The Washington Cabinet and the Western Powers

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written December 1861


Published: Die Presse, December 25, 1861.

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 19
Collection(s): Die Presse

ONE of the most striking surprises of a war so rich in surprises as the Anglo-French-Russian was incontestably the declaration on maritime law agreed to at Paris in the spring of 1856. When the war against Russia began, England suspended her most formidable weapons against Russia: confiscation of enemy-owned commodities on neutral ships and privateering. At the conclusion of the war, England broke these weapons in pieces and sacrificed the fragments on the altar of peace. Russia, the ostensibly vanquished party, received a concession that, by a series of “armed neutralities,”[1] wars and diplomatic intrigues, she had tried in vain to extort since Catherine II. England, the ostensible victor, renounced, on the contrary, the great means of attack and defense that had grown up out of her sea power and that she had maintained for a century and a half against a world in arms.

The humanitarian grounds that served as a pretext for the Declaration of 1856 vanish before the most superficial examination. Privateering is no greater barbarism than the action of volunteer corps or guerillas in land warfare. The privateers are the guerillas of the sea. Confiscation of the private goods of a belligerent nation also occurs in land warfare. Do military requisitions, for example, hit only the cash-box of the enemy government and not the property of private persons also? The nature of land warfare safeguards enemy possessions that are on neutral soil, therefore under the sovereignty of a neutral power. The nature of sea warfare washes away these barriers, since the sea, as the common highway of the nations, cannot fall to the sovereignty of any neutral power.

As a matter of fact, however, the Declaration of 1856 veils under its philanthropic phrases a great inhumanity. In principle it transforms war from a war of peoples into a war of governments. It endows property with an inviolability that it denies to persons. It emancipates trade from the terrors of war and thereby makes the classes carrying on trade and industry callous to the terrors of war. For the rest, it is self-understood that the humanitarian pretexts of the Declaration of 1856 were only addressed to the European gallery, just like the religious pretexts of the Holy Alliance!

It is a well-known fact that Lord Clarendon, who signed away English maritime rights at the Congress of Paris, acted, as he subsequently confessed in the Upper House, without the foreknowledge or instructions of the

Crown. His sole authority consisted in a private letter from Palmerston. Up to the present Palmerston has not dared to demand the sanction of the English Parliament for the Declaration of Paris and its signature by Clarendon. Apart from the debates on the contents of the Declaration, there was fear of debates on the question whether, independently of Crown and Parliament, an English minister might usurp the right to sweep away the old basis of English sea power with a stroke of the pen. That this ministerial coup d’état did not lead to stormy interpellations, but, rather, was silently accepted as a fait accompli, Palmerston owed to the influence of the Manchester school.[2] It found to be in accordance with the interests represented by it, and therefore with philanthropy, civilization and progress also, an innovation which would allow English commerce to continue to pursue its business with the enemy undisturbed on neutral ships, whilst sailors and soldiers fought for the honor of the nation. The Manchester men were jubilant over the fact that by an unconstitutional coup de main the minister had bound England to international concessions whose attainment in the constitutional parliamentary way was wholly improbable. Hence the indignation of the Manchester party in England at the present moment over the disclosures of the blue book submitted by Seward to the Congress in Washington!

As is known, the United States was the only great power that refused to accede to the Declaration of Paris of 1856. If they renounced privateering, then they would have to create a great state navy. Any weakening of their means of war at sea simultaneously threatened them on land with the incubus of a standing army on the European scale. Nevertheless, President

Buchanan stated that he was ready to accept the Declaration of Paris, provided that the same inviolability would be assured to all property, enemy or neutral, found on ships, with the exception of contraband of war. His proposal was rejected. From Seward’s blue book it now appears that Lincoln, immediately after his assumption of office, offered England and France the adhesion of the United States to the Declaration of Paris, so far as it abolishes privateering, on condition that the prohibition of privateering should be extended to the parts of the United States in revolt, that is, the Southern Confederacy. The answer that he received amounted in practice to recognition of the belligerent rights of the Southern Confederacy.[3]

“Humanity, progress and civilization” whispered to the Cabinets of St. James and the Tuileries that the prohibition of privateering would extraordinarily reduce the chances of secession and therefore of dissolution of the

United States. The Confederacy was therefore recognized in all haste as a belligerent party, in order afterwards to reply to the Cabinet at Washington that

England and France could naturally not recognize the proposal of one belligerent party as a binding law for the other belligerent party. The same “noble uprightness” inspired all the diplomatic negotiations of England and France with the Union government since the outbreak of the Civil War, and had the San Jacinto not held up the Trent in the Bahama straits, any other incident would then have sufficed to provide a pretext for the conflict that Lord Palmerston aimed at.

  1. (Reference Note) During the American War of Independence, British captains and admirals claimed the right to search and seize neutral vessels trading with America or bearing contraband of war. Against this practice, Catherine II of Russia objected and in 1780 a league was formed with Sweden and Denmark to uphold the protest with force, if necessary. Prussia, Portugal, the Two Sicilies and Holy Roman Empire later joined. In 1800, Bonaparte succeeded in making Russia revive the league against England; this time the “Armed Neutrality of the North” included Russia, Prussia, Sweden and Denmark.
  2. School of political economy holding to free trade principles.—Ed.
  3. (Reference Note) For pertinent extracts from the diplomatic correspondence between the British and American governments on the subject of the adhesion of the United States to the Declaration of Paris, see Appleton’s Annual Cyclopaedia, 1861 (New York, 1862), pp. 266– 68.