Un Vaincu/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER FIVE - SOME OF THE CAUSES OF THE WAR

While Colonel Lee exercised, as we have seen, his distant command in Texas, the disagreements which had long existed between the northern and southern states had taken a new character of extreme gravity, and one was beginning to wonder what would happen if neither of the two parties had the patriotic wisdom of adopting a policy of concessions.

We must try to understand what were the causes of this antagonism which was soon to unleash a civil war on a nation, up till then, so privileged.

The vast country, gradually built of states united to one another, does no longer resemble what it was when a few weak colonies, repelling the yoke of England, formed the kernel of a colossal power. Originally, 13 states, close to one another, had had the same needs -- the same interests. They had been united by the feeling of their weakness and of the danger of this weakness. But, the rapid increase of their population, the emigration into new territories situated under widely separated latitudes, had simultaneously given birth to different, or contradictory interests, and liberated the minds from a beneficial fear by putting the new power above any threat.

Like all greatness, extension in size presents its own dangers. While, in the north, Maine shares the fogs of Newfoundland or the long winters of Quebec, Florida is close to the tropics and sags under its deadly heat.

As much as the customs of the lumberjacks in the north could differ from those of the planters in the south, so differed their interests. While the states, producers of cotton, needed free exportation ; the states, producers of cloth, wanted measures that would retain the precious commodity, enabling them to transform it before its delivery to the consumption of the whole world. This was but one of the subjects of litigation. Many others, equally important, sprung up each day.

The habit of expressing similar votes on similar questions had assembled in one group in Congress the representation of the northern states ; and in another group, the representation of the southern states. But, for a long time, the first of those parties had been increasing in strength and in self-confidence ; whereas the second remained stationary. It was in the North, and not in the South, that immigration constantly brought new recruits.

In the North, the immigrant finds the climate and the productions of his own country. He can cultivate them himself. Why on earth would he go to the South, in those immense plantations of sugar cane that stretch as far as the eye can see, under a torrid sky, or among those rice fields, with their swampy lands, exhaling fevers deadly for the white ?

The population was, therefore, increasing quickly in the North. The colonized states started to colonize, and the new territories, no sooner had they reached a population of 60,000 people, set thernselves up as states that sent to Congress members who increased the strength of the northern party.

It was not so for the scates in the South. Not only did their climate and the nature of their products fail to attract the Europeans, but an institution -- with reason, called a cursed institution[1] -- drove away the labor of free men.

Slavery, shameful source of an antique prosperity, fatal legacy that England [who has repented since] had made to her colonies, was accepted and lawful in the whole region where cotton was cultivated. To depict the state of abject misery of the black race would be a heart-rending task upon which we will not embark. Besides, everything has already been said about the most odious iniquity ever perpetrated .

What one knows less, is that by God′s righteous justice, the oppressors were to receive their punishment from their crime itself. The ruin of the influence of the South was the consequence of slavery -- and of slavery alone.

The Blacks, not being considered citizens, did not vote. And, though an extra number of votes was given to their masters, the presence of Negroes, keeping away free workers, deprived the masters of the political help that immigration would have brought them. Thus, the power, for long the attribute of the ancient Southern states, worked its way gradually, naturally, and legally to the Northern states.

Resignation in bad luck is as rare as moderation in success. This old truth was to be confirmed once more. The South saw, approaching slowly but surely, the day when new laws would be imposed on her. These laws, she was convinced, would be her ruin and she would not be able to repel them. Weren′t there any means to escape the fate she was foreseeing ? “Yes !” answered her lawyers. “The pact by which the states have bound themselves to one another is a contract that can be broken by those who make it. Their right in this respect is expressly reserved. The Southern states have but to ask for it and they will return to their situation before the Union : isolated but sovereign states ; free to contract new allegiance ; they will recover their independence already shackled ; they will escape the yoke of the North and the impending ruin that is forthcoming.”

As a note : Here is the text of the ratification by the Virginia delegation of the U. S. A.′s act of constitution. :

"We, the delegates of the people of Virginia, duly elected in pursuance of a recommendation from the General Assembly, and now met in Convention, having fully and freely investigated and discussed the proceedings of the federal Convention, and being prepared, as well as the most mature deliberation hath enabled us, to decide thereon, Do, in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known, that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power, not granted thereby, remains with them, and at their will ; that, therefore, no right, of any denomination, can be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified by the Congress, by the Senate or House of Representatives, acting in any capacity, by the President, or any department or officer of the United States…” [2]

The North, already threatened several times by a secession that had never taken place, did not accept the idea that the grumblers would seriously contemplate a separation. It was dominated by the radical party who, being for centralization, intended, in the name of the greatness of a common fatherland, to annihilate all local opposition, and who was soon to gain the Abolitionist Party as an ally.

The Abolitionists, by the most noble motives, carried the same wishes as the radicals. For a long time, they had thought using only moral means for the emancipation of the slaves, but when they came to understand how greatly their principles would gain from the application of the new rules, they entered eagerly into the fight between parties.

The abolitionists were those who, through moving, eloquent books had revealed the shame and miseries of slavery. They had easily succeeded in inspiring horror for it. From the moment they put their banner next to the one representing the interests of the North, they rallied all the generous minds who were set aflame by the perspective of the emancipation of an unfortunate race.

The problem of slavery, much easier to understand than that of the rights (be they unquestionable or not) of the states, and of their dealings with the federal government -- took rapidly priority, abroad, over all the others. From a distance, the problem of slavery was the only one perceived. Europe became moved. She thought a new crusade was springing up and branding as pro-slavery all those who, for various reasons, kept aside from the movement to which she was letting herself go, she held no other wish than abolition. Will this brief sketch be sufficient to make the situation understandable ? We hardly dare hope so. The following letter by Colonel Lee will illustrate the state of minds in 1856.

“The steamer also brought the President′s Message… I was much pleased with the President′s Message. His views of the systematic and progressive efforts of certain people at the North to interfere with and change the domestic institutions of the South are truthfully and faithfully expressed. The consequences of their plans and purposes are also clearly set forth. These people must be aware that their object is both unlawful and foreign to them and to their duty, and that this institution for which they are irresponsible and unaccountable, can only be changed by them through the agency of a civil and servile war…

“There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it a greater evil to the white than to the black race… Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storms and tempests of fiery controversy…”


  1. Institution maudite.
  2. Mrs. Boissonnas did not give the rest of the declaration, which continues in these terms : “…except in those instances in which power is given by the Constitution for those purposes ; and that, among other essential rights, the liberty of conscience and of the press cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified, by any authority of the United States.

    “With these impressions, with a solemn appeal to the Searcher of hearts for the purity of our intentions, and under the conviction that whatsoever imperfections may exist in the Constitution ought rather to be examined in the mode prescribed therein, than to bring the Union into danger by delay, with a hope of obtaining amendments previous to the ratification,

    “We, the said delegates, in the name and behalf of the people of Virginia, do, by these presents, assent to and ratify the Constitution, recommended on the seventeenth day of September, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven, by the federal Convention, for the government of the United States ; hereby announcing to all those whom it may concern, that the said Constitution is binding upon the said people, according to an authentic copy hereto annexed, in the words following.”