This was also John Bright’s view. But can Russell and the Government be criticized even as exercising an unwise (not unfriendly) haste? Henry Adams wrote that the British thought the “dissolution seemed inevitable” and “we seemed to have made up our minds to it.” Certainly this was a justifiable conclusion from the events in America from Lincoln’s election in November, 1860, to his inauguration in March, 1861—and even to a later date, almost in fact to the first week in April. During this period the British Ministry preserved a strictly “hands off” policy. Then, suddenly, actual conflict begins and at once each side in America issues declarations, Davis on privateering, Lincoln on blockade and piracy, indicative that maritime war, the form of war at once most dangerous to British interests and most likely to draw in British citizens, was the method first to be tried by the contestants. Unless these declarations were mere bluff and bluster England could not dare wait their application. She must at once warn her citizens and make clear her position as a neutral. The Proclamation was no effort “to keep straight with both sides”; it was simply the natural, direct, and prompt notification to British subjects required in the presence of a de facto war.
Moreover, merely as a matter of historical speculation, it was fortunate that the Proclamation antedated the arrival of Adams. The theory of the Northern administration under which the Civil War was begun and concluded was that a portion of the people of the United States were striving as “insurgents” to throw off their allegiance, and that there could be no recognition of any Southern Government in the conflict. In actual practice in war, the exchange of prisoners and like matters, this theory had soon to be discarded. Yet it was a far-seeing and wise theory nevertheless in looking forward to the purely domestic and constitutional problem of the return to the Union, when conquered, of the sections in rebellion. This, unfortunately, was not clear to foreign nations, and it necessarily complicated relations with them. Yet under that theory Adams had to act. Had he arrived before the Proclamation of Neutrality it is difficult to see how he could have proceeded otherwise than to protest, officially, against any British declaration of neutrality, declaring that his Government did not acknowledge a state of war as existing, and threatening to take his leave. It would have been his duty to prevent, if possible, the issue of the Proclamation. Dallas, fortunately, had been left uninformed and uninstructed. Adams, fortunately, arrived too late to prevent and had, therefore, merely to complain. The “premature” issue of the Proclamation averted an inevitable rupture of relations on a clash between the American theory of “no state of war” and the international fact that war existed. Had that rupture occurred, how long would the British Government and people have remained neutral, and what would have been the ultimate fate of the United States?