HC Deb 27 March 1863 vol 170 cc90-101

Now, Sir, turning to the much more important and practical question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster), I cannot but express my regret at the tone of his remarks, and still more at the tone taken by the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright). There is no concealing the fact, and there is no use in disguising it, that whenever any political party, whether in or out of office, in the United States, finds itself in difficulties, it raises a cry against England, as a means of creating what in American language is called political "capital." That is a practice, of course, which we must deplore. As long as it is confined to their internal affairs, we can only hope, that being rather a dangerous game, it will not be carried further than is intended. When a Government or a large party excite the passions of one nation against another, especially if there is no just cause, it is manifest that such a course has a great tendency to endanger friendly rela- tions between the two countries. We understand, however, the object of these proceedings in the present instance, and therefore we do not feel that irritation which might otherwise be excited. But if this cry is raised for the purpose of driving; Her Majesty's Government to do something which may be contrary to the laws of the country, or which may be derogatory to the dignity of the country, in the way of altering our laws for the purpose of pleasing another Government, then all I can say is that such a course is not likely to accomplish its purpose. I very much regret, therefore, that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, and more particularly that of the hon. Member for Birmingham, are calculated to encourage those complaints which I think are totally unfounded on the part of the American Government. I should have hoped that Gentlemen bringing this question before the House would rather have tried to allay the irritation, instead of making out, as they endeavoured to do, that the Americans have just cause to complain against England and the English Government. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General, in that admirable speech which we all listened to with the greatest delight, has demonstrated indisputably that the Americans have no cause of complaint against us. He has shown that the British Government have done, on the representations made by the American Minister here, everything which the laws of the country enabled them to do. And although I can easily understand that in the United States, owing to the great irritation and animosity produced by the civil war now raging, men's minds have been led to a great degree to forget the obligations of law, and where the practice has been to set it aside—I can easily understand that they are not disposed to give that weight which is due to our argument, that we cannot go beyond what the law prescribes and authorizes—yet I think that the House at least will see that the statement of my hon. and learned Friend proves that we have, in regard to enforcing the Foreign Enlistment Act, done all that the law enabled or permitted us to do. Hon. Members have argued as if the seizure of a vessel were equivalent to its condemnation. They ask—"Why did you not seize the Alabama, when you were told that it was known and believed that she was intended for warlike purposes on the part of the Confederates?" Now, in the first place, you cannot seize a vessel under the Foreign Enlistment Act unless you have evidence on oath confirming a just suspicion. That evidence was wanting in this case. The American Minister came to my noble Friend the Foreign Secretary and said, "I tell you this, and I tell you that; I'm sure of this, and I'm sure of that;" but when he was asked to produce evidence on oath, which was the only thing on which we could ground any proceedings, he said that the information was furnished to him confidentially, that he could not give testimony on oath, but that we ought nevertheless to act on his assertions and suspicions, which he was confident were well founded. What would happen if we were to act in that way? When a vessel is seized unjustly and without good grounds, there is a process of law to come afterwards, and the Government may be condemned in heavy costs and damages. Why are we to undertake an illegal measure which may lead to those consequences, simply to please the agent of a foreign Government? I say, if there was any fault, it was on the part of those who called on us to do a certain act, and yet withheld the groundwork on which that act could alone be based. I have myself great doubts whether, if we had seized the Alabama, we should not have been liable to considerable damages. It is generally known that she sailed from this country unarmed and not properly fitted out for war; and that she received her armament, equipment, and crew in a foreign port. Therefore, whatever suspicions we may have had—and they were well founded, as it afterwards turned out—as to the intended destination of the vessel, her condition at that time would not have justified a seizure. I can assure the House that Her Majesty's Government have no indisposition to enforce the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act. The hon. Member for Birmingham reproaches us with exhibiting "a cold mid unfriendly neutrality." I do not know what the meaning of those terms may be; but they appear to me to be a contradiction in themselves. If neutrality is more than friendly towards one party, it is something very different towards the other, and ceases to be what, in common parlance, is meant by neutrality between contending parties. But whether our neutrality is warm or cold, friendly or unfriendly, it is sincere and honest. I can assure my hon. Friends and the House, that whenever it is in our power to enforce the Enlistment Act legally and in accordance with justice, we shall not be found wanting in the performance of our duty. It is a great mistake to suppose that we can view with pleasure any transactions in this country which have a tendency to violate not only the letter, but even the spirit of the Foreign Enlistment Act. It would have been much more agreeable to us if all the supplies that have been so well enumerated by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Laird), as having been furnished in abundance to one party and very scantily to the other, had been withheld, and if the whole of the United Kingdom had remained in a state of perfect neutrality between the parties, and if no supplies had been furnished either to the one party or the other. But when we are blamed so heavily for not having acted on suspicions, is it fair for us to say, that as far as suspicions go, we have been informed—perhaps erroneously—that not only have arms been despatched to the Northern part of the United States, but that efforts have been made, in Ireland especially, to enlist persons to serve in the Federal army and navy? Unquestionably, a great many cases have occurred in North America, in which British subjects have been seized rind attempts made to compel them to serve against their will in the civil war. Feeling, as we must do, the greatest desire that the most friendly relations should continue to be maintained between this country and the United States, regretting exceedingly any circumstances of any kind which should have caused irritation in the minds of the people of the Northern Union, we can only say, that it is impossible for us to go beyond the law. The law is in this case of very difficult execution. This is not the first time when that has been discovered. when the contest was raging in Spain, between Don Carlos and Queen Isabella, it was my duty—the British Government having taken part with the Queen—to prevent supplies from being sent to Don Carlos from this country. There were several cases of ships fitted out in the Thames; but though I knew they were intended to go in aid of Don Carlos, it was impossible to obtain that information which would have enabled the Government to interfere with success. I hope, therefore, that those Gentlemen who have made themselves in this House the mouthpieces of the North, will use the influence which they are entitled by the course they have taken to exert, to prove to their friends on the other side of the Atlantic that the charges made against the British Government are not founded in reason or in law. I trust they will assure i them that Her Majesty's Government will continue, as I maintain they have done hitherto, to enforce the law, whenever a case shall be brought before them in which they can safely act upon good and sufficient grounds; there must, however, be a deposition upon oath, and that deposition must be made upon facts that will stand examination before a court of law; for to call upon us arbitrarily and capriciously to seize vessels with respect to which no convincing evidence can afterwards be adduced, is to ask the Government to adopt a course which would cast discredit upon them, and lead to much subsequent difficulty and embarrassment. I do hope and trust that the people and Government of the United States will believe that we are doing our best in every case to execute the law; but they must not imagine that any cry which may be raised will induce us to come down to this House with a proposal to alter the law. We have had—I have had—some experience of what any attempt of that sort may be expected to lead to; and I think there are several Gentlemen sitting on this bench who would not be disposed, if 1 were so inclined myself, to concur in any such proposition.


said, the noble Lord had shown to night, as he had done on most other occasions, that he was thoroughly in accord with the great majority of his countrymen. While everybody in England deplored the unfortunate war going on in America, opinion was divided as to the merits of the quarrel. Some advocated the cause of the North, and some that of the South; but nearly all approved the policy of neutrality which the Government had adopted in regard to the two belligerent Powers. With respect to Poland, also, the noble Lord had not retired from his former advanced position, and in doing so had only expressed the sentiments of the people of this country. Twice he had charged Russia with a gross breach of the Treaty of Vienna. So far back as 1831 he stated most truly, in a despatch addressed to Lord Heytesbury, that the kingdom of Poland was created and attached to Russia by that treaty, and that that treaty defined the relation in which Poland stood to Russia. If that were so, and if Russia had systematically violated the stipulations of the treaty, the logical inference was that the treaty had been abrogated by Russia herself, and that the independence of Poland ought to be secured by a new Council of the nations of Europe.


remarked that it had been stated by an individual of the highest authority, that although England had a right, she was under no diplomatic obligation to interfere on behalf of Poland. Now, he (Sir Francis Goldsmid) contended, that when such engagements as those of the Treaty of Vienna were entered into with a great Power, when the violation of them was systematic and accompanied by acts of cruelty and injustice, when the Government committing those acts avowed and defended them, and when there was intervention by another Power on behalf of the oppressor and against the oppressed—then, although there might be no diplomatic obligation, there was a moral obligation to interfere, from which no first-rate Power could retire without dishonour. The mode in which that obligation was to be discharged depended in part upon the inclination of foreign Governments; and as that inclination was better known to the Executive than it could be to cither House of Parliament, they were practically compelled to leave the matter in the bands of Her Majesty's Ministers. As to the result of that inevitable confidence, though there could be nothing like certainty, there was some ground for hope. It was true that in 1831 the noble Lord declined to co-operate with France, for reasons which we were told were excellent, but which, as it appeared, could not even yet be revealed, although thirty years had since elapsed. Unless they proceeded on the assumption that everything that was unknown was magnificent, these reasons were not likely to be considered satisfactory. But circumstances were more auspicious now. The superstitious reverence which then existed for the supposed enormous might of Russia had in great measure disappeared. The people of France were as much interested as they were then in the fate of Poland; Austria was believed to be much more favourable; and the present struggle in Poland itself appeared to embrace more completely the whole nation—nobles and peasants, Christiana and Jews. As one instance of this union it might be mentioned that last year the Chief Rabbi had shared with the Roman Catholic Archbishop the honour of imprisonment for the offence of taking part in a patriotic demonstration. He (Sir Francis Goldsmid) should rejoice if the considerations to which he had referred encouraged a bolder course than had been taken in 1831, and if at that future period when the steps now being adopted by Her Majesty's Government, for the present necessarily concealed from us, should become known, they should be found to leave no room for the unpleasant doubt (from which, with reference to some former occasions of a similar kind, it was impossible for us wholly to free ourselves) whether a great opportunity had not been lost for at once strengthening the cause of a gallant people and acquiring additional securities for the future peace of Europe.


said, that those who were the most earnest advocates for the re-establishment of Poland seemed to him to tender to the Polish cause little beyond their good wishes, which to his mind was a practical cruelty. There was not the same difficulty in founding a new dynasty for Greece as there would be in reviving the nationality of Poland, and establishing a permanent form of government within it; and yet look at the difficulty of replacing the government of Greece, When those who advocated the cause of Poland urged the Government, to pursue a course which he believed the prudence and statesmanlike knowledge of the noble Lord at the head of the Government would prevent their adopting, and to approach Russia practically in the attitude of menace—for to accuse her of violation of her engagements was a practical menace—they recommended a course that could not be successful, for Russia was not likely to yield to such representations. But let the House consider the history of Poland. Poland was once free and independent—why did she fall? She fell from internal dissensions. And what security was there, that in her present condition, social and civil, if re-established, she would not fall again? Was there, in that unhappy country, a middle class—the essential element of constitutional government? Were the people educated? Were they peaceable? Could there be made out of these elements anything but a despotic form of government? It made him impatient when he heard noble and gallant men urged on to shed their blood with so vain a prospect. He knew that it might be unpopular to urge these opinions, but he felt it due to humanity that it should be done. Russia was talked of as if Russia had never attempted to reconcile the Poles; but the history of the Poles from 1815 to 1820 contradicted that assumption. It so happened that he had a connection who had been employed by Russia; that connection had always treated him with the utmost friendship and confidence. He (Mr. Newdegate) had himself entertained many of the feelings in favour of Polish independence that had been avowed in that House; and he asked the gentleman to whom he referred to furnish him with evidence that proposals for reconciliation had not only been made, but that there had been an attempt to carry them out by Russia. The gentleman furnished him with that evidence, and he showed that the very same system which prevented England from producing content in Ireland was the source of the perpetual disturbance and misery of Poland. He (Mr. Newdegate) asked the House to consider this:—Was there anything in the conduct of the present Emperor of Russia which could make them believe that he did not personally share those benevolent feelings towards Poland which actuated Alexander the First? And yet it was assumed that the Emperor had no such disposition. So far was this from being the case, that even Prince Napoleon, speaking in the Senate of France, declared that the intentions of the Emperor of Russia towards Poland were most benevolent; and such an admission from such a quarter must carry conviction to the most sceptical, for the Prince made this admission on the very eve of dividing the Senate on a motion which, if carried, would have involved France in a war with Russia for the independence of Poland. The Grand Duke had granted the most liberal indulgencies to the Poles And how had these been thwarted? Why, by the same elements of disturbance which had prevented England from reconciling Ireland. No one could read the recent letter of the Archbishop of Orleans to M. Quinet without seeing that the object of the Ultramontane party was to establish their own power in and over Poland. What did the Archbishop say to M. Quinet, in effect, but this?—We, the Ultramontane Party, will not accept your aid for Poland, nor your co-operation; for if by such means we were to succeed, we should not establish in Poland the- state of things which we desire. There had appeared in The Times a passage most pregnant with reference to this difficulty. The Archbishop of Warsaw tendered to the Archduke Constantine his resignation as a member of the Legislative Assembly; and what did the Grand Duke say? He said—"This is open rebellion at such n time as this. You want to make this a religions war; but you will find Russia too powerful for you." The same Ultramontane influence which counteracted England's efforts to conciliate Ireland was at work in Poland, and had been her curse for two hundred years. Poland was formerly one great source from which Rome recruited her crusades; the Ultramontane party now was stimulating Poland for another crusade—for a religious war against Russia; and if Russia were guilty of severities and atrocities which he deplored, and which severities and atrocities he had no doubt the noble Lord at the head of the Government would do his best to mitigate; and still, if Russia were driven to these acts in order to avoid the occurrence of such a calamity as a religious war, she would ultimately receive, barbarous as she might be in many respects, that justice from public opinion which the too sanguine advocates of Poland denied her. He hoped that the House would excuse him for thus speaking that which he believed to be the honest truth. There were elements in this contest which rendered the Poles insensible to reason, and not content with justice—justice as far as could be granted by a Power which those who had excited the Polish insurrection were seeking to injure in her deepest interests. [A laugh.] The hon. Member for the King's County (Mr. Hennessy) might laugh—he was the representative of that class of the Roman Catholic opinion which thought all means justifiable to accomplish its ends. Those only would laugh who thought any amount of bloodshed and civil war justifiable if it afforded them some prospect of seeing the favourite order of Rome dominant throughout the world, But the Protestant people of England were not forgetful of their own history; they knew that their forefathers were driven to the use of severities, which they regretted, by this same element of danger and disturbances; and they would yet do justice to Russia, if Russia, at the instance of Europe, was prepared to do justice to Poland.


said, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) endeavoured to represent this as a religions war, but he thought he would not convert the people of England to that view. The present insurrection was not caused by any internal dissension among the Poles, but by the external pressure put upon them by their oppressors. Never had greater tyranny been exercised by one civilized country towards another, than that which Russia had inflicted on Poland. The constant and systematic attempts of Russia to govern Poland by the instrumentality of Russians lay at the root of all the disturbances in that country. The friends of Poland would never cease calling the attention of Europe and of this country to the grievous oppressions to which she had been subjected for so many years, but it was not bare words of encouragement they were prepared to give her. What had fallen from the noble Viscount to night had led him to hope that he would take measures, in concert with the other Powers who had signed the Treaty of Vienna, to obtain those concessions to Poland to which she had a right, He hoped this country would combine with Austria and France in order to give to Poland one frontier upon which she might depend, and that we should yet see Galicia independent. If that were effected—if it were possible to establish an independent kingdom between Germany and Russia, it would form a most important element of the peace and safety of Europe.


said, that the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) contained many generous sentiments; still, on the question of the established religion of this country, he could not but think, if we adhered to the Treaty of Vienna, we must support the religion and clergy of the Poles. He could not understand why Prussia should have been treated with so much delicacy in this debate. Prussia was as culpable as Russia. He remembered that the noble Viscount, on a former occassion, asserted that in Prussia the nationality of Poland was preserved. But, with the utmost deference to the noble Viscount, and as far as his information went, he could not agree with him in that opinion. In the four provinces of East and West Prussia, Silesia, and the Grand Duchy of Posen, there were in all 7,500,000 inhabitants, of whom 2,830,000 were Poles. In Posen there were 850,000 Poles, and only 550,000 Prussians. According to the Treaty of Vienna, these Poles ought to have their nationality preserved; and yet in that important element of nation- ality, their native language, the Poles did not obtain justice, for there were no colleges nor schools for the cultivation of the Polish language in the four provinces, He asserted that there were none in East or West Prussia, or in the Grand Duchy of Posen—there were not even village; schools—and when the Poles complained of any act of severity on the part of their rulers, they were told they were Prussians, and not Poles. It was clear therefore, notwithstanding the assertion of the noble Lord, that the nationality of Poland was not preserved in Prussia.


said, he regretted that on that, the first time on which he addressed the House, he should differ in some respects from the opinions of the Liberal party, to which he belonged. The Liberal party always professed to advocate peace, retrenchment, and reform. Reform had been put aside, and he did not see much sign of retrenchment; he hoped, then, he might be permitted to say a few words upon the subject of peace. Now, if there was any meaning in the argument of the hon. Member for the King's County (Mr. Hennessy), they meant this, that he did not believe in the ability of the noble Viscount and the Government to steer clear on the one side of pusillanimous advice, and on the other of war. But the sympathies of England and those of the noble Viscount and of the Governments which had preceded his had never been wanting to the cause of Poland. At the time of the first partition of Poland the greatest political and philosophical writer of that day had endeavoured to awaken public opinion in Europe to the general wrong sustained by all nations through that event; and in 1815 the noble Lord who represented England at the Congress of Vienna (Lord Castlereagh) had endeavoured, by acting in concert with Austria, to obtain justice for Poland. In 1831 Poland was not the only country which the noble Viscount had to watch over. It should not be forgotten that besides arranging the great and dangerous question of Belgium the noble Lord was occupied then in watching over the nascent liberties of Spain and Portugal; and Belgium, Spain, and Portugal were countries far nearer and more interesting to us than Poland. Again, at the close of the Crimean war, the noble Viscount and Lord Clarendon showed that they were not unmindful of Poland; and he maintained that the noble Viscount had on all occasions displayed his willingness to enter into the cause of Poland, when he could do so consistently with the interests of this and other countries. He therefore thought they might safely leave the cause of Poland in the hands of the noble Lord. A great many Members, who had spoken on this occasion, seemed to forget that there were interests of England as well as interests of Poland to be considered. No one who looked at our relations with America, would doubt that retrenchment ought to be a leading object with the Government of this country. He entreated those who were so enthusiastic about Poland to pause before they forced Her Majesty's Government into action on this subject. Ministers should rather be urged to tender sound and confidential advice at the present juncture to those upon whom the fate of Poland now depended.

Motion agreed to,

House at rising to adjourn till Monday, 13th April.

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