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Reconstruction, British and American

The Illustrated London News, vol. 47, no. 1324, p. 29.

July 15, 1865


A great work of political reconstruction is in mid progress in the United Kingdom. We are not, indeed, refashioning our Constitution. The three estates of the realm, their proper sphere and limits of action, their mutual duties and responsibilities, remain what they have been, and are unchallenged by public opinion. We are meddling with none of our great national institutions. We are shifting nothing of importance from its ancient basis. Nevertheless, we have been engaged throughout the week now closing, and we shall be more or less generally engaged for the next fortnight, in building up again that part of the machinery of government which, because it bears the chief stress of legislation and has a predominant influence on its character and results, is wisely submitted to periodical renovation with a view to adapt it to such change as may have passed upon the public mind. The Crown, acting in conformity with law, has dissolved one House of Commons, and the country is busy in putting together another. Strictly speaking, the work is one of reconstruction, but reconstruction in an extremely limited sense.

In the very thick of the turmoil inevitably occasioned by a general election there is ground for satisfaction in the knowledge that the process is attended with no danger. The legislative mechanism which on Monday morning last was nonexistent, and which even yet is but half refitted, will be framed on the same model, with two or three trifling exceptions, as that which has served the use of the present generation. Such alterations as are now being made will affect merely the materials of which it is composed. The leading wheels and principal levers in the machine will, for the most part, be replaced from the old one. They will, no doubt, be cleansed of some of the deposit which during six years' work has accumulated about them, and which had helped somewhat to clog their movements. Friction against the great outside public will, perhaps, rub away some soil and rust, and fit them for accelerated action. But no great change is desired or will be effected as regards them. In conjunction, however, with these more important parts, there are a considerable number and variety of minor pieces, all having something to do towards the general result, and each susceptible, in doing it, of improvement or decay. It is here that the chief alterations are to be expected. Old and untrustworthy appliances, or, what in effect amounts to the same thing, those which are thought to be such, will be cast aside for new and more promising material. That which is suffered to remain will in many cases be passed through the fire, hammered into more convenient forms, polished and lubricated, and refitted to its former place. There will be a deal of scouring and cleaning, the substitution of not a little that is untried for that which after trial is found wanting, and, it is to be hoped, a general improvement of the machinery in regard to the parts of which it is composed; but that will be the whole amount of positive change accomplished or sought. There is nothing in all this calculated to unsettle public confidence, nothing to excite misgivings as to the future, no empiricism of which the most timid need to be afraid.

Of course, we do not mean to imply that change even to this extent may not or will not involve some change in the action of Parliament. We shall not assume to judge what may be the character of the future House of Commons, or what will be the drift of its policy. Only events will bring either the one or the other fully into light. But we do regard it as matter of satisfaction that, on the whole, the process which is being now resorted to will tend rather to abridge than to widen the distance between the legislatorial power and the settled convictions

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and will of the country. Whatever these latter may prove to be, after the criticism, the siftings, and the verdict of a general election, they may be embodied in law without imperilling anything which commends itself to sound sense and just feeling, and almost as certainly without producing so much as a jar upon the nervous system of the community. We may anticipate just so much expansion in the aims and proceedings of the Government as will be rendered necessary by any expansion which has taken place in the thoughts and wishes of the public. That is all; and that is an issue to which every intelligent and well-trained mind will be content to submit. So that, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, reconstruction is but a renovation of means and apparatus, with growth as the result. The process is far from unimportant. Upon those who conduct it rests a grave responsibility, but, at least, it is unaccompanied by serious apprehensions for the future.

Our kinsmen on the other side of the Atlantic are also intent just now upon the business of reconstruction--but under what different circumstances and on how much wider a scale! Let it not be supposed that we allude to the contrast for the sake of self-glorification--we do so merely, with a view to deepen our own sense of thankfulness. That they have to face and master, as we can hardly doubt they will do, a much more searching and difficult problem than ourselves, cannot be attributed to the superiority of our qualifications, or of our mode of using them, in any respect. Our good fortune is, that we long since passed through that stage of national discipline which they have but just reached, and our hope is that they will get through it without more permanent suffering than we. Still, as a simple matter of fact, the processes which are at this moment operative in the two countries differ so widely the one from the other in depth, intensity, and duration, that one cannot help viewing then side by side. The reconstructive work now absorbing the energies of American statesmanship is not only difficult, but it touches close upon several dangerous issues. Whereas, in our own case, the past, and especially the proximate past, is our mainstay, it is in theirs the source of disquietude. They have to reconstitute the South, not merely of new materials, bu after a new model. They have to lay again the very foundations of society. The civil war has broken up the pre-existing social system, and has pretty well levelled to the dust the political edifice. It would seem impracticable to reconstruct the latter in conformity with the provisions of law, and, happily, as we think, impossible, as well as impolitic, to base society on the maintenance or rather the restoration of slavery. The consequence is an immense amount of present confusion, collision, and misery--the inevitable d├ębris of an armed conflict on so gigantic a scale. Some time will be required before the dust and smoke have sufficiently cleared away to allow of a definite plan being adopted and brought into operation. Much suffering will, doubtless, be endured meanwhile; but our Transatlantic cousins are not deficient in a talent for organisation. We believe they will work out the questions before them in much less time, and much more satisfactorily, than has been generally expected, and that the social difficulty will, after its first pressure, yield to the appliances which robust common-sense will bring to bear upon it.

The contrast between the two countries at the present moment suggests matter for profitable consideration. A theory has been advanced by some, that no great nation can fully develop its capabilities until it has passed through the ordeal of a civil war, and that, in the course of its history, one such convulsive intestine struggle is inevitable. We shall not discuss this theory, neither can we assent to it. It may be true of certain stages of civilisation, but we question whether it can be predicated as a law applicable to nations which are, or will hereafter be, the growth of offshoots from a population already educated and trained in the principles and practice of self-government. Be this, however, as it may, every fresh instance presented to us by history of the attainment of political and social results by violent means makes us doubt whether the process be not more costly than the end will repay, and whether the mischief done by it be not so great that the time, the anxiety, the exertion, and the self-sacrifice required for the work of reparation might not have sufficed, if employed in conformity with law, to accomplish, within a given period, all that may have been achieved by the sword, and without anything like the attendant suffering. The upward and onward destinies of a people are seldom, if ever, permanently hastened by force. They are the result of moral culture, and in very few and exceptional instances is moral culture quickened by the destruction of property or the effusion of blood. The reconstruction rendered necessary by mortal conflicts is always difficult, often disappointing, and sometimes slower in arriving at its consummation--namely, the settlement of the vital question in dispute--than the patient use of milder methods would have been. We may well be thankful that the business on which our fellow-countrymen are now engaged is one which less than a month will be required to effect, and which, when effected, will place the country a step in advance; and we may sincerely sympathise with our American cousins that their work does not more closely resemble ours in the ease and certainty with which it may be dispatched. To bind up and heal deep wounds is a serious affair--to wash and be refreshed is but a trifling demand on exertion. Such, however, is the difference between what they and we are engaged in doing at the present time.

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