HC Deb 20 February 1872 vol 209 cc766-71

, in putting the Question which he had placed upon the Paper, and which was in the following terms:—As to the time at which the American Case, framed under the alleged provisions of the Treaty of Washington, was first received by Her Majesty's Government, and the circumstances attendant on that reception—said: I beg now to make the inquiry that I did upon the first night of the Session, and unsuccessfully last night, to the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government. It refers to our relations with the United States of America; but it does not at all refer to the merits of the case as between our Government and the Government of the United States, which I should most scrupulously abstain from touching under present circumstances. The House will perhaps remember that on the first night of the Session I pressed the right hon. Gentleman for information on two points. One was as to the date of the "friendly communication" which had been made to the Government of the United States; and the second was as to the time when the Case of the United States, drawn up under the alleged provisions of the Treaty of Washington, had been transmitted to Her Majesty's Government. The right hon. Gentleman gave me an answer to the first Question which was precise if not satisfactory. The right hon. Gentleman said the "friendly communication" was made on the day before the meeting of Parliament, or, more correctly speaking, on Saturday, the 3rd of February. With regard to the second question, we could only collect, rather vaguely, from the right hon. Gentleman, that the American Case had been in the possession of the Government about a month at the time he was speaking, and that it had been in the possession of the Cabinet generally for a much shorter time. Indeed, I think that, appealing to his Colleagues near him, he said it had been in their possession only a week. Then the right hon. Gentleman said it was a voluminous production, and that it had to be printed. Now, a statement has been made, which I have reason to believe is authentic, because it agrees with information which had previously reached me—namely, that what is called the American Case was transmitted to the Government in the middle of December, and that within 48 hours afterwards a certain number of printed copies were forwarded to Her Majesty's Government, in order that the Cabinet might be supplied with copies at once, and become acquainted with the Case. Neither the forms of the House permit, nor the necessities of the question require, that I should call the attention of the House to the important consequences which may be connected with these details. We shall, no doubt, have ample opportunity of entering into them hereafter; but it is of importance that, in the interval, both sides of the House should have as accurate an acquaintance as possible with the facts on which all are agreed. I trust, therefore, that after the statement I have made, the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to say that it will be satisfactory if he would now more precisely inform us as to the time and circumstances under which Her Majesty's Government first became acquainted with the American Case.


The Question of which the right hon. Gentleman gave Notice afforded me but little guidance as to the particular view with which it was given. I begin by saying that I need hardly remind the right hon. Gentleman or the House that when he addressed to me on the first night of the Session Questions as to the reception and distribution of copies of the American Case from the Foreign Office, he must have known that without the slightest notice it was impossible to give him specific information. However, I gave him such information as was in my power, which was partial and general, and if he had made known to me at the time his wish for further information I should have been glad long ago, within a day or two, to supply him with it. Having had Notice from him this morning, I sent to the Foreign Office and obtained the information, but I obtained it with reference to what I presumed to be the point of his inquiry—namely, how it happened that the Cabinet were not put sooner into the possession of the American Case. That is what I supposed to be the point of his inquiry; if I am wrong in that, and if other matters are also in view, I shall be happy to do my best on a future occasion to acquaint him with any particulars. Now, first of all, with regard to the number of copies of the American Case, there is no doubt that, not in the middle of December, but by the 26th of December, a number of copies of the Case were received at the Foreign Office, which would have enabled them to be distributed among the Members of the Cabinet; but the authorities of the Foreign Office judged—and, I think, judged rightly—that that was not the first use to be made of these copies of the document. A certain number of copies were necessary to be retained in the Foreign Office itself for use and examination by those who belong to it. A certain number it was necessary to send to America for Sir Edward Thornton, who was depending upon us for them. A certain number were necessary, especially for sending to various colonies, in a part of which the acts alleged against us were known or declared to have happened; and, finally, the persons whom it was necessary to supply with copies were all those who, either as regular or occasional legal advisers of the Government, and persons conversant with the facts, were especially charged with the duty of its early examination and with the preparation of the counter Case. Now, Sir, that was the view taken by the authorities of the Foreign Office, and, in my opinion, it was a perfectly correct view. I am bound, and it is only fair, to say that the Foreign Office set down to my debit a copy of this Case at the earliest date of its reception—that is to say, as having been sent into the country to me on the 20th of December, but I have not been able to trace that copy. I am endeavouring to do so; but I am bound also to say that if I had received it, and knowingly received it, I should very likely have allowed a considerable time to elapse before I had been able to make myself master of that important volume. I had devoted considerable time, with no small inconvenience, to making myself master of the English Case, of which I had read every word, and my comments on which I had sent to the Foreign Office; but, with regard to the American Case, I frankly own that I should have looked for guidance and suggestions to those whose duty it was to consider the legal and international bearing of the points, and to prepare the counter Case. Now, that is the general principle upon which the Foreign Office proceeded in the distribution of those copies, and I will now give the facts rather more particularly, that the right hon. Gentleman may see how the figures stand. On the 15th of December copies of the Case were exchanged at Geneva, as was required or provided by the Articles of the Treaty, and arrangements were then made for the exchange between the agents of a certain number of copies. In consequence of those arrangements, 12 copies were received at the Foreign Office on the 20th of December. Of those, seven were sent out and five were retained at the Office for use. On the 26th of December 13 more copies were received, of which 12 were sent out, being distributed among persons of the classes to whom I referred—including, however, a copy to Lord Lyons at Paris, and a copy to Earl Russell, who, I think, the right hon. Gentleman will feel was entitled to be put very early in possession of a document in which his name, like my own, unfortunately, cuts a figure. That being so, 25 copies had been received and 24 had been disposed of by the Foreign Office at the end of December, by which only three Members of the Cabinet had profited, and I think that the distribution was in all respects a reasonable one, under the circumstances, on account of the great occasion there was for sending copies of the Case for examination to other persons. The whole number was 25, and the number disposed of was 24, of which 19 had been sent out of the Office and 5 remained in it. The right hon. Gentleman will see, therefore, that there was not a sufficient number of copies to distribute among the Members of the Cabinet, and the Case had been sent to the printer to be reprinted on the 26th of December. The reprinting of a considerable volume at the Foreign Office is not a very slight matter. The House knows that the printing department at the Foreign Office is a strictly confidential department, and as such it is necessarily a very limited one. It was occupied much at that time in printing, as I am informed, the translation of the English Case, and it was likewise much occupied in printing papers connected with the Commercial Treaty with France. The House also knows that the 26th of December is not the very best day on which to send work to the printers with respect to which you desire that the greatest possible dispatch should be observed. I do not know that there was delay upon that account to any serious extent; that is only an observation which occurs in connection with the date. On that account it was that the reprinting of the Case took a longer time than it would have done under ordinary circumstances—I mean on account of the other work with which the Department was charged. Having said that only three Members of the Cabinet had or were supposed to receive copies in December, I should add that three others received copies, I believe, through the courtesy of the United States Minister. With respect to the rest of the Cabinet the statement which I made on the first night of the Session, upon hasty reference to my right hon. Friends who sat near me, was that the Case had been in their possession, as I believed, for not more than a week or ten days. That, I believe, was very near the mark. I am not sure that I have been provided with the exact day on which these copies were distributed to the Cabinet; but it was undoubtedly well on in the month of January, though not quite the end of the month, that the distribution was made. I frankly own that, whether rightly or wrongly, when I first heard of the American Case my belief was that it was an exact counterpart of the British Case—that is to say, a dry and dull, but most able and close argument upon the points connected with the Alabama and her consorts, and I imagine that all those who gradually became possessed of the volume underwent the same sentiments of surprise as myself at the entire novelty of an important portion of the contents of the volume.