Front Page Titles (by Subject) APPENDIX E.: English Feeling about the American Civil War - An Autobiography, vol. 2
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APPENDIX E.: English Feeling about the American Civil War - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 2 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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English Feeling about the American Civil War
[A letter concerning the feeling in England at the time when there began the American War between North and South—a letter written for publication in the “New York Tribune,” and which, though withheld at the time, was published in that Journal some years later.]
My Dear Youmans: When you were here I told you that the Americans wholly misconceive the feeling with which England at first regarded the quarrel between North and South. To others of your countrymen I have, from time to time, made the same statement; and I have urged more than one of them to examine for himself the evidence furnished by our press, and to publish the results of his examination. Nothing has come of my suggestions, however. Whether those I spoke to thought it impossible that the truth could be so entirely at variance with their belief as I represented, or whether they preferred cherishing a belief which seemed to justify their indignation, I cannot say: probably both causes conspired with their dislike to the required trouble.
The importance of disabusing the American mind on this matter is increasingly manifest. That hostile feeling toward us which has for years been displayed by your journals and your orators, has been largely if not mainly caused by the impression that gratuitous ill-will was felt by us from the outset; and I cannot but think that were this erroneous impression removed, there would be less difficulty in coming to an understanding on disputed questions. Failing to find any one else to do what it seems to me should be done, I have myself had collected the requisite materials, with the view of affording to Americans the means of judging how far they are warranted in cherishing that animosity which has lately been exhibited more violently than ever.
In the first place let me show you the public opinion that existed in England at the time that secession was impending, as that opinion was expressed in the columns of the press.
“In South Carolina, and Alabama, and Georgia, an appeal is to be made to the last powers vested in the State Constitution, with a view to disunion, on no ground whatever, that can be discovered, except that they do not like Mr. Lincoln. * * * To all our political notions there is no more reason for the violences reported from the Southern States than there would be for the electors of Southwark refusing to pay assessed taxes because Lord Palmerston had declared against the ballot. * * * The Southern States certainly would not mend matters by a separation. * * * Anything is better than dividing State against State, house against house, and servant against master in the most rising nation in the world.”
[Times, Dec. 5, 1860.
“Without sharing the opinions, much less using the language, of the Abolitionists with respect to Slavery, which bad though it be, must remain for many years an institution of the United States, we look upon the conduct of South Carolina in this matter as disgraceful in the last degree. To gratify their pique against those of opposite politics, and to advance their local interests, the Slave-owners would destroy a Constitution under which their country has enjoyed singular prosperity.”
[Times, Dec. 11, 1860.
“The Americans may confidently assure themselves that there is no party in this kingdom which desires anything but the maintenance and prosperity of the Union. * * * We cannot disguise from ourselves that, apart from all political complications, there is a right and a wrong in this question, and that the right belongs, with all its advantages, to the States of the North.”
[Times, Jan. 4, 1861.
“The proposal of secession is so wild, so absurd, that it could not be put forth by men sensible enough to conduct public affairs unless they were so dishonest as to be unworthy of the trust. The threat is either an outbreak of mad passion, or a device to obtain concessions from the fears and affections of the North.”
[Daily News, Jan. 2, 1861.
“Granted that the United States of America are beset with peculiar difficulties in treating this question [Slavery]—when are these difficulties to vanish, when are they to be lessened under the domination of the South? Have not the Southern states gone on from iniquity to iniquity? * * * *
“We must not forget that slave-owners are necessarily aggressive in every sense, and that in the United States they have been as a minority not only dominant and aggressive, but turbulent, insolent, and overbearing even towards the majority of their own race and nation.”
[Morning Herald, Dec. 27, 1860.
“If the Southern States were the advocates of a cause less pernicious and detestable than the extension of slavery, we should still think their proceedings foolish and suicidal; but, under existing circumstances, they can have neither the sympathy nor good wishes of any man, either in America or in England, who has the slightest regard for the progress of civilization and the interests of humanity.”
[Morning Post, Dec. 5, 1860.
“We must persist in the opinion that this Southern agitation is false in its pretences, and will be proved a blunder by its results; but, if now, or at any future time, the slave states should break away from the Union, we might await with confidence the day when the Northern confederacy, stronger in its liberty, in its moral power, and in its physical manhood, would rise and overwhelm its sullen rival, and crush the system of slavery for ever.”
[Daily Telegraph, Dec. 3, 1860.
“We see also how intolerant slavery makes its votaries. They have enjoyed a long lease of power; they have had the advantage of a large number of pro-slavery Presidents, as well as of supple majorities in Congress; and from the admission of Texas into the Union, as a Slave State, down to the repeal of the Missouri compromise, their demands, monstrous and unjust as they have been, met with a too ready compliance. But now, because they have received a check, and their opponents, whose rights they have so often violated, have succeeded in climbing into power, they have the effrontery to put on an air of injured innocence, and to pretend that the legitimate triumph of the North is an act of aggression against them.”
[Morning Star, Nov. 27, 1860.
“They [Slave States] dare not go out of the Union with their slaves, for they have nowhere to go to. They are a great deal safer in the friendship and alliance of the North.”
[Express, Nov. 20, 1860.
“The election of Abraham Lincoln will be hailed everywhere as a declaration that the great Republic is not a slave Republic. * * * England will now approve of the general course of the United States policy; and with the dominancy of the Slave power half the causes of irritation between the two countries will cease. England must ever be an anti-slavery country, and its Government of any party an anti-slavery Government.”
[Sun, Nov. 19, 1860.
“But will the South really carry out their threat, and secede from the Union? We believe that all their loud talk is but bluster, and that they will do nothing so utterly mad as this. * * * We are persuaded that the North have little to lose by the change, the South everything. * * * With the feeling of the whole world against them; standing alone in their assertion of a principle which Christianity and civilization have condemned, the Southern states of America—abundant in land, bankrupt in everything else—would sink rapidly to a lower and lower level, till they had become as degraded as Mexico.”
[Standard, Nov. 24, 1860.
“If we augur rightly, the Southern rebellion will splutter a great deal and then subside. It rests upon grounds not tenable in an Anglo-Saxon community; for it does not rest upon any violation of the Constitution, the common law or the statute book. It rests upon arrogance and ill-temper, too weak a foundation for a Southern confederacy.”
[Spectator, Dec. 1, 1860.
The English “nation may be trusted to consent to almost any sacrifice rather than that the Slave-trade should exceed its present inevitable limits.”
[Saturday Review, Dec. 29, 1860.
This universal condemnation of the South and sympathy with the North, uttered through the English journals before the news of Secession reached us, was uttered afterwards in even stronger language. Here are the proofs:
“For our own part, whatever opinions Americans may have of English policy, we beg to assure them that in this country there is only one wish—that the Union may survive this terrible trial. Should Providence decree it otherwise, we earnestly pray that the separation may be an amicable one. Civil war in a flourishing country and among a kindred people can never be contemplated without horror by a nation like ours, and we trust that neither the violence of the people nor the weakness of their leaders will bring this calamity on the American Union.”
[Times, Jan. 18, 1861.
“Without law, without justice, without delay, she [South Carolina] is treading in the path that leads to the downfall of nations and the misery of families. The hollowness of her cause is seen beneath all the pomp of her labored denunciation, and surely to her, if to any community of modern days, may be applied the words of the Hebrew Prophet—‘A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land. The Prophets prophesy falsely, and my people love to have it so.’ ”
[Times, Jan. 19, 1861.
“We should be thankful to see reason to hope that the South could throw off her madness, and agree now to terms which she must accept at last.” “If the seceders do not make the most of that time [i.e. the remaining six weeks of President Buchanan’s term of office] to negotiate a return, there seems to be no other prospect than that of coercion—unwilling as the North sincerely is to resort to it.”
[Daily News, Jan. 21, 1861.
If the Southern States succeed in establishing a separate Union, they will form a State “insignificantly small and hated among mankind, for lack of those moral attributes without which in this age no Power can claim or receive the respect of civilized and free communities.”
[Morning Post, Jan. 9, 1861.
“No one desires to witness the dismemberment of a great, friendly, and cognate nation; but if this object should be accomplished the blame will rest with the people of the South, whose treason and rebellion have been aided and abetted by the temporizing and cowardly policy of Mr. President Buchanan.”
[Morning Post, Jan. 12, 1861.
If war should arise “we must once more rely on the natural laws of justice, and predict that the slave Secessionists will be humbled, if not trampled under foot.”
[Daily Telegraph, Jan. 19, 1861.
“Every man who deserves the name throughout the civilized world gives his hearty sympathy to the North.”
[Daily Telegraph, Jan. 15, 1861.
“The free States are purging themselves from the contempt of the civilized world for past submission to the slave oligarchs; and whatever may be the intentions of Mr. Lincoln in reference to the issues agitating the thirty-three states of the Union, there is ample evidence in the tone of the Northern press that the doom of Slavery is sealed.”
[Morning Herald, Jan. 28, 1861.
“We deplore the infatuation which impels the Cotton States to a course so unjustifiable and dangerous. * * * We sympathize with our brethren of the North in the trial of principle and temper to which they are subjected.”
[Morning Star, Jan. 15, 1861.
“We may well suppose that the Southern men make themselves believe their cause a good one—but the men of the North know theirs to be so. It requires no tampering with conscience to enjoy the faith that extension of slavery ought to be repressed; and that is the present creed of the North. It demands the subversion of all Christian instincts to believe in the right of property in man, and to think slavery an institution of Heaven; and that is the creed of the South. No artifice can make this professed creed a faith. Think of dying for slavery!”
[Sun, Jan. 19, 1861.
“The spectacle presented in the United States * * * of successful rebellion in the South, with timidity and almost daily change of men and measures in the Government of Washington, is one which all Englishmen must regard with pain.”
[Globe, Jan. 14, 1861.
“In our estimation the South has all to lose and nothing to gain by disunion; and unhappily the rest of the world may lose, too, by conduct which seems to spring from no source but political pride and passion.”
[Globe, Jan. 18, 1861.
“There remains no course open to the friends of the Union but an appeal to the sword. * * * We hold it to be perfectly clear that the act of secession is rebellion, and that the Government which neglects by every means in its power to prevent so dire a calamity is guilty of treason to the Federal constitution. But, in the present instance the enormity of the crime of the state of South Carolina is magnified by the absence of any reasonable ground for their withdrawal from the Union.”
[Standard, Jan. 19, 1861.
“On the South rests the whole guilt of this fratricidal strife; and on the South will fall the worst consequences of the conflict it has provoked.”
[Standard, May 2, 1861.
“We can only say that the South is mad—mad in the way that is caused by passion acting on ignorance and a morbid self-will.”
[Express, Jan. 24, 1861.
“The Southerners * * * are fighting, not to be let alone, but for the preservation and maintenance of the Slave System, to which everything must be subordinated.”
[Spectator, Jan. 5, 1861.
“It is the dread of being inclosed in a ring fence, a vital article in the Republican programme, which fills the Southerns with dismay, and urges them on in their mad progress towards anarchy.”
[Spectator, Jan. 26, 1861.
“There is little danger that Englishmen will look on the dissolution of the United States with languid curiosity or malicious satisfaction. We have plenty of selfish reasons, if we had no others, for regarding it with something like dismay. In fact, the event which South Carolina has recklessly precipitated may be said to have involved this country in the very same embarrassments with which the Northern United States have so long struggled.”
[Saturday Review, Jan. 12, 1861.
“The Northern States are fully justified in arming for the support of the Constitution.”
[Saturday Review, Feb. 2, 1861.
Such was the display of English feeling in the daily and weekly papers of all political parties. The journals of extreme Toryism joined those of extreme Liberalism in this unqualified reprobation of the South. Not a single expression of sympathy with the South has been discovered in the course of the examination. One expression of the kind was, I am told, published in a monthly magazine, and protested against as being in absolute opposition to the current of public opinion. Just that cordial approval which the anti-Slavery party of the North expected to have from England, and which they afterwards so loudly complained that they did not get, was at first shown to them in the clearest manner, even by those least friendly to American institutions.
How came all this to be changed? When once a sentiment has been established throughout the whole nation, it is a difficult thing to alter it; and the transformation of it into an opposite sentiment in the course of a few months, implies some very unusual and very strong influence. After the English people had unanimously condemned the South and wished success to the North, it is impossible that a large part of them should have turned round without a cause. What was that cause? I know of none but your behaviour to us. At the very outset, even before Secession had taken place, there was a predisposition to put an unfavourable construction on all we said and did. The loud utterances of a fellow-feeling with you, of which I have given examples that might be indefinitely multiplied, seem either to have passed unnoticed by your papers, or to have produced no effect on you; while, on the other hand, ready credence seems to have been given to “stories of the joy expressed by Englishmen travelling in the United States at the prospect of the Constitution collapsing,” which appeared in your papers as early as December, 1860, and which I find protested against in our papers as incredible. Men who are biassed, very generally can see only the facts which they expect to see; and I suppose that the traditional bitterness against England, encouraged, if I am rightly informed, even by the lessons in your school-books, made you ready to believe and remember all allegations of unfriendly feeling on our part, while you were unready to believe, and very soon forgot, the clear proofs of our friendly feeling. Thus only is it possible to account for the fact that, out of the enormous mass of evidence to the contrary, you extracted materials for the conviction that we bore you ill-will. Thus only is it possible to account for the fact that, in response to our manifestations of sympathy, there came insinuations respecting our intentions and our motives; false statements of what we were doing or were about to do; assertions that our interests were on the side of the South, and that therefore we were sure to go with the South; charges of mean selfishness based on the assumed truth of these assertions; ending in invectives that became daily more violent. Friends who are treated as enemies are not likely to remain friends; and your persistent misrepresentations, by alienating some and producing resentment in others, eventually aroused among us the hostile sentiment with which we were wrongly charged. I leave you to judge of the truth of this inference after telling you how I was myself affected. It has been said of me by some of your writers that I am in feeling more an American than an Englishman; and the statement is in a considerable degree true. Moreover, at the time in question (though in a still greater degree afterward), my relations with individual Americans and with the American public were such as to heighten my preëxisting sympathies. Nevertheless, I confess that your behaviour toward us wrought in me a change similar in kind to that which I saw wrought in those around me, though not so great in degree. Irritated day after day by seeing ascribed to Englishmen ignoble motives which certainly were not prevalent, if they existed at all, the strength of my fellow-feeling with the North gradually diminished. Nothing could have made me sympathize with the South; but I can well understand how those whose detestation of Southern institutions and Southern conduct was less intense than mine, were at length so much incensed by your undeserved reproaches that they changed sides. I do not defend this. I do not think any were justified in wishing well to your antagonists because they felt themselves calumniated by you; and perhaps I ought myself to have kept uncooled my originally warm interest in your success. But it is not in ordinary human nature to respond to hard words by unflagging good wishes.
Was there not a reason for our hard words, you will say? Did not the premature proclamation of neutrality justify our interpretations? I cannot enter at length into this vexed question. I will only say that, had such a proclamation been made by a people who were displaying unfriendly sentiments to you, you might have had some reason to regard it as an act of hostility; but coming as it did along with the reprobation—I might almost say execration—of your antagonists, it could not reasonably be interpreted otherwise than as a step taken in pursuance of our established foreign policy. That the step was taken sooner than was necessary for the avoidance of entanglements, may or may not be true; but even if true, it is surely strange that an error of judgment on the part of a Minister should have made you forget the manifestations of good feeling from an entire nation.
No doubt there existed here some who willingly found provocation in your treatment of us. Their social position, their class-interests, their traditional opinions, have always predisposed our “upper ten thousand” to look coldly on a society like yours. And irritated as they frequently were by having the success of American institutions held up to them as a reproach, it is not surprising that they were ready to say and do unfriendly things whenever the opportunity offered. Hence it became the policy of their journals to reproduce here everything you said against us; and when the Trent affair and your adverse tariff gave occasion, the comments of their journals were, of course, such as to increase, as much as possible, the growing alienation. Affording, as the language of your Press continued to do, abundant materials for generating it, this hostile sentiment, which was at first limited to a small minority, spread until it became the prevailing sentiment among the influential classes, though not among the mass of the people. And this it was which led to the angry speeches made by certain members of our Legislature; this it was which at length produced openly-avowed partisanship with the South; this it was which made possible the unfortunate Alabama business.
I have laid before you little else than indisputable facts; and from these facts such inferences as I have drawn are, I think, irresistible. It is a fact which any one may verify by referring to the files of our papers in New York, that for months after the commencement of your troubles, the unanimous sympathies of the English with the North were expressed in the most unqualified manner. It is a fact that my own originally warm interest in the success of the North was gradually cooled by the groundless suspicions and undeserved reproaches with which you responded to our good wishes; and if it be an inference that what changed me from an ardent sympathizer into a lukewarm sympathizer, changed others from friends into enemies, the inference is one which scarcely admits of question. The conclusion is, I think, inevitable, that but for the revolution of feeling brought about by your behaviour to us, there would never have been prompted any of those private acts of aid to the Confederates of which you complain, nor would there have happened that gross official negligence which allowed that aid to be given. I am, very sincerely yours,
No. 37 Queen’s Gardens, Bayswater, May 22, 1869.