Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
ALABAMA CLAIMS (IN
—The fall of Fort Sumter, in April, 1861, (see
—The British foreign enlistment act of July 3, 1819, (59 Geo. III., cap. 69), prohibits under penalties, and empowers the government to prevent the equipment of any land or sea forces within the British dominions to operate against the territory or commerce of a friendly nation. In the United States the act of April 20, 1818, which is closely similar in its terms, preceded it, and the two governments are supposed to have acted with a common understanding in the matter. During the Crimean war the United States had fulfilled their obligations promptly and fully by seizing and detaining vessels represented to be destined for the service of Russia; and the claim was now advanced, and finally established, (see
—Soon after the departure of the Oreto, or Florida, minister Adams began collecting evidence against another vessel then building by the Messrs. Laird at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, and called, from the number of merchants who had subscribed the expense of her construction, the 290 (afterward the Alabama). June 23, he gave notice to Earl Russell of what he believed to be the real character of the vessel, and solicited "such action as might tend either to stop the projected expedition, or to establish the fact that its purpose was not inimical to the people of the United States." That action was never taken. July 16, the American minister submitted to Earl Russell his evidence, and the opinion of distinguished English counsel, that "the evidence was almost conclusive." A week afterward, July 23, he offered fresh evidence, and a most emphatic opinion of the same counsel, to the following effect: "I have perused the above affidavits, and I am of opinion that the collector of customs would be justified in detaining the vessel. Indeed, I should think it his duty to detain her, and that if, after the application which has been made to him, supported by the evidence which has been laid before me, he allows the vessel to leave Liverpool, he will incur a heavy responsibility—a responsibility of which the board of customs, under whose direction he appears to be acting, must take their share. It appears difficult to make out a stronger case of infringement of the foreign enlistment act, which, if not enforced on this occasion, is little better than a dead letter. It well deserves consideration whether, if the vessel be allowed to escape, the federal government would not have serious grounds of remonstrance." The vessel was allowed to escape. The board of customs referred the papers to their counsel; the Queen's advocate, Sir John D. Harding, fell ill; other counsel were called in, who advised the seizure of the vessel; but, before this opinion could be acted upon, the Alabama had sailed, July 29, without register or clearance, to the Terceira, one of the Azores, where she took her equipment from two British vessels and became a confederate war vessel, commissioned "to sink, burn and destroy" the commerce of the United States. No effective pursuit of the vessel was made by Great Britain, and she was hospitably received, without any attempt to arrest her, in several British colonies afterward.
—In April, 1863, the Japan, afterward called the Georgia, left Greenock, and soon after, upon the coast of France, she took an equipment from another steamer and became a confederate cruiser. For over a year she continued her cruise until she was captured off Lisbon, Aug. 15, 1864, by the United States steamer Niagara, after a transfer to a Liverpool merchant.
—In September, 1864, the steamer Sea King, owned by a Liverpool merchant, cleared at London for India. At Madeira she met another vessel, the Laurel, of Liverpool, from which she received her armament and men, and she then became the confederate war vessel Shenandoah. During her career as a cruiser, before her surrender to the British government, Nov. 6, 1865, the Shenandoah took in supplies and enlisted men at Melbourne, Australia, with the connivance, as the American consul asserted, of the British authorities at that port.
—Besides the devastation wrought by the rebel cruisers, the United States considered the toleration by Great Britain of confederate administrative bureaux on British soil, by means of which alone offensive operations against American commerce were possible, as ground of reclamation. The action of the British government in maintaining an official union with France upon questions growing out of the rebellion, was also considered unfriendly to the United States in the absence of any recognition of the confederate states as an independent nation. The whole mass of grievances of which the United States expected satisfaction from Great Britain, and to which the name "Alabama Claims" was commonly given, may best be summed up in the words of the American members of the joint high commission: "Extensive direct losses in the capture and destruction of a large number of vessels, with their cargoes, and in the heavy national expenditures in the pursuit of the cruisers; and indirect injury in the transfer of a large part of the American commercial marine to the British flag, in the enhanced payment of insurance, in the prolongation of the war, and in the addition of a large sum to the cost of the war and the suppression of the rebellion."
—When it first became apparent that the neutrality of Great Britain would be a source of danger to the United States, minister Adams was very active in pressing each fresh violation of neutrality upon the attention of the British government, not, as he explained to his own government, with any hope of obtaining more stringent laws, or greater diligence in the execution of existing laws, but with the intention of "making a record" to which the United States could thereafter appeal. The American ill-feeling toward Great Britain, which was developed by her haste to accord belligerent rights to the confederacy, had grown upon every new grievance until, when the rebellion was at last suppressed, it had settled into a dangerous disposition to leave the matter unsettled for the purpose of applying the British system of neutrality to British commerce in the event of any future war or rebellion against Great Britain. The American government, however, did not share this disposition. It continued to press its claim for compensation in the higher tone which was justified by its altered circumstances, but at the same time, Jan. 12, 1866, offered to submit "the whole controversy" to arbitration. The British government offered to accept an arbitration limited to the depredations of the Alabama and similar vessels, but this was declined by the United States for the reason that it involved a waiver of the position, which they had always held, that the Queen's proclamation of 1861, which accorded belligerent rights to insurgents against the authority of the United States, was not justified on any grounds, either of necessity or of moral right, and therefore was an act of wrongful intervention, a departure from the obligations of existing treaties, and without the sanction of the law of nations.
—Jan. 14, 1869, Reverdy Johnson, American minister to Great Britain, arranged a treaty which, without mentioning the Alabama claims in particular, provided for the submission to arbitration of "all claims" of either country against the other since Feb. 8, 1853 In the senate this treaty had but a single vote in its favor, and was not ratified. Negotiations on this subject then practically came to a stand until Jan. 26, 1871, when the British government proposed the appointment of a joint commission to sit at Washington and arrange the terms of a treaty to cover the disputes as to the Canadian fisheries and other questions at issue between the United States and Canada. The proposition was accepted on condition that the treaty should also make some disposition of the Alabama claims. To this condition Great Britain agreed, and five high commissioners from each country met in joint session at Washington, Feb. 27, 1871. After thirty-four meetings, the commission agreed upon the terms of the Treaty of Washington, which was signed by the commissioners May 8, ratified by the senate, by a vote of 50 to 12, May 24; ratified by Great Britain, June 17, and proclaimed in force July 4, 1871, by president Grant. It provided for arbitration (1) as to the Alabama claims, (2) as to claims of British subjects against the United States, (3) as to the fisheries, and (4) as to the northwest boundary of the United States. The arbitrators upon the Alabama claims were to be five in number, appointed by the president of the United States, her Britannic majesty, the king of Italy, the president of the Swiss confederation, and the emperor of Brazil; and were to hold their sessions at Geneva, Switzerland. (For the constitution and award of the tribunal of arbitration, and the provisions of the treaty governing its deliberations, see
—See The Case of the United States to be laid before the Tribunal of Arbitration to be convened at Geneva, London, 1872; Case presented on the part of Her Britannic Majesty to the Tribunal of Arbitration, London, 1872; Official Correspondence on the Claims in respect to the Alabama, London, 1867; Bluntschli, Opinion impartiale sur la question de la Alabama, Berlin, 1870; Geffcken, Die Alabamafrage, Stuttgart, 1872; Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (with messages) 1861-71; Cushing's Treaty of Washington. The act of April 20, 1818, is in 3 Stat. at Large, 448. The treaty is in Stat. at Large.
Return to top