The Trent Case
and Friedrich Engels
, November 28, 1861
,published first in Die Presse No. 331, December 2, 1861.
(This happened during American Civil War
The conflict of the English mail ship Trent with the North American
warship San Jacinto in the narrow passage of the Old Bahama Channel
is the lion among the events of the day. In the afternoon of November 27
the mail ship La Plata brought the news of the incident to Southampton,
where the electric telegraph at once flashed it to all parts of Great Britain.
The same evening the London Stock Exchange was the stage of stormy scenes
similar to those at the time of the announcement of the Italian war. Quotations
for government stock sank three-quarters to one per cent. The wildest rumours
circulated in London. The American Ambassador, Adams, was said to have
been given his passport, an embargo to have been imposed on all American
ships in the Thames, etc. At the same time a protest meeting of merchants
was held at the Stock Exchange in Liverpool, to demand measures from the
British Government for the satisfaction of the violated honour of the British
flag. Every sound-minded Englishman went to bed with the conviction that
he would go to sleep in a state of peace but wake up in a state of war.
Nevertheless, the fact is well-nigh categorically established that the
conflict between the Trent and the San Jacinto brings no war in its train.
The semi-official press, like The Times and The Morning Post, strikes
a peaceful note and pours juridically cool deductions on the flickerings
of passion. Papers like the Daily Telegraph, which at the faintest mot
d'ordre roar for the British lion, are true models of moderation. Only
the Tory opposition press, The Morning Herald and The Standard, hits out.
These facts force every expert to conclude that the ministry has already
decided not to make a casus belli out of the untoward event.
It must be added that the event, if not the details of its enactment,
was anticipated. On October 12, Messrs. Slidell, Confederacy emissary
to France, and Mason, Confederacy emissary to England, together with
their secretaries Eustis and MacFarland, had run the blockade of Charleston
on the steamship Theodora and sailed for Havana, there to seek the
opportunity of a passage under the British flag. In England their arrival
was expected daily. North American warships had set out from Liverpool
to intercept the gentlemen, with their dispatches, on this side of the
Atlantic Ocean. The British ministry had already submitted the question
whether the North Americans were entitled to take such a step to its official
jurisconsults for their opinion. Their answer is said to have been in
The legal question turns in a narrow circle. Since the foundation of
the United States, North America has adopted British maritime law in all
its rigour. A major principle of this maritime law is that all neutral
merchantmen are subject to search by the belligerent parties.
"This right, " said Lord Stowell in a judgment which has become famous,
"offers the sole security that no contraband is carried on neutral ships."
The greatest American authority, Kent, states in the same sense:
"The right of self-preservation gives belligerent nations this right.
The doctrine of the British admiralty on the right of visitation and search
... has been recognised in its fullest extent by the courts of justice
in our country."
It was not opposition to the right of search, as is sometimes erroneously
suggested, that brought about the Anglo-American War of 1812 to 1814.
Rather, America declared war because England unlawfully presumed to search
even American warships, on the pretext of catching deserters from the British
The San Jacinto, therefore, had the right to search the Trent and to
confiscate any contraband stowed aboard her. That dispatches in the possession
of Mason, Slidell and Co. come under the category of contraband even The
Times, The Morning Post, etc., admit. There remains the question whether
Messrs. Mason, Slidell and Co. were themselves contraband and might consequently
be confiscated! The point is a ticklish one and differences of opinion
prevail among the doctors of law. Pratt, the most distinguished British
authority on "Contraband", in the section on "Quasi-Contraband, Dispatches,
Passengers" specifically refers to "communication of information and orders
from a belligerent government to its officers abroad, or the conveyance
of military passengers". Messrs. Mason and Slidell, if not officers, were
just as little ambassadors, since their governments are recognised neither
by Britain nor by France. What are they, then? In justification of the
very broad conceptions of contraband asserted by Britain in the Anglo-French
wars, Jefferson already remarks in his memoirs that contraband, by its
nature, precludes any exhaustive definition and necessarily leaves great
scope for arbitrariness. In any event, however, one sees that from the
standpoint of English law the legal question dwindles to a Duns Scotus
controversy, the explosive force of which will not go beyond exchange of
The political aspect of the North American procedure was estimated quite
correctly by The Times in these words:
"Even Mr. Seward himself must know that the voices of the Southern commissioners,
sounding from their captivity, are a thousand times more eloquent in London
and in Paris than they would have been if they had been heard in St. James's
and the Tuileries."
And is not the Confederacy already represented in London by Messrs.
Yancey and Mann?
We regard this latest operation of Mr. Seward as a characteristic act
of tactlessnesses by self-conscious weakness simulating strength. If the
naval incident hastens Seward's removal from the Washington Cabinet, the
United States will have no reason to record it as an "untoward event" in
the annals of its Civil War.