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Our American Brothers

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1140, p. 383.

April 19, 1862


If any two nations in the world ought thoroughly to understand and respect each other it is Great Britain and the United States of America. There is no natural, and there ought to be no political or social, cause of hostility or even of jealousy between them. Their material interests do not conflict or clash. They are so situated as regards climate and development that whatever the one cultivates or produces in the greatest superabundance the other has both the desire and the means of purchasing or exchanging. England wants cotton and breadstuffs, and America wants the loan of realised capital to make her roads and canals, and turn to remunerative account the prodigality of Nature, and thus they play, or ought to play, into each other's hands. It may further be said that, were it not for the vast resources and all but boundless territories of the United States, England might occupy a position in Europe more commensurate with her superficial extent in acres than with her moral and intellectual grandeur; and, on the other hand, it may be said with equal truth that were it not for the teeming population of our isles, spreading themselves in their restless cupidity over the forests and prairies of the Western World in search of the subsistence or the wealth denied them at home by paucity of space and the keenness of competition, the American Union might still be, as it was in the days of Washington and Franklin, a strip of land upon the seaboard, with the uncleared wilderness and the tomahawking savage behind it. England and the United States are severally such formidable members of the great comity of civilised nations that no single Power on the globe would be rash enough to force an unjust quarrel upon either. Were they as intimately united as their consanguinity and their commercial interdependence dictate that they should be, they might be the arbiters of humanity and shape the course of civilisation. The statesman and philosopher who dispassionately surveys them sees nothing that ought to dissever them. They are the two most active, enterprising, and vigorous nations which the world has ever known. They carry on the largest trade and occupy the most commanding positions in both hemispheres. They speak the same language, they are fed upon the same traditions, they draw their maxims of conduct in this life and their hopes of eternal happiness in the next from the same Bible, and are,in fact, but twin branches of the one prolific tree of liberty that first flourished as a sapling a thousand years ago in our little island of Britain. Why, then, should there be any ill-feeling or antagonism between them? Why should the Americans be so extraordinarily sensitive to British criticism on their doings? And why should British opinion, seeing their sensitiveness, strive so unwisely to provoke them by ill-timed and unfair comment? The explanation is to be found in their mutual ignorance of each other's feelings and modes of thought. America does not understand England, and England does not understand America. Such is the fact, reason upon it as we may. Each nation is so engrossed with its own affairs, and exaggerates so unduly its own importance, in this great cosmopolitan age, that it has neither the time nor the disposition to study the events of the outlying world with the care that they demand; and both are so dazzled, or we might say dazed, by their own glory, that they do not look out into the clear daylight that lies beyond to take the true measurement of the great events that occur beyond the comparatively narrow boundaries of their own circle.

During the progress of the deplorable civil war, that now seems drawing to a close, on the other side of the Atlantic, we do not think that our American brothers have done full justice either to the British people or their Government. We on this side were naturally interested in the result of the struggle. It not only appealed to our social and political sympathies, but it deeply affected our interests. The first impression was that the Southern people and their leaders were mad in their attempt to separate from the Union; and that the North would be able to reannex them in three months if they carried their threat of secession into effect. As time wore on this impression was weakened, and the opinion gained ground

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that the South was more thoroughly in earnest than we in England had been led to believe; that the North was divided on the question of negro slavery; that the millions of the South, animated by one immutable purpose and by one all-engrossing desire, could not be subdued; and that if, contrary to expectation, they would ultimately be reduced to subjection by force of arms, the North would have a greater difficulty in afterwards discovering how to deal with them—their peculiar institution and their constitutional liberty—than it had in conquering them. But in all these opinions there was nothing that ought to have given the North offence. Such opinions may have been founded in error, but they did not take their rise either in jealousy or malevolence, and ought to have been received in America with the respect which free men always accord to free opinion, even when it may chance to differ from their own. And if the British people misinterpreted the sentiments of the Americans with regard either to slavery or secession, the Americans very palpably misinterpreted those of the British people and Government in the affair of the Trent. In their ignorance of the real state of the case, and altogether forgetful of the fact that the first move was made by an American officer, they accused the British nation of attempting to fix a quarrel upon them in the day when their whole energies were employed in the suppression of a gigantic rebellion against the unity of the Republic, than which nothing could be more opposite to the fact. Had there been a war between the two nations for the principle involved in the seizure of Messrs. Mason and Slidell, the British people would certainly have gone into it with a resolute, but just as certainly with a sorrowful, spirit; and, even when fighting it, would have confessed that it was the most unnatural war in which they were ever engaged, and one to avert which they would have made any possible sacrifice short of their honour. If to other nations we yield little, to America we yield much—not because we fear, but because we love her; just as in the smaller world of society a man will endure from his brother what he would not suffer a stranger so much as to hint at.

We are glad, however, to observe signs that the clouds of this mutual misconception are clearing up. The Americans are forbearing to boast and taunt, and the English to carp and criticise; and, as a necessary consequence, there will grow up between them, as one result of the great rebellion, a better and truer appreciation of acts and motives on both sides. And although no student of contemporary history can fail to note that much acerbity of feeling has been displayed by Americans towards Great Britain, or that threats the reverse of decent or friendly have been used with reference to Canada and the British possessions, to take effect after the North and the South shall have made up their feud (if ever that is to be), it is clear when it comes to questions of facts that there is a kindly feeling towards England at the bottom of all this bitterness; that America does not care who has a bad opinion of her if England have a good one; and that, if our public writers and speakers would adopt in their criticisms on American affairs a tone somewhat more kindly, the Americans would be glad to reciprocate the good feeling. Such a furore of gladness and delight as was displayed in New York when the submarine wires flashed from land to land under the waves of the Atlantic, their first and almost their only messages, could not have been exhibited by a people who in their hearts hated the country from which the messages came. And, more recently, such a hearty and imperial reception as was bestowed on the Prince of Wales when he visited the cities of the Union could not have been given with such a spontaneity and exuberance of enthusiasm if the Americans, in spite of all that their newspapers may allege to the contrary, had not really loved and respected the green old land where their forefathers were born, and whose language, literature, and laws they have inherited. Deeds like these neutralise the bad effects of a whole wilderness of hostile newspaper articles and buncombe speeches, and ought to be the real tests of national sentiment between two such communities.

The American civil war has already taught the British people to respect more than ever the high qualities of their Transatlantic brothers. It has proved that they are men who can do, as well as talk of doing; and that they are in all respects the gallant sons of worthy sires in whom the race has not degenerated. And if, at the Great International Exhibition, now so soon to open its doors to the products and to the representatives of the whole civilised world, the space reserved for the art and industry of the United States be left partially or wholly vacant, there is no true Englishman who will not deplore the fact and its causes, or form any other wish for the Americans than that their first civil war may be their last; that they may emerge from its sore trial purified as well as chastened, and be—as they were before its outburst—a free, a happy, and a united people.

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