May 18, 1865: Was the war a victory for democracy?


The New York Times comments on a letter to the London Times, in which the writer argues that “”Sir, the North has succeeded, but not because it is a democracy; the South has failed, but not because it is an aristocracy.” The New York Times disagrees with this estimation. The entire letter is available here — one quote that struck me was “The North may not have fought for emancipation — some of them did, some of them did not; but beyond all question the South, to a man, were fighting for slavery; for even in the last agony of their struggle they refused to pay the price of emancipation as the possible instrument of independence.”

The assassination of Mr. LINCOLN called forth an able letter from “Historicus” to the London Times, which we copy to-day, and in which, as our readers may see, there was no lack of just appreciation and kindly expression. After a paragraph or two about Mr. LINCOLN’s character, however, the writer turns to consider the fact of the collapse of the rebellion, and the effect which it will have in England. He sees, apparently, that it is likely to have a political effect there, and that it may tend to shake the firmness of the political forms with which the British aristocracy has buttressed itself; and he hastens to argue that any effect of that kind will be an illogical one. “In my judgment,” says he, “the war in America had nothing whatever to do with democracy. It arose from an irreconcilable opposition of interests, and from an irrepressible social conflict which might have equally broken out in a monarchical or in an aristocratical State.” Possibly it might, but it would not follow that it would have nothing to do with democracy, even in that case. If it was a conflict which involved the success or the overthrow of democratic principles, it makes no difference what was the form of the government under which it arose. If we are right in our understanding, that the rebellion was in the interest of slavery, its overthrow is certainly for the interest of true democracy. If the principles which set it on foot and sustained it were anti-democratic, how could it have had “nothing whatever to do with democracy?”

This much, however, “Historicus” admits, that “democracy has reaped this advantage — that it has had the opportunity of disproving the charge of weakness which is often laid at its door.” And he goes on to show that the ideas that democracy was incompatible with strength and vigor of executive action; that democracies were fickle and cruel of necessity, and would not support the expenses of war or the burdens of taxation, have all been proved fallacious.

But being, as he says, “no disciple of democracy,” he thinks that those who would seek to make “political capital out of the success or failure of foreign political systems,” are both “unwise and unjust.” Possibly, if the capital could have been made by those who were, like himself, “no disciples of democracy,” it would not have seemed to him either so unwise or so unjust as it does now.

But lest any one should undertake to make this political capital, unwise and unjust though it be to do so, he proceeds; “Sir, the North has succeeded, but not because it is a democracy; the South has failed, but not because it is an aristocracy.” Yet in the next breath he says: “The North have won because they were a free people; the South has lost because they were not a free people.” And he proceeds to show that the South could not call upon all its resources; that its peasantry, the slaves, were passive, and therefore the South succumbed.

To us who are disciples of democracy, there seems not so much difference between a people governed by an aristocracy and a people who are not free. If indeed the whole people freely choose that form of government, they may be so called, but they may be called with just as much truth a democracy; and the whole people of the South had not deliberately chosen their institutions. The slaves had had no voice in the matter at all, and the ruling aristocracy had never allowed any proper deliberation of even all the whites upon that question. Is it not somewhat so with the aristocratic institutions of England? “Historicus” prefers them “both by sentiment and by conviction” to democracy. But, perhaps, their burdens do not press so heavily upon him as upon those who are in other classes of society. Perhaps if all the people of England were to have a voice in the matter, they might think best to modify those institutions in some material points.

We are quite sure that “Historicus” will find that the disciples of democracy will both seek to make political capital out of the result of the rebellion, and will succeed in doing so, notwithstanding his opinion that they will be unwise and unjust to attempt it. Men will trace a connection between slavery and aristocracy, and all other forms of the government of the many by the few. They will trace it not only in the occurrences of the rebellion and all its horrors in our country, but also in the sympathy which the slaveholders met with everywhere from those who upheld those forms — a sympathy which prevailed notoriously among the governing classes of England, even if they never “ventured to call a free, open meeting to support their views.” And if men do properly trace that connection, it cannot be but that the downfall of the slaveholders’ rebellion will shake the foundations of those systems which had affinity with it, and that the prospects of the spread everywhere of governments “of the people, by the people, for the people,” will be made nearer and brighter by its so sudden, and utter and disgraceful overthrow.

This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Causes of the war, Confederacy, Emancipation, England, Slavery. Bookmark the permalink.

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