Astute Observations of Mr. Charles Dickens
September 1, 2021 | View PDF
Western civilization has produced an enormous number of brilliant individuals. English writer Charles John Huffam Dickens would definitely be in the top echelon. Not only was Dickens a great writer, he was compassionate about those less fortunate, an opponent of slavery, and a frequent critic of the so-called “elites.” Dickens possessed a remarkable degree of social and political acuity.
Dickens was born in 1812 in Landport, Hampshire, England, and died in 1870 in Higham, Kent, England. During his life he wrote numerous classics, e.g., Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, the Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, etc. Common themes included the portrayal of the abysmal circumstances of the poor (often children) and the presence of memorable characters that were often eccentric and/or repugnant. Indeed, such themes gave rise to a writing style called “Dickensian.”
Dickens lived through tumultuous and transitory times. For example, The War for Southern Independence resonated throughout the world and Great Britain felt a direct impact through disrupted trade markets and sometimes-tattered relationships with her “American Cousins.” Generally speaking, the English leaned toward the South; however, there were some who supported the North and others who preferred neutrality.
Dickens was aware of the many schisms that had arisen between the agrarian South and the increasingly industrialized North. As with virtually every conflict in history, he saw money as the pivotal issue. Dickens engaged English government economist John Stuart Mill about this very subject.
Mill was closely connected to classical liberalism (similar to Jeffersonianism, the prevalent philosophy in the American South); however, he was somewhat of an apologist for those who ruled individuals supposedly incapable of ruling themselves, i.e., in Mills’ view, a “barbaric” people needed rulers and empires were just fine. As a philosopher, aristocrat, Member of Parliament, and political economist, Mill was not lacking in credentials but he did lack insight into the American quarrel. The history of discord between Mill and Dickens spilled over into disagreements about the American conflict.
Noting the predictions of Jefferson and Washington about the growth of government, Dickens understood the conflict was not over slavery, stating, “The struggle between North and South has been of long duration. The South having the lead in the federation had fought some hard political battles to retain it…” One of these contentious issues dated back to the late 1700s. The U.S. Constitution states taxes “shall be uniform throughout the United States” – Dickens understood the election of Lincoln directly threatened this relationship. [The railroad, steel/iron industries, and banks of that era were essentially
equivalent to the Military Industrial Complex, the Pharmaceutical Complex, Corporate Media, and banks of our era that dictate policies, laws, and “allowable” information.] Dickens realized the economic warfare manifest in placing high tariffs on agricultural economies would be a disaster and noted, “the quarrel between North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel.”
Ignoring the multitude of regional disagreements, Mill countered by claiming slavery was the one and only cause of conflict. Mill claimed the South wanted to extend and protect slavery and resurrect the slave trade (the Confederate Constitution specifically outlawed the international slave trade). He also claimed the tariff did not motivate secession yet the completely sectional Republican Party let it be known that a high tariff was their primary objective.
Perhaps Mill chose not to look at issues that did not fit his narrative. For example, on October 11, 1860, the Charleston Mercury stated the Republicans would “plunder the South for the benefit of the North, by a new protective tariff.” Two days before the election, the same publication noted, “The real causes of dissatisfaction in the South with the North, are in the unjust taxation and expenditure of the taxes by the Government of the United States…” Also, the January 21, 1861, New Orleans Daily Crescent observed, “They [the South] know that it is their import trade that draws from people’s pockets sixty or seventy millions of dollars per annum, in the shape of duties, to be expended mainly in the North…”
During his 1830s’ American visit, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the North was a much more bigoted region than the South. Yet, a generation or so later, some claim these same Northerners miraculously invaded the South to free slaves. Has a bigger lie ever been told?
Mill claimed secession may be an admirable endeavor but, in this case, it did not apply because the South had no real grievance. Conversely, Dickens clearly saw the underlying issue—the only issue as Lincoln plainly stated on March 4, 1861, that would prompt an invasion--“to collect duties and imposts.”
Not only was Dickens a great writer, he was a critical thinker with an astute ability to “look under the hood” and identify root causes.
Those Dirty Rotten Taxes, by Charles Adams; Union At All Costs: From Confederation to Consolidation, by John M. Taylor.