Readings in English History Drawn from the Original Sources: Intended to Illustrate a Short History of England

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JAMES E. THOROLD ROGERS, Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Right Hon. John Bright, pp. 85–99. London, 1869. World History

II.

ENGLAND AND THE CIVIL WAR IN AMERICA

439.

Speech of John Bright (December 4, 1861)

In these times in which we live, by the influence of the telegraph and the steamboat and the railroad, and the multiplication of newspapers, we seem continually to stand as on the top of an exceeding high mountain, from which we behold all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them — unhappily, also, not only their glory, but their follies and their crimes and their calamities.

The Crimean War; The Sepoy rebellion; The Franco-Italian War; The Civil War in America

Seven years ago our eyes were turned with anxious expectation to a remote corner of Europe, where five nations were contending in bloody strife for an object which possibly hardly one of them comprehended, and, if they did comprehend it, which all sensible men amongst them must have known to be absolutely impracticable. Four years ago we were looking still further to the east, where there was a gigantic revolt in a great dependency of the British crown, arising mainly from gross neglect, and from the incapacity of England, up to that moment, to govern the country which it had known how to conquer. Two years ago we looked south, to the plains of Lombardy, and saw a great strife there, in which every man of England took a strong interest; and we have welcomed, as the results of that strife, the addition of a great kingdom to the list of European states. Now our eyes are turned in a contrary direction and we look to the west. There we see a struggle in progress of the very highest interest to England and to humanity at large. We see there a nation which I shall call the transatlantic English nation — the inheritor and partaker of all the historic glories of this country. We see it torn with intestine broils and suffering from calamities from which for more than a century past, in fact, for more than two centuries past, this country has been exempt. That struggle is of especial interest to us. We remember the description which one of our great poets gives of Rome, "Lone mother of dead empires."

But England is the living mother of great nations on the American and on the Australian continents, which promise to endow the world with all her knowledge and all her civilization, and with even something more than the freedom she herself enjoys. . . .

Acknowledged hostility to the North

Now I am obliged to say, and I say it with the utmost pain, that if we have not done things which are plainly hostile to the North, and if we have not expressed affection for slavery and, outwardly and openly, hatred for the Union, — I say that there has not been that friendly and cordial neutrality which, if I had been a citizen of the United States, I should have expected; and I say further, that, if there has existed considerable irritation at that, it must be taken as a measure of the high appreciation which the people of those states place upon the opinion of the people of England. If I had been addressing this audience ten days ago, so far as I know, I should have said just what I have said now; and although, by an untoward event, circumstances are somewhat, even considerably, altered, yet I have thought it desirable to make this statement, with a view, so far as I am able to do it, to improve the opinion of England and to assuage feelings of irritation in America, if there be any, so that no further difficulties may arise in the progress of this unhappy strife.

Seizure of Messrs. Mason and Slidell

But there has occurred an event which was announced to us only a week ago, which is one of great importance, and it may be one of some peril. It is asserted that what is called "international law" has been broken by the seizure of the Southern commissioners on board an English trading steamer by a steamer of war of the United States. Now what is international law? You have heard that the opinions of the law officers of the crown are in favor of this view of the case — that the law has been broken. I am not at all going to say that it has not. It would be imprudent in me to set my opinion on a legal question which I have only partially examined, against their opinion on the same question, which I presume they have carefully examined. But this I say, that international law is not to be found in an act of parliament; it is not in so many clauses. You know that it is difficult to find the law. I can ask the mayor, or any magistrate around me, whether it is not very difficult to find the law, even when you have found the act of parliament and found the clause. But when you have found no act of parliament, and no clause, you may imagine that the case is still more difficult.

The uncertainty of inter national law

Now maritime law, or international law, consists of opinions and precedents for the most part, and it is very unsettled. The opinions are the opinions of men of different countries, given at different times; and the precedents are not always like each other. The law is very unsettled, and, for the most part, I believe it to be exceedingly bad. In past times, as you know from the histories you read, this country has been a fighting country; we have been belligerents, we have carried maritime law by our own powerful hand to a pitch that has been very oppressive to foreign and especially to neutral nations. Well, now, for the first time, unhappily, almost for the first time in our history for the last two hundred years, we are not belligerents but neutrals; and we are disposed to take, perhaps, rather a different view of maritime and international law.

Now the act which has been committed by the American steamer, in my opinion, whether it was legal or not, was both impolitic and bad. That is my opinion. I think it may turn out, almost certainly, that, so far as the taking of those men from that ship was concerned, it was an act wholly unknown to, and unauthorized by, the American government. And if the American government believe, on the opinion of their law officers, that the act is illegal, I have no doubt they will make fitting reparation; for there is no government in the world that has so strenuously insisted upon modifications of international law, and been so anxious to be guided always by the most moderate and merciful interpretation of that law.

Now our great advisers of the Times newspaper have been persuading people that this is merely one of a series of acts which denote the determination of the Washington government to pick a quarrel with the people of England. Did you ever know anybody who was not very nearly dead drunk, who, having as much upon his hands as he could manage, would offer to fight everybody about him? Do you believe that the United States government, presided over by President Lincoln, so constitutional in all his acts, so moderate as he has been — representing at this moment that great party in the United States, happily now in the ascendency, which has always been especially in favour of peace, and especially friendly to England — do you believe that such a government, having now upon its hands an insurrection of the most formidable character in the South, would invite the armies and the fleets of England to combine with that insurrection, and, it might be, to render it impossible that the Union should ever again be restored? I say, that single statement, whether it came from a public writer or a public speaker, is enough to stamp him forever with the character of being an insidious enemy of both countries. . . .

Remembering the past, remembering at this moment the perils of a friendly people, and seeing the difficulties by which they are surrounded, let us, I entreat of you, see if there be any real moderation in the people of England, and if magnanimity, so often to be found amongst individuals, is absolutely wanting in a great nation. . . .

Now, whether the Union will be restored or not, or the South achieve an unhonoured independence or not, I know not and I predict not. But this I think I know, that in a few years, a very few years, the twenty millions of freemen in the North will be thirty millions, or even fifty millions — a population equal to or exceeding that of this kingdom. When that time comes I pray that it may not be said amongst them that in the darkest hour of their country’s trials England, the land of their fathers, looked on with icy coldness and saw unmoved the perils and calamities of their children. As for me, I have but this to say: I am but one in this audience, and but one in the citizenship of this country; but if all other tongues are silent, mine shall speak for that policy which gives hope to the bondmen of the South, and which tends to generous thoughts and generous deeds between the two great nations who speak the English language, and from their origin are alike entitled to the English name.

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Chicago: "England and the Civil War in America," Readings in English History Drawn from the Original Sources: Intended to Illustrate a Short History of England in Readings in English History Drawn from the Original Sources: Intended to Illustrate a Short History of England, ed. Edward Potts Cheyney (1861-1947) (Boston: Ginn, 1935, 1922), 729–733. Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WV9QH8NM5S9W64Q.

MLA: . "England and the Civil War in America." Readings in English History Drawn from the Original Sources: Intended to Illustrate a Short History of England, in Readings in English History Drawn from the Original Sources: Intended to Illustrate a Short History of England, edited by Edward Potts Cheyney (1861-1947), Boston, Ginn, 1935, 1922, pp. 729–733. Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WV9QH8NM5S9W64Q.

Harvard: , 'England and the Civil War in America' in Readings in English History Drawn from the Original Sources: Intended to Illustrate a Short History of England. cited in 1922, Readings in English History Drawn from the Original Sources: Intended to Illustrate a Short History of England, ed. , Ginn, 1935, Boston, pp.729–733. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WV9QH8NM5S9W64Q.