CHAPTER II. FIRST KNOWLEDGE OF IMPENDING CONFLICT, 1860-61.
It should be no matter for surprise, therefore, that, as these efforts were observed in Great Britain, a note of uncertainty began to replace the earlier unanimity of opinion that the future of slavery was at stake in America. This offered an easy excuse for a switch-about of sympathy as British commercial and other interests began to be developed, and even dismayed the ardent friends of the anti-slavery North. Meanwhile the Government of Great Britain, from the very first appearance of the cloud of civil war, had focused its attention on the point of what the events in America portended to British interests and policy. This is the business of governments, and their agents would be condemned as inefficient did they neglect it. But did British governmental policy go beyond this entirely justifiable first thought for immediate British interests to the point of positive hope that England would find an advantage in the breaking up of the great American Republic? American opinion, both then and later, believed Great Britain guilty of this offence, but such criticism was tinged with the passions of the Civil War. Yet a more impartial critic, though possibly an unfriendly one because of his official position, made emphatic declaration to like effect. On January 1, 1861, Baron de Brunow, Russian Ambassador at London, reported to St. Petersburg that, "the English Government, at the bottom of its heart, desires the separation of North America into two republics, which will watch each other jealously and counterbalance one the other. Then England, on terms of peace and commerce with both, would have nothing to fear from either; for she would dominate them, restraining them by their rival ambitions."
If, however, one turns from the surmises of foreign diplomats as to the springs of British policy, to the more authentic evidence of official and private diplomatic correspondence, there is found no proof for such accusations. Certainty neither Lord John Russell, Foreign Secretary, nor Lord Lyons, British Minister at Washington, reveal any animus against the United States. Considering his many personal ties with leaders of both factions Lyons, from the first, reported events with wonderful impartiality, and great clarity. On November 12, 1860, he sent to Russell a full description of the clamour raised in the South over the election of Lincoln, enumerated the resignation of Federal officials (calling these "ill-judged measures"), and expressed the opinion that Lincoln was no Radical. He hoped the storm would blow over without damage to the Union. Russell, for his part, was prompt to instruct Lyons and the British consuls not "to seem to favour one party rather than the other," and not to express opinions or to give advice, unless asked for by the State Governments, in which case the advice should be against all violent action as tending toward civil war.
This bare statement may indeed be interpreted as indicating an eager readiness on Russell's part to accept as final the dissolution of the Union, but such an interpretation is not borne out by a reading of his instructions. Rather he was perplexed, and anxious that British agents should not gain the ill-will of either American faction, an ill-will that would be alike detrimental in the future, whether the Union remained unbroken or was destroyed.
Strict instructions against offering advice are therefore repeated frequently. Meanwhile the first concrete problem requiring British action came from the seizure by South Carolina of the Federal customs house at the port of Charleston, and the attempt of the State authorities to collect port dues customarily paid to Federal officials. British shipowners appealed to Consul Bunch for instructions, he to Lyons, and the latter to the American Secretary of State, Judge Black. This was on December 31, 1860, while Buchanan was still President, and Black's answer was evasive, though asserting that the United States must technically regard the events in South Carolina as acts of violent rebellion. Black refused to state what action would be taken if Bunch advised British shipowners to pay, but a way out of the embarrassment was found by advising such payment to State authorities "under protest" as done "under compulsion." To one of his letters to Bunch on this topic, Lyons appended an expression indicative of his own early attitude. "The domestic slavery of the South is a bitter pill which it will be hard enough to get the English to swallow. But if the Slave Trade is to be added to the dose, the least squeamish British stomach will reject it."