Goldwin Smith.

A letter to a Whig member of the Southern Independence Association online

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5 V N


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,» 1«64.







Of the ATLAliTic commences with the number for January, 1864. Its com-
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18 6 4.

author's edition, from advance SHEhlUt

University Press:




My dear

You and I have some political principles in
common, and there is therefore no absurdity ia my attempt-
ing to reason with you on a political question as to which
wo happen to diflfer. Your Association wishes this country
to lend assistance to the Slave-owners of the Southern States,
in their attempt to effect a disruption of the American Com-
monwealth, and to establish an independent Power, having,
as they declare, Slavery for its comer-stone. I am one of
those who are convinced that in doing so she would commit
n great folly and a still greater crime, the consequences of
which would in the end fall on her own head. If you were
an enemy to free institutions, and a lover of '* Slavery, Sub-
orvlination, and Government," I should at once understand
your position, and despair of moving you from it by any
arguments of mine. But as you are a friend to free institu-
tions, at least up to the measure of 1688, 1 do not so entirely
despair of offering you such reasons as may at least induce
yv^u to hesitate before you plunge your country into an
American war. For it is towards war that you are now
driving. You are doing your utmost to facilitate the escape
of the Confederate iron-clads from the Mersey. One of tho
most eminent of your number has given notice of a motion
in Parliament, evidently having this end in view. And if


these vessels are allowed to go out, you do not doubt, I pre-
sume, that there will be war. Indee<l, you must be couscious
that bare recounition, the ostensible object of your A-^-ocia-
tion, Avould be t'uiile, or rather would enrage the Federals,
and determine them to persevere. Sup[)ose Ireland were in
rebellion, what effect would the recognition of the insurgent
government by a tbreign power, say France, produce on the
temper of the Eniriish nation ? Would it make us more
•willing to yi<'ld the victory to the insurgents, and to acqui-
esce in the disruption of our empire ?

The course taken by the Government has unfortunat«dv
been such as to give the attempts of your Southern friend^
and their allies to embroil us with the Federals a very fair
chance of success. They have declined to take their stand
on the firm ground of international duty, which plainly for-
bids us, as professed neutral-, to allow either belligerent to
miU^e our shores the base of his maritime operations, and
have taken their ,-tand instead on the ground of munici{Kil
law, which is wholly irrelevant as between nations, while, at
the same time, they have shrunk from amending the muni-
cipal law in the manner required in order to render it equal
to the present need. The consequence is, apparently, that
only the law's delay (a most humiliating protection) is now
interposed between us and a calamity which even those who
are doing their best to bring it on us, would almost fear
to name.

You perhaps think that because the Americans have
already a war upon their hands, they will tamely see their
ships burned and their commerce destroyed by vessels cruis-
ing from the ports of an ally. If the Commonwealth has
men of spirit, and men who know their duty, at her head,
rather than see her suffer such dishonor, they will see her
in an honorable grave. But, judging from experience, I
think you much miscalculate the habits of nations when they


are once roused to a certain )>iicli of frenzy by a desperate
i;tru«rgle tor existence. 'J'he J^'n-ncli Kepuljlic, -when wo
attacked her, had two 2:reat military })0wers aheady on her
hands. She wa.s besides bankrupt and torn by civil war.
Yet she was ready to fly at tlie throat of another enemy.
And the victory over the revolutionary levies of a nation
driven to despair, which seemed so sure and easy, cost us, as
■we know, twenty years of war.

Let me first tell you why it is that I feel the interest
which I do not wish to disguise in the fortunes of the Com-
monwealth which you are so anxious to break up. It is not
from a fanatical love of what are commonly called Repub-
lican institutions, or from a desire precipitately to '' Ameri-
canize " any country which is not yet ripe for the largest
measure of self-gov?7nment. A man must have read history
to very little purpose if he lias not learned that political
institutions must vary according to the character, intelli-
gence, and social condition of a nation ; and that all are
equally beneficent after their kind, which at a given time,
and under given circumstances, ^uit the requirements of the
people. "Would that our statesmen, who turn Indian Zem-
indars into squires, and press upon the untrained Greeks a
parody of the English Constitution, were a little more con-
scious of this great truth. The Americans, for their part,
seem not wholly unconscious of it. Though Republicans
themselves, they show no fanatical hatred of our monarchy.
They receive the heir to the English throne with demonstra-
tions of enthusiastic affection, and I believe Queen Victoria
reigns in their hearts as completely as she does in ours.

Indeed, if my heart were set upon a republic of the clas-
sical kind, — the re})ublic of Brutus and Cassius and the
debating-clubs, — I should look for it in the seceding States,
or anywhere rather tlian in a land of political equality and
social justice. The classical republics were ba.'Jed on Slav-


ery : the political character of their citizens was that of
a dominant caste maintained in proud idleness by the labor
of servile hands : and this character is avowedly imitated by
the Southerns, though more successfully in point of courage
and military vigor than in point of cultivation and refinement.
I wonder it has never occurred to those who were exulting
over the failure of republican institutions, and in the same
breath lauding the political greatness of the South, that the
South also is a republic, with exactly the same constitution
as the North in all essential respects, saving the article which
prohibits the Southern Congress from passing any law deny-
ing or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.

My reason for feeling a deep interest in the American
Commonwealth is this : It seems to me that the aim of all
social effort, and tlie object of all social aspiration, is to pro-
duce a real community, every member of which shall fully
share the fruits and benefits of the social union. I say this
in no communistic or revolutionary sense, but in the sense
in which it must be felt to be true by all, whether Liberals
or Conservatives, who are trying to improve the condition
of the poor, and especially by those who are doing so in
obedience to the social principles laid down in the Gospel.
Such is the goal to which the progress of society, through
all its various and successive phases, would seem to be tend-
ing, if it is tending to any goal at all, and is not a mere blind
and aimless cuiTent. That Enghsh society in its present
state is very far from having reached tliis goal, is what you
will scarcely think it Jacobinical to assert. It is an open
question among writers on economical history whether the
mass of the peasantry in this country have really shared at
all in the increase of wealth and comfort which has accrued
to the upper classes in the course of the last three hundred
years. No one will venture to say that they have shared in
anything like a fair proportion. Too many of them are still


in a state of great misery, of brutal ignorance, and of the
vice which misery and ignorance always bring in their train.
Millions of our laboring population live constantly in view
of penal pauperism, and nearly a million of them on the
average are actually paupers. They pass through life with-
out hope : they die in destitution : the only haven of their
old age, after a life of toil, is the workhouse. In most cot-
tages of many counties the children are under fed that the
father may have enough to work upon : and any physician
who has been much among the poor will tell you that num-
bers of them die in their infancy from want of proper food
and clothing. In Ireland, centuries of horrors to which, I
say most deliberately, history affords no parallel, seem to be
closing in the expatriation of a people. There is wealth,
luxury, and splendor, such as perhaps the world never saw,
in the palaces of our nobles and our wealthy merchants and
stockbrokers : but there is hunger, and the horrible diseases
that wait on hunger, at the palace gates. Pass from the
dweUings of the rich to those of the poor, and you will own,
that though we may be a great and powerful nation, a com-
munity in the full sense of the term we are not. These
things are freely stJl^d and even exaggerated, by Conserva-
tive writers whose object it is to disparage the present in
honor of the past ; and I do not see why it should be trea-
son to state them when the object is to prevent the same
party from destroying the opening prospects of the future.

While the mass of the people have so little interest in the
existing state of things, and while they are at the same time
so wanting in the education and intelligence requisite for the
exercise of political rights, our statesmen naturally shrink
from giving them the franchise : though all of us, even the
strongest Conservatives, are conscious that it is not a just or
sound system under which the bulk of the community, while
they bear all political burdens, while they pay heavy taxes


and shed their blood for the country in war, are excluded
from all political rights. A fraction of our citizens (if it is
not a mockery to use the term) enjoy the franchise. The
rest enjoy what even the leader of the Conservative party
has derided as the ironical franchise of " virtual represen-
tation " ; that is to say, they are left in the hands of classes
whose interests are often quite different from theirs. Great
progress has been made since the Middle Ages in every
respect, except perhaps the more romantic qualities, among
the upper classes of society : but the condition of the unen-
franchised laborer, if you look at the real facts, instead of
being satisfied with the mere name of freeman, is little
above that of the mediaeval villain. He is even still, under
the Law of Settlement, in some measure bound to the soil.

No man who loves his kind, and feels that his own happi-
ness depends on the happiness of his fellows, can desire that
such a state of things should be final. No man of sense and
reflection, I believe, imagines that it will be so.

Now, in the American Commonwealth, partly I grant by
the bounty of nature and the lavish fertihty of a virgin
world, but partly also, I think, by institutions, especially by
those regulating the distribution of land, and by the thorough
diffusion of popular education, one portion at least of these
evils, the poverty of the masses, has been to a great extent
removed. The laborer in America, in a material point of
view at least, is prosperous and happy. He is the possessor
of property ; he has no fear of dying in the workhouse, or
of seeing starvation and destitution round his death-bed. If
he is industrious and frugal, he has all the world before him ;
and however ambitious he may be, however high he may
look, hope still cheers him on, for he sees one of his own
class in the foremost office of the state. This you will say
is a coarse happiness, falling far short of high civilization.
Still it is something, as the world moves slowly, and it is the


basis of all the rest : for though man does not live by bread
alone, be must have bread to live. Property confers dignity
and self-respect : the Jiope of rising in the world su-tains
frugality and self-denial : the removal of physical misery
stanches the greatest source of crime. Of the fact that the
laborer is more prosperous in the Free States than in this coun-
try, and that one step in the improvement of man's lot has
at least been gained, the vast emigration from this country
to America, Avhich continues unabated in the midst of civil
war, is m itself a conclusive proof. The number of emi-
grants will go far towards making up to the Xorth for the
loss of life in the war, at least according to a rational esti-
mate of that loss, though not according to the estimate of pul>
lie instructors, who, to produce a budget of gratifying horrors,
set down all the soldiers whose term bos expired as killed.

As to the pohtical part of the grand experiment : before
we estimate its result, ^ye must in fairness make allowance
for some heavy drawbacks. We must make allowance for
the violent bias towards the democratic side given to the
States, at the outset of their career as a nation, by their
struggle for freedom against the monarchy and aristocracy
of this country. "We must make allowance, as I believe,
for some mistakes committed by the founders of the Consti-
tution under the influence of European prejudices, especially
the institution of an elective President, as the republican
counterpart of a king ; which, though it has accidentally
been of great service in tills extremity, by giving the nation
a sort of constitutional dictator, is, under ordinary circum-
stances, a dangerous stimulant to senseless faction and per-
sonal ambition. We must make allowance for the turbid
. tide of wretchedness and ignorance which is poured into the
American community by the government of this country,
and with which, I think, candor must allow that American
institutions have dealt, wonderfully weH. We must make


allowance for the want of that experience from which we
received many a severe and chastening les>on before our
political character was moulded, and which the Americans
are now undcriioin^r, for the first time, in a stern form.
Above all, we must make allowance for the presence of
Slavery, shooting moral and political poison through every
vein of the State ; and for the influence of the fell alliance
between the Slave-owning Aristocracy of the South and
the Democratic party in the North, — a tyranny, deliver-
ance from which would be well purchased even at the price
of a civil war. Xo doubt there have been great evils and
gross absurdities in American politics. There has been
factiousness, though, perhaps, scarcely greater than that of
our own political parties, under their historic and aristo-
cratic leaders, in the matter of Parliamentary Reform ; there
has been corruption, though, I fear, not worse than there
was in our own legislature, when the holders of political
power, peers as well as commoners, were selling their sup-
port to railroads ; there has been a flux of Parliamentary
rhetoric, less refined, certainly, and possibly less instructive,
than the debates of our own House of Commons ; there has
been demagogism of a very repulsive kind, though, if it
were not an ungracious ta>k, it would be easy to show, by
examples on this side of the water, that aristocracies have
their demagogues as well as mobs. As to journalism, the
New York Herald is always kept before our eyes ; but the
New York Herald is not the American press : and I most
firmly believe that neither this nor any other American
journal ever pandered to the violence of the rowdies more
vilely, either in point of virulence or mendacity, than a
great English journal has pandered to the hatred of America
among the upper classes of this country during the present
war. Some of us at least have been taught by what we
have lately seen not to shrink from an extension of the suf-


tVngo, it' the only bad consequence of tliat measure of jus-
tice would be a change in government from the passions
of a privileged class to the passions of the people.

After all, the American Commonwealth has, in part at
least, solved a great problem for humanity. The full rights
of citizenship have been conferred on a whole people ; a
real community has been called into being : and yet order
and property are, as the rapid increase of wealth proves,
at least tolerably secure. American institutions have re-
ceived that which is the best practical stamp of excellence,
— the loyal attachment of a perfectly free people ; and we
have learned what, considering the doubtful aspect of polit-
ical affairs in Europe, all who are unbiassed by class preju-
dices will be glad to learn, that society may repose on liberty
as a sure foundation, and that the people, when nioderately
educated, will obey authority which they have themselves
bestowed, and reverence laws which they have themselves
enacted. The American Government calls upon its citizens
for the tribute of their blood ; and that tribute is not with-
held. The charge of carrying on the war with Irish and
German mercenaries is cast upon the Federals by an aristoc-
racy whose armies have been filled both with Irish decoyed
into an alien service, and with mercenary Germans bought
like cattle for the shambles. But the commissariat and the
military hospitals of the North are of themselves 'enough to
show that the war is not being waged with vile and merce-
nary lives. If you wish to know the signs of a war waged
with vile and mercenary lives, read, with attention to the
hospital and commissariat details, the mihtary history of
the European powers, — of Austria, of Russia, even of Eng-
land, till something of a democratic spirit arose and enforced
regard for the soldier as well as for the genei-al. Recollect
the treatment of our sailors which brought on the mutiny of
the Nore. The American soldiers are highly paid, no doubt ;


but wages in their country are very high, and they are fight-
ing without medals or ribbons, and without the lash. There
has been a good deal of drafting ; but there are also a great
many volunteers : and, on the whole, the armies are, to a
great extent, citizen armies, such as no Government not
deeply rooted in the affections of the people could have at
its command.

Military power is commonly thought a great test — by
some the greatest test — of the excellence of political insti-
tutions. If this be so, American institutions mu?t be entitled
to some respect. For I beheve no nation in history has
ever, by its own resources, kept armies so large, so well ap-
pointed, and so well supplied, for so long a time in the tield.
Nor has there been any signal break down, like that of Bal-
aclava, in the military administration, though the scale of
operations has been so colossal, and the field of war so vast.
It is true that private zeal has come to the aid of the Govern-
ment, especially in the hospital department ; but this is a
part, and a very striking part, of the political system ; and
you will observe that in this case it is loyal co-operation, not
ambitious and disloyal rivalry like the Crimean Fund of the
Times. Military skill and discipline are not created in a day
among a people devoted to peaceful industry, and brought
up in a freedom and equality which unfit them for the com-
mand and the obedience of the camp. But these qualities
seem to have arisen with reasonable speed. I doubt whether
Europe could show a nobler soldier in any point of military
character or duty than General Grant, who declines to come
forward for the Presidency against Mr. Lincoln, because, if
he did so, he would be placed for six months in a position
of rivalry towards his superior in command. With jNIeade,
Rosecranz, Banks, Thomas, Sherman, Grierson, Gilmore,
Dahlgren, Farragut, and others who could be named, little
fault is to be found : and how many great commanders did


England produce under the aristocratic system, during the
first five years of the Revolutionary war? The practical
result is that half of the task which European soldiers and
statesmen pronounced impossible has been accomplished,
and the remainder brought at least within the hmits of pos-
fcibility. So far I think you must go with me. I do not ex-
pect you to go with me in saying that the nation as a whole
— particular cases of misconduct, failure, or folly being set
aside — has shown during this struggle, at least during the
latter part of it, and since adversity has laid her chastening
and elevating hand upon the people, the true, though rugged
lineaments of greatness. It has risen after terrible defeat
elastic and indomitable. In its darkest hour, though its lan-
guage, like ours, was querulous and desponding, it has not
lost confidence in itself It has not lost even a kind j^f grim
good humor, the sign of a strong heart. It has wisely stood
by its Government, though its Government was not always
wise ; and has not passed votes of want of confidence against
Ministers just struggling out of their early difiiculties in the
middle of a war. It has quelled party spirit, strong as the
party spirit there i.-, in face of the common enemy, with a com-
pleteness which fills its enemies here with impotent and ridic-
ulous rage. It has gone forward, or is now going forward, and
bearing its Government forward with it, as one man, with a
unity which I believe has scarcely ever been equalled in his-
tory, except perhaps in the case of the French Republic,
where it was produced by Terror. We have always been
told that the men of intellect and refinem^t in America stood
aloof from politics in sullen disaffection : but during this strug-
gle they have equalhtd or surpassed the r^st of the community
in devotion to the common cause, and to the " rail-sphtter "
who is its constitutional chief The President himself was
chosen out of the mass by the ordinary method of election,
not called forth to meet a terrible emergency ; yet he has


met the most terrible of all emergencies with sense and self-
possession^ as well [)robabl7 on the whole as it would have
been met by any European sovereign or statesman whom

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Online LibraryGoldwin SmithA letter to a Whig member of the Southern Independence Association → online text (page 1 of 6)