The Writings of Carl Schurz/International Arbitration


I have been honored with the request that I should address you on the desirableness of arbitration as a method of settling international disputes. To show that arbitration is preferable to war, should be among civilized people as superfluous as to show that to refer disputes between individuals or associations to courts of justice is better than to refer them to single combat or to street fights—in one word, that the ways of civilization are preferable to those of barbarism. Neither is there any doubt as to the practicability of international arbitration. What seemed an idealistic dream in Hugo Grotius's time, is now largely an established practice; no longer an uncertain experiment, but an acknowledged success. In this century not less than eighty controversies between civilized Powers have been composed by arbitration. And more than that. Every international dispute settled by arbitration has stayed settled, while during the same period some of the results of great wars have not stayed settled, and others are unceasingly drawn in question, being subject to the shifting preponderance of power. And such wars have cost rivers of blood, countless treasure and immeasurable misery, while arbitration has cost comparatively nothing. Thus history teaches the indisputable lesson that arbitration is not only the most humane and economical method of setting international differences, but also the most, if not the only, certain method to furnish enduring results.

As to the part war has played and may still have to play in the history of mankind, I do not judge as a blind sentimentalist. I readily admit that, by the side of horrible devastations, barbarous cruelty, great and beneficent things have been accomplished by means of war in forming nations and in spreading and establishing the rule or influence of the capable and progressive. I will not inquire how much of this work still remains to be done and what place war may have in it. But surely, among the civilized nations of to-day—and these we are considering—the existing conditions of intercourse largely preclude war as an agency for salutary objects. The steamship, the railroad, the telegraph, the postal union and other international arrangements facilitating transportation and the circulation of intelligence, have broken down many of the barriers which formerly enabled nations to lead separate lives, and have made them in those things which constitute the agencies of well-being and of progressive civilization in a very high degree dependent upon each other. And this development of common life-interests and mutual furtherance, mental as well as material, still goes on in continuous growth. Thus a war between civilized nations means now a rupture of arteries of common life-blood, a stoppage of the agencies of common well-being and advancement, a waste of energies serviceable to common interests—in one word, a general disaster, infinitely more serious than it did in times gone by; and it is, consequently, now an infinitely more heinous crime against humanity, unless not only the ends it is to serve fully justify the sacrifices it entails, but unless also all expedients suggested by the genius of peace have been exhausted to avert the armed conflict.

Of those pacific expedients, when ordinary diplomatic negotiation does not avail, arbitration has proved itself most effective. And it is the object of the movement in which we are engaged to make the resort to arbitration, in case of international difficulty, still more easy, more regular, more normal, more habitual and thereby to render the resort to war more unnatural and more difficult than heretofore.

In this movement the Republic of the United States is the natural leader, and I can conceive for it no nobler or more beneficent mission. The naturalness of this leadership is owing to its peculiar position among the nations of the earth. Look at the powers of the old world; how each of them is uneasy watching the other; how conflicting interests or ambitions are constantly exciting new anxieties; how they are all armed to the teeth and nervously increase their armaments, lest a hostile neighbor overmatch them; how they are piling expense upon expense and tax upon tax to augment their instruments of destruction; how, as has been said, every workingman toiling for his daily bread, has to carry a full-armed soldier or sailor on his back, and how, in spite of those bristling armaments, their sleep is unceasingly troubled by dreams of interests threatened, of marches stolen upon them, of combinations hatched against them and of the danger of some accident breaking the precarious peace and settling those gigantic and exhausting preparations in motion for the work of ravage and ruin.

And then look at this Republic, stronger than any nation in Europe in the number, intelligence, vigor and patriotism of its people, and in the unparalleled abundance of its barely broached resources; resting with full security in its magnificent domain; standing safely aloof from the feuds of the old world; substantially unassailable in its great continental stronghold; no dangerous neighbors threatening its borders; no outlying and exposed possessions to make it anxious; the only great power in the world seeing no need of keeping up vast standing armaments on land or sea to maintain its peace or to protect its integrity; its free institutions making its people the sole master of its destinies; and its best political traditions pointing to a general policy of peace and good- will among men. What nation is there better fitted to be the champion of this cause of peace and good- will than this, so strong although unarmed, and so entirely exempt from any imputation of the motive of fear or of selfish advantage? Truly, this Republic, with its power and its opportunities is the pet of destiny.

As an American citizen, I cannot contemplate this noble peace mission of my country without a thrill of pride. And I must confess it touches me like an attack upon the dignity of this Republic when I hear Americans repudiate that peace mission upon the ground of supposed interests of the United States requiring for their protection or furtherance preparation for warlike action and the incitement of a fighting spirit among our people. To judge from the utterances of some men having the public ear, we are constantly threatened by the evil designs of rival or secretly hostile Powers that are eagerly watching every chance to humiliate our self-esteem, to insult our flag, to balk our policies, to harass our commerce and even to threaten our very independence; and putting us in imminent danger of discomfiture of all sorts, unless we stand with sword in hand in sleepless watch and cover the seas with warships and picket the islands of every ocean with garrisoned outposts, and surround ourselves far and near with impregnable fortresses. What a poor idea those indulging in such talk have of the true position of their country among the nations of the world.

A little calm reflection will convince every unprejudiced mind that there is not a single Power, nor even an imaginable combination of Powers, on the face of the globe that can wish—I might almost say, that can afford—a serious quarrel with the United States. There are very simple reasons for this. A war in our days is not a mere matter of military skill, nor even—as it would certainly not be in our case—a mere matter of preparation for the first onset. It is a matter of material resources, of reserves, of staying-power. Now, considering that in all these respects our means are substantially inexhaustible, and that the patriotic spirit and the extraordinary ingenuity of our people would greatly aid their development in the progress of a conflict; considering that, however grievous the injuries, a strong hostile navy might inflict upon us at the beginning of a war, it could not touch a vital point, as on land we would be immensely superior to any army that could be brought upon our shores; considering that thus a war with the United States, as a test of endurance, would, so far, as our staying-power is concerned, be a war of indefinite duration; considering all these things, I am justified in saying that no European Power can engage in such a conflict with us without presenting to its rivals in the old world the most tempting opportunity for hostile action. And no European Power will do this, unless forced by extreme necessity. For the same reason no European Power will, even if it were so inclined, insist upon doing anything injurious to our interests that might lead to a war with the United States. We may therefore depend upon it with absolute assurance that, whether we are armed or not, no European Power will seek a quarrel with us; that, on the contrary, they will avoid such a quarrel with the utmost care; that we cannot have a war with any of them, unless we wantonly and persistently seek such a war; and that they will respect our rights and comply with all our demands, if just and proper, in the way of friendly agreement.

If anybody doubts this, let him look at a recent occurrence. The alarmists about the hostility to us of foreign Powers usually have Great Britain in their minds. I am very sure President Cleveland, when he wrote his Venezuela message, did not mean to provoke a war with Great Britain. But the language of that message might have been construed as such a provocation by anybody inclined to do so. Had Great Britain wished a quarrel with us, here was a tempting opportunity. Everybody knew that we had but a small Navy, an insignificant standing Army and no coast defenses; that in fact we were entirely unprepared for a conflict. The public opinion of Europe, too, was against us. What did the British Government do? It did not avail itself of that opportunity. It did not resent the language of the message.

On the contrary, the Queen's speech from the throne gracefully turned that message into an “expression of willingness” on the part of the United States to coöperate with Great Britain in the adjustment of the Venezuela boundary dispute.

It has been said that the conciliatory mildness of this turn was owing to the impression produced in England by the German Emperor's congratulatory despatch to the president of the South African Republic. If the two things were so connected, it would prove what I have said, that even the strongest European Government will be deterred from a quarrel with the United States by the opportunities which such a quarrel would open to its rivals. If the two things were not so connected it would prove that even the strongest European Power will go to very great lengths in the way of conciliation to remain on friendly terms with this Republic.

In the face of these indisputable facts, we hear the hysterical cries of the alarmists who scent behind every rock or bush a foreign foe standing with dagger in hand ready to spring upon us, and to rob us of our valuables, if not to kill us outright—or at least making faces at us and insulting the Stars and Stripes. Is not this constant and eager looking for danger or insult, where neither exists, very like that melancholy form of insanity called persecution mania, which is so extremely distressing to the sufferers and their friends? We may heartily commiserate the unfortunate victims of so dreadful an affliction; but surely the American people should not take such morbid hallucinations as a reason for giving up that inestimable blessing of not being burdened with large armaments, and for embarking upon a policy of warlike preparation and bellicose bluster.

It is a little less absurd in sound, but not in sense, when people say that instead of trusting in our position as the great peace Power we must at least have plenty of warships to “show our flag” everywhere, and to impress foreign nations with our strength to the end of protecting and developing our maritime commerce. Granting that we should have a sufficient naval force to do our share of police work on the seas, would a large armament be required on account of our maritime trade? Let us see. Fifty years ago, as the official statistics of “the value of foreign trade carried in American and in foreign vessels” show, nearly 82 per cent. of that trade was carried on in American vessels. Between 1847 and 1861, that percentage fell to 65. Then the civil war came, at the close of which American bottoms carried only 28 per cent. of that trade; and now we carry less that 12 per cent. During the period when this maritime trade rose to its highest development, we had no naval force to be in any degree compared with those of the great European Powers. Nor did we need any for the protection of our maritime commerce, for no foreign Power molested that commerce. In fact, since the war of 1812, it has not been molested by anybody so as to require armed protection except during the civil war by Confederate cruisers. The harassment ceased again when the civil war ended, but our merchant shipping on the high seas continued to decline.

That decline was evidently not owing to the superiority of other nations in naval armament. It was coincident with the development of ocean transportation by iron steamships instead of wooden sailing ships. The wooden sailing ships we had in plenty, but of iron steamships we have only few. It appears, therefore, that whatever we may need a large war fleet for, it is certainly not for the development of our maritime commerce. To raise that commerce to its old superiority again, we want not more warships, but more merchant vessels. To obtain these we need a policy enabling American capital and enterprise to compete in that business with foreign nations. And to make such a policy fruitful, we need above all things peace. And we shall have that peace so long as we abstain from driving some foreign Power against its own inclination into a war with the United States.

Can there be any motive other than the absurd ones mentioned, to induce us to provoke such a war? I have heard it said that a war might be desirable to enliven business again. Would not that be as wise and moral as a proposition to burn down our cities for the purpose of giving the masons and carpenters something to do? Nay, we are even told that there are persons who would have a foreign war on any pretext, no matter with whom, to the end of bringing on a certain change in our monetary policy. But the thought of plotting in cold blood to break the peace of the country and to send thousands of our youths to slaughter and to desolate thousands of American homes for an object of internal policy, whatever it may be, is so abominable, so ghastly, so appalling, that I dismiss it as impossible of belief.

I say this not as a so-called Anglo-maniac bowing down before everything English. While I admire the magnificent qualities and achievements of that great nation, I am not blind to its faults. I suppose Englishmen candidly expressing their sentiments speak in a similar strain of us. But I believe that an arbitration agreement between just these two countries would not only be of immense importance to themselves, but also serve as an example to invite imitation in wider circles. In this respect I do not think that the so-called blood-relationship of the two nations, which would make such an arbitration agreement between them appear more natural, furnishes the strongest reason for it. It is indeed true that the ties binding the two peoples sentimentally together would give to a war between them an especially wicked and heinous aspect. But were their arbitration agreement placed mainly on this ground, it would lose much of its important significance for the world at large.

In truth, however, the common ancestry, the common origin of institutions and laws, the common traditions, the common literature and so on, have not prevented conflicts between the Americans and English before, and they would not alone be sufficient to prevent them in the future. Such conflicts may, indeed, be regarded as family feuds; but family feuds are apt to be the bitterest of all. In point of fact, there is by no means such a community or accord of interest or feeling between the two nations as to preclude hot rivalries and jealousies on many fields which might now and then bring forth an exciting clash. We hear it even said now in this country that Great Britain is not the Power with whom to have a permanent peace arrangement, because she is so high-handed in her dealings with other nations. I should not wonder if the same thing were said in England about the United States. This of course is not an argument against an arbitration agreement, but rather for it. Such an arrangement between nations of such temper is especially called for to prevent that temper from running away with calm reason. Between perfect angels from heaven an arbitration treaty would be superfluous.

The institution of a regulated and permanent system of arbitration between the United States and Great Britain would therefore not be a mere sentimental cooing between loving cousins, nor a mere stage show gotten up for the amusement of the public, but a very serious contrivance intended for very serious business. It will set to mankind the example of two very great nations, the greatest rivals in the world, neither of them a mere theorist or sentimental dreamer, both intensely practical, self-willed and hard-headed, deliberately agreeing to abstain from the barbarous ways of bygone times in adjusting the questions of conflicting interest or ambition that may arise between them, and to resort instead in all cases of difficulty to the peaceable and civilized methods suggested by the enlightenment, the moral sense and the humane spirit of our age. If these two nations prove that this can be done, will not the conclusion gradually force itself upon other civilized nations that by others too it ought to be done, and finally that it must be done? This is the service to be rendered, not only to ourselves, but to mankind.

While the practicability of international arbitration by tribunals established in each case has been triumphantly proved, there is some difference of opinion as to whether a permanent tribunal is possible, whether it can be so organized as to be fit for the adjustment of all disputes that might come before it and whether there would be any power behind it to enforce its adjudications in case one party or the other refused to comply. Such doubts should not disturb our purpose. Similar doubts had to be overcome at every step of the progress from the ancient wager of battle to the present organization of courts of justice. I am sanguine enough to believe that as soon as the two Governments have once resolved that a fixed system of international arbitration shall be established between them, the same ingenuity which has been exerted in discovering difficulties will then be exerted in removing them, and most of them will be found not to exist. The end to be reached in good faith determined upon, a work able machinery will soon be devised, be it a permanent arbitration tribunal, or the adoption of an organic rule for the appointment of a special tribunal for each case. We may trust to experience to develop the best system.

Neither am I troubled by the objection that there are some international disputes which in their very nature cannot be submitted to arbitration, especially those involving questions of national honor. When the habit of such submission is once well established, it will doubtless be found that most of the questions now thought unfit for it are entirely capable of composition by methods of reason and equity. And as to so-called questions of honor, it is time for modern civilization to leave behind it those mediæval notions according to which personal honor found its best protection in the dueling pistol, and national honor could be vindicated only by slaughter and devastation. Moreover, was not the great Alabama case, which involved points very closely akin to questions of honor, settled by international arbitration, and does not this magnificent achievement form one of the most glorious pages of the common history of America and England? Truly, the two nations that accomplished this need not be afraid of unadjustable questions of honor in the future.

Indeed, there will be no recognized power behind a Court of Arbitration, like an international sheriff or other executionary force, to compel the acceptance of its decisions by an unwilling party. In this extreme case there would be, as the worst possible result, what there would have been without arbitration—war. But in how many of the fourscore cases of international arbitration we have witnessed in this century has such an enforcing power been needed? In not a single one. In every instance the same spirit which moved the contending parties to accept arbitration, moved them to accept the verdict. Why, then, borrow trouble where experience has shown that there is no danger of mischief? The most trustworthy compelling power will always be the sense of honor of the parties concerned and their respect for the enlightened judgment of civilized mankind which will watch the proceedings.

We may therefore confidently expect that a permanent system of arbitration will prove as feasible as it is desirable. Nor is there any reason to doubt that its general purpose is intelligently and warmly favored by the best public sentiment both in England and in the United States. The memorial of 233 members of the British House of Commons which, in 1887, was presented to the President and the Congress of the United States, expressing the wish that all future differences between the two countries be submitted to arbitration, was, in 1890, echoed by a unanimous vote of our Congress requesting the President to open negotiations in this sense with all countries with which we had diplomatic relations. Again this sentiment broke forth in England as well as here on the occasion of the Venezuela excitement, in demonstrations of the highest respectability. Indeed, the popular desire as well as the argument seem to be all on one side. I have heard of only one objection that makes the slightest pretense to statesmanship, and it need only be stated to cover its supporters with confusion. It is that we are a young and aspiring people, and that a binding arbitration treaty would hamper us in our freedom of action.

Let the light be turned upon this. What is it that an arbitration treaty contemplates? That in all cases of dispute between this and a certain other country there shall be an impartial tribunal regularly appointed to decide upon principles of international law, of equity, of reason, what this and what the other country may be justly entitled to. And this arrangement is to be shunned as hampering our freedom of action?

What will you think of a man who tells you that he feels himself intolerably hampered in his freedom of action by the ten commandments or by the criminal code? What respect and confidence can a nation claim for its character that rejects a trustworthy and well-regulated method of ascertaining and establishing right and justice, avowedly to preserve its freedom of action? Shame upon those who would have this great Republic play so disreputable a part! I protest that the American people are an honorable people. Wherever its interests or ambitions may lead this great Nation, I am sure it will always preserve that self-respect which will prompt it rather to court the searchlight of truth and justice than by skulking on dark and devious paths seek to evade it.

Therefore, I doubt not that the patriotic citizens assembled here to promote the establishment of a permanent system of international arbitration may be confident of having the warm sympathy of the American people behind them when they knock at the door of the President of the United States, and say to him: “In the name of all good Americans we commend this cause to your care. If carried to a successful issue it will hold up this Republic to its noblest ideals. It will illuminate with fresh luster the close of this great century. It will write the name of the American people foremost upon the roll of the champions of the world's peace and of true civilization.”

I know, however, from personal experience, of some otherwise honorable and sensible men who wish for a war on sentimental—aye, on high moral ground. One of them, whom I much esteem, confessed to me that he longed for a war, if not with England, then with Spain or some other Power, as he said, “to lift the American people out of their materialism and to awaken once more that heroic spirit which moved young Cushing to risk his life in blowing up the Confederate steamer Albemarle.” This, when I heard it, fairly took my breath away. And yet, we must admit, such fanciful confusion of ideas is not without charm to some of our high-spirited young men. But what a mocking delusion it is! To lift a people out of materialism by war! Has not war always excited the spirit of reckless and unscrupulous speculation, not only while it was going on, but also afterwards, by the economic disorders accompanying and outlasting it? Has it not always stimulated the rapid and often dishonest accumulation of riches on one side, while spreading and intensifying want and misery on the other? Has it not thus always had a tendency to plunge a people still deeper into materialism? Has not every great war left a dark streak of demoralization behind? Has it not thus always proved dangerous to the purity of republican governments? Is not this our own experience? And as to awakening the heroic spirit—does it not, while stirring noble impulses in some, excite the base passions in others? And do not the young Cushings among us find opportunities for heroism in the life of peace too? Would it be wise in the economy of the universe to bring on a war, with its bloodshed and devastation, its distress and mourning, merely for the purpose of accommodating our young braves with chances for blowing up ships? The old Roman poet tells us that it is sweet and glorious to die for one's country. It is noble, indeed. But to die on the battlefield is not the highest achievement of heroism. To live for a good cause honestly, earnestly, unselfishly, laboriously, is at least as noble and heroic as to die for it, and usually far more difficult.

I have seen war. I have seen it with its glories and its horrors; with its noble emotions and its bestialities; with its exaltations and triumphs and its unspeakable miseries and baneful corruptions; and I say to you, I feel my blood tingle with indignation when I hear the flippant talk of war as if it were only a holiday pastime or an athletic sport. We are often told that there are things worse than war. Yes, but not many. He deserves the curse of mankind who in the exercise of power forgets that war should be only the very last resort even in contending for a just and beneficent end, after all the resources of peaceful methods are thoroughly exhausted. As an American, proud of his country and anxious that this Republic should prove itself equal to the most glorious of its opportunities, I cannot but denounce as a wretched fatuity that so-called patriotism which will not remember that we are the envy of the whole world for the priceless privilege of being exempt from the oppressive burden of warlike preparations; which, when it sees other nations groaning under that load, tauntingly asks, “Why do you not disarm?” and then insists that the American people too shall put the incubus of heavy armament on their backs; and which would drag this Republic down from its high degree of the championship of peace among nations and degrade it to the vulgar level of the bully ready and eager for a fight.

We hear much of the necessity of an elaborate system of coast fortifications to protect our seaports from assault. How far such a system may be desirable, I will not here discuss. But I am confident our strongest, most effective, most trustworthy and infinitely the cheapest coast defense will consist in “Fort Justice,” “Fort Good Sense,” “Fort Self-respect,” “Fort Good-will” and if international differences really do arise, “Fort Arbitration.”

Let no one accuse me of resorting to the clap-trap of the stump speech in discussing this grave subject. I mean exactly what I say, and am solemnly in earnest. This Republic can have no other armament as effective as the weapons of peace. Its security, its influence, its happiness and its glory will be the greater the less it thinks of war. Its moral authority will be far more potent than the heavy squadrons and the big guns of others. And this authority will, in its intercourse with foreign nations, be best maintained by that justice which is the duty of all; by that generous regard not only for the rights, but also the self-respect of others, which is the distinguishing mark of the true gentleman; and by that patient forbearance which is the most gracious virtue of the strong.

For all these reasons it appears to me this Republic is the natural champion of the great peace measure, for the furtherance of which we are met. The permanent establishment of a general court of arbitration to be composed of representative jurists of the principal States and to take cognizance of all international disputes that cannot be settled by ordinary diplomatic negotiation, is no doubt the ideal to be aimed at. If this cannot be reached at once the conclusion of an arbitration treaty between the United States and Great Britain may be regarded as a great step in that direction.

  1. Address delivered before the Arbitration Conference, Washington, D. C., April 22, 1896.