LiteratureThe Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1112, p. 388.
October 12, 1861
Frederick Law Olmsted. Sampson Low and Son.
At this moment the word "cotton" sounds so ominously in the ears of political economists that it is not to be wondered at that publications on that subject are somewhat rife. There is enough of anxiety and doubt with regard to this staple article of raw material to render any statistical statements welcome, and to cause any amount of the cotton-growing regions of America to be interesting. Mr. Olmstead's observations on cotton and slavery in the American Slave States, which, we are informed, are based on three former volumes of journeys and investigations by the same author, are written by a gentleman who went directly from his farm in the State of New York into the Slave States. It is probable, therefore, that one qualification for this work—entire impartiality—may in some degree be wanting; but, on the whole, there does not appear to be any desire on the part of the writer to misrepresent or exaggerate. He appears to write honestly, if with somwhat preconceived opinions. Perhaps the insensible influences at work in his mind are most brought to bear in his first chapter—on the "Present Crisis," and which is introductory to the rest of the work. Here he starts with an assertion that the rest of the citizens of the United States have submitted to many indignities in order to preserve the tranquillity of the South; and, in answer to the dogma that the South can never be subjugated, he replies that it must, or the North must; that it must be, or not only is the American Republic a failure, but its English justice, its English law, and its English freedom are failures. It need hardly be added that the whole argument in this chapter goes to show that slavery is beneficial neither to the proprietors of slaves nor to the cultivation of cotton. He maintains that one of the grand errors out of which the rebellion of the South has grown came from supposing that whatever nourishes wealth and gives power to an ordinary civilized civilised community must command as much for a slave-holding community. He contends that the truth has been overlooked, that the accumulation of wealth and the power of a nation are contingent not merely upon the primary value of the surplus of productions of which it has to dispose, but very largely, also, upon the way in which the income from its surplus is distributed and reinvested. "Let a man," he says, "be absent from any part of the North twenty years, and he is struck on his return by what are called 'improvements' which have been made—better buildings, churches, schoolhouses, mills, railroads, &c. In New York City alone, for instance, at least two hundred millions of dollars have been reinvested merely in an improved housing of the people; in labour-saving machinery, waterworks, gasworks, and so on, as much more. It is not difficult to see where the profits of the merchants and manufacturers are. Again, go into the country and there is no end of substantial proof of twenty years of agricultural prosperity, not alone in roads, canals, bridges, dwellings, barns, and fences, but in books and furniture, and gardens and pictures, and in the better dress and evidently higher education of the people. But where will the returning traveler traveller see the accumulative cotton profits of twenty years in Mississippi? Ask the cotton-planter for them, and he will point, in reply, not to dwellings and churches, libraries, schoolhouses, mills, railroads, or anything of the kind; he will point to his negroes—to almost nothing else. Negroes such as stood for 500 dollars represent now 1000 dollars. It is to Virginia and those Northern Slave States which have the monopoly of supplying negroes for the real wealth which the sale of cotton has brought to the South. But where is the evidence of it? where anything to compare with the evidence of accumulated profits to be seen in any free State? If certain portions of Virginia have been a little improving, others unquestionably have been deteriorating—growing shabbier, more comfortless, less convenient. The total increase in wealth of the population during the last twenty years shows almost for nothing. One year's improvements of a Free State exceed it all." Again the author observes:—"Whither the profits of cotton go it is not my purpose here to undertake to show. I will barely notice the hypocritical statement made for the English market as an apology for the mad crime of the slaveholders, that they are greatly absorbed in contributions made by the Planting States to our national treasury in payments of duties on importations. The cotton-planters pay duties only on what they consume of foreign goods. A very large part of all our duties are collected on a class of goods for which there is almost no demand at all from the South, either directly or indirectly— woolen woollen and fur goods, for instance. Of the goods required for the South not a few have been practically free. The whole slave population of the South consumes almost nothing imported (nor could it, while slave, under any circumstances). The majority of the white population habitually makes use of no foreign production except chicory, which, ground with peas, they call coffee. I have never seen reason to believe that with absolute free trade the Cotton States could take a tenth part of the value of our present importations; and, as far as I can judge from observation of the comparative use of foreign goods at the South and at the North, not a tenth part of our duties have been defrayed by the South in the last twenty years. The most indefensible protective duty we have is one called for by the South, and which has been maintained solely to benefit the South. Our protective system had a Southern origin, and its most powerful advocates have been Southerners, and there has not been a year in the last twenty in which it could have been maintained but for Southern votes."
Having thus let Mr. Olmsted speak his opinions for himself, evidencing the spirit in which he most likely undertook his journey to the South, we proceed to state that his first traveling travelling chapter begins at Washington, and it contains some not unamusing sketches of life and character in that capital. It is stated that the coloured population voluntarily sustain several churches, schools, and mutual assistance and improvement societies, and there are evidently among them persons of no inconsiderable cultivation of mind. Among the police reports of the city newspapers there appeared an account of the apprehension of tweny-four "genteel, coloured men" (so they were termed) who had been found by a watchman assembling privately in the evening, and had been lodged in the watchhouse. The object of their meeting appeared to be purely benevolent, and when they were examined before a magistrate in the morning no evidence was offered, nor did there seem to have been any suspicion that they had any criminal purpose. On searching these persons there were found a Bible, a volume of "Seneca's Morals," "Life in Earnest," the printed constitution of a society the object of which was said to be "to relieve the sick and to bury the dead;" and a subscription-paper to purchase the freedom of Eliza Howard, a young woman whom her owner was willing to sell for 650 dols. Characteristic enough all this; but it must be understood that these were not slaves. The transit which our traveler next makes through Virginia is minutely set out with all its details of life and character, especial attention being paid to descriptions of negro life, habits, and status. The conclusion to which he arrives with regard to the economic condition of the State may be summed in a phrase which he uses when he says that it is "shiftless." As a whole, the community makes shift to live, some part tolerably, the most part wretchedly enough, with arrangements such as one might expect to find in a country in stress of war. North Carolina is dealt with almost equally in detail, and fares no better in the author's opinion. South Carolina and Georgia are next surveyed, and thence the route is through the south-west to Alabama and Mississippi on to Louisiana, and thence through Texas. In Louisiana the sugar estates and the machinery meet with more favourable notice than usually characterises the writer's observations. After a description of a passage through South-western Louisiana and Eastern Texas, a trip into Northern Mississippi, and the interior cotton districts of Central Mississippi, &c., the work treats of the exceptional large planters, of slavery in its property aspect, moral and religious instruction of the slaves; of slavery as a poor-law system, in which an elaborate comparison is given between the condition and sustentation of the Northern and Southern labourers. The chapter on Cotton Supply and White Labour in the Cotton Climate is well worth consideration, as therein is argued the whole question whether the production of cotton depends on slave labour or not. Equally interesting are the dissertations contained in the sections which relate to the condition and character of the privileged classes of the South, and that on the danger of the South. That they are discussed in something of the tone of an advocate was to be expected; but the argument is so filled out with facts and statements of effects traceable to undoubted causes that those who read the work before us from a purely abstract and unconventional point of view will gain much—very much—on which to ground an unbiassed opinion. In an appendix a collection of ststistics is given relating to the condition of Virginia; but it was hardly to be expected that under the head of "The Slave Trade in Virginia" we should find reproduced only an extract from Chambers's Journal. There are also some statistics of the Georgia seaboard. It should be stated that the book, although dealing with very serious subjects, and treating them in a very serious spirit, is by no means a dry narrative of travel and a pedantic description of what was seen, and heard, and collected. On the contrary, it is continually broken by lighter matter; and attempts—not wholly unsuccessful—have been made to give it in many parts a popular—that is, an amusing—tone. As a whole, it will, we think, be found acceptable to those in this country—and they are many—who, watching the painful contest which is now going on in America, may desire some insight which they did not possess before into its motive causes.