Excerpted from a lecture delivered in 1866 and published in 1907 in Historical Essays and Studies. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Floy Lilley, is available for download.
For many years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States had become an object of anxiety or of envy to many, of wonder and curiosity to all mankind. Their prosperity, attached by a thousand beneficent links to the prosperity of England, seemed even more splendid and more secure. The rapid growth of their population united the marvels of Lancashire with the marvels of Australia; it created vast cities, and peopled an enormous territory with their overflow.
The accumulation of riches was as great as in Europe, whilst they were diffused so much more generally that poverty as well as idleness was all but unknown. All the sources of agricultural and of mineral wealth enjoyed by the Old World were tenfold multiplied in the New, and were exempt from the drain of those political causes which restrain commercial enterprise, and expend on objects that yield no adequate return the resources of the people. The money thus rescued from unproductive waste was reserved to extend and equalize education.
In a society organized like our own it is desirable that education should be fitted, in nature and degree, to the special character and occupation of the several ranks in life to which each man belongs. But in a country where there is no distinction of class, a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor.
It is in conformity with the theory of equality to check the causes which disturb it, and to give as near as possible to every youth an equal start in life. Every American is a self-made man, and they are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition. Therefore in several states a system of instruction was introduced which enabled a pupil to advance from the first rudiments of knowledge to the end of a university course, and to prepare himself for the learned professions, without payment of a single shilling.
Taxation was scarcely felt; there was no standing army; a navy that weighed lightly in the budget, an inconsiderable public debt. No neighboring power threatened the safety of the country. No internal disaffection disturbed the peaceful reign of law. And this material progress, though checked by serious drawbacks, was not obtained at the expense of the higher elements of civilization.
In literature at least I entirely dissent from the opinion which denies to Americans an honorable place beside European nations. It may be said that they have had no first-rate poet or painter, and that they have done little for scholarship and antiquities. But it appears to me impossible with justice to deny that they are our equals in political eloquence and philosophy, or that they surpass us as writers on the history of the continent and on the art of government.
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In practical politics they had solved with astonishing and unexampled success two problems which had hitherto baffled the capacity of the most enlightened nations: they had contrived a system of federal government which prodigiously increased the national power and yet respected local liberties and authorities; and they had founded it on the principle of equality, without surrendering the securities for property and freedom. I call their success unexampled, not because it is a forcible term, but because it exactly indicates the peculiar character of the history of the American Constitution, and its special significance for ourselves.
And this reminds me of the wise and salutary regulation which obliges me here to abstain from topics which may supply the occasion of discord. In order to estimate in its nature and its causes the subject which is before us, we must be guided by the light of that political science which resides in serene regions, remote from the conflicts of party opinion: a science whose principles are clear, definite, and certain, and not more difficult to apply than the principles of the moral code. It is in this spirit I wish to speak of the exemplary value of events in America. Example is of the first importance in politics, because political calculations are so complex that we cannot trust theory if we cannot support it by experience.
Now the experience of the Americans is necessarily an impressive lesson to England. Our institutions as well as our national character spring from the same roots, and the fortunes they encounter must serve as a beacon to guide us, or as a warning to repel. Now the world had never yet beheld a democracy combining a very advanced civilization with a very extensive territory. Democracies have coexisted with the highest social and intellectual refinement, but then they had not to overcome the difficulty of space. Those which extended their dominion perished between the cognate perils of anarchy and despotism.
Above all, a democracy has never even attempted to adopt the system of representative government which is the supreme and characteristic invention of the British monarchy. Therefore it had become almost an axiom in political science that that which ancient Rome and modern France attempted and failed to accomplish is really impossible; that democracy, to be consistent with liberty, must subsist in solution and combination with other qualifying principles, and that complete equality is the ruin of liberty, and very prejudicial to the most valued interests of society, civilization, and religion.
That was, until a generation ago, the verdict of history; whose decision the Americans have undertaken to reverse. No more memorable attempt was ever made by men. If they succeeded in their momentous pleading if they proved by experiment that a vast community, rich, intellectual, and civilized as those of Europe, guided by the accumulated experience of the older hemisphere and without its special difficulties, prejudices, and dangers, could be governed by the principles of pure democracy, without any sacrifice of those more exalted objects which political forms exist to serve, they would inevitably exercise an overwhelming pressure on the ancient society of Europe.
If they could demonstrate that to be possible which was deemed a chimera, because it is contradicted by the experience of ages if they showed us that the objects aimed at by our political and social system may be enjoyed still more amply without the penalty which Europe has always paid, in the shape of so much iniquity and so much suffering, by irresponsible authorities, sanguinary wars, and wanton injury, in the oppression of class by class, of race by race, and of religion by religion in the elaborate, deliberate, intentional degradation of the weaker party, for reasons of state, or religious zeal, or by the pride of blood, or by the blind and resistless action of superior wealth and force if they could exhibit to the world the spectacle of a country as extensive as Russia, as secure from aggression as France, as intellectual as Germany, as free and as obedient to law as Great Britain, cursed with no restrictions on personal freedom, without fleets or armies, without pauperism or national debt if, in short, America could give the light without the shade of political life, then I believe that the venerable institutions of European polity would go down before that invincible argument.
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Those institutions have grown old, and their old age is vigorous, because we are confident that they will stand the tests of expediency and right, because they are either necessary or conducive to the general advantage. But if America should destroy the validity of that defense, then the only inducement by which the masses of mankind will be made to tolerate the evils and injustice incident to our system of society, will be the short-lived argument of force.
There were many who believed that the mighty problem was solved, and that America had accomplished the work and this conviction has already exerted a disturbing influence over the affairs of Europe. Historians affirm that the French Revolution was partly caused by the successful revolution which founded the United States. If that could be at a time when nothing had been achieved but independence, and their Constitution was only beginning the career it has so grandly run, it is easy to estimate how much their influence would be increased by the permanence of their success.
Accordingly America exercised a power of attraction over Europe of which the great migration is only a subordinate sign. Beyond the millions who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West, and whose movements are controlled by the distant magnet, though it has not drawn them away?
The time has come for all men to perceive that these judgments were premature. Five years have wrought so vast a change, that the picture which I have faithfully given of the United States as I found them under President Pierce could not be realized in the awful realities of the present day. Their debt now imposes a heavier charge than that which England contracted in the great war, and it has been incurred, not to repel invasion or defeat a national enemy, but to slaughter fellow citizens, and carry fire and sword over the cornfields and the homesteads of a country which is their own.
The armies they have raised and lost were larger in proportion to the population than those of the Emperor Napoleon or the Emperor Alexander. Their prisons have been peopled with disaffected citizens. Part of their territory has become desolate, because those who should have tilled the soil were taken by the war part because the armies laid it waste. The Union which was founded and sustained by the attachment of the people has been restored by force, and the Constitution which was the idol of Americans is obeyed by millions of humbled and indignant men, whose families it has decimated, whose property it has ravaged, and whose prospects it has ruined forever.
Doubtless, in this crisis of its political existence the nation has displayed many noble qualities: patriotism, fortitude in adversity, respect for authority, and in some measure the difficult arts of subordination and discipline. The civil power has never been threatened or weakened by the resistance of a popular commander; differences of social station have not interfered with the organization of the army; military rank has not disturbed the level surface of ordinary life, the officer and the soldier have been merged in the peaceful citizen.
In the number of the leaders there have arisen men of high ability, and at least one who has built himself a name among names that will never die. Nevertheless the judgment which overtook the American Union was not undeserved. Convulsions such as this spring from causes of commensurate importance, and cannot be the work of a short time or of a few men. Americans themselves would acknowledge this, but their explanations contradict each other. Some would say that the fault was with slavery, others would accuse the tyranny of the North. On the solution of the question depends the place which is to be assigned to the American Civil War in the history of the world.
It is remarkable that the Constitution was little trusted or admired by the wisest and most illustrious of its founders, and that its severest and most desponding critics were those whom Americans revere as the fathers of their country. Washington explained, in a conversation which Jefferson has recorded, his fears for the permanence of the new form of government. He stated that at one period of the deliberations the Constitution promised to satisfy his ideas, but that the great principles for which he contended had been changed in the last days of the convention. He meant the law which required a majority of two-thirds in all those measures which affected differently the interests of the several States.
This provision, which would have given protection to minorities, was repealed in consequence of a coalition between the Southern and Eastern states, for the benefit of the slave owners in the South, and of the commercial and manufacturing interests in the East. He said "that he did not like throwing too much into democratic hands; that if they would not do what the Constitution called on them to do, the government would be at an end, and must then assume another form." He stopped here, says Jefferson, "and I kept silence to see if he would say anything more in the same line, or add any qualifying expression to soften what he had said, but he did neither."
There was one superior to Washington among the statesmen who surrounded him Alexander Hamilton; and his prognostications were still more gloomy. He said, "It is my own opinion that the present government is not that which will answer the ends of society, by giving stability and protection to its rights, and it will probably be found expedient to go into the British form." "A dissolution of the Union after all seems to be the most likely result." Later in his life he called the Constitution a frail and worthless fabric, and a temporary bond.
The first president after Washington, John Adams, said "he saw no possibility of continuing the Union of the states; that their dissolution must necessarily take place." On another occasion he pointed out the quarter from which he anticipated danger. "No republic," he said, "could ever last that had not a senate deeply and strongly rooted, strong enough to bear up against all popular storms and passions. That as to trusting to a popular assembly for the preservation of our liberties, it was the merest chimera imaginable; they never had any rule of decision but their own will."
If I were to continue my extracts I could still more clearly show that the authors of the most celebrated democracy in history esteemed that the most formidable dangers which menaced the stability of their work were the very principles of democracy itself. With them the establishment of a republican government was not the result of theory, but of necessity. They possessed no aristocracy, and no king, but otherwise they inherited our English laws, and strove to adapt them as faithfully as possible to a society constituted so differently from that in which they had their origin.
The earliest interpreters of the Constitution and the laws strove to be guided by English precedents, and to approach as nearly as they could to the English model. Hamilton is the chief expounder of these ideas:
It has been observed that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny, their figure deformity.
If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.
Those who mean to form a solid republican government ought to proceed to the confines of another government.
There are certain conjunctures when it may be necessary and proper to disregard the opinions which the majority of the people have formed.
There ought to be a principle in government capable of resisting the popular current. The principle chiefly intended to be established is this, that there must be a permanent will.
These are not individual opinions. They were shared by a powerful party, that watched the cradle and guided the first steps of the American republic, and they display the moderate, wise, and English spirit which presided over its early councils. In this combination there was an inconsistency, which time necessarily developed.
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The laws of England do not flow from a single principle; they are the result of many influences, they acknowledge authority and tradition, balance one set of interests by another, and aim at serving very various rights, and are determined by many considerations of expediency. Of all conceivable things that which is most alien to their spirit is to sacrifice any distinct interest or particular right to the requirements of some vague abstraction. But it was difficult for Norman kings and feudal parliaments to legislate in a manner that would satisfy the wants of American society. Modifications were needed, and they were naturally directed by that new element which called for them, a purely democratic principle.
The most eminent advocate of this principle, whom Tocqueville has called the most powerful apostle that democracy ever had, was Jefferson. One or two sentences taken from his writings will furnish the most forcible illustration of the contrasts which then existed together, and whose struggles for supremacy were to occupy the history and decide the fate of the American Constitution.
Jefferson says that "his object was to restrain the administration to republican forms and principles, and not permit the Constitution to be construed into a monarchy, and to be warped, in practice, into all the principles and pollutions of their favorite English model. Every people may establish what form of government they please; the will of the nation being the only thing essential. I subscribe to the principle that the will of the majority, honestly expressed, should give law. I suppose it to be self-evident that the earth belongs to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights in it. No society can make a perpetual Constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. Every Constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of thirty-four years."
Between this revolutionary doctrine and the ideas derived from England, there was an irreconcilable antagonism. It was intolerable to Jefferson that the engagements of one generation should bind another, that any rights should be deemed too sacred to be confiscated by the vote of a majority. He desired law to be in a constant state of fluctuation, and every change to realize more and more the momentary wishes of the people. No man, therefore, and no interest would enjoy any security against popular feeling, and men would be compelled to struggle permanently not only for influence, but for safety.
Yet Jefferson himself was one of those who despaired of the Union. When the great controversy of the extension of slavery first arose, he wrote to a private friend, "I consider it at once the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, and conceived and held up by the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated, and every new irritation will make it deeper and deeper."
But it seems clear to me that if slavery had never existed, a community divided by principles so opposite as those of Jefferson and Hamilton will be distracted by their antagonism until one of them shall prevail; and that a theory that identifies liberty with a single right, the right of doing all that you have the actual power to do, and a theory which secures liberty by certain unalterable rights, and founds it on truths which men did not invent and may not abjure, cannot both be formative principles in the same Constitution.
Absolute power and restrictions on its exercise cannot exist together. It is but a new form of the old contest between the spirit of true freedom and despotism in its most dexterous disguise.
One scene I often look back upon, for it appears to me to contain the key of that which followed. I was sometimes present at the debates of a convention which met at Boston after an interval of thirty years to revise the Constitution of the most enlightened state of the Union. There were treated some of the first principles of politics, and one of the questions was as to the appointment of the judiciary. It is quite an elementary truth that a judge should be independent, and saved from the danger of being influenced by the favor of either the court or the people. But an eminent and highly cultivated orator, now one of the first of American statesmen, now perhaps quite the first in European fame, spoke in favor of short, I believe annual, terms of office, and for the election of the judges by the people.
He did not dispute that the laws would be more honorably and faithfully administered by independent judges. But he maintained that consistency is better than justice; that the people, as the source of all authority, ought to control those to whom they delegate it, and that no argument from expediency ought to be allowed to disturb the application of the democratic principle.
I could not help remembering that there is also a principle of absolute monarchy in the world, which makes the Crown the only source of authority, and makes the judiciary agents of the court. It is the boast of modern civilization to have undone this system and to have substituted for it that which experience proves to be most favorable to justice. But the absolutists of democracy and monarchy rank their principles of government at a higher value than the purposes of society and civilization, and create an idol to which they are ready to sacrifice the safeguards of property, the protection of virtue, and the sanctity of private life.
All governments in which one principle dominates degenerate by its exaggeration. The unity of monarchy gravitates towards the despotism of a single will. Aristocracy which is governed by a minority inclines to restrict that minority into an oligarchy. In pure democracies the same course is followed, and the dominion of majority asserts itself more and more extensively and irresistibly. We understand liberty to consist in exemption from control. In America it has come to mean the right to exercise control.
In order to describe the encroachment of this illiberal and tyrannical principle, it would be necessary to pass in review the entire history of the last seventy years. I can only illustrate my meaning by the language which eminent Americans themselves have used. The President Madison wrote, "When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. If a majority be united by common interests, the rights of the minority will be insecure."
Justice Story says that the people must be reminded of the fundamental truth in a republican government, "that the minority have indisputable and inalienable rights; that the majority are not everything and the minority nothing; that the people may not do what they please." Channing says, "The doctrine that the majority ought to govern passes with the multitude as an intuition, and they have never thought how far it is to be modified in practice, and how far the application of it ought to be controlled by other principles."
Finally, let me quote the words of a very recent publication, which is from the pen of the chief of Sherman’s staff, of a man therefore who cannot be supposed insane. "How can there be justification for revolution under a government where there is universal suffrage? For my part, I would rather say, how is it possible that thoughtful men should so long have tolerated a system which is at the same time so oppressive and so extremely stupid?"
We must bear in mind the one decisive contrast between Europe and America, that there society is cut adrift from the traditions and influence of an ancient civilization. The nations of western Europe are so bound to each other by their origin, by their close intercourse, and the similarity of social interests and character, that a comprehensive public opinion extends over their boundaries, and sustains in each the habits, ideas, and constitutions which are common to all. The protest of European opinion would react powerfully in favor of those habits and ideas against any European state that should reject them.
But Americans enjoy no such protecting influences, and nothing is safe that is not supported by popular favor. The ideas of past generations and of civilized contemporaries are not permitted to share or to limit the absolute authority of the present moment. The revolutionary principle which Jefferson introduced cuts them off from one as completely as the Atlantic separates them from the other. The voice of European civilization, and the voice of the past alike, come to them from another world.
History is filled with records of resistance provoked by the abuse of power. But whereas in the old world the people produce the remedy, in America they produce the cause of the disease. There is no appeal from the people to itself. After having been taught for years that its will ought to be law, it cannot learn the lesson of self-denial and renounce the exercise of the power it has enjoyed. Therefore it has been laid down by political writers as a universal rule that a degenerate republicanism terminates in the total loss of freedom. Many have prophesied that this would be the end of the American republic.
But a confederacy possesses one resource against such a catastrophe which is denied to a single state. Centralization finds a natural barrier in the several state governments. "This balance," says Hamilton, "between the national and state governments is of the utmost importance; it forms a double security to the people. If one encroaches on their rights they will find a powerful protection in the other."
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That is indeed the peculiar merit of American institutions; it alters but does not settle the question. It gives to liberty in its struggle against centralization a valuable auxiliary in the feudal system, but it does not decide the issue. That aggressive, absolute spirit which is the bane of pure democracies prevailed much sooner and more completely in some states than in others, and the states which it animated strove to give it the supreme direction of the central government of the Union. They did not choose that other portions of the nation should be exempt from a kind of power to which they themselves submitted. But as soon as the different states made themselves the champions of opposite principles of government, the Union was in jeopardy.
Now there was one broad line of demarcation between the states, which divided them both in political principles and financial interests, and coincided moreover with the difference of climate and of modes of cultivation, as well as with certain early diversities of race. I mean, of course, that which was the immediate cause of the late revolution, that which, you will say, I have kept out of sight too long, the division between the slave states and the North.
If my present theme were the institution of slavery in general, I should endeavor to show that it has been a mighty instrument not for evil only, but for good in the providential order of the world. Almighty God, in his mysterious ways, has poured down blessings even through servitude itself, by awakening the spirit of sacrifice on the one hand, and the spirit of charity on the other.
But Negro slavery in America had features of its own too strongly marked to admit of general observations. Arguments have been advanced in mitigation, stories have been published to prove the greatness of the actual suffering. The judgment which I shall ask you to accept, for our present purpose, shall be founded neither on the existence of great abuses nor of kind and Christian masters, but on the provisions of the servile law.
The most suggestive enactment I could adduce to illustrate the idea of personality in the Negro, is, that if the life of a slave was taken by the law, his owner received his value in money from the state treasury. No slave could make a valid contract; therefore he could not contract a legal marriage, even with the consent of the master. All the safeguards of virtue, all penalties on the breach of the marriage law, or of those laws which are anterior to all human legislation, were held inapplicable to the Negro family. I am sure that the voice of nature and of humanity constantly mitigated the law of the land, but it is certain that the Southern jurisprudence denied that the Negro is bound by the same moral code as ourselves, and that this belief was shared by the leaders of secession.
In a great speech at the beginning of the movement, Mr. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, spoke these words: "The corner stone of our new government rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. Our new government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth." Here, then, was a society adopting inequality, not as the natural product of property, descent and merit, but as its very foundation a society, therefore, more aristocratically constituted than those of feudal times.
The Southern slave owner was in contradiction to the two principles which animated the democracy of the Northern states. He denied the absolute essential equality of all men in civil rights; and he denied the justice of the doctrine that the minority possesses nothing which is exempt from the control of the majority, because he knew that it was incompatible with the domestic institution which was as sacred to him as the rights of property. Therefore the very defect of their social system preserved them from those political errors which were transforming the original characters of the Northern republics. The decomposition of democracy was arrested in the South by the indirect influence of slavery.
Thus it came to pass that the South, to protect themselves, sought to restrain the central power, while the North wished to make it superior to all restraint. To one party it was a sword, to the other a shield. And so it happened that the long reign of Southern politics at Washington, down to the year 1860, provoked no rupture, because they desired self-government, and not empire; whereas the victory of the North in the election of Mr. Lincoln gave at once the signal for dissolving the Union.
The Constitution failed to provide against the consequences which were to be expected whenever considerable diversities of character, of material interests, and of political spirit should estrange the several states. For this reason certain states accepted it with reluctance, and joined the Union with conditions which betrayed the apprehension that perhaps the bargain might turn out ill.
Virginia, in the act of ratification, declared "that powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression." New York and Rhode Island said the same. From time to time these fears revived, and single states meditated revoking the Act of Union. At length certain measures for the protection of manufactures in the East aroused a united opposition in the agricultural states, who were to pay for the benefit of the others. That was the first threatening of the storm that did not burst for thirty years.
Two great men stood forth as the champions of two great causes, and the contest derived from the eminent ability of the combatants all the interest of a personal struggle. The philosopher of the South, Mr. Calhoun, of whom it was said, to describe his influence, that as often as he took a pinch of snuff all South Carolina sneezed, put forward what was called the theory of nullification. He maintained that if an interested majority passed a law injurious to the settled interests of any state, that state had a right to interpose a veto.
He was answered by Daniel Webster, the most eloquent of Americans, who asserted the absolute right of a legislature where all were fairly represented, to make laws for all. Then Calhoun insisted that if a state could not prevent the execution of a law which it deemed unconstitutional and injurious, it had the right to withdraw from the Union which it had conditionally joined.
The North shrunk from provoking this extremity, and made concessions which pacified the people of the South. But at the same time Webster laid down, in immortal speeches, that the Union is not a compact between the states, but a fundamental law no longer subject to their choice, and that each state is bound up with the rest by cords that cannot be legally severed.
Thenceforward the opinion of Webster prevailed among American jurists. The right of redress was taken away from the South, and the Northern Republicans, taking advantage of this constitutional victory, entered upon those violent courses which ended in making the Union intolerable to those who were opposed to them. At that time the abolitionists commenced their crusade, which was directed as much against the Union, which they denounced as an "agreement with hell and a covenant with death," as against slavery itself.
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It became a settled doctrine among them that the North and the South could not continue together, and they made the public familiar with the idea of dissolution. "The Union," said Mr. Horace Greeley, the editor of The Tribune, "is not worth supporting in connection with the South." But the stronger part of the Republicans resolved to make themselves masters of the central government, for the purpose of coercing the South to submit to their political opinions. The Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts confessed that "the object to be accomplished was this, for the Free States to take possession of the government."
The spirit in which they meant to exercise it is expressed with the characteristic force and candor of American language by the representative of the same state in Congress: "When we shall have elected a president, as we will, who will not be the president of a party, nor of a section, but the tribune of the people, and after we have exterminated a few more dough faces from the North, then if the slave Senate will not give way, we will grind it between the upper and nether millstones of our power."
A pamphlet, which was widely circulated and was read in Congress, contains the following sentence: "Teach the slaves to burn their masters’ buildings, to kill their cattle and hogs, to conceal and destroy farming utensils, to abandon labor in seed time and harvest, and let the crops perish." Mr. Chase said, in 1859, "I do not wish to have the slave emancipated because I love him, but because I hate his master." A Senator from Ohio said very truly, "There is really no union now between the North and the South, no two nations on earth entertain feelings of more bitter rancor towards each other than these two nations of the Republic."
In this state of public feeling and political division, the candidate of abolitionists and Republicans was elected President. Four years before, a former President, Mr. Fillmore, prophesied the catastrophe that would ensue. "We see a political party presenting candidates for the Presidency and the Vice Presidency, selected for the first time from the Free States alone, with the avowed purpose of electing these candidates by suffrages from one part of the Union only, to rule over the whole United States. Can it be possible that those who are engaged in such a measure can have seriously reflected on the consequences which must inevitably follow in case of success? Can they have the madness or the folly to believe that our Southern brethren would submit to be governed by such a Chief Magistrate?"
The opinion we must form on the revolution that followed ought to be guided by the events which led to it, not by the motives of the leaders. In point of fact they were divided, like the Union, by the question of slavery. To one party it was the real object of the war; they believed it could not be safe against the assaults of Northern politicians, whatever might be the pledges of the federal government. Another party desired secession in order to establish a new union on the old principles which the North had disavowed.
The great issue between them was the arming of the slaves. Those who deemed it too dear a price to pay for independence succeeded in preventing it by narrow majorities until the eve of the fall of Richmond. When the Act was passed by which the Negroes would have acquired the benefits without the dangers of emancipation, it was too late, and the end was at hand.
Slavery was not the cause of secession, but the reason of its failure. In almost every nation and every clime the time has come for the extinction of servitude. The same problem has sooner or later been forced on many governments, and all have bestowed on it their greatest legislative skill, lest in healing the evils of forced but certain labor, they should produce incurable evils of another kind. They attempted at least to moderate the effects of sudden unconditional change, to save those whom they despoiled from ruin, and those whom they liberated from destitution.
But in the United States no such design seems to have presided over the work of emancipation. It has been an act of war, not of statesmanship or humanity. They have treated the slave owner as an enemy, and have used the slave as an instrument for his destruction. They have not protected the white man from the vengeance of barbarians, nor the black from the pitiless cruelty of a selfish civilization.
If, then, slavery is to be the criterion which shall determine the significance of the civil war, our verdict ought, I think, to be, that by one part of the nation it was wickedly defended, and by the other as wickedly removed. Different indeed must our judgment be if we examine the value of secession as a phase in the history of political doctrine.
When the Confederacy was established on the right of secession, the recognition of that right implied that there should never be occasion for its exercise. To say that particular contingencies shall justify separation is the same thing as to say that the Confederate government is bound within certain limits, under certain conditions, and by certain laws. It is a distinct repudiation of the doctrine that the minority can enforce no rights, and the majority can commit no wrong. It is like passing from the dominion of an able despot into a constitutional kingdom.
Further, definite safeguards were provided against the abuses which had sapped liberty in the Union. One of these was the imposition of taxes for the advantage of interests which were confined to certain states, and at the expense of the others. Therefore it was enacted that "no bounties shall be granted from the treasury, nor shall any duties or taxes on importations be levied to promote or foster any branch of industry."
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One great means of throwing influence into the hands of the central government had been internal improvements. It was enacted that they should never be carried out by the Confederate government. Finally, the abuse of patronage had furnished the President with such opportunities for corruption that I have heard as many as 60,000 offices changed hands as often as a term expired. It was enacted that none but cabinet ministers should be removed from office without the cause of the removal being submitted to the Senate.
These were the political ideas of the Confederacy, and they justify me, I think, in saying that history can show no instance of so great an effort made by republicans to remedy the faults of that form of government. Had they adopted the means which would have ensured and justified success, had they called on the Negroes to be partners with them in the perils of war and in the fruits of victory, I believe that generous resolution would have conferred in all future ages incalculable blessings on the human race.
They would have supplied the advocates of freedom hereafter with a peerless model. They would have realized the ideals of its friends, and disarmed the resistance of its foes. The cause that was to triumph comes forth from the conflict with renovated strength, and confirmed in the principles which must react dangerously on the other countries of the world.
The spurious liberty of the United States is twice cursed, for it deceives those whom it attracts and those whom it repels. By exhibiting the spectacle of a people claiming to be free, but whose love of freedom means hatred of inequality, jealousy of limitations to power, and reliance on the state as an instrument to mould as well as to control society, it calls on its admirers to hate aristocracy and teaches its adversaries to fear the people. The North has used the doctrines of democracy to destroy self-government. The South applied the principle of conditional federation to cure the evils and to correct the errors of a false interpretation of democracy.
Reprinted from Mises.org.
April 2, 2010
Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, 1834–1902) was a leading 19th-century historian in the classical-liberal tradition. He watched the growth of the United States with great interest, and lamented the decline of states’ rights and federalism. While he was a prolific writer and speaker, his great work, a history of freedom, was never completed.