The Right of Search.

It happened, on a former day,
When the young Hercules,
An infant in his cradle lay,
Rocked by the Western breeze,
Old England sent, to strangle him,
Her mercenary hordes,
Her regulars and warriors grim,
With sprinklings of her lords.
With pomp and circumstance of war,
With arrogance and pride,
Came the inflated thunderer,
His forward child to chide.
And much he scorned the simple folk
Of this poor Yankee soil,
Although descended from the stock
Which would them now despoil.
And their descent they fully proved!
They sent the thunderer back,
His pride and arrogance reproved,
And foiled in his attack.
The “Yankeedoodles” beat John Bull!
They sent him sulking home;
They gave his hosts their stomachs full,
And cured their wish to roam.
It was a bitter pill for John,
And he could ne’er forgive
The victories by Yankees won
O’er his prerogative.
On sweet revenge he brooded long,
But still to act did dread;
Our cotton span a thread too strong,
He famished for our bread.
But now he thinks his time has come!
He’s made his peace with France,
We have rebellion here at home,
And this he deems his chance.
He thinks, as we’re in trouble now,
And weakened by the war,
With our wild heifer he can plough,
Our growing strength to mar.
Hence, now, the right to search a ship
For subjects of his crown,
Which he has always claimed, to strip
Our vessels of our own,
He finds opposed to human laws
Called international!
And in the fact he seeks a cause
For war irrational.
We’ve done but what he oft has done!
We have but claimed our own;
Though rebels, still the men we won,
Were as our subjects known.
If ‘gainst the law of nations, still
‘Twas tit for tat: ‘tis plain
The measure John for us did fill
We’ve meted him again.
How can he reparation ask?
How can he have the face
To throw aside the cheating mask,
And own as a disgrace
What he did long inflict on us?
No, Johnny Bull, ‘tis vain!
Of your past course, unscrupulous,
You must now bear the pain.
You took your men, wherever found,
To serve you in your need;
And must concede the doctrine sound;
On which you based your creed.
And though your lawyers may declare
Lex talionis naught,
You can’t expect we will forbear
To practice what you taught.
The reason why John loudly roars,
Enough for splitting rocks,
Is, that ‘tis now our bull that gores
Old Johnny’s bellowing ox!
And if he meanly seeks a war
Upon this weak pretence,
He’ll find us a competitor
Prepared for stout defence.

Title:The Right of Search.


Publication:Boston Post

Published in:Boston

Date:December 30th 1861

Keywords:politics, war


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