CHAPTER VII. THE "TRENT"
There can be no doubt that one cause of a more bitter and sharper tone in the British press was the reception of the counter-exultation of the American press on learning of the detention and the exercise of "right of search" on a British ship. The American public equally went "off its head" in its expressions. Writing in 1911, the son of the American Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, jun., in 1861, a young law-student in Boston, stated: "I do not remember in the whole course of the half-century's retrospect ... any occurrence in which the American people were so completely swept off their feet, for the moment losing possession of their senses, as during the weeks which immediately followed the seizure of Mason and Slidell." There were evident two principal causes for this elation. The North with much emotion and high courage entering in April, 1861, upon the task of restoring the Union and hoping for quick success, had now passed through a wearisome six months with no evident progress towards its object. Northern failure had developed a deep mortification when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a bold naval captain, on his own initiative, appeared to have struck a real blow at the South. His action seemed to indicate that the fighting forces of the North, if free from the trammels of Washington red tape, could, and would, carry on energetic war. Certainly it was but a slight incident to create such Northern emotion, yet the result was a sudden lifting from despondency to elation.
But almost equally with this cause of joy there operated on American minds the notion that the United States had at last given to Great Britain a dose of her own medicine in a previous era - had exercised upon a British ship that "right of search" which had been so keenly resented by America as to have become almost a permanent cause of a sense of injury once received and never to be forgotten. There was no clear thinking about this; the obnoxious right of search in times of peace for vagrant seamen, the belligerent right exercised by Britain while America was a neutral, the practice of a "right of visit" claimed by Britain as necessary in suppression of the African Slave Trade - all were confused by the American public (as they are still in many history textbooks to this day), and the total result of this mixing of ideas was a general American jubilation that the United States had now revenged herself for British offences, in a manner of which Great Britain could not consistently complain. These two main reasons for exultation were shared by all classes, not merely by the uninformed mob of newspaper readers. At a banquet tendered Captain Wilkes in Boston on November 26, Governor Andrews of Massachusetts called Wilkes' action "one of the most illustrious services that had made the war memorable," and added "that there might be nothing left [in the episode] to crown the exultation of the American heart, Commodore Wilkes fired his shot across the bows of the ship that bore the British lion at its head."
All America first applauded the act, then plunged into discussion of its legality as doubts began to arise of its defensibility - and wisdom. It became a sort of temporarily popular "parlour game" to argue the international law of the case and decide that Great Britain could have no cause of complaint. Meanwhile at Washington itself there was evidenced almost equal excitement and approval - but not, fortunately, by the Department responsible for the conduct of foreign relations. Secretary of the Navy Welles congratulated Wilkes on his "great public service," though criticizing him for not having brought theTrent into port for adjudication. Congress passed a joint resolution, December 2, thanking Wilkes for his conduct, and the President was requested to give him a gold medal commemorative of his act. Indeed, no evidence of approbation was withheld save the formal approval and avowal of national responsibility by the Secretary of State, Seward. On him, therefore, and on the wisdom of men high in the confidence of the Cabinet, like Sumner, Lyons pinned his faint hope of a peaceful solution. Thoroughly alarmed and despondent, anxious as to the possible fate of Canada, he advised against any public preparations in Canada for defence, on the ground that if the Trent affair did blow over it should not appear that we ever thought it an insult which would endanger peace. This was very different from the action and attitude of the Government at home, as yet unknown to Lyons. He wisely waited in silence, advising like caution to others, until the receipt of instructions. Silence, at the moment, was also a friendly service to the United States.