London, May 26,1863.
Gentlemen, — My purpose in asking introductions to Friends in this country was to bring to your attention the danger of hostile relations, and even of war, between our two kindred nations, and to beg you to apply your accustomed practical wisdom to finding means of averting the evil.
You are already aware of the serious although smaller evil which has been made public, namely:—
Swift steamers have been fitted out in your ports, manned by your own seamen, with a full knowledge of the warlike objects of the voyage, but not at first armed with cannon. Another British vessel, with guns and ammunition, and additional men, meets them on your coast, or in some neighboring port, and in a few days they commence the destruction of American ships — often laden with British property.
The Law of Nations is necessarily indefinite; but it is generally held, that no armed ship becomes a legal cruiser until she has received her commission in one of the ports of the power which authorizes her warlike proceedings; and even then, that she cannot condemn her prizes until each case has been adjudicated before a court of law. Notwithstanding the illegality of the proceedings of these cruisers, your government has not stopped their course of destruction, and they are afforded the hospitalities of your colonial ports, without which their career of mischief would soon terminate. Judging of the future by the past, and also by the information which I receive from authentic sources, there is no doubt that other similar expeditions are in course of preparation; and that from time to time the course of irritation will be continued, by which the slaveholders and their agents hope to produce a war between our country and yours. This is probably their object, rather than the mere destruction of property. Thanks to Bright, and Forster, and Cobden, and Monckton Milnes, and other noble spirits, in Parliament and out of it, a marked improvement has taken place in public opinion, which has strengthened your government in its efforts to prevent further expeditions; but the work is only half done; the danger is still great. Now we all hope that peace may, through the efforts of good and wise men on both sides of the water, be kept between us, in spite of these expeditions.
Another consideration has great weight, namely, if your government practically establish the precedent that a neutral may evade the technicalities of a Foreign Enlistment Act, and that vessels so evading the local law may at once become legal cruisers, entitled to capture enemies' property and dispose of it without adjudication, your next war after we are at peace will probably see the ocean covered with foreign-built cruisers, who will do, on a larger scale, against your rich commerce exactly what the Alabama is now doing; and will at the same time give an impetus to commerce, under our neutral flag, far greater than that with which your shipowners are now bribed. When that evil day comes, you will go to war for the protection of your commerce.
I have thus far only mentioned the lesser danger; but a far greater one threatens us.
By the inclosed copy of the intercepted correspondence of the slaveholders' government,1 you will see the statement of their so-called Secretary of the Navy, that months ago “they had contracted for six ironclad vessels in Great Britain.”
I cannot now give you legal proof that these ships are building here, but a very little shrewd inquiry will convince you of the fact; at least two of these ironclads are building at Liverpool, one of which might be launched within a few weeks. These two ships are known to be of the most formidable character, and equal, except in size, to the best ironclads belonging to your government. If they are allowed to go to sea, we might either have our harbors obstructed, or our cities burned!
They may not take in their guns at Liverpool; but, as in other cases, a British steamer can meet them on your coast, and dispatch them fully armed upon their errand of death; having thus evaded the technicalities of your law.
Now it is plain that your nation and ours cannot live in peace if you permit such engines of destruction to be sent from your harbors against us. The law of nations and the common sense of mankind will decide that it is your business to see that your local laws are made sufficient to carry out your international obligations. We did so under Washington without any statute law; we afterwards amended our law, when in your Canadian rebellion we found it insufficient. Whatever may be thought of the maintenance of peace, under a continuance of the privateers outfitting against our commerce, if the ironclads go out against our cities, peace between us is hardly possible.
You may think that the possibility of war is a mere dream. So reasoned too many of our people, North and South, when the causes of our war were ripening. Wars come from passion and from want of forecast more often than from the interests of either party.
I have laid before you the danger; I now entreat you to apply the remedy in your own good way, but without delay.
If I have dwelt upon the material and national consideration of the subject too much, I beg you to believe that it is only because I feel that it would be unnecessary to appeal to your well-known abhorrence of any war, and especially of a war between the two nations of the earth who, when our country is once freed from the stain of slavery, ought to stand shoulder to shoulder before the world to up hold peace on earth and freedom to all men.
With great respect, your friend and servant,
J. M. Forbes.
1 A letter referring to the Confederates having contracted for six ironclad steamers in England, urging dispatch, and speaking of “the cotton to be delivered in liquidation of these contracts.” — Ed.
SOURCE: Sarah Forbes Hughes, Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes, Volume 2, p. 10-14