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Disunion in the United States

The Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1069, pp. 25-26.

January 12, 1861

There never was a nation so calculated to solve a number of difficult political problems as that which we have hitherto known as the United States of America. Descended as the people of that country are from a nation which has wrought the greatest civil liberty out of a mass of anomalies, and which has sent along with its colonisation the germ of independent life and the principles of self-action, they have, from many local circumstances, apart from the fair start, all the advantages of


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which they possessed, the widest scope for the perfecting of a system of political freedom. At a distance from Europe and all her intricate questions and diplomatic influences, yet blessed to the utmost with her civilisation, and imbued with the Anglo-Saxon temperament, if the Americans are not made for a Government in which the sway of law and good sense alone are acknowledged, what nation is or ever was so? And yet at this moment we behold the painful spectacle of the positive disruption of the Federal Union, and the absolute prospect of civil war in that country. The fact of the formal secession of South Carolina from the federation of the States, and the withdrawal of her legislative members from Congress, have, as nearly as possible, brought the vexed question of the dissolution of North and South to an issue. This step will probably be imitated by others of the slave-holding States, and the threatened scheme of a separate and independent empire may possibly be carried into execution. The discussion of that subject in the South had taken a very decided turn before any action was determined upon; and we believe that there have been some persons who have not hesitated to argue that the genius of the people of the South and the nature of their institutions are more in consonance with a Constitutional Monarchy than with a Republic. While it is not very flattering to the only Monarchical Government to which allusion can be meant to argue that its spirit and surroundings are adapted to a system which has the maintenance of slavery for is first principle, it is clear that such an idea may be at once dismissed as a mere chimera. Monarchy in those regions, if it exist at all, could only be of the nature of a military despotism. It is, however, early yet to speculate on the form of government which would be adopted in the South if final and complete secession from the North should take place. The question—and a very interesting one it is to us in England for more reasons than one—is the probability, for the matter has gone beyond possibility, of such an occurrence.

We trust we may be forgiven if, in considering this matter, we venture to hint in the outset that something must be allowed for the peculiarity of the American temperament in reference to politics. The eagerness with which the citizens of the United States are accustomed to throw themselves into the political arena has always seemed to us to have sprung as much from a desire for the excitement of the movement as from a serious effort to vindicate and establish a principle. To what lengths this tendency might not carry them it is not easy to say. The struggle for victory may be extended even to such a calamity as the severance of the two sections of the Union. It is earnestly to be hoped that such a thing will not really come to pass. No doubt the triumphant attitude of the North, consequent upon the recent Presidential election, may have caused the hot blood of the South to kindle into a ferment, and the proverbial strife of alienated brethren may be imminent. But may it not be suggested that the Southerns have laid too much stress on the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency? and may they not have confounded the angry sensations attendant on a political defeat in his person into a political and social revolution, the advent of which the circumstances do not seem to us by any means to warrant? The Slave States appear to assume that a positive crusade against "the domestic institution" is, with a view to its ultimate extinction, about to commence. As far as we have been able to understand the situation consequent on the choice of Mr. Lincoln to fill the Presidential chair, the policy which he proposes to inaugurate is not necessarily aggressive. No one supposes, at least those who are calm lookers-on do not, that an attempt is about to be made to abolish slavery altogether in America. Unhappily, we fear that such a consummation is still far distant. All that is probably intended is to give every moral discouragement to the increase of slavery, and to pave the way for some safe, gradual, but somewhat remote removal of such an anomaly from the midst of the nation which boasts to be the freest in the world. Precipitation and rashness in such a matter would be inimical in a party and treasonable in a Government. We doubt if the most advanced Abolitionist in the States means, far less hopes for, any such thing. Be that as it may, one thing is certain, and that is, that a practical difficulty has already arisen which will tax all the patriotism and all the good sense of the citizens of the great Republic to meet and to solve. A very serious responsibility has been cast on the Federal Executive. It is asserted by the extreme section of the party which has carried Mr. Lincoln's election that the act of the South Carolinians is simply treason, and must be put down by force of arms—that is to say, that in this nineteenth century the most practical people upon earth are to enter on a contest like that which distinguished the middle ages of English history, and men of the same country and of the same race are to slaughter each other, and to peril the very existence of a great commercial community by the horrors of a civil war. At any rate, this does not seem to be Mr. Buchanan's policy. It appears that he has resolved that during the short period that he remains in power no military opposition shall be made to the movement in South Carolina; and by his orders the troops stationed in the neighbourhood of Charleston are to give way before any attack made on the forts they occupy. Always assuming the truth of the assertion of the Northern party, that in such a case the President is, by the law of the United States, bound to resist an act of secession, no doubt this is only another mark of the feebleness and vacillation which have characterised Mr. Buchanan's Presidential career. At the same time, there is every excuse to be made for an executive officer whose term of power is in extremis, and especially in America. There would, probably, be little desire on the part of the retiring President to do much to lessen the difficulties of a successor his rivality with whom is essentially one of principle. We are told, however, that the duty of Mr. Lincoln "is pronounced in the Constitution of the country, and that he will perform that duty: disunion with armed force is treason, and must and will be put down at all hazards." But what hazards? Have those who use this language contemplated its extent and meaning? Do they seriously suppose that, although there may be a discordant and disturbing element in the materials out of which such a State as that of the American Republic has been constructed, disruption and ultimate division can take place and leave either section unscathed? The United States occupy a very imposing and very suggestive position in the eyes of the world: what will be the amount of consideration which will be bestowed on the disunited States? In truth, we cannot help shrinking from the contemplation of the direful evils which await an internecine collision, such as many are inclined to believe to be imminent. Of the inner and more domestic effects of such a calamity it is scarcely necessary to attempt a portrayal. The matter speaks for itself. As regards the broad national question, it is painful, indeed, to predicate the possibility of the establishment of two comparatively feeble Commonwealths, standing apart and hostile on that grand platform which the great American continent has afforded to men of the same blood for the purpose first of creating and then of consolidating an empire which, with all the vigour and impetuosity of youth, has shown the persistent forward purpose of assured manhood, which in a few years has almost given the go-by in the race of progress to the panting civilisation of the Old-World nations, and to which, as we believe, has been committed a great trust for the future of mankind.

Surely it is not too much to hope that such a nation will, as a whole, ere it be too late, yield to the influences of common sense and common prudence, and that the two great parties in the States will see the wisdom of a policy of mutual combination and mutual forbearance. It would be paying our cousins a very bad compliment to suppose that out of the difficulties and complications in which they are now involved will ensue mere anarchy and political and governmental chaos. But it is certain that if this matter goes on to the point which it is quite possible for it to reach, and that soon, confusion, disorganisation, and disorder must prevail, to the vast social injury of every inhabitant of the country, and to the very certain deterioration of the moral and political influence of the States in the comity of nations. We sincerely believe that with patience and the exercise of discretion that which we hold to be a moral blot on the character of America as a free Republic may be removed without danger to the State, and without direct injustice to individuals. One thing is quite certain, that it will not be instantaneously eradicated by the action of the sword, and, in the interests of all that belongs to humanity and to the social well-being of millions of a great race planted in a great country, we trust that recourse will not be had to that sharp remedy.

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