CHAPTER II. FIRST KNOWLEDGE OF IMPENDING CONFLICT, 1860-61.
It has been remarked by the American historian, Schouler, that immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War, diplomatic controversies between England and America had largely been settled, and that England, pressed from point to point, had "sullenly" yielded under American demands. This generalization, as applied to what were, after all, minor controversies, is in great measure true. In larger questions of policy, as regards spheres of influence or developing power, or principles of trade, there was difference, but no longer any essential opposition or declared rivalry. In theories of government there was sharp divergence, clearly appreciated, however, only in governing-class Britain. This sense of divergence, even of a certain threat from America to British political institutions, united with an established opinion that slavery was permanently fixed in the United States to reinforce governmental indifference, sometimes even hostility, to America. The British public, also, was largely hopeless of any change in the institution of slavery, and its own active humanitarian interest was waning, though still dormant - not dead. Yet the two nations, to a degree not true of any other two world-powers, were of the same race, had similar basic laws, read the same books, and were held in close touch at many points by the steady flow of British emigration to the United States.
When, after the election of Lincoln to the Presidency, in November, 1860, the storm-clouds of civil strife rapidly gathered, the situation took both British Government and people by surprise. There was not any clear understanding either of American political conditions, or of the intensity of feeling now aroused over the question of the extension of slave territory. The most recent descriptions of America had agreed in assertion that at some future time there would take place, in all probability, a dissolution of the Union, on lines of diverging economic interests, but also stated that there was nothing in the American situation to indicate immediate progress in this direction. Grattan, a long-time resident in America as British Consul at Boston, wrote:
"The day must no doubt come when clashing objects will break
the ties of common interest which now preserve the Union. But
no man may foretell the period of dissolution.... The many
restraining causes are out of sight of foreign observation.
The Lilliputian threads binding the man mountain are
invisible; and it seems wondrous that each limb does not act
for itself independently of its fellows. A closer examination
shows the nature of the network which keeps the members of
this association so tightly bound. Any attempt to untangle
the ties, more firmly fastens them. When any one State talks
of separation, the others become spontaneously knotted
together. When a section blusters about its particular
rights, the rest feel each of theirs to be common to all. If
a foreign nation hint at hostility, the whole Union becomes
in reality united. And thus in every contingency from which
there can be danger, there is also found the element of
safety." Yet, he added, "All attempts to strengthen this
federal government at the expense of the States' governments
must be futile.... The federal government exists on
sufferance only. Any State may at any time constitutionally
withdraw from the Union, and thus virtually dissolve it."
Even more emphatically, though with less authority, wrote one Charles Mackay, styled by the American press as a "distinguished British poet," who made the usual rapid tour of the principal cities of America in 1857-58, and as rapidly penned his impressions: