Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (February 2, 1861)


Clouds are gathering thickly around us on every side. The very air is as it were charged with electricity—and it will be strange indeed if the year 1861 passes away without change and turmoil. The most significant symptoms of trouble are, on the one side, the gradual disruption of the Austrian empire, and the enormous military preparations of France; on the other, the disunion of the North American Union. The one means a European war, in which, if this country is not called upon to take a share, we may reckon ourselves fortunate indeed; the second, a temporary cessation in the supply of cotton, upon the regularity of which about a fourth of our own population depends for subsistence. The coming spring will decide what turn events are to take for the next few years.

There can be little doubt that the action of France in Italian affairs is not the result of any vacillation or uncertainty upon the part of the French Emperor, as has been sometimes suggested. Louis Napoleon sees clearly enough that the creation of a great maritime Mediterranean power seriously imperils the future policy of France in that quarter of Europe. Even upon the supposition that an independent Italy remained for a time a satrapy of France—partly on account of its military necessities, and partly through gratitude for benefits received—still, as its strength grew with years, that subordination of policy and sentiment would disappear. The Italians are more sailors by natural inclination than the French. An Italian commercial navy would arise at once, as soon as the country was fairly rid of the tyrannical governments which have paralysed and restrained the spirit of enterprise throughout the Peninsula. A navy for war purposes follows, as of course, from the existence of a large commercial navy. It is then a plant of natural growth, and vigorous as all natural productions are;—not an exotic, the mere creature of artifice and arrangement, destined to fade and wither away if the gardener should forget one night to light the subterranean fire upon which its existence depends. The English navy is powerful because the commerce of England is so enormous. The navies of Holland and of the Baltic Powers are strong proportionately to the number of their commercial marine. The United States of North America have never thought it worth their while to keep up any considerable navy for war purposes, but they are always looked upon as formidable antagonists at sea, because the sea is already covered with their ships, and because the sailors who man these ships could be converted into man-of-war’s men at a moment’s notice. With Russia it is otherwise. The Russian fleet is numerically strong, but weak in seamanship, and in the seaman’s spirit. The navy of France again, so great have been the care and forethought bestowed upon it, has been brought up to so high a point of efficiency, that many competent judges have doubted what would be the first results of a conflict between it and the maritime armaments of England. These results, however, could be doubtful only for a moment. What has happened any time during the last five centuries would happen again when the spirit of the country was fairly roused, and the official personages charged with the administration of the Navy had been brought to their senses. Even if mechanical skill and the possession of iron and coal are to be the conditions of success, instead of superior seamanship, England is not worse placed in the race than heretofore. It is, if we mistake not, an apprehension of what may be the consequences of a development of the capacities of the Italians for maritime dominion, which gives pause to the counsels of the French Emperor. Hand him over the Island of Sardinia, or a section of the Italian coast which would include Genoa, and he might be inclined to take a favourable view of the question.

It is a curious fact that Napoleon Bonaparte, .an Italian himself—if ever there was one—has left it upon record that it was always a cardinal point in his policy to restrain the growth of Italian power. Whether his opinion was right or wrong, it was to the effect that the Italians, if free and independent, might one day become a great danger to Europe.

The intelligence from Italy during the Last Week is of a very chequered complexion. On the one hand we hear that the French ships of war have at last taken their departure from before Gaëta. Cialdini and Persano are now left to deal with that fortress. Until Gaëta is reduced, it will be impossible to restore order in the Two Sicilies; and, even when this event shall happen, the French Emperor has bequeathed a fearful legacy to Victor Emmanuel and his advisers. The partisans of the Bourbon have had time to combine for resistance, and to over-run the country. They must be met, and dispersed, and when dispersed they will be even more troublesome than when united; still the thing must be done. It is difficult to see how tranquillity can be ultimately restored, save by the proclamation of military law, and it is to be feared by military executions, which, however necessary, are not exactly the measures by which a new Sovereign would wish to commence his administration. The Bourbons, especially those who have borne rule in the Two Sicilies, have a knack of leaving their successors to deal with a plague of brigands. The First Bonaparte, not a very patient man, after making trial of a few palliatives, gave orders that the mayors and municipal authorities of the various towns and villages, as well as the townsmen and villagers, should be made responsible for the brigandage committed within their respective limits. If the French could catch the brigand, that was well enough. They hung him. If not, they hung the mayor. It was a rough way of dealing with the difficulty, but it answered.

The truth is, that this is a work which the Neapolitans and Sicilians, if a long course of tyranny and subjection had not emasculated their spirit, ought to do for themselves. They have no right to call in the Sardinians as their executioners. If Garibaldi and his companions first, and Victor Emmanuel and his regular troops afterwards, have driven away the King from his capital, taken his strong places, dispersed his army, seized his fleet, and driven his abominable police-agents from the country, or into dark hiding-places from which they dare no longer to come forth, the least they could do would be to maintain order for themselves. Europe, at the same time, should not be too exacting in its opinion of the Southern Italians. These men are what their tyrants have made them. If it turns out that they are the fathers of freemen, we shall be content.

Cavour, as it is said, has a working majority in the Italian Parliament, and for every reason it is to be hoped that this may turn out to be true. The safety of Italy lies in undivided counsels. Garibaldi, with his great heart—the man who, after having conquered a kingdom, retired to his farm with the hope that all letters to him might be post-paid, because he could not afford the expense of paying the postage—is not a very likely man to embarrass the hands of the Italian Government at the critical moment when the fate of Italy is trembling in the balance. If we hear of him this If we hear of him this spring it will probably be in Hungary, or in the Adriatic Provinces of Austria, for he is a person who will not find much favour in the eyes of the official personages at the Horseguards at Turin. A report was current Last Week that Louis Napoleon had caused Count Cavour to be informed that if the Austrians sent a soldier across their own limits, or fired a gun in hostility, he would instantly cover Lombardy once more with his troops. The French are now in a far better, and the Austrians in a far worse position than after Solferino. At that time the best troops on the French side had perished in the various bloody engagements which had preceded the misunderstanding at Villa-Franca—public opinion in France, despite of the victories and triumphs of the French arms, was fairly alarmed at the gigantic proportions which the operations in Lombardy had assumed. Not forgetful of Sebastopol, the French were scarcely prepared to incur the carnage and hazard of protracted operations in the Quadrilateral. The slightest check in the career of Louis Napoleon’s success might, in the then temper of the nation, have seriously endangered his political and dynastic position. To advance was difficult; to recede, an impossibility. The great gainer at Villa-Franca was Louis Napoleon himself.

Who can say that the French have not a right to affix any conditions they please to the assistance they may be willing to afford to the Italians? Clearly Louis Napoleon was in the wrong, not only in the eyes of Europe, but even of France, when he detained his fleet before Gaëta, and prolonged the agony of a nation for his own selfish ends. Clearly he is in the wrong, when he remains in armed occupation of Rome, and fortifies Civita Vecchia in a way which does not inspire one with the belief that he has any real intention of relaxing his grasp upon that portion of Italy. But if he withdrew every French soldier from the Peninsula to-morrow, and refused to assist the Italians in a military way, on the grounds that a nation which could not help itself was not worthy of independence; and because it was not reasonable that the French nation should spend their blood and treasure upon a cause which was not their own; who could blame him? If he accompanied such declarations as these with expressions of hearty goodwill to the Italian cause, he would be doing exactly what we are doing in England. If we blamed him we should blame ourselves. The only difference in our position is that the bones of many thousands of Frenchmen lie buried in Lombardy, and that, were all the fruits of this great sacrifice to be thrown away, the French nation might call their ruler somewhat sternly to account.

It is impossible not to dwell upon this subject. Who has taken up a newspaper Last Week with any serious thought but that of looking for intelligence—first from the United States, and then from Italy? Risca colliery explosions—the frost, and then the thaw—scandalous trials in the Divorce Court—railway accidents—even the Metropolitan distress, are not subjects which interest the public just now in any very peculiar way, because every man of ordinary understanding in these islands is well aware that the points which most immediately concern him are the turn which affairs may take in Italy and the United States. Threatening as the aspect of affairs may be on the other side of the Atlantic, and vitally interested as our own people are in the solution of the difficulty in some satisfactory way, there is far more danger to us in a breeze from the sweet South than in an Atlantic gale. For all the bluster and disturbance which prevail at the present moment throughout the United States, it is difficult to acquiesce in the belief that in a moment of fierce exasperation against each other, they will consent to sign their own ruin. The Americans—let the expression pass to signify the citizens of the United States—are more demonstrative in their affections and animosities than we are in this older and more settled land. They have less reverence for the past—for their past is yesterday. They have more confidence in the future, for why should men despair of the future who find a whole continent open to their ambition upon the easiest terms? A man struggling for subsistence is ready to make allowances, to acquiesce in compromises, to admit that he cannot have all things in this world his own way. The Americans are not disturbed by any such hesitations. Earth and sea are their own—why should not every self-sufficient citizen of every state in the Confederation take his own course, and leave his fellows to their own devices? There is but one reason of which we know—and that is that amid the very storm and whirlwind of passion, a still small voice whispers the potent word “Dollar—Dollar—Dollar!” to every freeman’s heart, and this suggests the pecuniary advantages of political forethought, and patriotism.

How often have we Englishmen—that is, as many of us as have reached middle life—been astonished with the fierce declamations of the American Press, and of their indignation meetings, when directed against ourselves. Now, it was the Boundary Treaty—now Oregon—now a Fishery—now an Island. We have invariably given way with a somewhat contemptuous consciousness of our own superiority; but it has as invariably appeared that if we had not done so our antagonists, on their part, were upon the eve of retiring from the contest. It seems most probable that this is pretty much the history of the Slave and Free Soil parties or factions in the States at the present moment. Each is determined to play its last card in the game of “brag.” Each will adhere to the very extremest of its own demands as long as there is a chance that the other side will give in. But secession to all appearance means ruin to the great American Confederation of States—both to North and South. There is not any consequence of a war with this country which could be so dreadful to the United States as the apparently certain results of disunion. It cannot be but that when the most violent spirits have had time to exhale their angry passions, men of calmer head will step in and preserve the unity of the Confederation. The North would be simply paralysed if this secession should take place: the Southern States would lose the market for which they are contending, even whilst the dispute was in course of settlement. There would be a governing caste of white proprietors, a vast population of slaves with no work ready to their hand, inasmuch as Africa, Australia, and British India, would have been summoned to repair their deficiencies in supply. Save as caterers of cotton for the world, the Southerners could not afford to maintain the slave population—what, if the privilege of supplying cotton should slip from their grasp whilst they are asserting, with all the spirit of freemen, their inalienable right to keep the negro in slavery? Of course the matter is still doubtful, and at first sight he would appear to be a bold man who foretold a peaceful solution of this great “difficulty “; but the Americans have a way peculiar to themselves of producing storm and sunshine—and that in an instant of time. Despite of these Charlestown demonstrations, and of Mr. Buchanan’s correspondence with the deputies from the South, it will be surprising indeed if the Americans do not find some peaceful and satisfactory solution of the question. If this cannot be done by the regularly constituted authorities, at least it would seem probable that the cooler and more calculating heads in each State will devise some method of promoting their own views, without having recourse to so ruinous a step as the dissolution of the Union.

Surely this American difficulty and the position of Italian affairs are in themselves sufficient to give zest to the intelligence of Last Week. But now that the British Parliament is to be called again together in a few days, we may look a little forward, as well as a little back. Was there ever a period in the history of the British nation when, upon domestic grounds, the opening of Parliament was anticipated with such apparent indifference? It is scarcely doubtful that the grand football of Reform, which has amused rather than occupied so many Parliaments of late years, will be again produced; but the public have ceased to feel much interest in the game, for they have ceased to believe that the players are in earnest. We do not believe in Lord Palmerston’s Reform Bill more than we believed in the Reform Bill brought in under the auspices of Lord Derby. On the whole, it would appear as though, in the present threatening aspect of foreign affairs, any considerable domestic contention may stand adjourned over the ensuing Session. The British nation is not resolved to force the hands of our British statesmen—and our statesmen seem resolved not to move in the matter until their hands are actually forced. Are we to throw good money after bad, as we did last year? It would be no inconsiderable gain if, during the next six months, the Attorney-General should pass through the two Houses a good measure of Bankruptcy Reform—giving up the two clauses which were the blots upon his propositions of last year—and if the various Bills for the consolidation of our Criminal Law were to be converted into statutes. These are not measures which involve any strong political or party feeling, but, if they could be passed through Parliament, they would be of enormous advantage to the community.

Again, there is the question of British India—that splendid but ever-running sore—which must be dealt with in the course of the next few months, or at least be placed in the way of solution. The vital point of the amalgamation of the British and Indian army is still unsettled. British India is still in a bankrupt condition, and is likely to continue so for a time. It is too much to expect that all these difficulties should be settled by a legislative thunder clap; but at least, after these many years of delay, we have a right to expect that such impulses may be communicated to our Indian policy as may enable us to look forward to a day when India may be self-supporting, and cease to be a source of ever-recurring anxiety to the population of these islands. The reform of the financial system of India, and changes for the better in the arrangements of the civil service, would seem to be the turning-points of the difficulty.

India is killed by her military expenditure. The British Islands also can scarcely support the burden of maintaining the naval and military forces which are necessary for their security. Here, in Europe, we are compelled to take precautions against the ambitious designs—real or supposed—of our great neighbour; but in India, economy and good government are interchangeable terms.

Never did a British Minister enter upon a session of Parliament apparently with greater strength than the present Premier. Those, however, who have watched Lord Palmerston’s political career always feel that the hour of difficulty is his time of triumph—in over-security lies his danger. He is too apt to forget that followers must be conciliated, and public opinion respected, even when large majorities are at his back. So long as the Continental difficulties continue, he has little to fear from the rivalry of Lord John Russell—for the Foreign Secretary is content with the direction of foreign affairs. It may well happen that Mr. Gladstone may prove a more serious embarrassment, for the expenditure of the country is enormous, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite of his brilliant talents, does not possess the confidence of the Exchange. Lord Palmerston’s chief danger, however, lies in the difficulty of preserving moderation in the midst of seeming security.