Friday, February 3, 2017

John Stuart Mill to John L. Motley, January 26, 1863

Blackheath Park, Kent,
January 26, 1863.

Dear Sir: You may imagine better than I can tell you how much your letter interested me. I am obliged to you for the information respecting the first settlers in New England. I did not know that there were so many people of family among them, though I knew there were some. And I was quite aware that the place which the refuse went to was Virginia — all the popular literature of the century following shows that colony to have been the one regarded as the Botany Bay of that time. But my argument did not turn upon this, nor was I thinking of race and blood, but of habits and principles. New England, as I understand it, was essentially a middle-class colony; the Puritans, in the higher classes, who took part in its foundation, were persons whose sympathies went in a different channel from that of class or rank. The Southern colonies, on the contrary, were founded upon aristocratic principles, several of them by aristocratic men as such, and we know that the greatest of them, Virginia, retained aristocratic institutions till Jefferson succeeded in abolishing them.

Concerning the Alabama, most people of sense in this country, I believe, are reserving their opinion until they hear what the government has to say for itself. My own first impression was that the government was not bound, nor even permitted, by international rules to prevent the equipment of such a vessel, provided it allows exactly similar liberty to the other combatant. But it is plain that notion was wrong, since the government has shown by issuing an order, which arrived too late, that it considered itself bound to stop the Alabama. What explanation it can give of the delay will be shown when Parliament meets; and what it ought to do now in consequence of its previous default, a person must be better acquainted than I am with international law to be able to judge. But I expect to have a tolerably decided opinion on the subject after it has been discussed.

I write you in much better spirits than I have been in since I saw you. In the first place, things are now going in a more encouraging manner in the West. Murfreesboro is an important as well as a glorious achievement, and from the general aspect of things I feel great confidence that you will take Vicksburg and cut off Arkansas and Texas, which then, by your naval superiority, will soon be yours. Then I exult in (what from observation of the politics of that State I was quite prepared for, though not for the unanimity with which it has been done) the passing over of Missouri from slavery to freedom — a fact which ought to cover with shame, if they were capable of it, the wretched creatures who treated Mr. Lincoln's second proclamation as waste paper, and who described the son of John Quincy Adams as laughing in his sleeve when he professed to care for the freedom of the negro. But I am now also in very good heart about the progress of opinion here. When I returned I already found things better than I expected. Friends of mine, who are heartily with your cause, who are much in society, and who speak in the gloomiest terms of what the general feeling was a twelvemonth ago, already thought that a change had commenced; and I heard every now and then that some person of intellect and influence, whom I did not know before to be with you, was with you very decidedly.

You must have read one of the most powerful and most thorough pieces of writing in your defense which has yet appeared, under the signature “Anglo-Saxon,” in the “Daily News.” That letter is by Goldwin Smith, and though it is not signed with his name, he is willing (as I am authorized to say) that it should be known. Again, Dr. Whewell, one from whom I should not have expected so much, feels, I am told, so strongly on your side that people complain of his being rude to them on the subject, and he will not suffer the “Times” to be in his house. These, you may say, are but individual cases. But a decided movement in your favor has begun among the public since it has been evident that your government is really in earnest about getting rid of slavery. I have always said that it was ignorance, not ill will, which made the majority of the English public go wrong about this great matter. Difficult as it may well be for you to comprehend it, the English public were so ignorant of all the antecedents of the quarrel that they really believed what they were told, that slavery was not the ground, scarcely even the pretext, of the war. But now, when the public acts of your government have shown that at last it aims at entire slave-emancipation, that your victory means this, and your failure means the extinction of all present hope of it, many feel very differently. When you entered decidedly into this course, your detractors abused you more violently for doing it than they had before for not doing it, and the “Times” and “Saturday Review” began favoring us with the very arguments, almost in the very language, which we used to hear from the West Indian slaveholders to prove slavery perfectly consistent with the Bible and with Christianity. This was too much — it overshot the mark.

The antislavery feeling is now thoroughly raising itself. Liverpool has led the way by a splendid meeting, of which the “Times” suppressed all mention. But you must have seen a report of this meeting; you must have seen how Spence did his utmost, and how he was met; and that the object was not merely a single demonstration, but the appointment of a committee to organize an action on the public mind. There are none like the Liverpool people for making an organization of that sort succeed, if once they put their hands to it. The day when I read this, I read in the same day's newspaper two speeches by cabinet ministers: one by Milner Gibson, as thoroughly and openly with you as was consistent with the position of a cabinet minister; the other by the Duke of Argyll, a simple antislavery speech, denouncing the pro-slavery declaration of the Southern bishops; but his delivery of such a speech at that time and place had but one meaning. I do not know if you have seen Cairnes's lecture, or whether you are aware that it has been taken up and largely circulated by religious societies and is in its fourth edition. A new and enlarged edition of his great book is on the point of publication, and will, I have no doubt, be very widely read and powerfully influential.

Foreigners ought not to regard the “Times” as representing the British nation. Of course a paper which is so largely read and bought and so much thought of as the “Times” is must have a certain amount of suitability to the people that buy it. But the line it takes on any particular question is much more a matter of accident than is supposed. It is sometimes better than the public, and sometimes worse. It was better on the Competitive Examinations and on the Revised Educational Code, in each case owing to the accidental position of a particular man who happened to write in it — both which men I could name to you. I am just as fully persuaded as if I could name the man that the attitude it has long held respecting slavery, and now on the American question, is equally owing to the accidental interests or sympathies of some one person connected with the paper. The “Saturday Review,” again, is understood to be the property of the bitterest Tory enemy America has — Beresford Hope.

Unfortunately, these papers, through the influence they obtain in other ways, and in the case of the “Times” very much in consequence of the prevailing notion that it speaks the opinions of all England, are able to exercise great power in perverting the opinions of England whenever the public is sufficiently ignorant of facts to be misled. That, whenever engaged in a wrong line, writers like those of the “Times” go from bad to worse, and at last stick at nothing in the way of perverse and even dishonest misrepresentation, is but natural to party writers everywhere; natural to those who go on day after day working themselves up to write strongly in a matter to which they have committed themselves and breathing an atmosphere inflamed by themselves; natural, moreover, to demagogism both here and in America, and natural, above all, to anonymous demagogism, which, risking no personal infamy by any amount of tergiversation, never minds to what lengths it goes, because it can always creep out in time and turn round at the very moment when the tide turns.

Among the many lessons which have been impressed on me by what is now going on, one is a strong sense of the solidarite (to borrow a word for which our language has no short equivalent) of the whole of a nation with every one of its members, for it is painfully apparent that your country and mine habitually judge of one another from their worst specimens. You say that if England were like Cairnes and me there would be no alienation; and neither would there if Americans were like you. But I need not use soft words to you, who, I am sure, detest these things as much as I do. The low tricks and fulsome mob flattery of your public men and the bullying tone and pettifogging practice of your different cabinets (Southern men chiefly, I am aware) toward foreigners have deeply disgusted a number of our very best people, and all the more so because it is the likeness of what we may be coming to ourselves. You must admit, too, that the present crisis, while it has called forth a heroism and constancy in your people which cannot be too much admired, and to which even your enemies in this country do justice, has also exhibited on the same scale of magnitude all the defects of your state of society — the incompetency and mismanagement arising from the fatal belief of your public that anybody is fit for anything, and the gigantic pecuniary corruption which seems universally acknowledged to have taken place, and, indeed, without it one cannot conceive how you can have got through the enormous sums you have spent.

All this, and what seems to most of us entire financial recklessness (though, for myself, I do not pretend to see how you could have done anything else in the way of finance), are telling against you here, you can hardly imagine how much. But all this may be, and I have great hopes that it will be, wiped out by the conduct which you have it in your power to adopt as a nation. If you persevere until you have subdued the South, or at all events all west of the Mississippi; if, having done this, you set free the slaves, with compensation to loyal owners, and (according to the advice of Mr. Paterson, in his admirable speech at Liverpool) settle the freed slaves as free proprietors on the unoccupied land; if you pay honestly the interest on your own national debt, and take measures for redeeming it, including the debt without interest which is constituted by your inconvertible paper currency — if you do these things, the United States will stand very far higher in the general opinion of England than they have stood at any time since the War of Independence. If, in addition to this, you have men among you of a caliber to use the high spirit which this struggle has raised, and the grave reflections to which it gives rise, as means of moving public opinion in favor of correcting what is bad and of strengthening what is weak in your institutions and modes of feeling and thought, the war will prove to have been a permanent blessing to your country such as we never dared hope for, and a source of inestimable improvement in the prospects of the human race in other ways besides the great one of extinguishing slavery.

If you are really going to do these things you need not mind being misunderstood — you can afford to wait.

Believe me, dear sir,
Yours very truly,
J. S. Mill.

SOURCE: George William Curtis, editor, The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley in Two Volumes, Library Edition, Volume 2, p. 307-14

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