The Right of Search.
Title:The Right of Search.
Date:December 30th 1861
This poem, sympathetic with the Union’s cause, engages with the then ongoing arguments around the legal justifications of the Trent Affair. In November 1861, a Union navy ship, captained by Charles Wilkes, intercepted RMS Trent and took captive the Confederate diplomats onboard, James Murray Mason and John Sliddell, allowing the postal vessel to continue on its journey without the seized passengers. Initial Union celebration was matched in fervour by British outrage, who alleged the act was an outright transgression of International Law. What ensued was an intense legal-diplomatic debate on the rights of belligerent vessels to intercept neutral ships in search of contraband. Eventually, in January 1862, Abraham Lincoln released the Confederate diplomats and conceded to a legal technicality, as Charles Wilkes had failed to bring the RMS Trent to a port of the United States for adjudication in a prize court. The poem expresses an indignation shared by many in the Union states, who felt that the British cries of illegality represented a stark hypocrisy, owing to its historic practice of impressment, where its navy would intercept neutral ships and force the conscription of British citizens on board. Indeed, the practice of impressment had been a causal factor in the War of 1812 between the America and Britain, and the poet makes reference to this precedent set by the British in arguing for the Union’s right of search: ‘You took your men, wherever found, | To serve you in your need; | And must concede the doctrine sound | On which you based your creed.’ In the opening stanzas, the poet explains a historic resentment held by the British towards the United States, born out of its defeat in the War of 1812. In characterising John Bull with this lingering hatred, the poem presents the reaction to the Trent Affair as one of vengeful opportunism by the British. Writing on the Trent Affair fifty years later, the historian and former Union Army officer, Charles Francis Adams, suggested that anger towards the British had been building amongst Union states, due to a ‘sneering as well as adversely critical’ attitude expressed by the English towards the Union cause. As Adams explained, ‘it needed only the occurrence of some accident to lead to a pronounced explosion of what can only be described as Anglophobia’, and the dispute over RMS Trent provided just that opportunity.* JC
Adams, Charles Francis, “The Trent Affair”, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No.3, (April 1912), pp.540-562