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Editorial (1862-01-03)


“Controversy”. Dundee Courier, Friday 03 January 1862, p.2 col.2-3 (pdf image)

(Printed Jan 3 1862)
In this editorial reply to Matthew’s 5th letter on the Trent Affair, the editors repeat their previous arguments regarding the legality or not of the Union action on the Trent. They then criticise Matthew for his views regarding the peacetime “right of search”, which he has claimed exclusively for Britain. The piece ends: “We seldom meet a gentleman so singularly expert at cutting the ground from under his own feet as Mr MATTHEW is.”


Our correspondent, Mr PATRICK MATTHEW, has favoured us with another letter, which we publish to-day. At first sight we were disposed let it go forth without any notice, and should have done so but for new element, which we shall presently notice. The controversy between Mr MATTHEW and ourselves has been as to the law which was applicable to the Trent incident, and now he seems to have abandoned the ground of law and to rest upon feeling. We do not intend to dispute with him on that point. We do not think it worthwhile. In considering what the law was, we were bound, far as possible, to put feeling on one side, so that perception might be clear, and judgment calm, and that we might avoid confusion. We hold the man to be a foe, not only to his country, but to the human race, who, before ascertaining the right, would seek to excite passion. We would have peace, if peace can be honourably secured, but we would prefer war to submission to wrong; and the best way of ensuring peace, or of justifying war, is to keep within the boundaries of law, which must be clearly ascertained. There is no dishonour in submitting to the exercise of legal rights by others, or in consenting to confine our own claims within legal limits. On these points, we may safely leave our readers to judge between Mr MATTHEW and us.

We have to acknowledge the compliments paid by Mr MATTHEW to the press, and in which, if we interpret him aright, he deems us entitled to share, and we shall gladly suffer him to play the Monitor when two conditions are present — the first is, that we are wrong; the second, that he right. On the present occasion, however, these conditions seem to us to be reversed.

Mr MATTHEW assumes that we have justified the act of Captain WILKES. We beg to inform him that is a misstatement, arising, no doubt, from misconception. From first to last, we have held that Captain WILKES was wrong, not indeed for searching the Trent, but for taking out of her passengers without first submitting the case to a competent Court. Mr MATTHEW seems to admit the right of search in time of war, and the right to seize the property and persons of enemies on board neutral vessels; at least he passes by without reference the authorities we quoted upon that subject. Strangely enough, however, he thinks our view, which lead to the same end as he seems to aim at — reparation — a quibble; but he forgets that the point we have indicated, is, so far as is known, the one, and the only one, indicated by the law officers of the Crown, and that it is of the greatest importance. On its decision, depends whether the naval officers of a belligerent power are to submit their action to constituted legal authorities, or set up as judges for themselves.

Mr MATTHEW tells us that he can see no object in our references to the proclamation of neutrality, except a wish to injure a Whig Government. The notion only shows how little Mr MATTHEW understands us. We might remind him of what his experience must have taught him long ago, that human motives are often obscure, and that the wisest often fail to penetrate to the springs of action which move the dullest. We might hint, also, that he has no business with our motives; all that concerns him is the character of our words and acts. As, however, we have no reason for mystery, we will unveil to him what he seems unable to discover without our help. We wished to fix the ground on which the Federal Government claimed to exercise the right of search, which only arises when there is a state of war. We saw that claim was not founded on any act of the Federal Government, which has always persisted in calling the Confederates “rebels,” and denying the existence of state of lawful war. We had to seek it, then, somewhere else, and we found it in the proclamation of neutrality, in which our Government, without any necessity for doing so, recognised the Confederates as belligerents. It is so plain that it cannot, with any show of reason, be denied, that to that proclamation are due all our troubles, including the interruptions of our commerce, and the present danger. But for that there could have been no blockade, which is also an operation lawful only in time of war, and there could not have been the shadow of a pretext for stopping and searching the Trent. Seeing that, it did not matter to what was the political creed of the men composing the Cabinet. Whatever their doctrines their conduct wa3 the source of perplexity and danger. Whatever they were, Whigs or Tories, it was all the same to us. We are not the hired organ of a party, bound or influenced to say what it does is right, and what all other parties do is wrong. Mr MATTHEW will have no difficulty in putting his hand on such sheet, but we hold ourselves free to stand up for the true interests of the people, that is for right, and the observance of laws, against any faction, or, if need be, all the factions which vex the state. Mr MATTHEW deems it absurd to go to the proclamation, and to consider whether the Confederates are, or are not belligerents, a means of determining if we are to protect “our guests” or not. We reply that in the answer to the question of belligerence is the answer to the other question as to whether or not they were our guests. If they were belligerents, they were not, and could not lawfully be “our guests.” We had not invited them, and, in that case, were bound by our duties as neutrals not to carry them. They were not coming hither in any sense as “our guests,” but as diplomatic agents, to push the interests of the slaveholding Confederacv. We pointed out before to Mr MATTHEW that there was no question as to “hospitality.” The affair turns on totally different considerations.

We charged Mr MATTHEW with confusion because he mixed the questions as to whether the Confederates were rebels or belligerents. In answer he quotes a passage from his former letter, in which he says that as rebels the Commissioners were entitled to the protection of our flag. Of course if they were rebels they were. We have always said so. What Mr MATTHEW fails to perceive is that our Government has recognised them not as rebels but as belligerents, and in the latter capacity they were not entitled to protection. If Mr MATTHEW regards the Commissioners as rebels, he is consistent in denying the right to search the Trent; but then he is opposed to our Government, and does not hold himself bound by its acts. If he regards them as belligerents, then he stands on the same ground our Government; but in that case his facts and conclusions are variance. Mr MATTHEW is still so confused that we cannot tell which position he holds.

The new element to which we alluded, and which has induced us to notice Mr MATTHEW’s letter, is one which makes “confusion worse confounded.” He says that Great Britain has a claim to exercise the right of search, because the extent of her Commerce imposes upon her the task of acting as the police of the sea, and putting down pirates and slavers, and apprehending “suspicious characters.” What can Mr MATTHEW be dreaming of? The right of search has no more relation to the police of the seas than it has to the police of Dundee or Timbuctoo. Great Britain does not claim to stop slavers by virtue of the right of search, but by special treaties with countries, which agreed that their flag should not cover the slave trade. The war ships of any power, as well as those of Great Britain, or merchant ships, if they are able, have the right to seize pirates, not under the right of search, but because pirates are criminals. The right of search is a right of war, and war only. It never arises, or can arise in time of peace; and not pirates or slavers, but neutrals are the persons on whom it is exercised. Does Mr MATTHEW mean to contend that the ships of Great Britain, and therefore of any other lawfully constituted power, have the right to search ships at sea, in time of peace, and apprehend “suspicious persons?” If so, he is wrong, but if he were right, let him see what would follow. The Federal Government, no doubt, regard the Confederate Commissioners, as very “suspicious persons,” ergo, on Mr Matthew’s theory, they would be entitled to apprehend them. We seldom meet a gentleman so singularly expert at cutting the ground from under his own feet as Mr MATTHEW is.

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