Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Uprising of a Great People, the United States in 1861, to which is added A Word of Peace / Count Agenor de Gasparin -- NY: Charles Scribner, 1862.

Gasparin's Uprising of a Great People was written during the weeks before and after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. It was an attempt to sway public opinion in France in favor of the United States and against the southern rebellion. It was clear to Gasparin and probably clear to anyone following "the American Crisis" that if the North chose to vigorously supress the rebellion, the South's only hope lay in gaining recognition from Great Britain or France. Consequently, Gasparin's prose are stark and passionate.

Through out the argument, Gasparin asserts that he has no ill will toward the South, but that its well-being depends entirely on abolishing slavery. For Gasparin, the South's worst fate would be realized by delaying abolition, even if abolition required Civil War. Gasparin traces several scenarios for the South's future, none of which result in a flourishing Confederacy and the continuation of slavery. The crisis for the South was percipitated by the "uprising" of the people in the North against slavery, evidenced by Lincoln's election. For Gasparin, the writing was now on the wall: the North would no long tollerate the spread of slavery and without Northern assistance, the South would lose escaped slaves to the North and into the territories. Immigratants and capital would shun the South, and the power of Christian morality in American and in Europe would inevitably sap support for slavery.

With hindsight, it is easy to see that the prospects for the South were hopeless from the start, but that Gasparin could make such a strong case for this at a time when many thought the Union was doomed is a testiment to his political insight. However, a number of his assumptions seem incorrect. Most significant is his assertion that Lincoln's election was evidence of an "uprising." In fact, Lincoln was elect by only a plurality of voters and all of his main opponants tollerated or supported slavery to one degree or another. What doomed the South was not Northern impatience with the abolition of slavery, but a broad commitment to the Union and the material and human resources available to the North.

At the same time, British or French recognition of the Confederacy may well have prompted the North to accept Southern independence. Had this occured, Gasparin's predictions about the fianl fate of the South seems plausible. The security of Southern slave holders was too precarious to attract capital investment and European public opinion would likely starve the south of immigrants. According to Gasparin, these eventually would turn the South into an impoverished backwater that could not compete with other cotton producing nations. Meanwhile, the founding principle of the confederacy (the right of seccession) would result in border states rejoining the more prosperous United States, and finally the reconquest of the Gulf States by the North.

The most interesting aspect of the work is Gasparin's comments on political philosophy. Chapter X "Institutions of the United States" includes an extended criticism of democracy. Here Gasparin's French aristocratic status becomes clear. His treatment of democracy is either terribly confused or the very meaning of the term is radically different from what it is in the 21st century Anglo-American world. As a 19th century French aristocrat, Gasparin's notion of democracy likely is colored darkly by the French Revolution. Indeed, for Gasparin, "democracy" would imply nothing more than authoritarian government. However, several notable factual errors lead one to think he may simply be confused about political philosophy. It is also possible that Mary L. Booth's translation is at fault.

Regardless of the explanation of the oddities of his argument, it is fascinating to read a work that openly attempts to predict the outcome of the American Civil War at its outbreak.

Bound with The Uprising of a Great People is Gasparin's short essay, "A Word of Peace on the Difference between England and the United States." The "differnce" is the Trent affair in which Charles Wilkes, captain of the USS San Jacinto boarded the HMS Trent to seize two southern envoys to Great Britain. Gasparin councils Britain not to use the incident to abandon its neutrality and councils the United States not to resist Britain's demands for reparations. In his view, a rift between the two countries would serve neither.

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