Big news out of Britain today. But as I think you all know by now, I am generally misanthropic about current events. So in today’s post, I will tell you that big news came out of Britain (well, Geneva, really) on this day in 1872, as well.
Admittedly, the events of 1872 had less immediate impact, but as you’ll come to find out if you keep reading, they had pretty intense long-term ramifications. In June 1872, international arbitration endorsed the U.S. position on the Alabama Claims, Britain paid the United States $15.5 million, a perpetual U.S.-British alliance was cemented, and a precedent was set for international arbitration of disputes between nations.
“Wait. The Alabama what?” I hear you cry.
The Alabama Claims were a series of demands for damages that the U.S. government sought from the UK for Confederate Navy raider attacks on Union merchant ships during the Civil War. The most famous of the five ships cited in the claims was the CSS Alabama, which Wikipedia tells me never docked in a Southern port and took more than 60 prizes before being sunk by the USS Kearsage off the French coast in 1864.
What did Britain have to do with Confederate Navy attacks? Well, the boats were built in British shipyards in 1862, in contracts with Confederate agents (or middle men for Confederate agents). And the British government did not stop the Alabama from putting to sea to wreak its havoc, even though the American Minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams (who would lose the Liberal Republican presidential nomination to Horace Greeley in the same year the claims would be settled), told them the ship was bound for the Confederacy and was clearly intended for use against the United States. There were some shady dealings involved — Britain had a neutrality law, and while the shipbuilders more or less hewed to the letter of that law they certainly thumbed their noses at its spirit. The law said Britons could build warships; they just weren’t allowed to arm them. (That had to happen after vessels reached international waters.) Public opinion, however, was rather against the idea of building boats intended for attack on the United States. The Alabama was spirited out of British waters in secret and created a political embarrassment for those in power who favored the Confederacy and let it happen.
After the war ended and the United States got its affairs somewhat sorted, the winning side went after Britain for aiding and abetting the enemy. Charles Sumner (famous for his 1856 “Crime Against Kansas” speech and subsequent thrashing in the Senate chamber by Preston Brooks) lobbied for Britain to cough up $2 billion—or he was willing to settle for them handing over all of Canada. This idea had some support for a while, but that petered out over time: More U.S. groups were anxious for some fast cash, nationalist sentiment in British Columbia favored fealty to the British Empire, Congress got sucked up into Reconstruction efforts, and few Americans seemed very interested in expansion while having to deal with the fallout and expense of the war.
In 1871, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish cut a deal with British representative Sir John Rose. A commission was formed to deal with a number of financial and territorial issues, including the Alabama Claims. The resulting Treaty of Washington got U.S. approval in May of that year. A year later, an international arbitration tribunal met in Geneva and endorsed the whole thing, including cash for the Alabama Claims, settlement of Atlantic fisheries and language on the Oregon boundary line. Britain expressed regret over the Alabama damages, but claimed no responsibility.
So, who cares? Why was this big news? Why does it matter today? Well, it mattered at the time in terms of international policy and allegiances. It put to rest a long-simmering snit between the U.S. and the U.K. On a bigger stage, it triggered a movement to codify public international law, basically making this relatively little settlement dispute a first step (for better or worse) toward bigger international agencies like the Hague conventions, the World Court, and the United Nations.
So, there you have it. Brexit might or might not mark the kickoff of several momentous European events. But in 1872, the same could have been (in fact, actually was) said about consideration of the Treaty of Washington in Geneva.