North America, by Anthony Trollope

An Apology for the War.

I think it may be received as a fact that the Northern States, taken together, sent a full tenth of their able-bodied men into the ranks of the army in the course of the summer and autumn of 1861. The South, no doubt, sent a much larger proportion; but the effect of such a drain upon the South would not be the same, because the slaves were left at home to perform the agricultural work of the country. I very much doubt whether any other nation ever made such an effort in so short a time. To a people who can do this it may well be granted that they are in earnest; and I do not think it should be lightly decided by any foreigner that they are wrong. The strong and unanimous impulse of a great people is seldom wrong. And let it be borne in mind that in this case both people may be right — the people both of North and South. Each may have been guided by a just and noble feeling, though each was brought to its present condition by bad government and dishonest statesmen.

There can be no doubt that, since the commencement of the war the American feeling against England has been very bitter. All Americans to whom I spoke on the subject admitted that it was so. I, as an Englishman, felt strongly the injustice of this feeling, and lost no opportunity of showing, or endeavoring to show, that the line of conduct pursued by England toward the States was the only line which was compatible with her own policy and just interests and also with the dignity of the States government. I heard much of the tender sympathy of Russia. Russia sent a flourishing general message, saying that she wished the North might win, and ending with some good general advice proposing peace. It was such a message as strong nations send to those which are weaker. Had England ventured on such counsel, the diplomatic paper would probably have been returned to her. It is, I think, manifest that an absolute and disinterested neutrality has been the only course which could preserve England from deserved rebuke — a neutrality on which her commercial necessity for importing cotton or exporting her own manufactures should have no effect. That our government would preserve such a neutrality I have always insisted; and I believe it has been done with a pure and strict disregard to any selfish views on the part of Great Britain. So far I think England may feel that she has done well in this matter. But I must confess that I have not been so proud of the tone of all our people at home as I have been of the decisions of our statesmen. It seems to me that some of us never tire in abusing the Americans, and calling them names for having allowed themselves to be driven into this civil war. We tell them that they are fools and idiots; we speak of their doings as though there had been some plain course by which the war might have been avoided; and we throw it in their teeth that they have no capability for war. We tell them of the debt which they are creating, and point out to them that they can never pay it. We laugh at their attempt to sustain loyalty, and speak of them as a steady father of a family is wont to speak of some unthrifty prodigal who is throwing away his estate and hurrying from one ruinous debauchery to another. And, alas! we too frequently allow to escape from us some expression of that satisfaction which one rival tradesman has in the downfall of another. “Here you are with all your boasting,” is what we say. “You were going to whip all creation the other day; and it has come to this! Brag is a good dog, but Holdfast is a better. Pray remember that, if ever you find yourselves on your legs again.” That little advice about the two dogs is very well, and was not altogether inapplicable. But this is not the time in which it should be given. Putting aside slight asperities, we will all own that the people of the States have been and are our friends, and that as friends we cannot spare them. For one Englishman who brings home to his own heart a feeling of cordiality for France — a belief in the affection of our French alliance — there are ten who do so with reference to the States. Now, in these days of their trouble, I think that we might have borne with them more tenderly.

And how was it possible that they should have avoided this war? I will not now go into the cause of it, or discuss the course which it has taken, but will simply take up the fact of the rebellion. The South rebelled against the North; and such being the case, was it possible that the North should yield without a war? It may very likely be well that Hungary should be severed from Austria, or Poland from Russia, or Venice from Austria. Taking Englishmen in a lump, they think that such separation would be well. The subject people do not speak the language of those that govern them or enjoy kindred interests. But yet when military efforts are made by those who govern Hungary, Poland, and Venice to prevent such separation, we do not say that Russia and Austria are fools. We are not surprised that they should take up arms against the rebels, but would be very much surprised indeed if they did not do so. We know that nothing but weakness would prevent their doing so. But if Austria and Russia insist on tying to themselves a people who do not speak their language or live in accordance with their habits, and are not considered unreasonable in so insisting, how much more thoroughly would they carry with them the sympathy of their neighbors in preventing any secession by integral parts of their own nationalities! Would England let Ireland walk off by herself, if she wished it? In 1843 she did wish it. Three-fourths of the Irish population would have voted for such a separation; but England would have prevented such a secession vi et armis, had Ireland driven her to the necessity of such prevention.

I will put it to any reader of history whether, since government commenced, it has not been regarded as the first duty of government to prevent a separation of the territories governed; and whether, also, it has not been regarded as a point of honor with all nationalities to preserve uninjured each its own greatness and its own power? I trust that I may not be thought to argue that all governments, or even all nationalities, should succeed in such endeavors. Few kings have fallen, in my day, in whose fate I have not rejoiced — none, I take it, except that poor citizen King of the French. And I can rejoice that England lost her American colonies, and shall rejoice when Spain has been deprived of Cuba. But I hold that citizen King of the French in small esteem, seeing that he made no fight; and I know that England was bound to struggle when the Boston people threw her tea into the water. Spain keeps a tighter hand on Cuba than we thought she would some ten years since, and therefore she stands higher in the world’s respect.

It may be well that the South should be divided from the North. I am inclined to think that it would be well — at any rate for the North; but the South must have been aware that such division could only be effected in two ways: either by agreement, in which case the proposition must have been brought forward by the South and discussed by the North, or by violence. They chose the latter way, as being the readier and the surer, as most seceding nations have done. O’Connell, when struggling for the secession of Ireland, chose the other, and nothing came of it. The South chose violence, and prepared for it secretly and with great adroitness. If that be not rebellion, there never has been rebellion since history began; and if civil war was ever justified in one portion of a nation by turbulence in another, it has now been justified in the Northern States of America.

What was the North to do; this foolish North, which has been so liberally told by us that she has taken up arms for nothing, that she is fighting for nothing, and will ruin herself for nothing? When was she to take the first step toward peace? Surely every Englishman will remember that when the earliest tidings of the coming quarrel reached us on the election of Mr. Lincoln, we all declared that any division was impossible; it was a mere madness to speak of it. The States, which were so great in their unity, would never consent to break up all their prestige and all their power by a separation! Would it have been well for the North then to say, “If the South wish it we will certainly separate?” After that, when Mr. Lincoln assumed the power to which he had been elected, and declared with sufficient manliness, and sufficient dignity also, that he would make no war upon the South, but would collect the customs and carry on the government, did we turn round and advise him that he was wrong? No. The idea in England then was that his message was, if anything, too mild. “If he means to be President of the whole Union,” England said, “he must come out with something stronger than that.” Then came Mr. Seward’s speech, which was, in truth, weak enough. Mr. Seward had ran Mr. Lincoln very hard for the President’s chair on the Republican interest, and was, most unfortunately, as I think, made Secretary of State by Mr. Lincoln, or by his party. The Secretary of State holds the highest office in the United States government under the President. He cannot be compared to our Prime Minister, seeing that the President himself exercises political power, and is responsible for its exercise. Mr. Seward’s speech simply amounted to a declaration that separation was a thing of which the Union would neither hear, speak, nor, if possible, think. Things looked very like it; but no, they could never come to that! The world was too good, and especially the American world. Mr. Seward had no specific against secession; but let every free man strike his breast, look up to heaven, determine to be good, and all would go right. A great deal had been expected from Mr. Seward, and when this speech came out, we in England were a little disappointed, and nobody presumed even then that the North would let the South go.

It will be argued by those who have gone into the details of American politics that an acceptance of the Crittenden compromise at this point would have saved the war. What is or was the Crittenden compromise I will endeavor to explain hereafter; but the terms and meaning of that compromise can have no bearing on the subject. The Republican party who were in power disapproved of that compromise, and could not model their course upon it. The Republican party may have been right or may have been wrong; but surely it will not be argued that any political party elected to power by a majority should follow the policy of a minority, lest that minority should rebel. I can conceive of no government more lowly placed than one which deserts the policy of the majority which supports it, fearing either the tongues or arms of a minority.

As the next scene in the play, the State of South Carolina bombarded Fort Sumter. Was that to be the moment for a peaceable separation? Let us suppose that O’Connell had marched down to the Pigeon House, at Dublin, and had taken it, in 1843, let us say, would that have been an argument to us for allowing Ireland to set up for herself? Is that the way of men’s minds, or of the minds of nations? The powers of the President were defined by law, as agreed upon among all the States of the Union, and against that power and against that law South Carolina raised her hand, and the other States joined her in rebellion. When circumstances had come to that, it was no longer possible that the North should shun the war. To my thinking the rights of rebellion are holy. Where would the world have been, or where would the world hope to be, without rebellion? But let rebellion look the truth in the face, and not blanch from its own consequences. She has to judge her own opportunities and to decide on her own fitness. Success is the test of her judgment. But rebellion can never be successful except by overcoming the power against which she raises herself. She has no right to expect bloodless triumphs; and if she be not the stronger in the encounter which she creates, she must bear the penalty of her rashness. Rebellion is justified by being better served than constituted authority, but cannot be justified otherwise. Now and again it may happen that rebellion’s cause is so good that constituted authority will fall to the ground at the first glance of her sword. This was so the other day in Naples, when Garibaldi blew away the king’s armies with a breath. But this is not so often. Rebellion knows that it must fight, and the legalized power against which rebels rise must of necessity fight also.

I cannot see at what point the North first sinned; nor do I think that had the North yielded, England would have honored her for her meekness. Had she yielded without striking a blow, she would have been told that she had suffered the Union to drop asunder by her supineness. She would have been twitted with cowardice, and told that she was no match for Southern energy. It would then have seemed to those who sat in judgment on her that she might have righted everything by that one blow from which she had abstained. But having struck that one blow, and having found that it did not suffice, could she then withdraw, give way, and own herself beaten? Has it been so usually with Anglo-Saxon pluck? In such case as that, would there have been no mention of those two dogs, Brag and Holdfast? The man of the Northern States knows that he has bragged — bragged as loudly as his English forefathers. In that matter of bragging, the British lion and the star-spangled banner may abstain from throwing mud at each other. And now the Northern man wishes to show that he can hold fast also. Looking at all this I cannot see that peace has been possible to the North.

As to the question of secession and rebellion being one and the same thing, the point to me does not seem to bear an argument. The confederation of States had a common army, a common policy, a common capital, a common government, and a common debt. If one might secede, any or all might secede, and where then would be their property, their debt, and their servants? A confederation with such a license attached to it would have been simply playing at national power. If New York had seceded — a State which stretches from the Atlantic to British North America — it would have cut New England off from the rest of the Union. Was it legally within the power of New York to place the six States of New England in such a position? And why should it be assumed that so suicidal a power of destroying a nationality should be inherent in every portion of the nation? The Slates are bound together by a written compact, but that compact gives each State no such power. Surely such a power would have been specified had it been intended that it should be given. But there are axioms in politics as in mathematics, which recommend themselves to the mind at once, and require no argument for their proof. Men who are not argumentative perceive at once that they are true. A part cannot be greater than the whole.

I think it is plain that the remnant of the Union was bound to take up arms against those States which had illegally torn themselves off from her; and if so, she could only do so with such weapons as were at her hand. The United States army had never been numerous or well appointed; and of such officers and equipments as it possessed, the more valuable part was in the hands of the Southerners. It was clear enough that she was ill provided, and that in going to war she was undertaking a work as to which she had still to learn many of the rudiments. But Englishmen should be the last to twit her with such ignorance. It is not yet ten years since we were all boasting that swords and guns were useless things, and that military expenditure might be cut down to any minimum figure that an economizing Chancellor of the Exchequer could name. Since that we have extemporized two if not three armies. There are our volunteers at home; and the army which holds India can hardly be considered as one with that which is to maintain our prestige in Europe and the West. We made some natural blunders in the Crimea, but in making those blunders we taught ourselves the trade. It is the misfortune of the Northern States that they must learn these lessons in fighting their own countrymen. In the course of our history we have suffered the same calamity more than once. The Round-heads, who beat the Cavaliers and created English liberty, made themselves soldiers on the bodies of their countrymen. But England was not ruined by that civil war; nor was she ruined by those which preceded it. From out of these she came forth stronger than she entered them — stronger, better, and more fit for a great destiny in the history of nations. The Northern States had nearly five hundred thousand men under arms when the winter of 1861 commenced, and for that enormous multitude all commissariat requirements were well supplied. Camps and barracks sprang up through the country as though by magic. Clothing was obtained with a rapidity that has I think, never been equaled. The country had not been prepared for the fabrication of arms, and yet arms were put into the men’s hands almost as quickly as the regiments could be mustered. The eighteen millions of the Northern States lent themselves to the effort as one man. Each State gave the best it had to give. Newspapers were as rabid against each other as ever, but no newspaper could live which did not support the war. “The South has rebelled against the law, and the law shall be supported.” This has been the cry and the heartfelt feeling of all men; and it is a feeling which cannot but inspire respect.

We have heard much of the tyranny of the present government of the United States, and of the tyranny also of the people. They have both been very tyrannical. The “habeas corpus” has been suspended by the word of one man. Arrests have been made on men who have been hardly suspected of more than secession principles. Arrests have, I believe, been made in cases which have been destitute even of any fair ground for such suspicion. Newspapers have been stopped for advocating views opposed to the feelings of the North, as freely as newspapers were ever stopped in France for opposing the Emperor. A man has not been safe in the streets who was known to be a secessionist. It must be at once admitted that opinion in the Northern States was not free when I was there. But has opinion ever been free anywhere on all subjects? In the best built strongholds of freedom, have there not always been questions on which opinion has not been free; and must it not always be so? When the decision of a people on any matter has become, so to say, unanimous — when it has shown itself to be so general as to be clearly the expression of the nation’s voice as a single chorus, that decision becomes holy, and may not be touched. Could any newspaper be produced in England which advocated the overthrow of the Queen? And why may not the passion for the Union be as strong with the Northern States, as the passion for the Crown is strong with us? The Crown with us is in no danger, and therefore the matter is at rest. But I think we must admit that in any nation, let it be ever so free, there may be points on which opinion must be held under restraint. And as to those summary arrests, and the suspension of the “habeas corpus,” is there not something to be said for the States government on that head also? Military arrests are very dreadful, and the soul of a nation’s liberty is that personal freedom from arbitrary interference which is signified to the world by those two unintelligible Latin words. A man’s body shalt not be kept in duress at any man’s will, but shall be brought up into open court, with uttermost speed, in order that the law may say whether or no it should be kept in duress. That I take it is the meaning of “habeas corpus,” and it is easy to see that the suspension of that privilege destroys all freedom, and places the liberty of every individual at the mercy of him who has the power to suspend it. Nothing can be worse than this: and such suspension, if extended over any long period of years, will certainly make a nation weak, mean spirited, and poor. But in a period of civil war, or even of a widely-extended civil commotion, things cannot work in their accustomed grooves. A lady does not willingly get out of her bedroom-window with nothing on but her nightgown; but when her house is on fire she is very thankful for an opportunity of doing so. It is not long since the “habeas corpus” was suspended in parts of Ireland, and absurd arrests were made almost daily when that suspension first took effect. It was grievous that there should be necessity for such a step; and it is very grievous now that such necessity should be felt in the Northern States. But I do not think that it becomes Englishmen to bear hardly upon Americans generally for what has been done in that matter. Mr. Seward, in an official letter to the British Minister at Washington — which letter, through official dishonesty, found its way to the press — claimed for the President the right of suspending the “habeas corpus” in the States whenever it might seem good to him to do so. If this be in accordance with the law of the land, which I think must be doubted, the law of the land is not favorable to freedom. For myself, I conceive that Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward have been wrong in their law, and that no such right is given to the President by the Constitution of the United States. This I will attempt to prove in some subsequent chapter. But I think it must be felt by all who have given any thought to the Constitution of the States, that let what may be the letter of the law, the Presidents of the United States have had no such power. It is because the States have been no longer united, that Mr. Lincoln has had the power, whether it be given to him by the law or no.

And then as to the debt; it seems to me very singular that we in England should suppose that a great commercial people would be ruined by a national debt. As regards ourselves, I have always looked on our national debt as the ballast in our ship. We have a great deal of ballast, but then the ship is very big. The States also are taking in ballast at a rather rapid rate; and we too took it in quickly when we were about it. But I cannot understand why their ship should not carry, without shipwreck, that which our ship has carried without damage, and, as I believe, with positive advantage to its sailing. The ballast, if carried honestly, will not, I think, bring the vessel to grief. The fear is lest the ballast should be thrown overboard.

So much I have said wishing to plead the cause of the Northern States before the bar of English opinion, and thinking that there is ground for a plea in their favor. But yet I cannot say that their bitterness against Englishmen has been justified, or that their tone toward England has been dignified. Their complaint is that they have received no sympathy from England; but it seems to me that a great nation should not require an expression of sympathy during its struggle. Sympathy is for the weak rather than for the strong. When I hear two powerful men contending together in argument, I do not sympathize with him who has the best of it; but I watch the precision of his logic and acknowledge the effects of his rhetoric. There has been a whining weakness in the complaints made by Americans against England, which has done more to lower them as a people in my judgment than any other part of their conduct during the present crisis. When we were at war with Russia, the feeling of the States was strongly against us. All their wishes were with our enemies. When the Indian mutiny was at its worst, the feeling of France was equally adverse to us. The joy expressed by the French newspapers was almost ecstatic. But I do not think that on either occasion we bemoaned ourselves sadly on the want of sympathy shown by our friends. On each occasion we took the opinion expressed for what it was worth, and managed to live it down. We listened to what was said, and let it pass by. When in each case we had been successful, there was an end of our friends’ croakings.

But in the Northern States of America the bitterness against England has amounted almost to a passion. The players — those chroniclers of the time — have had no hits so sure as those which have been aimed at Englishmen as cowards, fools, and liars. No paper has dared to say that England has been true in her American policy. The name of an Englishman has been made a by-word for reproach. In private intercourse private amenities have remained. I, at any rate, may boast that such has been the case as regards myself. But, even in private life, I have been unable to keep down the feeling that I have always been walking over smothered ashes.

It may be that, when the civil war in America is over, all this will pass by, and there will be nothing left of international bitterness but its memory. It is sincerely to be hoped that this may be so — that even the memory of the existing feeling may fade away and become unreal. I for one cannot think that two nations situated as are the States and England should permanently quarrel and avoid each other. But words have been spoken which will, I fear, long sound in men’s ears, and thoughts have sprung up which will not easily allow themselves to be extinguished.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43