CHAPTER II. FIRST KNOWLEDGE OF IMPENDING CONFLICT, 1860-61.
Nevertheless the vigorous action of South Carolina, soon followed by other Southern States, made a deep impression on Russell, especially when compared with the uncertainty and irresolution manifested in the attempted compromise measures of Northern statesmen. In a private letter to Lyons, January 10, 1861, he wrote "I do not see how the United States can be cobbled together again by any compromise.... I cannot see any mode of reconciling such parties as these. The best thing now would be that the right to secede should be acknowledged.... I hope sensible men will take this view.... But above all I hope no force will be used." And again twelve days later, "I suppose the break-up of the Union is now inevitable." To Russell, as to most foreign observers, it seemed that if the South with its great wealth, its enormous extent of territory, and its five and one-half millions of population, were determined to leave the Union, no force whatever could compel a return. History failed to record any revolution on so large a scale which had not succeeded. His desire, therefore, was that the North would yield to the inevitable, and would not plunge into a useless civil war disastrous alike to the prosperity of America and of foreign nations. Russell's first hope was that the South would forgo secession; his second, this accomplished, that there would be no war, and in this sense he instructed Lyons. The latter, less expectant of peaceful separation, and more aware of the latent power of the North, maintained throughout his entire service at Washington that there was at least a chance that the North could subdue the South by might of arms, but he also, looking to British interests, saw his early duty, before war broke, in cautious suggestions against forcible Northern action. Thus from January to March, 1861, British effort and indirect advice were based on the hope that British trade interests might escape the tribulations inevitable from a civil conflict in America. Beyond that point there was no grasp of the complications likely to arise in case of war, and no clear formulation of British policy.
In fact up to the middle of March, 1861, both public and official British opinion discounted armed conflict, or at least any determined Northern effort to recover the South. Early British attitude was, therefore, based on a misconception. As this became clear, public opinion began to break from a united humanitarian pro-Northern sentiment and to show, in some quarters, quite another face. Even as early as January the Economist expressed wonder that the Northern States had not availed themselves gladly of the chance to "shake off such an incubus, and to purify themselves of such a stain." and a month later professed to believe that Great Britain would willingly permit the North to secure compensation for loss of territory by annexing Canada - provided the Canadians themselves desired it. This, it was argued, would directly benefit England herself by cutting down military expenditures. The London Press indulged in similar speculation, though from the angle of a Canadian annexation of the Northern States, whose more sober citizens must by now be weary of the sham of American democracy, and disgusted with the rowdyism of political elections, which "combine the morals of a horse race, the manners of a dog fight, the passions of a tap-room, and the emotions of a gambling house." Probably such suggestions had little real purpose or meaning at the moment, but it is interesting that this idea of a "compensation" in Canada should have been voiced thus early. Even in the United States the same thought had occurred to a few political leaders. Charles Sumner held it, though too wise, politically, to advance it in the face of the growing Northern determination to preserve the Union. It lay at the bottom of his increasing bitterness toward his old friend Charles Francis Adams, now busy in schemes intended, apparently, to restore the Union by compromise, and it led Sumner to hope for appointment as Minister to England.
The chief organ of British upper-class opinion, the Times, was one of the first to begin the process of "face about," as civil war in America seemed imminent. Viewed from the later attitude of the Times, the earlier expressions of that paper, and in truth of many British journals, seem merely the customary platitudinous British holding up of horrified hands at American slavery. On January 19, 1861, a strong editorial still proclaimed the folly of South Carolina, as acting "without law, without justice," but displayed a real dismay at the possible consequences of war to British trade and commerce. On January 22, theTimes reprinted an article from the Economist, on a probable cessation of cotton supply and editorially professed great alarm, even advocating an early recognition of the Southern confederacy if needed to maintain that supply. From this time on there is no further note in the Times of the righteousness of the Northern cause; but while it is still asserted that war would be folly, the strength of the South, its superiority as a military nation, are depicted.