Self-Possession vs. Prepossession
TIMOLEON, a man prosperous in all his undertakings, was wont to ascribe his successes to good-luck ; but that he did not mean to give credit to any blind Goddess of Fortune is evident from his having built an altar to a certain divine something which he called Automatia, signifying Spontaneousness, or a happy promptitude in following the dictates of his own genius. The Liberator of Sicily, to be sure, did not live in an age of newspapers, and was not liable at every turn to have his elbow jogged by Public Opinion; but it is plain that his notion of a man fit to lead was, that he should be one who never waited to seize Opportunity from behind, and who knew that events become the masters of him who is slow to make them his servants.
Thus far nothing has been more remarkable in the history of our civil war than that its signal opportunities have failed to produce on either side any leader who has proved himself to be gifted with this happy faculty. Even our statesmen seem not to have felt the kindling inspiration of a great occasion. The country is going through a trial more crucial, if possible, than that of the Revolution; but no state-paper has thus far appeared, comparable in anything but quantity to the documents of our heroic period. Even Mr. Seward seems to have laid aside his splendid art of generalization, or to have found out the danger of those specious boomerangs of eloquence, which, launched from the platform with the most graceful curves of rhetoric, come back not seldom to deal an untimely blow to him who sets them flying. The people begin to show signs of impatience that the curtain should be so slow to rise and show them the great actor in our national tragedy. They are so used to having a gigantic bubble of notoriety blown lor them in a week by the newspapers, though it burst in a day or two, leaving but a drop of muddy suds behind it, that they have almost learned to think the making of a great character as simple a matter as that of a great reputation. Bewildered as they have been with a mob of statesmen, generals, orators, poets, and what not, all of them the foremost of this or any other age, they seem to expect a truly great man on equally easy terms with these cheap miracles of the press,—grown as rapidly, to be forgotten as soon, as the prize cauliflower of a county show. We have improvised an army; we have conjured a navy out of nothing so rapidly that pines the jay screamed in last summer may be even now listening for the hum of the hostile shot from Sumter; why not give another rub at our Aladdin’s lamp and improvise a genius and a hero ?
This is, perhaps, very natural, but it is nevertheless unreasonable. Heroes and geniuses are never to be had ready-made, nor was a tolerable specimen of either ever produced at six months’ notice. Dearly do nations pay for such secular births ; still more dearly for their training. They are commonly rather the slow result than the conscious cause of revolutions in thought or polity. It is no imputation on democratic forms of government, it is the unexampled prosperity of nearly half a century that is in fault, if a sudden and unforewarned danger finds us without a leader, whether civil or military, whom the people are willing to trust implicitly, and who can in some sense control events by the prestige of a great name. Carlyle and others have for years been laying to the charge of representative and parliamentary government the same evils whose germ certain British critics, as ignorant of our national character as of our geography, are so kindly ready to find in our democracy. Mr. Stuart Mill, in his essay on “ Liberty,” has convinced us that even the tyranny of Public Opinion is not, as we had hastily supposed, a peculiarly American institution, but is to the full as stringent and as fertile of commonplace in intellect and character under a limited as under a universal system of suffrage.
The truth is, that it is not in our institutions, but in our history, that we are to look for the causes of much that is superficially distasteful and sometimes unpleasantly disappointing in our national habits, — we would not too hastily say in our national character. Our most incorrigible blackguards, and the class of voters who are at the mercy of venal politicians, have had their training, such as it is, under forms of government and amid a social order very unlike ours. Disgust at the general dirtiness and corruption of our politics, we are told, keeps all our leading men out of public life. This appears to us, we confess, a rather shallow misconception. Our politics are no dirtier or more corrupt than those of our neighbors. The famous Quam parvâ sapientiâ regilur mundus was not said in scorn by the minister of a republic, but in sober sadness by one whose dealings had been lifelong with the courts and statesmen of princes. The real disgust lies in the selfish passions that are called into play by the strife of party and the small ambitions of public men, and not in any mere coarseness in the expression of them. We are not an elegant people: rather less so, on the whole, even in the aristocratic South than in the democratic North. In this past year of our Lord eighteen hundred sixty-one, we have no doubt, and we shudder to think of it, that by far the larger proportion of our fellowcitizens shovelled their green-peas into their mouths with uncanonical knifeblades, just as Sir Philip Sidney did in a darker age, when yet the “ Times” and the silver fork were not. Nay, let us make a clean breast of all these horrors at once, it is probably true that myriads of fair salmon were contaminated with the brutal touch of steel in scenes of unhallowed family-festival. The only mitigating circumstance is that such luxuries are within the reach of ten Americans where one European sees them any nearer than through the windows of the victualler. No, we must yield the point. We are not an elegant people, least of all in our politics; but we do not believe it is this which keeps our first-rate men out of political life, or that it is the result of our democratic system.
It has been our good-fortune hitherto that our annals have been of that happy kind which write themselves on the face of a continent and in the general well-being of a people, rather than in those more striking and commonly more disastrous events which attract the historian. We have been busy, thriving, and consequently, except to some few thoughtful people like De Tocqneville, profoundly uninteresting. We have been housekeeping; and why does the novelist always make his bow to the hero and heroine at the church-door, unless because he knows, that, if they are well off, nothing more is to be made of them ? Prosperity is the forcing-house of mediocrity; and if we have ceased to produce great men, it is because we have not, since we became a nation, been forced to pay the terrible price at which alone they can be bought. Great men are excellent things for a nation to have had; but a normal condition that should give a constant succession of them would be the most wretched possible for the mass of mankind. We have had and still have honest and capable men in public life, brave and able officers in our army and navy ; but there has been nothing either in our civil or military history for many years to develop any latent qualities of greatness that may have been in them. It is only firstrate events that call for and mould firstrate characters. If there has been less stimulus for the more showy and striking kinds of ambition, if the rewards of a public career have been less brilliant than in other countries, yet we have shown, (and this is a legitimate result of democracy,) perhaps beyond the measure of other nations, that plebeian genius for the useful which has been chiefly demanded by our circumstances, and which does more than war or state-craft to increase the well-being and therefore the true glory of nations. Few great soldiers or great ministers have done so much for their country as Whitney's cotton-gin and McCormick’s reaper have done for ours. We do not believe that our country has degenerated under democracy, but our position as a people has been such as to turn our energy, capacity, and accomplishment into prosaic channels. Physicians call certain remedies, to be administered only in desperate cases, heroic, and Providence reserves heroes for similar crises in the body politic. They are not sent but in times of agony and peril. If we have lacked the thing, it is because we have lacked the occasion for it. And even where truly splendid qualities have been displayed, as by our sailors in the War of 1812, and by our soldiers in Mexico, they have been either on so small a scale as to means, or on a scene so remote from European interests, that they have failed of anything like cosmopolitan appreciation. Our great actors have been confined to what, so far as Europe is concerned, has been a provincial theatre ; and an obscure stage is often as fatal to fame as the want of a poet.
But meanwhile has not this been very much the case with our critics themselves ? Leading British statesmen may be more accomplished scholars than ours, Parliament may be more elegantly bored than Congress; but we have a rooted conviction that commonplace thought and shallow principles do not change their nature, even though disguised in the English of Addison himself. Mr. Gladstone knows vastly more Greek than Mr. Chase, but we may be allowed to doubt if he have shown himself an abler finance-minister. Since the beginning of the present century it is safe to say that England has produced no statesmen whom her own historians will pronounce to be more than secondor third-rate men. The Crimean War found her, if her own journalists were to he believed, without a single great captain whether on land or sea, with incompetence in every department, civil and military, and driven to every shift, even to foreign enlistment and subsidy, to put on foot an army of a hundred thousand men. What an opportunity for sermonizing on the failure of representative government! In that war England lost much of her old prestige in the eyes of the world, and felt that she had lost it. But nothing would have been more un philosophical than to have assumed that England was degenerate or decrepit. It was only that her training had been for so long exclusively mechanical and peaceful. The terrible, but glorious, experience of the Indian Rebellion showed that Englishmen still possessed in as full measure as ever those noble characteristics on which they justly pride themselves, and of which a nation of kindred blood would be the last to deny them the praise. When the heroic qualities found their occasion, they were not wanting.
We do not say this as unduly sensitive to the unfriendly, often insulting and always unwise, criticisms of a large proportion of the press and the public men of England. In ordinary times we could afford to receive them with a good-natured smile. The zeal of certain new converts to Adam Smith in behalf of the free-trade principles whose cross they have assumed, their hatred and contempt for all heretics to what is their
doxy and therefore according to Dean Swift orthodoxy, and the naïve unconsciousness with which they measure and weigh the moral qualities of other nations by the yards of cotton or tons of manufactured iron which they consume for the benefit of Manchester and Sheffield, are certainly as comic as anything in Aristophanes. The madness of the philosopher who deemed himself personally answerable for the obliquity of the ecliptic has more than its match in the sense of responsibility shown by British journalists for the good conduct of the rest of mankind. All other kingdoms, potentates, and powers would seem to be minors or lunatics, and they the divinely appointed guardians under bonds to see that their unhappy wards do no harm to themselves or others. We confess, that, in reading the “ Times,” we have been sometimes unable to suppress a feeling of humorous pity for the young man who does the leading articles, and who finds himself, fresh from Oxford or Cambridge and the writing of Latin verses, called suddenly to the autocracy of the Universe. We must pardon a little to the imperii novitas, to the necessity of having universal misinformation always on tap in his inkstand. He summous emperors, kings, ministers, even whole nations, to the inexorable blackboard, His is the great normal school of philosophy, statesmanship, political economy, taste, and deportment. He must help Cavour to a knowledge of Italy, teach Napoleon to appreciate the peculiarities of French character, interpret the American Constitution for Mr. Lincoln. He holds himself directly accountable to heaven and earth, alike for the right solution of the Papal Question and for the costume of his countrymen in foreign parts. Theology or trousers, he is infallible in both. Gregory the Seventh’s wildest dream of a universal popedom is more than fulfilled in him. He is the unapproachable model of quack advertisers. He pats Italy on the head and cries, “ Study constitutional government as exemplified in England, and try Mechi’s razor-strops.” For France he prescribes a reduction of army and navy, and an increased demand for Manchester prints. America he warns against military despotism, advises a tonic of English iron, and a compress of British cotton, as sovereign against internal rupture. What a weight for the shoulders of our poor Johannes Factotum! He is the commissionnuire of mankind, their guide, philosopher, and friend, ready with a disinterested opinion in matters of art or virtù, and eager to furnish anything, from a counterfeit Buddhist idol to a poisoned pickle, for a commission, varying according to circumstances.
But whatever one may think of the wisdom or the disinterestedness of the organs of English commercial sentiment, it cannot be denied that it is of great importance to us that the public opinion of England should be enlightened in regard to our affairs. It would be idle to complain that her policy is selfish; for the policy of nations is always so. It would be foolish to forget that the sympathy of the British people has always declared itself, sooner or later, in favor of free institutions, and of a manly and upright policy toward other nations, or that this sympathy has been on the whole more outspoken and enduring among Englishmen than in any other nation of the Old World. We may justly complain that England should see no difference between a rebel confederacy and a nation to which she was bound by treaties and with which she had so long been on terms of amity gradually ripening to friendship. But do not let us be so childish as to wish tor the suppression of the “ Times Correspondent,” a shrewd, practised, and, for a foreigner, singularly accurate observer, to whom we are indebted for the only authentic intelligence from Secessia since the outbreak of the Rebellion, and whose strictures, (however we may smile at his speculations,) if rightly taken, may do us infinite service. Did he tell us anything about the shameful rout of Bull Run which could not have been predicted beforehand of raw troops, or which, indeed, General Scott himself had not foreboded ? That was not an especially American disgrace. Every nationality under heaven was represented there, and an alarm among the workmen on the Plains of Shinar that the foundations of the Tower of Babel were settling could not have set in motion a more polyglot stampede. The way to blot out Bull Run is as our brave Massachusetts and Pennsylvania men did at Ball’s Bluff, with their own blood, poured only too lavishly. To our minds, the finest and most characteristic piece of English literature, more inspiring even than Henry’s speech to his soldiers on the eve of Agincourt, is Nelson’s signal, “England expects every man to do his duty.” When we have risen to that level and are content to stand there, with no thought of self, but only of our country and what we owe her, we need wince at no hostile sneer nor dread any foreign combination. Granted that we have been a little boyish and braggart, as was perhaps not unnatural in a nation hardly out of its teens, our present trial is likely to make men of us, and to leave us, like our British cousins, content with the pleasing consciousness that we are the supreme of creation and under no necessity of forever proclaiming it. Our present experience, also, of the unsoundness of English judgment and the narrowness of English views concerning our policy and character may have the good result of making our independence in matters of thought and criticism as complete as our political emancipation.
Those who have watched the tendencies of opinion among educated Englishmen during the last ten or fifteen years could hardly be surprised, that, when the question was presented to them as being between aristocratic and democratic ideas, between a race of gentlemen and a mob of shopkeepers and snobs, they should have been inclined to sympathize with the South. There have been unmistakable symptoms of a reaction in England, since 1848 especially, against liberalism in politics and in favor of things as they are. We are not to wonder that Englishmen did not stop to examine too closely the escutcheon and pedigree of this self-patented nobility. With one or two not very striking exceptions, like Lord Fairfax and Washington, (who was of kin to one of the few British peers that have enjoyed the distinction of being hanged,) the entire population of America is descended from the middle and lower classes in the old countries. The difference has been, that the man at the South who raised cotton and sold it has gradually grown to consider himself a superior being by comparison with his own negroes, while the man at the North who raised potatoes and sold them has been content with the old Saxon notion that he was as good as his neighbors. The descendant of the Huguenot tradesman or artisan, if in Boston, builds Faneuil Hall or founds Bowdoin College; if in Charleston, he deals in negroes and persuades himself that he is sprung from the loins of Baldwin, King of Jerusalem. The mass of the population at the South is more intensely democratic, so far as white men are concerned, than the same class at the North.
There is a little inconsistency in the English oracles in this respect; for, while they cannot conceal a kind of sympathy with the Southern Rebels in what is supposed to be their war upon democratic institutions, they tell us that they would heartily espouse our cause, if we would but proclaim a crusade against Slavery. Suppose the Squires of England had got up a rebellion because societies had been formed for the abolition of the Corn-Laws; which would the “ Times ” have gone for putting down first, the rebellion or the laws ? England professes not to be able to understand the principles of this wicked, this unholy war, as she calls it. Yet she was not so slow to understand the necessity of putting down the Irish Insurrection of 1848, or the Indian Rebellion ten years later. She thinks it impossible for the Government of the United States to subdue and hold provinces so vast as the Cotton States of America; yet she neither foreboded nor as yet has found any impracticability in renewing and retaining her hold on the vaster provinces of British India,— provinces inhabited, all of them, by races alien in blood, religion, and manners, and many by a population greatly exceeding that of our Southern States, brave, warlike, and, to some extent, trained in European tactics. To have abandoned India would have been to surrender the greatness of England. English writers and speakers, in discussing our affairs, overlook wholly the fact that a rebellion may be crushed by anything except force of arms. Among a people of the same lineage and the same language, but yesterday contented under the same Constitution, and in an age when a victory in the stock-market is of more consequence than successes in the field, political and economical necessities may be safely reckoned on as slow, but effective, allies of the old order of things. The people of this country are too much used to sudden and seemingly unaccountable political revolutions not to be able to forfeit their consistency without any loss of self-respect; and the rapidity with which the Southern Rebellion was forced up to its present formidable proportions, mainly by party management, is not unlikely to find its parallel in suddenness of collapse. But whether this prove to be the fact or not, nay, even if the reëstablishment of the Union had been hopeless from the first, a government which should have abandoned its capital, which should have flinched from the first and plainest duty of self-preservation, which should have admitted by a cowardly surrender that force was law, that treason was constitutional, and fraud honorable, would have deserved and received the contempt of all civilized nations, of England among the first.
There is no such profound and universal alienation, still less such an antagonism in political theory, between the people of the Northern and Southern parts of the Union, as some English journals would infer from the foolish talk of a few conceited persons in South Carolina and Virginia. There is no question between landholders on the one side and manufacturers and merchants on the other. The bulk of the population, North and South, are holders of land, while the average size of the holdings of land under cultivation is probably greater in the Free than in the Slave States. The largest single estate in the country is, we believe, in Illinois. Generalizations are commonly unsafe in proportion as they are tempting; and this, together with its pretty twin-brother about Cavaliers and Roundheads, would seem to have been hatched from the same egg and in the same mare’s-nest. If we should take the statements of Dr. Cullen and Mr. Smith O’Brien for our premises, instead of the manifest facts of the case, our conclusion in regard to Ireland would be an anachronism which no Englishman would allow to be within half a century of the actual condition of things. And yet could the Irish revolutionists of thirteen years ago have had the advantage of a ministry like that of Mr. Buchanan, — had every Irish officer and soldier been false to his honor and his allegiance, — had Ireland been supplied and England stripped of arms and munitions of war by the connivance of the Government,— the riot of 1848 might have become a rebellion as formidable as our own in everything but territorial proportions. Equally untrue is the theory that our Tariff is the moving cause of Southern discontent. Louisiana certainly would hardly urge this as the reason of her secession ; and if the Rebel States could succeed in establishing their independence, they would find more difficulty in raising a national revenue by direct taxes than the North, and would be driven probably to a tariff more stringent than that of the present United States. If we are to generalize at all, it must he on broader and safer grounds. Prejudices and class-interests may occasion temporary disturbances in the current of human affairs, but they do not permanently change the course of the channel. That is governed by natural and lasting causes, and commerce, in spite of Southern Commercial Conventions, will no more flow up-hill than water. It is possible, we will not say probable, that our present difficulties may result to the advantage both of England and America: to England, by giving her a real hold upon India as the source of her cotton-supply, and to America by making the North the best customer for the staple of the South.
We believe the immediate cause of the Southern Rebellion to be something far deeper than any social prejudice or political theory on the part of slaveholders, or any general apprehension of danger to their peculiar property. That cause is a moral one, and is to be found in the recklessness, the conceit, the sophistry, the selfishness, which are necessarily engendered by Slavery itself. A generation of men educated to justify a crime, against the Law of Nature because it is profitable, will hardly be restrained long by any merely political obligation, when they have been persuaded to see their advantage in the breach of it. Why not, then, at once lay the axe to the root of the mischief? Why did not England attack Irish Catholicism in 1848 ? Why does not Louis Napoleon settle the Papal Question with a stroke of his pen ? Because the action of a constitutional government is limited by constitutional obligations. Because every government, even if despotic, must be guided by policy rather than abstract right or reason. Because, in our own case, so much pains have been taken to persuade the people of some peculiar sanctity in human property, and to teach them the duty of yielding their moral instincts to their duty as citizens, that even the Free States are by no means ripe for a crusade. The single and simple duty of the Government is to put down resistance to its legitimate authority; it meddles, and can meddle, with no claim of right except the monstrous one of rebellion. An absolute ruler in advance of his people has been more than once obliged to abandon his reforms to save his throne ; a popular government which should put itself in the same position might endanger not only its own hold upon power, (a minor consideration,) but, in such a crisis as ours, the very frame of society itself. We must admit that the administration of Mr. Lincoln has sometimes seemed to us overcautious ; that, while it has not scrupled, and wisely has not scrupled, to go behind the letter of the law to its spirit, in dealing with open abettors of treason in the Free States, because they were perverting private right to public wrong, it has been as scrupulous of meddling with a rebel's legal right in man, though that man were being used for a weapon or a tool against itself, as if to touch it were anathema. The divinity, which is only a hedge about a king, becomes a wall of triple brass about a slaveholder.
But while we should prefer a more daring, or at least a more definite policy on the part of the Government, we do not think the time has come for turning the war into a crusade. The example of saints, martyrs, and heroes, who could disregard consequences because the consequences concerned only themselves and their own life, is for the private man, and not for the statesman who is responsible for the complex life of the commonwealth. To carry on a war we must have money, to get money we must have the confidence of the money-holders, who would not advance a dollar on a pledge of the finest sentiments in the world. There is something instructive in the fate of that mob of enthusiasts who followed the banner of Walter the Penniless, a name of evil omen. It saves trouble to say that we must fight the Devil with fire ; though, when the Devil is incarnate in human beings, that policy has never been very successful at Smithfield or elsewhere. But in trying the fiery cure of a servile insurrection, we should run the risk of converting the whole white population of the South into devils of the most desperate sort, with whom any kind of reconciliation, even truce, would be impossible.
We hope and believe that the end of this war will see the snake of Slavery scotched, it not killed. Events move, — slowly, to be sure, but they move, — and the thought of the people moves with them unconsciously to fulfil the purposes of God. Government can do little, perhaps, in controlling them; but it has no right to the power it holds, if it has not the insight and the courage to make use of them at the right moment. If the supreme question should arise of submitting to rebellion or of crushing it in a common ruin with the wrong that engendered it, we believe neither the Government nor the people would falter. The time for answering that question may be nearer than we dream; but meanwhile we would not hasten what would at best be a terrible necessity, and justifiable only as such. We believe this war is to prepare the way for the extinction of Slavery by the action of economical causes, and we should prefer that solution to one of fire and blood. Already the system has received a death-blow in Maryland and Missouri. In Western Virginia it is practically extinct. If the war is carried on with vigor, it may become so before long in East Tennessee. Texas should be taken possession of and held at any cost, and a territory capable of supplying the world with cotton to any conceivable amount thrown open to free labor.
However regarded, this war into which we have been driven is, in fact, a war against Slavery. But emancipation is not and could not be the object of the war. It will be time enough to consider the question as one of military necessity when our armies advance. To proclaim freedom, from the banks of the Potomac to an unarmed, subject, and dispirited race, when the whole white population is in arms, would be as futile as impolitic. Till we can equip our own army, it is idle to talk of arming the slaves ; and to incite them to insurrection without arms, and without the certainty of support at first and protection afterward, would be merely sacrificing them to no good end. It is true, the war may lack the ardent stimulus that would for a time be imparted to it by a direct and obvious moral purpose. But ẇe doubt whether the impulse thus gained would Hold out, long against the immense practical obstacles with which it would be confronted and the chill of disappointment which is sure to follow an attempt to realize ideal good by material means. Nor would our gain in this respect more than compensate for the strength which would be added to the rebels by despair. It is a question we have hardly the heart to discuss, where our wishes, our hopes, almost our faith in God, are on one side, our understanding and experience on the other.
Nor are we among those who would censure the Government for undue leniency. If democracy has made us a goodnatured people, it is a strong argument in its favor, and we need have no fear that the evil passions of men will ever be buried beyond hope of resurrection. We would not have this war end without signal and bitter retribution, and especially for all who have been guilty of deliberate treachery; for that is a kind of baseness that should be extirpated at any cost. If, in moments of impatience, we have wished for something like the rough kingship of Jackson, cooler judgment has convinced us that the strength of democratic institutions will be more triumphantly vindicated by success under an honest Chief Magistrate of average capacity than under a man exceptional, whether by force of character or contempt of precedent.
Is this, then, to be a commonplace war, a prosaic and peddling quarrel about Cotton ? Shall there be nothing to enlist enthusiasm or kindle fanaticism ? Are we to have no Cause like that for which our English republican ancestors died so gladly on the field, with such dignity on the scaffold? — no Cause that shall give us a hero, who knows but a Cromwell ? To our minds, though it may be obscure to Englishmen who look on Lancashire as the centre of the universe, no army was ever enlisted for a nobler service than ours. Not only is it national life and a foremost place among nations that is at stake, but the vital principle of Law itself, the august foundation on which the very possibility of government, above all of self-government, rests as in the hollow of God’s own hand. If democracy shall prove itself capable of having raised twenty millions of people to a level of thought where they can appreciate this cardinal truth, and can believe no sacrifice too great for its defence and establishment, then democracy will have vindicated itself beyond all chance of future cavil. Here, we think, is a Cause the experience of whose vicissitudes and the grandeur of whose triumph will be able to give us heroes and statesmen. The Slave-Power must be humbled, must be punished, — so humbled and so punished as to be a warning forever; but Slavery is an evil transient in its cause and its consequences, compared with those which would result from unsettling the faith of a nation in its own manhood, and setting a whole generation of men hopelessly adrift in the formless void of anarchy.