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The Downfall of American Slavery

The Illustrated London News, vol.41, no.1169, p.427.

October 18, 1862


It is one of the standing reproaches against the American Democracy that the good work of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies called forth from them no responsive congratulatory echo. It is our ambition as journalists that, so far as it depends on us to prevent it, a similar reproach may not lie against the English people. This is our apology for recurring once more to the momentous step lately taken by the Cabinet of Washington.

This generation is fortunate in living in an age one of whose chief characteristics is the emancipation of enslaved races and the liberation of oppressed nationalities. Middle-aged men can remember the occasion of the abolition of slavery in the dependencies and colonies of the British empire. The Revolution of 1848 extracted from the Provisional Government of the French Republic a similar measure. The emancipation of the Jews is always in progress in various quarters of the civilised world. In the Austrian empire, Poland, and Roumania the peasants have of late years been freed from the vestiges of mediæval servitude, the Christian Rayahs of the Turkish empire have obtained concessions of which neither the conquering nor the conquered race dreamed a generation ago, while the crowning triumph of all is the manumission and endowment of 20,000,000 of Russian serfs. Even war itself, normally an instrument for the subjection of humanity, sometimes puts on in this [a]ge an exceptionally liberating character. Italy has but just been the theatre of two phenomenal wars which shed [l]ustre on the names of Napoleon III, and Giuseppe Garibaldi. And now the 22nd of September, 1862, has inaugurated a policy which enables us to add another to this select class of wars.

While we have never made these columns the vehicle for wilful disparagement of the Northern cause, we have always spoken of the American war as being, on the part of the Federals, a war for empire. We regarded the words of Garibaldi contained in his "Address to the English Nation" --words which spoke of the United States as "struggling for the abolition of slavery"--as at least premature if not altogether fallacious. Six days before the penning of those words Abraham Lincoln had announced a policy which imparts to them a retroactive justification. The war is still, on the part of the North, primarily a war of empire; but it is henceforth, though secondarily, a war of emancipation also. The President, whose name will go down to history in connection with this memorable event, is too truthful and unaffected a man to endeavour to put a false gloss upon it. "I . . . . declare that hereafter, as heretofore, the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the Constitutional relation between the United States and the people thereof in which States that relation is or may be suspended or disturbed." It is therefore, we repeat, primarily a war for empire, in which the question of boundary plays no part and the question of emancipation but a subordinate one.

We are not unmindful of the consideration that the wholesale and sweeping concession of freedom to all slaves in the "rebel" States, whether belonging to loyal or rebel masters, only comes into effect on the first day of 1863; but the ninth section of the Confiscation Act, quoted by the President as henceforward to be rigorously enforced, is tantamount to a proclamation of general emancipation, inasmuch as in the "rebel" States no "loyal" slaveowners, to whom the Confiscation Act is inapplicable, have yet been discovered. Wherever the Union flag shall penetrate it will, from this time forth, bring liberty to the enslaved.

There is but one qualification to be made to this statement. It is that if the "rebels" deign to accept Mr. Lincoln's proffered bribe--the bribe of condonation--and will dutifully proceed this autumn to elect members of Congress, to appear at Washington on any day before the 1st of January next, then the presence of such representatives "shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State and the people thereof are not then in rebellion against the United States." There is, perhaps, another contingency to be dreaded. A too rapid career of success on the part of the Northern armies might induce Congress at its next Session to repeal the Confederate Act and annul or declare unconstitutional the remaining portions of the President's proclamation. The possibility of such a tergiversation may justify the friends of the slave in hoping that the Confederates may continue to posses their capital until the 1st of January, when the Rubicon which separates the Union "as it was" from the Union "as it ought to be" will he crossed without possibility of return. The Abolitionists of Europe and America cannot afford to forget that the Federals' difficulty has hitherto been their opportunity, and that the leaven of their ideas has mingled with the public mind according as the Federal armies have retreated before the hosts of Beauregard, Lee, and Jackson. Had either M'Clellan's summer campaign or Pope's subsequent strategy succeeded, who is simpleton enough to believe that the proclamation of Sept. 22 would now have seen the light? Even now, in spite of the humiliating reverses of the North, in spite of the resentments caused by the uncontradicted tales of barbarities inflicted on the Northern dead and wounded (of Northern skulls used as soap-dishes, of finger-bones used as toothpicks, and so forth), so strong is the sentiment of Negrophobia in the North, so bitter the thought that out of this war there may accrue to the sovereign citizens on either side nought but loss, while the slaves will reap all the gains--that all the world turns to see how the proclamation is received at the North. And how is it received? By no burst of enthusiasm, but with an ominous and sullen silence, which conceals a more positive sentiment of aversion. Not only the Democratic journals, but the Conservative Republican ones also regard the measure as a nauseous pill, which they gild and sweeten by the assurance, which they do not themselves credit, that the proclamation itself will remain a dead letter. Never were there more unwilling liberators than the Northern people, politicians, and army. There was an élan about the manner in which this undemocratic British nation set about the work of slave emancipation, in which the Autocrat of all the Russias set himself to a similar duty, and in which the Emperor of the French proclaimed the liberation of Italy from the Alps to the Adriatic, which, at least, did credit to our European human nature, but for whose slightest trace we look in vain into President Lincoln's manifesto, countersigned though it be by that deft master of rhetoric, William Henry Seward. In this feature of the proclamation, in its total absence of false pretences, and what in his mouth would savour of hypocritical cant, we may again admire the President's native candour. The emancipation of the slaves is denounced as a penalty against the contumacious owners, who are informed in the same breath that they may avoid the penalty by an act of homage to the powers that be at Washington. The idea of bringing liberation to an oppressed race is as unwelcome to the American democracy as it is welcome to us "servile and pauperised" Europeans. There is some danger that on this occasion their jaundiced prejudices may infect our English judgment. Else why do we already hear from influential quarters that appeal to the commonplace claptrap of slaveowners and their friends, the horrors of St. Domingo? As if it was not rather to be feared lest the Federals will do too little than too much; as if it were not time enough to speak of St. Domingo when its massacres are re-enacted; and as if, even in this extreme case, the slaveowner and his family are to count for everything and the slave and his family (we will not say the negro slave, for the American chattel is oftentimes as much, and even more European in his lineage than African) for nothing. There is another slaveowners and "sham-democratic" calumny afloat among us--namely, that the American slaves do not desire freedom. As if such a sentiment did not run counter to human nature itself, and were not belied by the whole history of American slavery from the establishment of the "Underground Railway" into Canada until the recent highly-gratifying experiment at Hilton Head, the very focus of South Carolinian chattelism, and the still more recent report of General Phelps upon the temper of the slaves in Louisiana! When the autumn rains, swelling the currents of every Southern river, shall enable the unconquered gun-boats of the North to penetrate on all sides into the heart of the South, not as heretofore to repel, but to "recognise and maintain the freedom" of the fugitives, we shall see that the opportunity of [t]hrowing off the ever odious yoke of chattel slavery will be joyfully seized by the American bondman as previously by his brethren in other parts of the continent and the adjacent islands.

The time chosen for the issue of the proclamation, though open to the general objection stated by us last week, is nevertheless, in some other and subordinate respects, well appointed. It could not have been uttered with any dignity while Washington was threatened and the Administration knew not whether they should next hear of the Confederates in Pennsylvania or Baltimore. It follows on the heels of a Federal victory; it is not wrung from the despair of a discomfited host. It is bold and manly to issue it just on the eve of the imposition of the severest test on Northern loyalty--the conscription; and just in time to affect unfavourably to the Administration the October and November elections. The same steamer which brings the news of the proclamation of freedom to the enslaved brought also the intelligence that the free white citizen and voter had been deprived of the right to the writ of habeas corpus during the pendency of the draught. This is the act of a Government which is conscious of its strength and does not cower before the consequences of its own acts. In the performance of this solemn historical act Mr. Lincoln has eschewed any approach to that chicane and petty cunning which are apt to be the besetting sins of lawyers who have turned statesmen.

Those slaveowners of Delaware, Maryland, Western Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri who have not forfeited their claim to the title of loyal citizens of the United States cannot hope, in the face of abolitionist national policy, to maintain their slight interest in the "domestic institution," amounting, if we deduct for the fugitives that have escaped since the commencement of the war and for forfeitures, to about 400,000 slaves, or a tenth of the whole number. It will be the duty of the ensuing Congress to pass acts similar to that passed this summer in reference to the district of Columbia, ensuring to the loyal master compensation for the loss with which he is menaced by the force of circumstances; it will be the no less obvious duty of the people of these Border States cheerfully to co-operate in their State with the President and Legislature, and to do their part in the work of a social revolution, which, in their cases at least, need not be attended by a single horror, while it must be followed by a train of blessings.

We have given that precedence which is its due to the moral and humanitarian view of the question. It is a secondary, but still an important, consideration, whether the freed man will become a cotton-grower. It was found in Jamaica that the free blacks took more kindly to any other sort of labour than that which related to the growth and manufacture of sugar, because the latter reminded them of their ancient servitude. In the more recent experiments conducted under the eye of General Hunter at Hilton Head, a similar repugnance to the picking and ginning of cotton was found to exist among the "contrabands" of South Carolina, and for similar reasons. Left to their own impulses, they betook themselves exclusively to the production of food. But it was also found that that repugnance was not invincible. Kind treatment prevailed on them to submit to the organisation and discipline necessary to the cultivation of cotton on a large scale. This experiment was progressing so satisfactorily that the Cabinet of Washington took the alarm and recalled the General who patronised it. The miserable truckling policy, founded on the hope of restoring the old slavery-protecting Union, has at length been definitively abandoned, and henceforth every Federal commander must take as his exemplar, not Butler and Stone, but Fremont, Hunter, and Phelps.

In connection with this act of the 22nd of September it would be unjust to omit mention of two names. Those names are William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. The moral-force agitation of the former, now in the thirty-second year of its existence, is about to triumph. It is his "unadorned eloquence," not the ornate generalisations of William Henry Seward, which posterity will associate with this proclamation. The same document adds new significance to the raid of the martyr-fanatic of Harper's Ferry. In the Indian summer of 1859 the genius of Emancipation was incarnated in the persons of John Brown and his motley score of followers; in the autumn of 1862 her instrument is the President of the United States, wielding the military and financial resources of one of the richest and most powerful nations of the earth.

The new policy should be welcomed even by those among us whose sympathies on this occasion are with the slaveowner, for all parties in England concur in the desire for the restoration of peace. The policy of emancipation brings matters to a crisis. If the North can ever subdue and occupy the South she will be able to do so now. If, on the other hand, the resources and high spirit of the Southerners are more than a match on their own territory for the Federal armies, then the conviction of this fact will begin to dawn upon the North from this day forth. Hitherto defeats, and disappointments more numerous then defeats, have not shaken one jot of Northern resolution or impaired their faith in their ultimate success. The secret of this equanimity has been the knowledge that they held in reserve one of the most effective weapons of war, which hitherto they had allowed the enemy to wield against themselves. So long as this was the case a military reverse was without moral or political significance to them. Under the former conditions there was nothing to prevent the war from dragging on for ten years. Expensive as all wars are, a "Conservative" war is the most wasteful and profitless of any. Henceforth the war becomes a revolutionary one. Revolutionary wars, while they are impregnated with the bitterness partake also of the shortness and decisiveness of civil revolutions. Burying its guilty hopes of compromise, the North summons up its whole energies for a supreme effort. The Confederates, with a heroism which we do not seek to disparage, have held at bay the more populous and richer North so long as they have been able to rely upon the uninterrupted labours of their human chattels. Will they be able to do so when this prop is knocked from under them? We know not; the future of the Union is obscure, but one event is clear. The delicate and poisonous plant of American slavery, if it be not torn up root and branch, will emerge from the storm which now threatens its existence shorn of its once luxuriant foliage and of most of the qualities which gave it so baneful an ascendancy on the Western Continent, and therefore on the whole civilised world. Should this be so, civilisation will receive a solid permanent gain in compensation for some severe temporary losses occasioned by the war of the second American Revolution.

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