The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Secretary Seward, September 14th, 1861


Legation of the United States,
San Ildefonso
, Sept. 14, 1861.

Permit me to address you upon a question which indeed does not seem to have any immediate bearing upon the pending negotiations between the United States and Spain, but the decision of which may in the course of time do more to determine our standing in Europe than all our diplomatic operations.

When the civil war broke out in America it became at once apparent, that not only the commercial and manufacturing interests depending upon a regular supply of cotton, but also the anti-democratic sentiments of governments and political parties would be either openly or secretly arrayed against us. While the former accused the Federal authorities of having, by precipitate action and an unconciliatory spirit, brought ruin upon them, the latter saw in the war a final and conclusive failure of democratic institutions and found in our increasing embarrassments an inexhaustible source of argument in their favor. This enmity to our cause may have been disguised in various manners, but it was natural; and being natural it will only await a favorable opportunity for manifesting itself in open action. Sound statesmanship must have foreseen this and cannot be deluded by appearances to the contrary.

For reasons equally natural it might have been expected that the liberal instincts, the philanthropic impulses of European nations would have embraced our cause with warmth and enthusiasm, and that public opinion, determined by the popular sentiment, would have been powerful enough to restrain or divert the action of Governments.

Since my arrival in Europe I have carefully watched the fluctuations of public opinion, as they manifested themselves in the press and in private correspondence and conversation, and in stating the results of that observation I do not speak of Spain alone, but of France, England and Germany as well.

It is my conviction, and I consider it a duty to communicate to you, that the sympathies of the liberal masses in Europe are not as unconditionally in our favor as might be desired, and that, unless the war end soon or something be done to give our cause a stronger foothold in the popular heart, they will, in the end, not be decided and powerful enough to control the actions of those Governments whose goodwill or neutrality is to us of the greatest importance.

When the struggle about the slavery question in the United States assumed the form of an armed conflict, it was generally supposed in Europe, that the destruction of slavery was to be the avowed object of the policy of the Government, and that the war would in fact be nothing else than a grand uprising of the popular conscience in favor of a great humanitarian principle. If this opinion had been confirmed by the evidence of facts, the attitude of Europe, as determined by popular sentiment, could not have been doubtful a single moment. But it was remarked, not without a feeling of surprise and disappointment, that the Federal Government, in its public declarations, cautiously avoided the mentioning of the slavery question as the cause and origin of the conflict; that its acts, at the beginning of the war at least, were marked by a strikingly scrupulous respect for the sanctity of slave-property, and that the ultimate extinction of an institution so hateful to the European mind was most emphatically denied to be one of the objects of the war. I do not mean to question the wisdom of the Government under circumstances so difficult and perplexing, but I am bearing witness to the effect its attitude produced upon public opinion in Europe. While the impression gained ground that the war, as waged by the Federal Government, far from being a war of principle, was merely a war of policy, it was at the same time discovered that, from this point of view, much might be said in favor of the South. It is exceedingly difficult to make Europeans understand, not only why the free and prosperous North should fight merely for the privilege of being reassociated with the imperious and troublesome slave States, but also why the principle, by virtue of which a population sufficiently strong for establishing and maintaining an independent national existence possessing the right to have a government and institutions of its own choice, should be repudiated in America, while it is almost universally recognized in monarchical Europe. I have had to discuss this point with men whose sympathies were most sincerely on our side, and all my Constitutional arguments failed to convince them that such a right can be consistently denied, unless our cause was based upon principles of a higher nature. I know that journalists who in their papers work for us to the best of their ability, are secretly troubled with serious scruples on that point. The agents of the South, whose footprints are frequently visible in the public press, are availing themselves of this state of things with great adroitness. While they carefully abstain from alluding to the rights of slavery, they speak of free-trade and cotton to the merchant and the manufacturer, and of the right of self-government to the liberal. They keep it well before the people that the same means of repression which are of so baneful a memory to most European nations—the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, arbitrary imprisonment, the confiscation of newspapers, the use of armed force—are now found necessary to prop the Federal Government; and that the latter, in its effort to crush the independent spirit of eight millions of people, is with rapid strides approaching the line which separates democratic government from the attributes of arbitrary despotism. The incidents of the war, so unfavorable to our arms, could not fail to give weight and color to these representations.

It seems as if people of the North had set up pretensions, which they had neither the courage nor the power to sustain; and the failure of our first military operations was attributed by many to a lack of moral force in our cause. It cannot be denied that many, who earnestly sympathized with us at the beginning, were gradually led to doubt the possibility of subduing a people who are fighting for an independent national existence and whose all is staked upon the issue of the struggle.

And if opinions like these could gain ground among our natural friends, what have we to expect of those who secretly desire a permanent disruption of the Union? I do not know what assurances may have been given to the Government, but whatever they may be I am sanguine enough to suppose, that those Powers, which would find a vindication of their principles in the destruction of the American Republic, or whose commercial and manufacturing interests would be saved from incalculable embarrassments by a speedy termination of hostilities, will always adhere to their policy of neutrality, if the chances of the war should much longer appear doubtful. They may hesitate awhile, but it is in the very nature of things that they will soon think of acting as their interests command them to act.

Nor will they be at a loss to find arguments plausible enough to justify them in the eyes of the public. They will say, that the Confederate States have, on principle, a right to a separate national existence; that undeniable events have demonstrated the impossibility of reducing the South by force of arms; that it is their duty as Governments to protect the commercial and manufacturing interests of their subjects from utter ruin by putting an end to the useless strife, either by way of diplomatic intercession or by aiding the party to which their interests are most closely attached, and that therefore the recommendation of the Southern Confederacy and the breaking up of our blockade, as a first step in that direction, have become an urgent necessity. They may even represent it as an act of humanity and kindness to the people of the United States, to contribute to the conclusion of a strife which they think as useless as it is destructive.

And what will the Federal Government have to oppose to this plausible reasoning? A rupture of relations, which undoubtedly would be more disagreeable to us than to them? Fleets and armies, which so far have been hardly able to close some Southern ports and to protect the President from capture in his capital? The resentment of the American people, which has ceased to be formidable? There are in my opinion but two ways in which the overwhelming perplexities can be averted which a rupture with foreign Powers, added to our troubles at home, would inevitably bring upon us. The one consists in great and decisive military successes speedily accomplished, and the other in such measures and manifestations on the part of the Government as will place the war against the rebellious slave States upon a higher moral basis and thereby give us the control of public opinion in Europe. Whether we have any reason to expect the first I am, at so great a distance, unable to see; but it would, if we may judge by the experience of the past, appear at least very doubtful. As to the second I consider its effect certain, and here my statements, the results of my observation, stand above the level of mere conjecture.

While in the same measure as the struggle in the United States appeared as a mere political war on the part of the North, we lost caste in the eyes of those who were our natural friends, in the same measure as the conflict assumes the character of an anti-slavery war, even our opponents are compelled to do us justice. Of this I have the most striking illustrations before me. No sooner had the act of Congress, liberating the slaves of rebel masters, and the instructions issued to military commanders, relative to the reception of fugitives, become known in Europe, than the indifference of the liberal masses gave room to new hopes and good wishes for our cause. These acts are constantly paraded by our friends as indications of the general tendency of the war, and in this they find a ready excuse for the restraints temporarily placed upon civil rights and liberties; and even our opponents, after having for some time professed doubt as to the truthfulness of the news, are at last compelled to concede, that the ultimate extinction of slavery would indeed be a most desirable object to be accomplished. But at the same time the emphatic desire is added [sic] by the first, that such measures ought to assume a more general scope, while the second, pretending that they proceed from our necessities and not from principle, predict they never will. All these opinions are to be traced in numberless and striking manifestations of the public press.

It is my profound conviction that, as soon as the war becomes distinctly one for and against slavery, public opinion will be so strongly, so overwhelmingly in our favor, that in spite of commercial interests or secret spites no European Government will dare to place itself, by declaration or act, upon the side of a universally condemned institution. Our enemies know that well, and we may learn from them. While their agents carefully conceal from the eyes of Europeans their only weak point, their attachment to slavery, ought we to aid them in hiding with equal care our only strong point, our opposition to slavery? While they, well knowing how repugnant slavery is to the European way of feeling, do all to make Europeans forget that they fight for it, ought we, who are equally well acquainted with European sentiment, abstain from making Europeans remember that we fight against it? In not availing ourselves of our advantages, we relieve the enemy of the odium attached to his cause. It is, therefore, my opinion that every step done [taken] by the Government towards the abolition of slavery is, as to our standing in Europe, equal to a victory in the field. I do not know how this advice may agree with the home-policy of the Government. But however bold it may seem, I am so sincerely convinced of its correctness, as far as our foreign policy is concerned, that I do not hesitate to place it upon the records of the State Department.