibition of her papers and passenger list, to the boarding officers. This demand was resisted, and it became necessary to resort to force to accomplish the search.
On board the vessel were found two persons, named Mason and Slidell, with their clerks or secretaries. These two persons were citizens of the United States—for many years they had been senators in the Congress of the nation, and had been pampered with places of honor, and trust, and power, and emolument, in their country's service. They had become conspirators, rebels, and traitors against that country to which they owed so deep a debt of love, and honor, and gratitude. They were leaders in that vile revolt, whose gigantic enormity of wickedness finds no parallel in the world's history.
Availing of the fit opportunity of darkness and storm, they had evaded the blockade of the port of Charleston, and were on their way, in the capacity of ambassadors, armed with dispatches from their insurgent chiefs, the one to England, and the other to France, and clothed with the mission of enlisting the sympathy and aid of those nations, in their unholy effort to extinguish republican liberty in the United States.
The character of these persons, the nature of their mission, and their clandestine departure from their country, were well known to the master and all on board the merchant vessel, who had aided in their escape, and endeavored to conceal their persons. The commander of the San Jacinto, notwithstanding their protest and resistance, caused these persons, with their secretaries, to be removed from the Trent, and taken on board his ship, in which they were conveyed to the United States, where, upon their arrival, they were confined as prisoners of state.
In his report of their capture, addressed to the secretary of the navy of the United States, on the 15th of the month, he says: "It was my determination to have taken possession of the Trent, and sent her to Key West as a prize, for resisting the search, and carrying these passengers, whose character and objects were well known to the captain; but the reduced number of my officers and crew, and the large number of passengers on board, bound to Europe, who would be put to great inconvenience, decided me to allow them to proceed.1'
There can be no doubt that, had he pursued his first intent, by the law of nations, as well established, both in Great Britain and the United States,1 the vessel must have been condemned as lawful prize, by reason of her resistance to the search of the belligerent cruiser—and, guided alone by that law as laid down by the courts of England, her condemnation would have been quite as certain, by reason of her voluntary employment in the carrying of these rebel emissaries and their dispatches.
In the light of subsequent events, however, it may well be doubted, whether that law would have been allowed its legitimate operation, without the armed protest of that power in whose jurisprudence it was established, and whose flag had been desecrated by the infamous service in which the vessel had been employed..
The secretary of the navy of the United States, in a brief note, addressed to the commander of the San Jacinto, on the 30th of November following, congratulated him "on the great public service he had rendered in the capture of the rebel commissioners," and while refraining from the expression of "an opinion on the course pursued in omitting to capture the vessel which had these public enemies on board," nevertheless declares "that the forbearance exei'cised in this instance, must not be permitted to constitute a precedent hereafter, for infractions of neutral obligations."
Immediately after information of the arrest of these malefactors was received at Washington, the secretary of state addressed a brief note to the
1 The Maria, 1 Rob., 308. The Antelope, 10 Wheat, 119.
American minister at the Court of St. James, the facts of the arrest, that it was made without special instructions from the government, and expressing a hope that "the British government would consider the subject in a friendly temper."
On the 30th of Noveml »er, Earl Russell addressed a note to Her Britannic Majesty's minister at "Wash ington, Lord Lyons, reciting a garbled and untruthful version of the case, which had been givest$ the officers of the Trent, in requital for the gei forbearance extended toward them, and proc as follows:
"It appears that certain individuals have forcibly taken from on board a British vessel, ship of a neutral power, while such vessel iva-a suing a lawful and innocent voyage—an act of lence which was an affront to the British flag, a violation of international law"—and concluding with a demand, couched in the declaration, that "liberation of the four gentlemen named, and their delivery to your lordship, together with a suitable apology for the aggression," could alone satisfy the British nation.
Before proceeding to relate the result of this demand, and the motives which led to that result, it may be well to consider the character of the demand itself, and how far it was wan-anted by infraction of international law,—upon which it ostensibly based,—as that law lias been established and administered by British authority and dent.
It must be remembered, in the outset, that slaveholders' insurrection against the government of the United States, so far as Great Britain