HC Deb 10 February 1865 vol 177 cc141-50

, masking the First Lord of the Treasury for information relative to the circumstances which had led to the notice given by the Government of the United States of North America to terminate the Convention under which England and the United States mutually engaged not to fit out Naval Armaments upon the Canadian Lakes; also respecting the abrogation of the Treaty of Commerce between the Provinces of British North America and the United States concluded by the late Lord Elgin; and to move for all Papers and Correspondence connected with these subjects—said: Sir, it appears to me that this subject is one of such importance that it not only affords ample justification for the course I am about to take, but renders it incumbent on the House to take the earliest opportunity of inquiring into it, and makes it the imperative duty of Her Majesty's Government to give the most ample information which, consistently with their public duty, it is their power to supply. I venture to say that no mere promise, no formal stereotyped reply, should be placed in the way of affording the House and the country the fullest information on the state of our relations with the United States, with which both the House and the country ought to be made acquainted. I will add, that if I thought the information was imperatively necessary before, my opinion has been confirmed by the perusal of the papers which have been this morning placed in the hands of Members. It appears to me that these papers, as far as they go, render the matter doubly obscure, and leave a hiatus which I cannot believe Her Majesty's Ministers cannot supply, and if they cannot supply the hiatus it is a very pregnant fact. So far as I have been able to follow out the thread of the Correspondence, it appears that Mr. Seward has communicated to our Minister at Washington that there were strong and urgent reasons, arising out of the raids which have taken place from the shores of Canada, for the adoption of certain temporary and provisional expedients to a certain degree amounting to an abrogation of the Treaty of 1817; but he further states that he regards the temporary infringement as no interference with the spirit of the treaty in all its main provisions. And yet we are informed by the President of the United States, in a most formal manner, in his Message to the Le- gislature, pledging the authority of the Government in the most unmistakable manner—while Mr. Seward was writing these letters declaring the movement of a temporary character and for temporary purposes—that he intends entirely to abrogate this treaty, and to hold that it be void and of no effect after the expiry of six months. Those discrepancies between the statements of Mr. Seward and the acts of his Government strengthen the demand which I feel justified in making on Her Majesty's Ministers for explanation of so startling a circumstance. I will venture to preface my question with one remark. I have never been one of those who have impugned the policy of neutrality assumed by Her Majesty's Ministers towards the contending parties in North America as their guiding policy; but, at the same time, it always appeared to me that there was one capital defect attaching itself to that policy—that was, that from the beginning this neutrality was not accepted as such by the Government of the Northern States. I have often heard it said that it takes two persons to make a quarrel; and it is equally true that the concurrence of both parties to peace is necessary to secure its solidity; for if while one is determined to be on good terms the other is bent on quarrelling, peace must rest on a very frail and uncertain tenure. But, so far as I can see, the Government of President Lincoln has from the very commencement protested against the line of conduct which Her Majesty's Ministers have thought fit to adopt, and have seemed to look upon it as a departure from those principles which ought to regulate the intercourse of friendly States, and an encouragement on our side of what they choose to regard as rebellion and piracy on the part of the South, as well as a main cause of their long and obstinate resistance. Throughout the continuance of the contest, in all their communications with this country the Northern States have never failed to raise the question they have constantly urged on us, that we are in the wrong, that we have committed a breach of amicable and friendly relations towards them in acknowledging the belligerent rights of their adversaries. We therefore started with a ground of difference as it were between us and the North. I do not desire to bandy abuse or vituperation, or to echo any of those violent expressions which we are informed have often been uttered in the American Congress; but, at the same time, it does appear to me that no English statesman can, or ought possibly, to shut his eyes to the main fact that a feeling of hostility—I may almost say of bitter hostility—has pervaded, since the commencement of the unhappy civil war, the Government, the press, and the people of the Northern States against this country. I will not add to the bitterness of that feeling by a recapitulation of all the proofs which I could adduce to show its existence. There are many circumstances which render it evident that I do not lightly assert that which I can so easily establish. I will simply refer to the case of Captain (now Admiral) Wilkes, whose outrage on the English flag was no great feat of war, nor very valiant exploit, but an insult to our flag, of which the American Government were so sensible of the wrong that it atoned and apologised for it; yet, in that Assembly in the United States, which occupied a position analogous to our own House of Commons, Captain Wilkes was called to its bar for the purpose, not of being reprimanded or censured, but to receive the thanks of the Assembly for the outrage which he had committed. That is a circumstance, when we recollect the many who have received a similar compliment in this country for services, which places the conduct of the two Assemblies in remarkable contrast, and shows how bitter is the hostility towards us. I do not wish to dwell longer on the subject, but I do say we must take these latter acts of the American Government in connection with this spirit which has been so unmistakably exhibited throughout the war. I know it has been sometimes said in this House and elsewhere that the policy of neutrality which we have observed has rendered us equally obnoxious to both the contending parties, and that both are equally inclined to blame us. That may be so; there may exist prejudices against us in the South—I am afraid, indeed, that we have established no particularly good claim to the gratitude of the South—but my memory does not serve me to recall, on the part of the Southern States, any such open, clear, distinct, unmistakable demonstrations of hostility as have been heaped upon us by the press, the people, the diplomatic agents, and the Government itself of the Northern States. It is in connection with this feeling of hostility that we must read these last and most startling steps of their Executive to which I am anxious to call special attention. Now, what are these steps? It will be in the recollection of the House that in the last war with the American States in 1812 the North American lakes were the theatre of the most obstinate and protracted warfare between the two Powers; they contended on those lakes with the greatest gallantry, determination, and that nautical skill which are the common attributes of both people. Protracted struggles took place; but where both parties were equally balanced, and where both, so to speak, were upon their own element, the result naturally was that neither party achieved any decisive advantage. Every one having the slightest knowledge of the geography of the country or the remotest conception of strategical points, must see that the naval possession of those great inland oceans, extending from the river St. Lawrence to the Rocky Mountains, and forming at once the boundary between Canada and the United States and the most remarkable features of the continent, implied the command of the Canadian provinces. It was impossible to cede to the United States naval superiority in those waters without at once blotting out Canada as an independent State from the face of the globe. Such was the feeling entertained when, happily, the sanguinary struggle was closed by the peace of 1816; and the statesmen of that period, sincerely desirous of establishing a lasting peace, applied their minds on both sides to effect an arrangement which would render those waters neutral. They saw at once that if peace were merely to lead to a perpetual race in naval construction, such a peace, in its very nature, would be hollow and temporary, attended with all the expenses of war, and in all probability leading to war at no distant period. Accordingly, in 1817, a treaty was signed by the representatives of the two countries providing for the absolute neutrality of those waters. Both parties agreed to dismantle all the vessels which they had upon the lakes, and to build no others in their stead, except a few lightly armed for purposes of revenue and police, and each carrying one 18-pounder—these vessels to be confined in the case of each of the Powers to two upon Lake Champlain and one upon each of the other lakes. The treaty thus happily completed has now been in force for half a century, and to it must be attributed the peace and tranquillity which, during that period, has existed between the countries. It has, moreover, been supplemented by a Treaty of Commerce made during the viceroyalty of Lord Elgin, under which perfect reciprocity and free trade were established between Canada and the United States; and the whole of the British North American waters were thrown open, thereby getting rid of a constant source of bickering and disputes which were always giving trouble to the naval commanders on the station, and always tending to interrupt international harmony. Under what circumstances is it now proposed by the Government of President Lincoln to put an end to these treaties which have become incorporated in the public polity of the two countries? In the Speech from the Throne—which, like all its fellows, was not remarkable for disclosing any new facts—we are informed that considerable progress has been made towards erecting the six British North American Provinces into one confederation. This change, I am given to understand, is not made with any intention of weakening or severing the connection with the mother country. But supposing that the confederacy eventually outgrew that connection, and that peaceably and without opposition the child attained to maturity, and a separation should take place between them and the mother country, there is nothing, I feel persuaded, which the new confederacy has less in view than encouraging any idea of amalgamation with the United States. Any attempt to incorporate it would, I am persuaded, be resisted to the uttermost. I believe the feeling is, that they will either remain in connection with this country or become an independent Confederacy; and if I have read or studied the history of current events aright, I believe that one of the objects of the new confederation is to enable Canada better to resist any aggression on the part of the United States, and that the knowledge of this fact, coupled with its tendency to maintain intact the connection with this country, has largely influenced the Government to sanction the project of the confederation. It is not yet formed, but it is just starting into existence; and this is the moment chosen by the United States for tearing in pieces the treaties that consolidate the bond of peace between Canada and the United States, and upon which all tranquillity and good neighbourhood must necessarily rest. The declarations that these are at an end, notified solemnly by the President of the United States, are blows aimed at England as well as at the new confederacy. There may be some hon. Gentlemen who will contemplate without shame or regret the total and entire severance of the connection between England and Canada, and who will say that this country will get rid thereby of a source of much embarrassment, expense, and trouble. I will, however, tell those Gentlemen that Great Britain could not, if she would, cut Canada adrift. I tell those Gentlemen that as long as Canada retains her desire to be connected with this country—as long as Canada retains her spirit and her resolution to be independent of the American republic, so long is England bound by her honour, bound by her interest, bound by every motive which can instigate a generous or a patriotic nation, to sustain Canada, bound to protect Canada, bound to vindicate her rights, bound to guard her whether as an ally or a dependency against the aggressions of the United States. It is impossible that England can shrink from that obligation. The day that she does so my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer may come down to the House, and in his happy phrases, with his mellifluous eloquence, may possibly congratulate this House that we have emancipated ourselves from a source of expense, from the necessity of maintaining large military establishments; that we are driving a thriving trade; he may felicitate the House that we are sending a number of admirably-finished Armstrong and Whit-worth guns for the purpose of arming the new naval force of the Americans upon the Canadian Lakes; that Birmingham is sending out a very plentiful supply of fetters and handcuffs to coerce refractory Americans; that there may be a vast amount of commercial prosperity, and that he has the pleasure of announcing that he is enabled to reduce the income tax 1d. or 2d. in the pound. But, I say, that if ever that day should come, and if ever that speech is made, the whole world will look on the old British oak not only as withered in its leaves, but as rotten at its heart. There is, in fact, no escape from the obligation which binds Great Britain by every tie of honour and national interest to maintain Canada in the position in which she places herself with your consent. And, therefore, I say that this is not merely a question between England and the United States, it is a question between England and Canada. It appears to me that the act of the President of the United States in tearing up these treaties without, as I can see from these papers, any expostulation, any argument, any correspondence, on the subject is an act of such unmistakable hostility that it really amounts almost to a declaration of war. I am sure that in many of the earlier stages of our history it would have been so regarded. Whether it is possible to avert war by acquiescing in acts of flagrant hostility is a question for the determination of Her Majesty's Government. It is possible that the President of the United States has not yet given that formal, legal, if I may use the expression, notice to our Cabinet of his intention to abrogate these treaties. The House will recollect that in both the treaties there was a condition enabling the Government of either country to terminate the treaty by giving six months' notice—just as you turn out a tenant at will if you consider him insolvent. I am not accusing the United States of any absolute infraction of the treaties. I am not accusing them of that. What I accuse them of is an act of hostility in tearing up the treaties on which peace and prosperity depend. If they choose to go to war with us they may. I am not disputing their legal right to tear up those treaties any more than I should dispute their right, if they choose, to go to war. But I say that the one is very much the same thing as the other. The one is necessary to the other, and both are very much in the same category. I may be met by the formal argument—a word I deprecate—that the Government have not yet received formal notice from the American President, and they may therefore ignore the existence of any such intention. But the Government cannot ignore the Message sent by the President in his public address to the Legislature, and the intention thus announced is as much an accomplished fact as if the formal notice had been received. The fact in question may make a difference of a few months in the period at which the termination of the treaty comes into operation; but it is not to be supposed the American President referred to the subject in his Message without intending to carry the notice into effect. I have heard it said sometimes that the Americans are fond of bluster, but that the notice is mere effervescence, and does not mean anything. For myself, I will not pay the Americans so bad a compliment as to suppose they are merely acting the braggart. I will not say they are not a vainglorious people, but they are also a very gallant people, having extraordinary tenacity of purpose, and an immense amount of ambition, as was shown by their contending as they were now doing solely for empire, and by their Monroe policy which prompted them to expel all European rule and influence from the American continent. It would be a piece of wilful blindness to ignore these facts, and to attribute the notice in question to mere bluster and bravado. I have ventured, not with any kind of disrespect to the able Gentleman who conducts the Foreign Department in this House, but I have ventured to put my question to the First Lord of the Treasury. We must all feel that whatever falls from the noble Lord falls with a weight and gravity which no other Member of the House can possess; and this is a question of that urgency and of that national importance which demands his intervention and his special attention. I have only to hope that in answering the Question which stands in my name the noble Lord will be able to give some explanation which may tend to lessen the very aggravated character of this hostile proceeding, which appears to me to be directed against both Canada and this country; and I also earnestly hope, and I believe, that under any circumstances the honour of this country will not be forgotten or neglected by that statesman in whom the whole nation have so much confidence. I now conclude by putting the Question to the noble Lord and moving for the papers of which I have given notice.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, Copies of all Papers and Correspondence relative to the notice given by the Government of the United States of North America to terminate the Convention under which England and the United States mutually agreed not to fit out Naval Armaments upon the Canadian Lakes; also respecting the abrogation of the Treaty of Commerce between the Provinces of British North America and the United States by the late Lord Elgin,"—(Sir John Walsh.) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


Sir, I certainly am not going to follow the hon. Baronet into a discussion into the present state of our relations with the United States. I do not think that, at the present moment, a discussion of the kind would be at all conducive to the public interests. I will confine myself to answering the Questions which I understand the hon. Baronet to have put. There were two arrangements between Great Britain and the United States—one in 1817, by which the two parties agreed to a limit as to their naval force upon the Lakes. That was not a treaty, but an informal arrangement entered into between the two Governments. There was also the Treaty of 1854, which was a regular treaty, bearing upon the commercial intercourse of our North American Provinces and the United States, and making certain arrangements with regard to the fisheries on the two coasts. We have given all the papers in the possession of the Government bearing on those two points. The House will see by the papers presented that in November last we received an intimation from the Government of the United States that they intended to put an end—as they had a right to do—to the agreement which relates to the limitation of the naval force of the two parties on the Lakes. But it will be seen that this intention was temporary in its nature. It was founded on certain transactions that had taken place on those Lakes, which, according to the Government of the United States, required additional means of defence on their part, and the abrogation of that arrangement was not to be considered as a final decision, but as leaving open the question as to a renewal of the arrangement at a future time. I do not think, therefore, that the House is justified in looking upon the matter in the same light as the hon. Baronet has done—namely, as an indication of intended hostilities on the part of the United States. We cannot deny that things did take place on the Lakes of which the United States were justly entitled to complain; and if the measures which they have recourse to are simply calculated, as they say, for the protection of their commerce and their citizens, I think they are perfectly justified in having recourse to them. With regard to the Reciprocity Treaty, a proposal has been made in Congress to put an end to that treaty by notice, in conformity with one of its articles; but that notice cannot be given, I believe, until the 15th of March—the period at which the ten years will have expired—and therefore no official intimation has hitherto been made to us upon the subject. When that intimation has been made we shall know the grounds upon which the United States Government deem it right, advantageous, and proper to put an end to that treaty; we shall then communicate to the House the information given to us, and the House will be able to judge of the matter for itself. But I entreat the House to abstain at present from discussions which can tend to no good—which can only tend to prejudice the public interests—not to assume gratuitously the existence of hostile feelings which I trust, notwithstanding the language which may be used by individuals in speeches or in newspaper paragraphs, do not animate the general population of the United States. At all events let us not assume it. It will be time enough to deal with the matter when it takes a practical form; but at present let us abstain from discussions which would tend to precipitate opinions and to excite feelings which it is the interest of the two countries to put aside.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Motion considered in Committee—Mr. DODSON in the Chair.

(In the Committee.)

Resohed, "That a Supply be granted to Her Majesty."

Resolution to be reported on Monday next.