MESSRS. LAIRDS' IRON RAMS AND THE FOREIGN ENLISTMENT ACT.
IT must be a pleasant sensation to the loyal hearts of Messrs. Laird, of Birkenhead, to know that they hold in their hands the means of plunging England into war ; that by their scorn, if not for the letter, at least for the spirit of an English Act of Parliament, they may very likely force their monarch out of the attitude of neutrality which she and the nation have chosen into one of virtual if not express alliance with one of the belligerents. The two iron rams which they are now building in the Mersey upon " French account,"—not, of course, for the French Government, but for some subject of France, who indulges, we suppose, some little hope of finding a customer in Mr. Slidell or his Confederate masters,—are tolerably certain to follow in the track of the Alabama and the Florida, antraise the cost of insuring American merchant- men to an absolutely prohibitive rate ; and, foolish as it may seem, the probability is not much less that this result will be followed by a declaration of war, less against England than against the State which has the responsibility of pro- tecting Mr. Laird and his dockyards. To involve a reluctant sovereign in war by evading the obvious ten- .deney -of an English law will place Mr. Laird in a very -distinguished position. His alliance will in future be in almost greater request than the alliance of England itself,— since the one is purehaseable at a moderate rate, and may be made to draw the other along with it. Insane as it is in the American people to think of taking needless offence with any powerful neutral on account of the deficiencies of its municipal law, or even its possible indisposition to amend those deficiencies, it is not always feasible to control the irritation of a shrewd and hasty populace, and the United .States Government certainly is not the one to make the effort. Mr. Nassau Senior, in his admirable letter to Monday's Times, has said, what every one feels to be true, that the Confederates strain every nerve to buy these ships out of their starved exchequer, far more for the sake of promoting a rupture between England and the North, than for any direct good that this homoeopathic injury to the Northern commerce can effect for them. It is not every belligerent who, in such circumstances would find patriots so subservient as Messrs.
Laird to the plans of a politic foreigner. Nor could these gentlemen, however willing to be Mr. Jefferson Davis's political tools, have managed to endanger their country but for the aid of one of those unfortunate Acts which seem to be passed in order to be evaded,—Acts which only appear to pro- hibit conduct which they leave almost exactly as feasible as they found it.
Whatever the view that we may take concerning the course that Parliament should pursue concerning this law, few Englishmen can doubt, after the experience of the present year, that, to avoid these international traps for neutral nations, we must look to one of two alternatives—either the complete repeal of our Foreign Enlistment Act, at least as regards the equipment of ships of war, or the substitution of another Act which would tarn a nominal measure, expressly calculated for evasion, into a reality. Something may be said for either course. For the former it may be urged that a neutral Government has no kind of occasion to enforce the neutrality of its own subjects as private individuals. Neutrality in the Government need mean only that the public taxation, the resources of the State as such, are to be neutral,—that the nation as a whole does not regard it as either a matter of duty or interest to make a sacrifice for either side. But this need not, of course, involve any veto on the private partialities of individuals. Rather it might seem to forbid such a veto. The highest neutrality is indifferent not only as to which part is taken, but as to whether a part is taken at all. It may be impartial to forbid the alliance with either party, as it would be impartial to send an equal aid to both ; but neutrality, properly speaking, is the state of mind of a Gallio " caring for none of these things," allowing any one to take side as he will, so long as he does not disturb the peace of his fellow- countrymen. If this were to be national " neutrality " for
the future, at least no ground of quarrel could arise as to its definition. Unless any military or naval aid could be defin- itely traced to the Government of any country, that country would be fulfilling strictly its duties as a neutral. If this sense were givens to our national neutrality, Garibaldi expedi- tions, the equipment of Alabamas and Floridas, recruiting for foreign countries, &c., would all be strictly lawful for the subjects of a neutral nation. The Irish might enlist openly
for the North, Messrs Laird might build openly for the South, and neither course would be a transgression of any law.
And such a state of the law would certainly put an end to a great deal of subterfuge, and enable private enthusiasts to devote themselves to any course they pleased without the necessity for disguises from their own Government.
On the other hand, it will be said with great truth that such a state of the law would tend very materially to weaken the gene-
ral power and responsibility of governments. Messrs. Rothschild might, if they chose, under such a state of the law, fit out both an army and a fleet for any small power—say among the South American Republics—which they thought fit to strengthen, and, with such aid once accepted, could easilyenforce their own terms upon their superiors. And, of course, if any combination of capitalists were thus permitted to play the game of the East India Company wherever and whenever they might please, the inevitable consequence would be that such
private contingents would often, in fact, if not in form, declare war on their own account,—since in divided countries
a belligerent could always be found to take the nominal re- sponsibility of the war. It is obvious that such a state of things would in many parts of the world reduce the formal govern-
ment of a nation to a cipher' —and in all parts of the
world would sap the political importance of the actual government, divert from it a great deal of the respect and pride of the people, and generally lower the responsibility of political life. In short, we doubt whether any practical politician, looking to the grave results, could be found to advocate the abolition of all restrictions on the warlike in- clination of the private members of neutral States.
But this once granted,—that expeditions nominally neutral, whether by land or sea, are not to be fitted out in aid of any
foreign belligerent,—all the reasons that support this conclu-
sion go with still greater force to support the wider conclu- sion that neither should recruiting for a foreign power be
allowed on neutral soil, nor the equipment of ships of war
at all by private firms, without the express sanction of the government. We say with still greater force, for while it is
clear that the present law vaguely discourages private exer- tions in aid of foreign belligerents, it does so, in fact, only just far enough to embroil us in all sorts of knotty legal diffi- culties, without effectually prohibiting this sort of private military or naval enterprise. Now, one great object of such a law is to keep the nation out of causeless quarrels, which an ill-defined and easily evaded law only multiplies. It seems to us that nothing can be sillier than to leave room for such evasions of one of the great objects of the law as are now
probably going on at Birkenhead, if we acknowledge it to be
a useful law at all. With respect to recruiting for foreign service,—that is, fortunately, not susceptible of a commercial aspect at all, and there is, therefore, no room for evasion. Un-
fortunately, the building and equipment of a ship of war is a commercial operation which may be done for gain, and not
from any political motive,—and, as the Foreign Enlistment Act at present stands, the commercial enterprise is legal if there be no more than a strong hope that one of the belligerents may buy the ship,—if she be not definitely built on account of one of them. Now, if the law is ever to have any practical form, it must go beyond this,—and expressly prohibit the equipment by any private person of a ship of war for any power without the express sanction of the Government. This would be an intelligible Act, requiring no spies and secret evidence to work it. Any ship-builder who was found arm- ing a ship, or equipping her with anything exclusively wanted for war purposes, without Government sanction, would be liable to the penalties of the Act,—and that sanc- tion would only be granted on satisfactory evidence of such a naval destination for-the ship as the Government could ex- plicitly approve.
The objection, of course, would be that commercial enter- prise in ships of war is no more intrinsically objectionable than in small arms, while every needless restriction on the scope of commercial enterprise is objectionable. We reply that the objection is far greater to commercial enterprise in ships of war than to commercial enterprise is small arms. The analogy to the enlistment of a regiment is far greater. A ship of war built in a neutral port almost certainly will take with her a neutral crew,—at all events, retains much more permanent marks of her neutral origin,--identifies the neutral nation much more with the belligerent for whom she is built than any gun can do. It is a kind of enterprise which makes it desirable and worth the enemy's wit& to watch very closely neutral ports, to try and catch the ship directly she leaves the neutral waters, and thus to risk an engagement between a quasi-neutral ship and one of the belligerents. Besides this, a great deal of finesse and political intrigue is required which could never be put into play about a cargo of rifles. A ship of war is a conspicuous power long identified, personally identified, so to say, with acts of violence ; the Alabama is connected with the destruction of Federal commerce in a sense in which no gun that was ever manufactured could be, and hence every reason which urges the neutral to appear, as well as be neutral, militates in favour of a prohibition of enterprises such as these. No regiment raised in Great Britain could ever commit us more in the eyes of the world than did the building of the Alabama.
We hold, then, that if our policy is likely to be more and more neutral as years go on, and if we wish that neutrality to be real, wo ought to substitute such a measure as we have indicated for this inefficient and vague Foreign Enlistment Act. Still more, if we expect to be again a belligerent, with powerful neutral sea-board powers watching us, it would be well for us to do so. With the measure we mete it shall be measured to us again ; and we may be certain that,—say in a contest with France, America being neutral,—the Washington Government will never again stop the building of French Alabamas to sweep the Atlantic of our commerce, if we per- sist in making our own Foreign Enlistment Act a cipher. That is, however, but a poor motive. Our main reason for asking for a change is that the present law directly encourages a sham neutrality,—" dodges" to seem neutral when we are not. If, as we wish, our Government is really to be respon- sible for our wars, we should give it the full right to restrain us from making war either by sea or land.