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Salomon de Rothschild Tours America (1861)

The Causes of the Civil War

by Salomon de Rothschild

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I am writing you a separate letter on politics, which is even more confused here than in Europe, but I cannot recommend to you strongly enough to use every influence of our family and our friends to have the Republic of the Southern Confederacy recognized as soon as possible. You will tell me that my ideas have changed, but when you read my other letter, you will tell me I am right, for in this way bloodshed and an immense destruction of property would be stopped.

New Orleans, April 28, '61

I have been in New Orleans for a month now, and I had expected to spend only a few days here. But the political events, which followed one another with such rapidity, were of such a throbbing interest to me that I thought it was my duty to prolong my stay and to make a thoroughgoing study of this very difficult and delicate matter.

Having stayed in the North and in the South, having heard all possible discussions in favor of and against each side, I had the leisure to form a completely independent opinion of my own. I am going to try to transmit it to you, though it is difficult to do so in writing. Therefore, I should start a little farther back.

You know that the former United States was made up of two great parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. These two parties were subdivided into groups, few in numbers, but extremely violent. The abolitionists were the ultra-Republicans; the "fire-eaters" or secessionists, the ultra-Democrats. Fanaticism and extreme factions always carry things their way, and as I gave you a presentiment a long time ago, abolition on the one side and secession on the other won over the moderate neutrals, in spite of themselves.

The point of departure, then, as you know, was the question of slavery. Naturally, since this institution is the source of the wealth of the South, it was defended to the utmost by those who derived profit from it. Two reasons impelled the inhabitants of the North to seek the destruction of slavery by all possible means. The first, which was given by those who wanted to deceive, to win over, chivalrous hearts and to lure European sympathies, was a simple reason, that of humanity. In a free country like America, there shouldn't be any slaves, and complete equality should prevail among all classes. The proof that this reason was not sincere is that the abolitionists spent millions in order to incite insurrections among the slaves, or to induce them to flee from their masters, but let them die of hunger because they were free, and gave them no opportunity for moral advancement. However, the real sentiments which guided them, and which they did not dare admit in that moment, was that feeling of leveling whereby everybody would have to be nominally equal. They couldn't bear to see the inhabitants of the South with 200 hands at their service, when they had only two hands themselves. This feeling was the first germ of the social revolution which is now swiftly following the political revolution. You will recall that I have been talking to you about this for a long time.

The South had numerous sympathizers in the North, but these sympathizers were more interested than it was believed; they knew that with the help of the Southern states they could keep power.

This state of affairs could have continued for many years if the two divisions, South and North, of the Democratic party had not split at the last electoral convention. Since each of them carried a different dandidate, they surrendered power to a third thief, Lincoln, the Republican choice. The cotton states understood that there was no longer any security for them in a union in which the chief of state and all his ministers were their most implacable enemies.

They seceded. Unfortunately for them, the secession was carried out, as everything is done on this continent, illegally and boastfully; and their bravado alienated many moderate men from them and prevented the central slave states from joining them right away.

The Republican administration, thinking that it was dealing with just a small number of states without a large population, and supposing that within these very states the Unionist feeling was still very much alive and was silent only because of the violence and coercion of some demagogic ringleaders, resorted to repressive measures, for which the constitution of the United States gave it no authorization at all.

The first effect of these measures was to make the sentiment for secession unanimous in the Gulf states and strongly to estrange the central states. The latter made a last effort to bring the two factions together, but failed on both sides. After having promised the evacuation of Fort Sumter, the administration tried to resupply it. Several warships appeared in the roadstead; the population of Charlestown was aroused and, perhaps in too much haste, bombarded the fort and captured it. This first cannon shot decided the question.

Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering the rebels to disband within twenty days and to raise the flag of the United States again under penalty of being punished and coerced by force of arms. The situation was becoming clear. The entire deep South was united; the North was beginning to be, but it still had within its ranks many persons who favored Southern rights. Pecuniary interests did the rest. The great question over which the representatives of the South and those of the North had been locked in bitter combat for thirty years was the question of tariffs.

The South was a producer of raw materials, and a consumer; the North was a manufacturer. Free trade, or at least very moderate custom-duties, was the desire of the inhabitants of the South. The North was contending in favor of protection, often even of the prohibition [of imports]. By the old tariff law, the eastern states and New England furnished the other states merchandise which these latter could procure in Europe at reductions of twenty-five and thirty percent.

As soon as the Republican administration (the protector of tariffs) came to power, Congress passed the Morrill Tariff, which raised duties to an unprecedented rate. The states which had seceded responded with a very great decrease in these same tariffs, intimating their eventual, complete abolition when the peaceful state of the country should allow them freedom from recourse to extraordinary measures.

The North understood that it was lost if secession continued and made progress. Who would then come to buy the iron products of Pennsylvania and the manufactured goods of New England? It would no longer by the South, for the South would get its supplies in the European markets and would find a way to pass its purchases into the western states. From that moment on, the South no longer had a supporter in the North; Republicans and Democrats crowded around the flag of the Union. Patriotism and the old memories played some part in this; but believe me, the principal motive was the pocket.

It was therefore necessary to get rid, at all cost, of this spirit of revolt which was making daily progress and bringing the North closer to its ruin. The western and eastern states offered their troops and their treasuries to the government, and were willing to go to any extreme of sacrifice, but this appeal reverberated in a different way in the states which had as yet not decided. Virginia seceded immediately and, bringing to the Southern Confederacy the help of her numerous population and of her inexhaustible storehouses, sought to make up for lost time by seizing the federal arsenals. Tennessee and Kentucky answered that they didn't have a single man to aid the administration to coerce the states of the South, but that they would find a hundred thousand men to defend them. Governor [C.F.] Jackson of Missouri, who was not counted on at all, for that state is surrounded by abolitionist populations and is only half slave, answered Lincoln "that his request was illegal, unconstitutional...and diabolical." Maryland also revolted, and the Federal troops had to make their way through Baltimore amidst a rain of paving stones, which killed some of them and wounded many more.