Wednesday, April 18, 2012

English perspectives on the US Civil War

Lord Acton

Lord Acton (1834 - 1902) famously declared that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  If you consider this quote in the context of human slavery its rings true.  If one man is allowed to own another, then all society will be corrupted.  Even a great apostle of Liberty like the slave-owner and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was corrupted when confronted with the tempting pulchritude of a Sally Hemmings.

Lord Acton was, in fact, a rabid supporter of the Confederacy; nor was he unusual given England's strong economic ties (those "dark Satanic mills") to the Southern cotton interests.  After the war ended, he wrote to Robert E. Lee as follows, ""I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo," adding that he "deemed that you were fighting battles for our liberty, our progress, and our civilisation."

Lord Acton was a man of his own time, a 19th century racist. During the US Civil War he wrote in the March 1862 Rambler, "The Celts are not among the progressive, initiative races, but among those which supply the materials rather than the impulse of history, and are either stationary or retrogressive. The Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Teutons are the only makers of history, the only authors of advancement. Other races possessing a highly developed language, a speculative religion, enjoying luxury and art, attain to a certain pitch of cultivation which they are unable to either communicate or to increase. They are a negative element in the world."

J. S. Mill
Let us move on to a rather more enlightened English Libertarian -- John Stuart Mill (1806 -1873).  He was the author of On Liberty first published in 1859.  In this book he wrote, "Over himself, over his own body and mind the individual is sovereign." What did he make of the US Civil war?

J.S. Mill wrote that the American Civil War "is destined to be a turning point, for good and evil, of the course of human affairs."  Confederate success, said Mills, "would be a victory for the powers of evil which would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the spirits of its friends all over the civilised world."

James McPherson relates in an essay entitled Lincoln's Legacy for our Time that "an English-born soldier, a forty-year-old corporal in an Ohio regiment, wrote to his wife in 1864 explaining why he had decided to re-enlist for a second three-year hitch.  'If I do get hurt I want you to remember that it will be not only for my Country and my Children but for Liberty all over the world that I risked my life, for if Liberty should be crushed here, what hope would there be for the cause of Human Progress anywhere else?'  An Irish-born carpenter (Who Lord Acton would call an "unprogressive Celt," says Commander Kelly!), a private in the Twenty-eight Massachusetts Infantry of the famous Irish Brigade, rebuked both his wife in Boston and his father-in-law back in Ireland for questioning his judgement in risking his life for the Union. 'This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemys,' he wrote almost in an echo of Lincoln.  'If it fails then the hopes of millions fall and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed the old cry will be sent forth from the aristocrats of Europe that such is the common lot of all republics.'  It is worth noting that both this Irish-born private and the English-born Ohio corporal were killed in action in 1864."  Source: James McPherson, Lincoln Lessons, 2009.  http:/

For a thoughtful appraisal of Lincoln's Legacy check out this article by Philip B. Kunhardt III from The Smithsonian...

Gettysburg Address

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