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The Secession Movement in America

The Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1070, pp. 47-48 .

January 19, 1861


When, immediately upon the announcement of the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States, South Carolina raised a cry for secession from the Union, it was quietly assumed both by the free States and by the great majority of well-informed politicians in Europe that it had been resorted to only as a threat, and that no serious intention could be entertained of carrying the threat into execution. The advantages of the Union to the Slaveholding States had been so great, so palpable, and so uninterruptedly enjoyed for above half a century—the perils to be faced as the certain consequences of disruption seemed so numerous and obvious—and the occasion seized upon as the ground of justification for so extreme a course appeared to the rest of the world so utterly inadequate, that no sober-minded man could regard the avowed purpose of the Southern States with any other feeling than incredulity. Nevertheless, as we have seen, South Carolina has seceded. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, have either followed her example or are on the eve of doing so. The border States will probably be drawn into the vortex of the revolution; and before Mr. Lincoln takes his place in the Presidential chair the Republic seems likely to be rent in twain, and two or more powerful and rival Confederacies to be substituted for it.

Even now political good sense finds it hard to believe in the reality of the astounding result. To say nothing of the glorious historic page which is thereby torn to atoms, and the international power and prestige which are at once surrendered, one cannot help surmising that when the heat of passion has had time to cool down, the mutual interests of the sundered parties will operate, like the curative force of nature, to close the wound and reunite the dissevered tissue. Possibly "the wish is father to the thought;" that the South is making use of disruption, not as an end to be rested in, but as a means to an end; but, assuredly, the thought underlies the speculations of most men with regard to the future of the Empire Republic. It is imagined that as soon as a Southern confederacy is constituted negotiations with the North will be opened through the mediation of the democratic Free States and the border Slave States; that terms of compromise will be found, and that a readjustment of the Union will be effected. That the current of feeling in America is gradually setting in towards this point, the direction in which the straws upon the surface are drifting seems to indicate. Appearances, however, which have been deceptive before, may again deceive; and the history of nations teams with proofs that when once they have overstepped the bounds of reason, albeit with the purpose of returning when their ends shall have been accomplished, the very events which their own passion has produced frequently raise a barrier against their retreat, and nulla vestigia retrorsum becomes their doom.

We are not sure that the eager haste of South Carolina to slip from within the bonds of the Union is due exclusively to the wrongs she professes to have suffered. Doubtless, the "peculiar domestic institution" is sacred in her eyes, and perhaps she believes, and may have some reason for believing, that the late Presidential election has cast an ominous shadow on the perpetuity of slavery. But something more than fear and indignation are needed to account for the precipitancy with which she has detached herself from the Union. Mr. Lincoln's election was not more threatening to her than to other Slave States; nor, supposing his policy to be what has been ascribed to him by Southern demagogues, would she have been the first to feel the injury. But South Carolina is a seaboard State, possessing ports capable of being raised to first-rate importance. A Southern Confederacy, trading direct with England, and released from the restrictions of protective import duties, would export through Charleston the whole produce of the Cotton States, and would import all the foreign commodities they receive in exchange. Her ports would become the centre of commerce between America and Europe, and, in course of time, she would acquire for herself in the South a supremacy similar to that which is now enjoyed by New York in the North. Mingled with the indignation of South Carolina, therefore, there may also be some ambitious aspirations. There are other causes of difference between the North and South than that of slavery. The protective fiscal policy which the North has succeeded in forcing

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upon the Republic has done much to prepare the way for disruptions. Indeed, we doubt whether the slavery question, if it had stood alone, would have occasioned such a revulsion of feeling as has evidently got the upper hand of the South. Not a little of it should be set down to the protective policy whereby Northern manufacturers have flourished at the expense of Southern planters; and thus a wilful and deliberate departure from the sound policy of free trade has brought about its own punishment.

Are we wrong in supposing that terms of compromise dishonourable to neither section of the Union might yet be found, capable of reconciling all interests, and yet conforming to the dictates of justice? Let the North frankly reverse her protective commercial policy, concede the principle of free trade, and declare Charleston a free port, and she might then with more hopefulness, and, let us add, with greater fairness, expect from the South some concessions in regard to slavery. The exclusion of the slave system from new territories and some amelioration of the fugitive slave laws would, perhaps, constitute as large a demand upon the South as could be insisted upon at present, even if both sections were more amicably disposed towards each other than they are. But it seems very unlikely that the smallest point will be yielded by the South in relation to her "domestic institution," unless she can see her way clear to an equivalent. The surrender to her of free trade and a free port would be no more than she is morally entitled to. It would show a generous regard to her interests. It would give scope to her natural ambition. It would soothe her irritated pride. On some such terms as the above, both parties, or perhaps it would be more correct to say neither party, would retire victor, and, consequently, neither would be exposed to the mortification of having been vanquished. And the concession on both sides would be for the interests of the Republic, and would conduce largely to its peace, progress, and stability.

If we are too sanguine in thus interpreting future possibilities—if the Slaves States are at present too blind and impetuous to listen to a reasonable offer, or the Free States too narrow in their views and too exacting to make it—may we not at least express a hope that time will be relied on as the most efficient and successful peacemaker—time, we say, in contradistinction from force? The sword may sever peoples, but can never unite them. We trust our American cousins will draw instruction on this subject from the state of Europe. They will see Venetia tied to Austria by treaty while severed from her by race and political sympathy, and they will see Austria, backed by overwhelming military power, insisting upon the perpetuation of the hateful bond. To what purpose? To the exhaustion of her own treasury, to the discontent of her other provinces, to the weakness of her executive administration, to the impending ruin of her empire. Let the Americans lay to heart the impressive warning. "You shall" is a hard policy for any people to digest, fully as hard on the other side of the Atlantic as on this. Far better to let the South go her way, and find out, as she will when her passion is spent, how completely she has mistaken her own interests. Her feet will soon be upon stony places. If she be let alone, she will presently discover that she is hugging to her bosom a dangerous idol. Let her be dealt with firmly but fairly; exact justice from her, but also give it to her, and time will do the rest. If she separates for ever from the Union, the evil will not be enhanced by bitter reminiscences; but if she wishes to retrace her steps the way will still be open to her. In either event it will be infinitely better for all parties to have abstained from force.

America will now have an opportunity of observing how utterly she has been mistaken in imputing to Great Britain a mean jealousy of her rising greatness. So far as our material and political interests are concerned, a disruption of the Union would probably serve rather than injure them. A free and direct trade with a Southern Confederacy holds out to us a more flattering bait than a restricted commerce with the Federal Union; while the distribution of their international power among two or three separate Republics would relieve us of all fear of demands tending to a breach of the peace. If we were really moved by jealousy, we should have received the tidings of disruption with undisguised pleasure. And yet the public opinion of this country was never more sincere, never more unanimous, in deploring the fall of a glorious edifice than it is at this moment in prospect of the rending in twain of the Constitution of the United States. If we were sometimes annoyed by sallies of petulance from our Transatlantic cousins, we entertained for them a deep respect; we felt an unfeigned interest in the grand political problem they had undertaken to work out; and we took pride in their success. We have no wish to see them weakened or humbled. For their own sake, and for the sake of humanity, we desired that they might purge their noble country of the guilt of slavery. But it is a real grief to us to witness the maiming of America's power and the spoiling of her national greatness; and if yet she can but settle her internal dissensions without making a sacrifice of freedom, morality, and conscience, no people will congratulate her upon her success more heartily than will the population of these realms.

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