England and the War of Secession

MR. MORSE’S Life of Abraham Lincoln 1 is one of the best written and most interesting of biographies. I have just read it once more, with increased pleasure. In one respect only it seems to me to be slightly defective. When it touches on the sentiment and the conduct of the British government and people in regard to the war of secession, the author seems to me to show that he wrote under the influence of prepossession, and without the particular knowledge which only one who was in England at the time would be likely to have. Nor is Mr. Morse the only American biographer or historian of whom this may be said. The number of living witnesses is fast diminishing, and the truth may be lost.

At the risk of apparent egotism I must define my own point of view. Leaders of English literature having mostly gone with their class to the side of the South, my pen was in requisition on the other side. Though heartily opposed to slavery, I rather held back on two grounds. In the first place, I felt that it was not our business, and that I had no right to be blowing the coals of civil war in a foreign nation. In the second place, I could not feel sure that the reincorporation of the slave states, if it was practicable, was to be desired. My first ground of hesitation vanished when Southern envoys sought to draw England into the fray. My second was swept away at the time by the progress of the war and the growing manifestation of its character as a conflict between freedom and the slave power, though I must own that the misgiving has since recurred.

I am happy to feel that the day has gone by when it was necessary, in discussion with Americans, to defend England against general charges of meanness, malignity, and cowardice. England has sometimes been in bad hands; in the opinion of those who feel as I do, she is in bad hands now. But no one can think meanly of the fight which she made for the independence of nations and human freedom against Napoleon, with no ally at last but Russia, even the United States having practically arrayed itself on the conqueror’s side. Nor is it possible to impute any but pure motives for the conduct of England in regard to the emancipation of the slaves. The sincerity of the authors and champions of the movement — Wilberforce, Clarkson, Pitt, Grey, Brougham, and the rest — was above suspicion. Emancipation cost England more than a hundred millions of dollars in indemnity, besides the loss of her sources of wealth in the West Indies. Nor did any motives of ambition or sinister motives of any kind really mingle with devotion to the cause in the British crusade against the slave trade. Palmerston could do nothing without showing the Civis Romanus and giving umbrage by his imperious bearing; he was not the less sincere. Nor was the reception of the authoress of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in England, other than sincere, even on the part of the class which afterwards took the side of the South; though perhaps, so far as that class was concerned, there was a spice, or more than a spice, of innuendo against the slaveowning republic.

Normal feeling in England toward the American republic and its institutions was divided, as might have been expected, on the lines of class and political party. You would hardly expect an aristocrat or a Tory to love the great incarnation of democracy by which it was constantly hinted to him that he and his cause would some day be devoured. The bearing of Americans toward Great Britain had not been invariably meek or polite. American school histories, in those days, did inspire anti-British feeling, though they do this no longer to any serious extent, as fair inspection of them will show. American diplomacy had for a series of years been controlled by the slaveowner, and animated by his overbearing spirit; nor could Englishmen, imperfectly acquainted as they unavoidably were with American politics, be expected to know that such demonstrations as the Ostend Manifesto proceeded from the Southern temper, and not from that of the nation at large. Mrs. Trollope had left an impression. Still more had Dickens, whose picture, though a caricature, was the work of genius, and not, as American society then was, without an element of one-sided truth. No nation, surely, ever showed its good nature and self - knowledge more than did the American nation in its hearty forgiveness of Dickens.

The crash at first was stunning, and all minds were in suspense. Just at the critical moment, when opinion was on the turn, Mr. Spence, who had probably received early intelligence, came out with a very clever book, representing the issue as being, not between slavery and free labor, but between free trade and protection. The South, it is needless to say, was in favor of free trade; not on economical principle or from superior enlightenment and liberality, but because slavery, being unable to manufacture, was compelled to import. Mr. Spence’s theory found ready audience in a great manufacturing nation whose vital interests were bound up with free trade. It, or at least the fact that the South was for free trade, was not without its influence even on Cobden, who on that account hesitated for a moment to declare for the North, though with him the moral object soon prevailed.

The Times embraced Mr. Spence’s theory, and after a little wavering carried its vast power to the side of the South, whose cause it embraced with an intensity, not to say with a fury, surprising in comparison with the surefooted discretion usually characteristic of its management. To the last it persisted with unabated confidence in assuring its readers of Southern victory. When from Grant’s lines before Petersburg Richmond was almost in sight, and it was evident that the next move on the board would be checkmate, the Times continued to give ear to the asseverations of Mr. Spence that the triumph of the South was at hand. The great journal represented only the wealthier and more aristocratic class in England. In America it was taken as representing the whole nation.

Untoward and exasperating incidents occurred. The chief of them was the Mason and Slidell affair, which it took all the wisdom of the Prince Consort and Seward, overruling Palmerston’s arrogance, to bring to a peaceful end, and which, though brought to a peaceful end, left some bitterness behind. Another was General Butler’s New Orleans proclamation, which, though in substance unobjectionable, offended by the coarseness of its wording. A third was the unfortunate recurrence to the memory of the Duke of Newcastle of something said after dinner by Seward about bombarding Liverpool. I heard the story from both sides, and I have no doubt that on Seward’s part there was nothing but an awkward joke, of a kind to which he was rather addicted. The joke was misconstrued by the duke, who was somewhat stiff and dry.

Admirers of democratic institutions, and those who based their political hopes on the success of the American republic, might choose their side upon political grounds. But people in general could not be expected to be enthusiastic in their feeling for the territorial aggrandizement or unity of the United States; perhaps they might rather be inclined to sympathize with the weaker party and that which was struggling for independence. The sympathy of people in general could be challenged by the North only on the moral ground that the North was fighting against slavery. But when we, friends of the North, urged this plea, we had the misfortune to be met by a direct disclaimer of our advocacy on the part of our clients. President Lincoln repudiated the intention of attacking slavery. Seward repudiated it in still more emphatic terms. Congress had tried to bring back the slave states to the fold by promises of increased securities for slavery, including a sharpening of the Fugitive Slave Law. What had we to say? Was it not wonderful, and greatly to the credit of the English people, that through this thick veil of politic disclaimer the mass of them should have recognized the good cause ? The merit of their loyalty to humanity was the greater since hundreds of thousands of them were for the time deprived of their means of subsistence by the cutting off of the supply of cotton. The South, at all events, did them justice; for it had fully reckoned on the need of cotton as a force that would overbear all moral considerations and compel the English people to take its side.

That the mass of the English people did recognize the good cause, and was on the side of the North, I think there can be no doubt. As an active member of the Union League, I was placed at the centre of the struggle. We had, no doubt, to fight our hardest, especially when the violent party on the other side tried to break the neutrality laws by countenancing the escape of Confederate cruisers and the building of Confederate rams. But I do not think we ever felt in serious danger of being drawn into the war on the side of slavery. No effective motion was ever made by the Southern party in Parliament. Roebuck, an ultra-Radical turned Jingo, “Tear ’em,” as he was called, raved and ranted, as was his wont; but he caused us no serious alarm. What the plutocratic element in Parliament might have done, if it had been free, is a different question. The plutocratic element in Parliament, having to answer to the constituencies, was not free.

Had the issue been, as Lincoln, Seward, and Congress represented it as being, merely political and territorial, we might have had to decide against the North. Few who have looked into the history can doubt that the Union originally was, and was generally taken by the parties to it to be, a compact, dissoluble, perhaps most of them would have said, at pleasure, dissoluble certainly on breach of the articles of Union. Among those articles, unquestionably, were the recognition and protection of slavery, which the Constitution guaranteed by means of a fugitive slave law. It was not less certain that the existence of slavery was threatened by the abolition movement at the North, and practically attacked by the election of Lincoln, who had declared that the continent must be all slave or all free; meaning, of course, that it must be all free. If, through the admission of new states incorporated on the national principle, compact had been insensibly superseded by nationality, this did not alter legal relations; and the idea of the compact and of its dissolubility on breach of the articles of agreement had not been lost in the stationary and homekeeping South so much as in the mobile and expanding North. There was nothing in Jefferson’s view of states’ rights so startling at the time. Between Hayne and Webster there was a political difference of half a century as well as a border line and a divergence of commercial interest.

Apart, however, from the question of legal secession, revolutionary secession might have been said to have been very much in accordance with American ideas. Lincoln is quoted by Mr. Morse as saying in Congress: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right, — a right which, we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit.”

A stronger ground for separation there could not possibly be than the radical antagonism between the social organizations of the two groups of states, which made it impossible that they should live in harmony under the same political roof, and had rendered their enforced union a source of ever increasing bitterness and strife.

I do not pretend, as an excuse for the attitude of the English people, that all this was distinctly before their minds. What was distinctly before their minds was that American sympathy had generally been on the side of revolution and rebellion,— SpanishAmerican, Polish, Hungarian, or Irish. American sympathy with Irish rebellion would of course make a particular impression on the people of the country whose unity was threatened not less than was the unity of the United States by the secession of the South.

The division of parties in England was perfectly natural; aristocratic society could not help sympathizing with the planter oligarchy. If England was divided in opinion, so was the North itself. There was all the time in the North a strong Democratic party opposed to the war. The autumn elections of 1862 went greatly against the government. It was in expectation of calling forth Northern support that Lee invaded Pennsylvania, and had he conquered at Gettysburg his expectation would probably have been fulfilled. It actually was fulfilled, after a fashion, by the draft riots in New York.

The people of England, it should be borne in mind, were about the only people who showed or felt much interest in the matter. I was sauntering in Normandy during part of the time, and I was struck with the total apathy on the subject. I think I fell in with only one person who cared to talk about it, and he, I found, was a dealer in cotton. The friction, therefore, was confined to the two kindred nations; and these, having the same language and reading each other’s journals, lost no drop of vitriol that was shed upon either side.

Some allowance must be made for sheer ignorance, which was mutual; there being no cable in those days, and the attention of the two nations not having then been so much drawn, as it now is, to each other. At the outset strange blunders were made about the United States, even by the omniscient Times. When I visited the United States, in the last year of the war, I was not only charged with a message of sympathy, but deputed to learn the truth on certain points on which we in England were still in doubt. We had been continually told that the West was being dragged into the contest by the North. The Northern army had been represented as made up of mere hirelings foreigners to a great extent, and generally in a very bad state. Terrible stories were afloat about the treatment of Southern prisoners in Northern prisons. On all these points I was of course able at once to reassure my friends. The treatment of prisoners, especially, both in prison camps and hospitals, I was able, from personal inspection, to report as perfectly humane; and this notwithstanding rumors, which proved well founded, of the inhuman treatment of Northern prisoners at the South.

I was struck, I may say, at the same time, with the absence of truculence, and the general toleration by the war party of sentiment adverse to the war. At Lincoln’s second election, which I witnessed at Boston, though party feeling naturally ran high, the freedom of speech and demonstration seemed complete. From this and the mutual observance of the courtesies of war by the armies, I was led to infer that, desperate as the quarrel seemed, there was fair hope of complete reconciliation.

My personal association with public men was not confined to the Manchester circle. I had some means, socially though not officially, of learning what had passed in the Cabinet. My strong impression is that the government never for a moment swerved from its determination to maintain strict neutrality. The overtures of the French Emperor were, I am convinced, decidedly though courteously repelled. The Duke of Argyll was positively friendly to the North. The same might probably be said of Sir George Cornewall Lewis, though he was sure to be cautious in expression. I think I can answer for Cardwell. What Palmerston’s personal feelings as an aristocrat and a precursor of Jingoism may have been I would not undertake to say; but his hatred of slavery was sincere, and he was deeply committed to the anti-slavery crusade. Lord Russell’s manner was certainly not pleasant; it seldom was. He afterwards made the amende. But he also was far too deeply committed to the crusade against slavery to take part with the slave power. Gladstone wished that the North should let the South go, and be indemnified in course of time by the voluntary accession of Canada. He said this in a letter to a friend, who, fearing that the letter might be embarrassing to the writer thereafter, thought it better to keep it to himself. But it did not follow, nor was there any reason to believe, that Gladstone ever voted for intervention.

During the four years of the war Southern attempts to abuse British ports and shipyards for war purposes were a constant source of trouble to the British government. Similar attempts by the Cuban insurgents to abuse the ports and shipyards of the United States were a cause of the same trou ble to the American government, which deemed the annoyance a sufficient justification for hostile action against Spanish dominion as the exciting cause. Did not the British government do its duty as a neutral toward the North as well as did the American government toward Spain? We need not go back to the time of Genet and his privateers. When people quarrel, go to war, and cause trouble, disturbance, and loss to the neighborhood, they must be content if the neighborhood performs the duties of neutrality in good faith and reasonably well. This the British government apparently did, though in its case the trouble and annoyance were extreme, extending to the cutting off of the supply of raw material from a vast manufacturing population. The case of the Alabama, which was the worst, was a slip caused by the sudden illness of a law officer before whom the papers lay, though the Foreign Office ought, no doubt, to have looked him up. The vessel sailed without a clearance, and took on board her armament at the Azores. American pursuit, moreover, was slack. That the government or the nation at large had anything to do, actively or constructively, with the fitting out of the vessel was a preposterous fiction, whatever might be the feelings and conduct of violent sympathizers with the South on this or other occasions. I was glad that the indemnity was paid, because it closed a dangerous dispute; but, looking back, I can hardly think that it was due.

Against recognition of Confederate belligerency nothing could be fairly said. Not for a moment did the Washington government treat the seceders as rebels, or the war as anything but a regular war. At the outset, indeed, there was a faint pretense of bringing some captured Southerners to trial as pirates. But it was at once laid aside, and nothing of the kind was afterwards attempted or proposed. Not Great Britain alone, but all the other foreign nations recognized the belligerency of the South. If England led the way, it was because she was immediately and pressingly concerned. It was only by the recognition of the belligerency that the neutrality law was brought into force.

If Russia seemed to play a more friendly part than England, she did it without any of the risk which England would have incurred. It can scarcely be imagined that one of the powers of the Holy Alliance was actuated by a sincere love of the American republic, or that the dark conclave which rules her was doing anything but playing its diplomatic game.

That the war was not, properly speaking, civil, but international, must at once have struck any observer. In a civil war you have two parties territorially intermingled, and two governments, or powers claiming to be the government, contending for the allegiance of the same people. In this case you had two separate nations, the government of each thoroughly established and commanding general obedience in a realm of its own. The fact that the two nations had been one, or the suddenness of the disruption by which the second nation had been brought into existence, did not alter the question in this case any more than it did in the case of the revolt of the Netherlands or the severance of Belgium from Holland in 1831. When Gladstone said that Jefferson Davis had made the South a nation, he spoke the literal truth, though the question whether the nation was to preserve its nationality was being contested on the field of battle.

The British government could not be expected to be blind to the prospective interests of its own people. If it had declared for the North, and the South had won, Great Britain would have been making for herself a very fierce and a very formidable enemy,— an enemy specially formidable to her as an owner of West Indian and South American possessions. Nor could she, in the day of peril, have felt sure of the support of the North, with its antiBritish traditions and its Irish vote. The idea that it was possible that the South could win is now regarded by some patriotic Americans as a sort of treason, or a thought which was the offspring of a depraved wish. But after Chancellorsville it was the thought of a good many whose wishes were sound enough. The decisive battle was Gettysburg. Suppose, on that day of fate, Lee had not sent his infantry to destruction ; suppose, instead of attacking Meade in his position at all, he had manœuvred, brought Meade to action on a fair field, and won: what would have been the effect on the fortunes of the war? Would not the expectation of support in the North, and of the triumph of a party opposed to the war, in which Lee invaded Pennsylvania, have been fulfilled ? Meade, whose modesty was equal to his accomplishments as a soldier, used frankly to admit his obligation to the strategical error of his opponent. The death of Jackson at Chancellorsville was another momentous accident. That man was the soul of the Southern army, and had he been at Gettysburg he might have controlled the rashness of Lee.

We had our disappointments in men who ought to have been on the side of freedom, but were not. The greatest, perhaps, was Charles Kingsley, the author of Westward Ho! who afterwards lowered himself still more in the eyes of his friends and admirers by playing a conspicuous part in an ovation to the author of the Jamaica massacre, Governor Eyre, Social influences were probably the cause of Kingsley’s fall. Carlyle was sure to be on the side of force, and against liberty. But you really might as well have charged the Liberal party with the aberrations of a mastodon as with those of Carlyle. He had persuaded himself that buying a black man who was put up for sale on the slave block was “hiring him for life.”

On the other hand, we had John Bright, Richard Cobden, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Hughes. John Bright’s speech on the side of the North, in St. James’s Hall, was the best speech I ever heard. His speech in the House of Commons, against the Crimean war, I had not the good fortune to hear. He always spoke with a quiet and almost judicial manner, without gesticulation or much emphasis, without anything at all of the stump orator, making his audience feel the presence of a weighty judgment and a great moral power. His voice was not particularly strong, but his enunciation was very distinct; not a word was missed by the audience which filled a vast hall. It has been debated whether his speeches were prepared. So far as the great speeches are concerned, the question is answered by the speeches themselves. They are literature, — literature of a high order; and no man can speak literature extempore. All the great orations of antiquity, we know, were written. There have been great parliamentary speakers who spoke extempore, but their speeches are not literature. The speeches of Henry Clay, which delivered with his voice and manner produced a magical effect, are unreadable. So are those of Gladstone, whose personal bearing, fervor, rich voice, and command of his subject made an immense impression, especially when he was introducing and expounding some great measure. Of Chatham’s speeches we have only fragments, but the thunderbolts are such as a thoroughly rhetorical mind might have been always forging to be launched when the occasion came. Tories once got up charges against Bright of illiberal treatment of his workmen. To confute these his workmen presented him with a testimonial. The meeting was private. I stood at Bright’s side, and saw the slips of paper, each of them probably having on it the catchword of a sentence, successively drop into his hat. To extemporize such compositions as Bright’s great speeches, I repeat, was impossible. You might as well think that Milton could have extemporized a book of the Paradise Lost, or Haydn could have extemporized The Creation. Bright, however, could speak extempore. Of that I have had abundant proof. He had also, as a speaker, perfect presence of mind, could reply with effect, could meet interruptions and turn them oratorically to his advantage. Yet, like great performers in general, he felt the weight of his reputation. He once owned to me that when he rose to speak his knees trembled under him, though on that occasion he must have known that his audience was entirely with him. He began, I believe, as a temperance lecturer, with a written lecture. If he read essays or discussed questions in a philosophical society, he kept the practice within such bounds as to avoid acquiring the fatal fluency of verbiage which it is the tendency at debating clubs to produce.

There is a certain likeness in Bright’s portraits to those of Pym, the leader of the Long Parliament. But Pym’s face is more that of a man of action, as he was. Bright was not a man of action, unless the name can be given to one who swayed public opinion. In Gladstone’s ministry he held the almost nominal office of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to the business of which,

I was told, he seldom attended. His oratorical combativeness caused him to figure in caricatures as the “ Fighting Quaker.” There was, however, nothing about him politically violent or revolutionary. If he strove for political change, such as an extension of the suffrage, it was in order that legislative justice might be done to classes from which, while Parliament was practically in the hands of the landlord class, legislative justice had been withheld. There was nothing to prevent his serving the Crown. The same might be said of the political circle of which he was chief. No change, therefore, took place in his principles at the close of his political life. He was perfectly consistent with himself in opposing Home Rule as resolutely as he had supported reform of the Irish land law and disestablishment of the Irish Church. Home Rule, he believed, meant dissolution of the union, and dissolution of the union, he believed, meant a renewal of the old struggle and a repetition of Irish woe. It is true that his feelings had latterly softened toward some things of the old dispensation. He was more than reconciled to Oxford, and Oxford was reconciled to him.

Cobden has had the good fortune, which Bright has not, of finding the best of biographers in Mr. Morley. Mr. Morley, I believe, did not know Cobden personally, but those who did, though they may seem to miss something in the portrait, would be puzzled to say what it was. Simplicity was the leading feature of Cobden’s speeches as it was of the character of the man. He spoke extempore, only taking care, as he said, always to have an opening and a closing sentence. Bred on a farm, and transferred from it to a factory, he could not have much culture, and Tories called him a Bagman. The Bagman, however, had plenty of sentiment, and not a little even of poetry, in his nature. His saying about Niagara is given in Mr. Morley’s life. One day I found that he had been studying Demosthenes in a translation. Apparently he had been disappointed. Probably the translation was bad. It certainly was if it was Brougham’s.

Of John Stuart Mill it may be said that there never was a man in acting with whom you were made more comfortably to feel that you must be morally in the right. That the strictest integrity may exist without orthodoxy Mill’s character was a decisive proof. He was the most austere of patriots. When he ran for Parliament in Westminster, he refused to spend money, to canvass, or to take any personal part in the election until about a week before the nomination, when he attended a few public meetings to state his principles and answer the questions of the electors. At one of the meetings, chiefly composed of the working classes, he was asked whether he had ever published the opinion that the working classes of England, though they differed from those of other countries in being ashamed of lying, were generally liars. He answered, without hesitation, that he had. Whereupon there was vehement applause. The first workingman who spoke after Mill’s admission was Mr. Oger, who said, amidst cheers, that the working classes wanted friends, not flatterers, and had no desire not to be told of their faults. This Mill cited as a proof that complete straightforwardness is the most essential of all recommendations to the favor of the working classes. Judges said that the Almighty could not be elected on Mill’s platform. That candidature was not tried. But Mill won his election. In the House of Commons, he used to sit in the unflinching performance of his duty through the dullest and most trivial debates. He got his speeches by heart; and if his memory chanced to fail him, he would not fill the gap with mere words, like a less conscientious speaker, but would deliberately pause, making his hearers feel rather awkward, till his memory had recovered the thread.

Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Tom Brown at Oxford, one of the best fellows who ever lived, was a more genuine representative of muscular Christianity than Charles Kingsley, who has always been regarded as the founder. Kingsley’s love of the east wind was, in truth, rather poetical; though he was fond of bodily exercise, and might be found sometimes, even as a parson, following the hounds. Tom Hughes would have faced a tornado of east wind to do a kind act or redress an injustice. In his college days he had been a first-rate athlete, and had rowed at Henley in the famous crew which, when one of its men was disabled, and the rival crew refused to allow a substitute, rowed with seven oars against eight, and won the race. Yet there was not about him a shadow of the Jingo violence and bluster which are apt to accompany overwrought athleticism ; much less was there a shadow of that contempt for public morality and for the rights of the weak, a baneful gust of which is just now sweeping over the world. At the time of the war of secession his sympathies were with the North, against the general bias of his own section of society. He was one of the committee formed to get justice done to the black peasantry of Jamaica, against martial law. It was cheering, in fighting for a cause which of course was denounced as “humanitarian, ” to have at your side a man who could not possibly be accused of any sentimental weakness. Never was there a more jovial or a more pleasant companion. It was like him to leave, as it seems he did, an injunction against the publication of a memorial of his life, to be added to the flood of literature of that kind. But Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Tom Brown at Oxford are his autobiography. Sint animœ nostrœ cum illo.

What have been the fruits of a war which cost the North alone, in different ways, at least four thousand millions, besides a pension list which amounted to a hundred and forty millions thirtythree years after the war, — this in addition to all the havoc, waste, and suspension of industry; while on the Northern side alone two hundred and seventy-five thousand men either fell in battle or died in hospital ? Slavery has been legally abolished. The sentence of humanity on it has been executed. The hideous slave codes have been swept from the statute book of man. But the Fifteenth Amendment is trampled underfoot, and no one is found to uphold it, while the relation between the races is in some respects worse than ever. The one clear gain is that the extension of slavery has been prevented. The slaveowner’s vision of dominion over Mexico, Cuba, and the West Indies might otherwise have been fulfilled. His land hunger would have lent a spur to his ambition, and it is difficult to say by what his career could have been barred.

Goldwin Smith.

  1. Abraham Lincoln. By John T. Morse, Jr. [American Statesmen Series.] Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.