4 August 2005 - Thursday

Estranged bedfellows

In 1862, the government and public of Great Britain were sympathetic with the Confederate States of America. Despite opposing the institution of slavery, the British were not convinced that the Union's cause was just.

Twenty-four-year-old Henry Adams was then in London, serving as private secretary to his father, who was the Lincoln administration's envoy. The American delegation had been given a chilly reception.

Adams describes the situation (paragraph breaks added for ease of reading):

... Young Adams neither hated nor wanted to kill his friends the rebels, while he wanted nothing so much as to wipe England off the earth. Never could any good come from that besotted race! ...

London was altogether beside itself on one point, in especial; it created a nightmare of its own, and gave it the shape of Abraham Lincoln. Behind this is placed another demon, if possible more devilish, and called it Mr. Seward [the American secretary of state].

In regard to these two men, English society seemed demented. Defence was useless; explanation was vain; one could only let the passion exhaust itself. One's best friends were as unreasonable as enemies, for the belief in poor Mr. Lincoln's brutality and Seward's ferocity became a dogma of popular faith.

The last time Henry Adams saw Thackeray, before his sudden death at Christmas in 1863, was in entering the house of Sir Henry Holland for an evening reception. Thackeray was pulling on his coat downstairs, laughing because, in his usual blind way, he had stumbled into the wrong house and not found it out till he shook hands with old Sir Henry, whom he knew very well, but who was not the host he expected.

Then his tone changed as he spoke of his -- and Adams's -- friend, Mrs. Frank Hampton, of South Carolina, whom he had loved as Sally Baxter and painted as Ethel Newcome. Though he had never quite forgiven her marriage, his warmth of feeling revived when he heard that she had died of consumption at Columbia while her parents and sister were refused permission to pass through the lines to see her.

In speaking of it, Thackeray's voice trembled and his eyes filled with tears. The coarse cruelty of Lincoln and his hirelings was notorious. He never doubted that the Federals made a business of harrowing the tenderest feelings of women -- particularly of women -- in order to punish their opponents. On quite insufficient evidence he burst into violent reproach.

Had Adams carried in his pocket the proofs that the reproach was unjust, he would have gained nothing by showing them. At that moment Thackeray, and all London society with him, needed the nervous relief of expressing emotion; for if Mr. Lincoln was not what they said he was -- what were they?

The Education of Henry Adams, chapter nine

Does that sound familiar?

The violent rhetoric, the conspiracy theories, the prejudice, the reckless accusations amounting even to calumny -- they are nothing new within or between free societies. We ascribe the worst motivations to those who, like us, are merely misguided and resolute. We forget who our friends are; we forget who our enemies are; we forget what our business is.

| Posted by Wilson at 7:55 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Power Desk