Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On Half A Loaf.


Is it all over? May we lock up the case of instruments? Have we signed our wills; settled up our affairs; pretended to talk and rattle quite cheerfully to the women at dinner, so that they should not be alarmed; sneaked away under some pretext, and looked at the children sleeping in their beds with their little unconscious thumbs in their months, and a flush on the soft-pillowed cheek; made every arrangement with Colonel MacTurk, who acts as our second, and knows the other principal a great deal too well to think he will ever give in; invented a monstrous figment about going to shoot pheasants with Mac in the morning, so as to soothe the anxious fears of the dear mistress of the house; early as the hour appointed for the — the little affair — was, have we been awake hours and hours sooner; risen before daylight, with a faint hope, perhaps, that MacTurk might have come to some arrangement with the other side; at seven o’clock (confound his punctuality!) heard his cab-wheel at the door, and let him in looking perfectly trim, fresh, jolly, and well shaved; driven off with him in the cold morning, after a very unsatisfactory breakfast of coffee and stale bread-and-butter (which choke, somehow, in the swallowing); driven off to Wormwood Scrubs in the cold, muddy, misty, moonshiny morning; stepped out of the cab, where Mac has bid the man to halt on a retired spot in the common; in one minute more, seen another cab arrive, from which descend two gentlemen, one of whom has a case like MacTurk’s under his arm; — looked round and round the solitude, and seen not one single sign of a policeman — no, no more than in a row in London; — deprecated the horrible necessity which drives civilized men to the use of powder and bullet; — taken ground as firmly as may be, and looked on whilst Mac is neatly loading his weapons; and when all ready, and one looked for the decisive One, Two, Three — have we even heard Captain O’Toole (the second of the other principal) walk up, and say: “Colonel MacTurk, I am desired by my principal to declare at this eleventh — this twelfth hour, that he is willing to own that he sees HE HAS BEEN WRONG in the dispute which has arisen between him and your friend; that he apologizes for offensive expressions which he has used in the heat of the quarrel; and regrets the course he has taken?” If something like this has happened to you, however great your courage, you have been glad not to fight; — however accurate your aim, you have been pleased not to fire.

On the sixth day of January in this year sixty-two, what hundreds of thousands — I may say, what millions of Englishmen, were in the position of the personage here sketched — Christian men, I hope, shocked at the dreadful necessity of battle: aware of the horrors which the conflict must produce, and yet feeling that the moment was come, and that there was no arbitrament left but that of steel and cannon! My reader, perhaps, has been in America. If he has, he knows what good people are to be found there; how polished, how generous, how gentle, how courteous. But it is not the voices of these you hear in the roar of hate, defiance, folly, falsehood, which comes to us across the Atlantic. You can’t hear gentle voices; very many who could speak are afraid. Men must go forward, or be crushed by the maddened crowd behind them. I suppose after the perpetration of that act of — what shall we call it? — of sudden war, which Wilkes did, and Everett approved, most of us believed that battle was inevitable. Who has not read the American papers for six weeks past? Did you ever think the United States Government would give up those Commissioners? I never did, for my part. It seems to me the United States Government have done the most courageous act of the war. Before that act was done, what an excitement prevailed in London! In every Club there was a parliament sitting in permanence: in every domestic gathering this subject was sure to form a main part of the talk. Of course I have seen many people who have travelled in America, and heard them on this matter — friends of the South, friends of the North, friends of peace, and American stockholders in plenty. —“They will never give up the men, sir,” that was the opinion on all sides; and, if they would not, we knew what was to happen.

For weeks past this nightmare of war has been riding us. The City was already gloomy enough. When a great domestic grief and misfortune visits the chief person of the State, the heart of the people, too, is sad and awe-stricken. It might be this sorrow and trial were but presages of greater trials and sorrow to come. What if the sorrow of war is to be added to the other calamity? Such forebodings have formed the theme of many a man’s talk, and darkened many a fireside. Then came the rapid orders for ships to arm and troops to depart. How many of us have had to say farewell to friends whom duty called away with their regiments; on whom we strove to look cheerfully, as we shook their hands, it might be for the last time; and whom our thoughts depicted, treading the snows of the immense Canadian frontier, where their intrepid little band might have to face the assaults of other enemies than winter and rough weather! I went to a play one night, and protest I hardly know what was the entertainment which passed before my eyes. In the next stall was an American gentleman, who knew me. “Good heavens, sir,” I thought, “is it decreed that you and I are to be authorized to murder each other next week; that my people shall be bombarding your cities, destroying your navies, making a hideous desolation of your coast; that our peaceful frontier shall be subject to fire, rapine, and murder?” “They will never give up the men,” said the Englishman. “They will never give up the men,” said the American. And the Christmas piece which the actors were playing proceeded like a piece in a dream. To make the grand comic performance doubly comic, my neighbor presently informed me how one of the best friends I had in America — the most hospitable, kindly, amiable of men, from whom I had twice received the warmest welcome and the most delightful hospitality — was a prisoner in Fort Warren, on charges by which his life perhaps might be risked. I think that was the most dismal Christmas fun which these eyes ever looked on.

Carry out that notion a little farther, and depict ten thousand, a hundred thousand homes in England saddened by the thought of the coming calamity, and oppressed by the pervading gloom. My next-door neighbor perhaps has parted with her son. Now the ship in which he is, with a thousand brave comrades, is ploughing through the stormy midnight ocean. Presently (under the flag we know of) the thin red line in which her boy forms a speck, is winding its way through the vast Canadian snows. Another neighbor’s boy is not gone, but is expecting orders to sail; and some one else, besides the circle at home maybe, is in prayer and terror, thinking of the summons which calls the young sailor away. By firesides modest and splendid, all over the three kingdoms, that sorrow is keeping watch, and myriads of hearts beating with that thought, “Will they give up the men?”

I don’t know how, on the first day after the capture of the Southern Commissioners was announced, a rumor got abroad in London that the taking of the men was an act according to law, of which our nation could take no notice. It was said that the law authorities had so declared, and a very noble testimony to the LOYALTY of Englishmen, I think, was shown by the instant submission of high-spirited gentlemen, most keenly feeling that the nation had been subject to a coarse outrage, who were silent when told that the law was with the aggressor. The relief which presently came, when, after a pause of a day, we found that law was on our side, was indescribable. The nation MIGHT then take notice of this insult to its honor. Never were people more eager than ours when they found they had a right to reparation.

I have talked during the last week with many English holders of American securities, who, of course, have been aware of the threat held over them. “England,” says the New York Herald, “cannot afford to go to war with us, for six hundred millions’ worth of American stock is owned by British subjects, which, in event of hostilities, would be confiscated; and we now call upon the Companies not to take it off their hands on any terms. Let its forfeiture be held over England as a weapon in terrorem. British subjects have two or three hundred millions of dollars invested in shipping and other property in the United States. All this property, together with the stocks, would be seized, amounting to nine hundred millions of dollars. Will England incur this tremendous loss for a mere abstraction?”

Whether “a mere abstraction” here means the abstraction of the two Southern Commissioners from under our flag or the abstract idea of injured honor, which seems ridiculous to the Herald, is it needless to ask. I have spoken with many men who have money invested in the States, but I declare I have not met one English gentleman whom the publication of this threat has influenced for a moment. Our people have nine hundred millions of dollars invested in the United States, have they? And the Herald “calls upon the Companies” not to take any of this debt off our hands. Let us, on our side, entreat the English press to give this announcement every publicity. Let us do everything in our power to make this “call upon the Americans” well known in England. I hope English newspaper editors will print it, and print it again and again. It is not we who say this of American citizens, but American citizens who say this of themselves. “Bull is odious. We can’t bear Bull. He is haughty, arrogant, a braggart, and a blusterer; and we can’t bear brag and bluster in our modest and decorous country. We hate Bull, and if he quarrels with us on a point in which we are in the wrong, we have goods of his in our custody, and we will rob him!” Suppose your London banker saying to you, “Sir, I have always thought your manners disgusting, and your arrogance insupportable. You dare to complain of my conduct because I have wrongfully imprisoned Jones. My answer to your vulgar interference is, that I confiscate your balance!”

What would be an English merchant’s character after a few such transactions? It is not improbable that the moralists of the Herald would call him a rascal. Why have the United States been paying seven, eight, ten per cent for money for years past, when the same commodity can be got elsewhere at half that rate of interest? Why, because though among the richest proprietors in the world, creditors were not sure of them. So the States have had to pay eighty millions yearly for the use of money which would cost other borrowers but thirty. Add up this item of extra interest alone for a dozen years, and see what a prodigious penalty the States have been paying for repudiation here and there, for sharp practice, for doubtful credit. Suppose the peace is kept between us, the remembrance of this last threat alone will cost the States millions and millions more. If they must have money, we must have a greater interest to insure our jeopardized capital. Do American Companies want to borrow money — as want to borrow they will? Mr. Brown, show the gentleman that extract from the New York Herald which declares that the United States will confiscate private property in the event of a war. As the country newspapers say, “Please, country papers, copy this paragraph.” And, gentlemen in America, when the honor of YOUR nation is called in question, please to remember that it is the American press which glories in announcing that you are prepared to be rogues.

And when this war has drained uncounted hundreds of millions more out of the United States exchequer, will they be richer or more inclined to pay debts, or less willing to evade them, or more popular with their creditors, or more likely to get money from men whom they deliberately announce that they will cheat? I have not followed the Herald on the “stone-ship” question — that great naval victory appears to me not less horrible and wicked than suicidal. Block the harbors for ever; destroy the inlets of the commerce of the world; perish cities — so that we may wreak an injury on them. It is the talk of madmen, but not the less wicked. The act injures the whole Republic: but it is perpetrated. It is to deal harm to ages hence; but it is done. The Indians of old used to burn women and their unborn children. This stone-ship business is Indian warfare. And it is performed by men who tell us every week that they are at the head of civilization, and that the Old World is decrepit, and cruel, and barbarous as compared to theirs.

The same politicians who throttle commerce at its neck, and threaten to confiscate trust-money, say that when the war is over, and the South is subdued, then the turn of the old country will come, and a direful retribution shall be taken for our conduct. This has been the cry all through the war. “We should have conquered the South,” says an American paper which I read this very day, “but for England.” Was there ever such puling heard from men who have an army of a million, and who turn and revile a people who have stood as aloof from their contest as we have from the war of Troy? Or is it an outcry made with malice prepense? And is the song of the New York Times a variation of the Herald tune? —“The conduct of the British in folding their arms and taking no part in the fight, has been so base that it has caused the prolongation of the war, and occasioned a prodigious expense on our part. Therefore, as we have British property in our hands, we &c. &c.” The lamb troubled the water dreadfully, and the wolf, in a righteous indignation, “confiscated” him. Of course we have heard that at an undisturbed time Great Britain would never have dared to press its claim for redress. Did the United States wait until we were at peace with France before they went to war with us last? Did Mr. Seward yield the claim which he confesses to be just, until he himself was menaced with war? How long were the Southern gentlemen kept in prison? What caused them to be set free? and did the Cabinet of Washington see its error before or after the demand for redress?24 The captor was feasted at Boston, and the captives in prison hard by. If the wrong-doer was to be punished, it was Captain Wilkes who ought to have gone into limbo. At any rate, as “the Cabinet of Washington could not give its approbation to the commander of the ‘San Jacinto,’” why were the men not sooner set free? To sit at the Tremont House, and hear the captain after dinner give his opinion on international law, would have been better sport for the prisoners than the grim salle-a-manger at Fort Warren.

24 “At the beginning of December the British fleet on the West Indian station mounted 850 guns, and comprised five liners, ten first-class frigates, and seventeen powerful corvettes. . . . In little more than a month the fleet available for operations on the American shore had been more than doubled. The reinforcements prepared at the various dockyards included two line-of-battle ships, twenty-nine magnificent frigates — such as the ‘Shannon,’ the ‘Sutlej,’ the ‘Euryalus,’ the ‘Orlando,’ the ‘Galatea;’ eight corvettes armed like the frigates in part, with 100 — and 40-pounder Armstrong guns; and the two tremendous iron-cased ships, the ‘Warrior’ and the ‘Black Prince;’ and their smaller sisters the ‘Resistance’ and the ‘Defence.’ There was work to be done which might have delayed the commission of a few of these ships for some weeks longer; but if the United States had chosen war instead of peace, the blockade of their coasts would have been supported by a steam fleet of more than sixty splendid ships, armed with 1,800 guns, many of them of the heaviest and most effective kind.”— Saturday Review: Jan. 11.

I read in the commercial news brought by the “Teutonia,” and published in London on the present 13th January, that the pork market was generally quiet on the 29th December last; that lard, though with more activity, was heavy and decidedly lower; and at Philadelphia, whiskey is steady and stocks firm. Stocks are firm: that is a comfort for the English holders, and the confiscating process recommended by the Herald is at least deferred. But presently comes an announcement which is not quite so cheering:—“The Saginaw Central Railway Company (let us call it) has postponed its January dividend on account of the disturbed condition of public affairs.”

A la bonne heure. The bond — and share-holders of the Saginaw must look for loss and depression in times of war. This is one of war’s dreadful taxes and necessities; and all sorts of innocent people must suffer by the misfortune. The corn was high at Waterloo when a hundred and fifty thousand men came and trampled it down on a Sabbath morning. There was no help for that calamity, and the Belgian farmers lost their crops for the year. Perhaps I am a farmer myself — an innocent colonus; and instead of being able to get to church with my family, have to see squadrons of French dragoons thundering upon my barley, and squares of English infantry forming and trampling all over my oats. (By the way, in writing of “Panics,” an ingenious writer in the Atlantic Magazine says that the British panics at Waterloo were frequent and notorious.) Well, I am a Belgian peasant, and I see the British running away and the French cutting the fugitives down. What have I done that these men should be kicking down my peaceful harvest for me, on which I counted to pay my rent, to feed my horses, my household, my children? It is hard. But it is the fortune of war. But suppose the battle over; the Frenchman says, “You scoundrel! why did you not take a part with me? and why did you stand like a double-faced traitor looking on? I should have won the battle but for you. And I hereby confiscate the farm you stand on, and you and your family may go to the workhouse.”

The New York press holds this argument over English people in terrorem. “We Americans may be ever so wrong in the matter in dispute, but if you push us to a war, we will confiscate your English property.” Very good. It is peace now. Confidence of course is restored between us. Our eighteen hundred peace commissioners have no occasion to open their mouths; and the little question of confiscation is postponed. Messrs. Battery, Broadway and Co., of New York, have the kindness to sell my Saginaws for what they will fetch. I shall lose half my loaf very likely; but for the sake of a quiet life, let us give up a certain quantity of farinaceous food; and half a loaf, you know, is better than no bread at all.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00