The State of the Union in 1855: A British Imposition

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce opened his third annual message with complaints that the British had violated the agreed-upon neutrality of Central America. The British claimed otherwise, insisting that they had only agreed to future neutrality and in no way prejudiced any of their current claims to the region. They might have made a better case had they not actively expanded their influence after signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, but come the turn of the decade London will finally scale back its involvement all the same. The perfidies of Albion reached further than Central America. At the same time as the United Kingdom disregarded neutrality and the sovereignty of independent states south of the border, it had done so right in the United States.

If you ask an American about the first modern war, you’ll probably hear about the Civil War. It involved technology on a new scale, with railroad and telegraph lines taking on both military significance and carrying news back inform a more engaged public. Ask a European about modern war and you’ll learn that the Crimean War did much the same in the mid-1850s, up to and including such Civil War innovations as ironclad ships.

By the time Pierce wrote his message, the Crimean War had gone on for more than a year. In the nineteenth century, the United States took a generally firm neutral stance toward European disputes. They had nothing to do with us and we wished nothing to do with them, most particularly their large and professional armies which could land nearly anywhere along the American coast and do as they liked in the face of our vast, sparsely defended frontiers. A relatively small European army had burned the White House in living memory. Pierce stated the American consensus when he declared that the United States expected foreign powers to keep their warfare to themselves and let Americans do as they liked:

Notwithstanding the existence of such hostilities, our citizens retained the individual right to continue all their accustomed pursuits, by land or by sea, at home or abroad, subject only to such restrictions in this relation as the laws of war, the usage of nations, or special treaties may impose; and it is our sovereign right that our territory and jurisdiction shall not be invaded by either of the belligerent parties for the transit of their armies, the operations of their fleets, the levy of troops for their service, the fitting out of cruisers by or against either, or any other act or incident of war. And these undeniable rights of neutrality, individual and national, the United States will under no circumstances surrender.

Neutrality did not require a Jeffersonian embargo, though. The United States permitted citizens to transport sell their wares to belligerents, including weaponry. Americans could even transport foreign soldiers. But you did such things at your own risk and, consequently, they did not implicate Washington. Many Americans had taken the risks and reaped the profits. None of that caused any problems that Pierce saw fit to mention. Nor had foreign armies transited American soil or foreign warships come unwanted into American waters. Americans had even managed not to help belligerent powers base privateers or fit out military vessels in domestic ports, something the nation couldn’t claim at all when it came to filibusters.

The rub came when the British recruited on American soil. American neutrality law forbade mustering expeditions to go join foreign wars just as it did outfitting warships for them:

they provide not less absolutely that no person shall, within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States, enlist or enter himself, or hire or retain another person to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the limits or jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered, in the service of any foreign state, either as a soldier or as a marine or seaman on board of any vessel of war, letter of marque, or privateer. And these enactments are also in strict conformity with the law of nations, which declares that no state has the right to raise troops for land or sea service in another state without its consent, and that, whether forbidden by the municipal law or not, the very attempt to do it without such consent is an attack on the national sovereignty.

The War of 1812 had not come again. The British asked for men, rather than abducted them. But they had gone beyond stopping ships on the high seas and instead recruited right on American soil. This might not make for a second burned White House, but agents of a foreign government recruiting for one of their wars within the United States clearly ran afoul of the neutrality laws. To permit them would, like indulging filibusters, encourage other powers to understand the United States as a willing co-belligerent. Such a state of affairs could easily draw the United States into battles not of its choosing. Permitting it to go unchallenged would surrender control of American foreign policy to the United Kingdom, a situation befitting a colony or a protectorate but not a nation which deemed itself independent and sovereign.

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