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Mill, Dickens and Southern Independence

T he War for Southern Independence impacte d

events worldwide. In Great Britain debates raged

as to why their “American Co usins” w ere i n

conflict. Two renowned Englishmen – John Stuart

Mill and Charles Dickens -- sparred over this very

matter. This was not their first disagreement.

John Stuart Mill was a poli tica l eco nomi st,

politic ian, and p hilosopher who endorsed

utilitarianism, a theory that advocated maximizati

on of h ap pin ess and well -being. He supp orted fre e speec h, free press,

women’s rights, and “benevolent despot ism” rela tive to his support of

colonialism when dealing with “barbarous” people.

Mill contended secessi on was a noble effort unless slavery was involved.

“F or Mill, el imina tin g the scourge of sla very as a moral bl ight on

humanity, far more than its e co nomic dis advantag es in that in general

slave labor is less productive than free labor, is what justified his ethical

s uppo rt for the North ern cause even when it involve d abuses and

overre ac hes beyo nd the actual p owers as signed the Union government

under the U.S. Constitution.” (Ebeling)

Mill ignored the fact th at Jefferson Davis and thousand s of Confederat es

stated they we re fi ght ing for independ ence -- not slavery - - and Lincoln

repeate dly s aid the N orth was fight ing to “pres erve the Union” -- not to

destroy slavery. Furthermore, a large number of individuals in both North

and South considered slavery more secure in the Union than out of it.

Although he contended slavery as the “one cause of the separation” Mill

understood the North had little objection to slavery as long as Blacks were

confined to the Southern and Border States. He al so cla imed the South

want ed to spread sl av ery throug hout the world despite the fact the

Confederate Constitution specifically outlawed the international slave trade.

Another omissio n was that a major p lank o f th e 1860 Republica n Party

Platform was ad optio n o f a high protec tive tariff. U nsurpr isin gly, Mi ll

became a hero to many in the North.

Charles Dickens was one of the greatest writers in history, having written A

Tal e of Two Cities, A Chri stma s Ca rol , Oliver Twist, David Copperfield,

Grea t Expect ations , and many other c las sics. Dic ke ns w as soci ally

conscientious, felt great sympathy for the downtrodden, and was cognizant

of worldwide events. Unlike Mill, Dickens literally witnessed the suffering

of the p oor folks in London who h ad no assurance of food , shelter, and

clothing. Despite slavery’s obvious limitations, these three basics were rarely

an issue. * Dickens, who fervently despised slavery, not only saw the conflict

differently than the “economist” Mill, he observed the patent hypocrisy of

the North:

"Slav ery has in rea lity nothing on earth to do with it, i n any kind of

association with any generous or chivalrous sentiment on the part of the

North. But the North having gradually got to itself the making of the laws

an d t he sett lement of the tariffs, and having taxed ( the) South most

abominably for its own advantage, began to see,…that unless it advocated

the laying down of a geographical line beyond which slavery should not

extend, the South would…recover it's old political power, and be able to

help itself a l ittle in the adjustment of the comme rci al affairs. Ev ery

reasonable creature may know…the North hates the Negro, and until it

was convenient to make a pretense that sympathy with him was the cause

of the War, it hated the Abolitionists and derided them up hill and down

dale. For the rest, there's not a pins difference between the two parties…


"As to Secession being Rebellion, it is distinctly provable by State papers

that Washington, considered it no such thing – that Massachusetts, now

loud est again st it, has itsel f as serted its right to sec ed e, again and

gain – and that…when the two Caro linas began to t rain their militia

expr essly for S ecessi on, commissio ners sent t o treat with them and to

represent the d isastro us policy…nev er hinted it would be r eb ellio n."


Additionally, Dickens understood agrarian vs. industrial economics and the

cons titut ion al r equirement that taxes “shall be uni form” through out; th is

seemed to escape the economist Mill. Dickens saw the conflict as a “fiscal

quarrel,” not an effort to defend or end slavery: “The Northern onslaught

upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to

conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern States.” (Kizer) He

also recognized the immense harm slavery did to the White working class

and predicted secession “would, in fact, bring us very many years nearer

to ending slavery…” (Adams) Echoing Dickens, Union General Donn Piatt

stated, ““Lincoln well knew that the North was not fighting to free slaves,

nor was the South fighting to preserve slavery. In that awful conflict slavery

went to pieces.” (Edmonds)

Despite Mill’s contention the war was about slavery, Dickens saw through

that façade and his response could be properly phrased as “Bah! Humbug!”


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