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Salomon de Rothschild Tours America (1861)

The Constitutional Question


Boulogne, Sunday, June 23, '61.

My dear Cousin...

It has been a long time since I have had the pleasure of giving you the details about my trip, and events have moved swiftly in America since my last letter.

I left that country in extreme disorder, and I can't tell you how calm life in Paris seems to me after all that political excitement which, without touching you directly, carries you along despite yourself, and makes you take the interests of others to heart as if they were your own...

I don't think, my dear cousin, that I have written you in detail since my stay at New Orleans. Since then, I traversed the whole South, the West, and the North, and attentively observed the march of events. I came to the realization of the ideas prevalent in the different parts of the country. I succeeded in forming for myself an impartial judgment amidst the exaggerations of the two opposing sides.

Now the struggle has been entered into between the North and the South, a struggle of giants, or rather of boule-dogues, in which no one will yield, and wherein, after months and perhaps years of implacable combat, the two sides will find themselves back at the very place from which they started, both of them weakened, with their resources exhausted, their country ruined, with the best of their blood sacrificed, and with no other result obtained than deepening the abyss between them.

The Constitution of the United States is such that a good lawyer can easily find the pro and the con in it. The South claims that it has the right to secede. At New Orleans the foreigner who listens to the arguments will be persuaded by them. The North affirms that the Union of the states is an unassailable principle; if you return to New York you will find that it also is perfectly right.

I am not going to discuss the problem from the legal point of view. I only want to give you an idea of the facts and my appreciation of the struggle which is going to break out.

Several Southern states, as you know, were bought by the first states...principally of the North and the West. They are Louisiana, ceded by France for the sum of eighty millions [francs]; Florida, bought from Spain for sixty millions; Texas, and New Mexico. To keep these states, the federal government was obliged to spend additional large sums and to sacrifice a large number of troops in order to expel the Indians from them. It made all these sacrifices in order to possess the Gulf of Mexico and to be master of the mouth of the Mississippi. Since the Constitution declared that every integral part of the United States must have equal privileges, these new states were placed on an equal footing with the old ones, and they were granted all the privileges which the others possessed, included in which was the theory of the sovereignty of the states.

This theory, which is one of the prerogatives of absolute liberty, was no danger to the existence of the federal government as long as each state was too weak to defend itself alone, and when the most complete union was necessary for defense against foreign invasion or internal enemies, as long as their interests seemed to be the same, and the population had not attained the development which it has now. Today, the Southern states, which were enticed to utilize the money and the forces of the North for growth and preservation, find that their interests are no longer the same.

I'll come back later to the "slavery" question, which was the first pretext for secession, but which was just a pretext and is now secondary. The true reason which impelled the Southern states to secede is the question of tariffs. The South is simply a producer and consumer; the West and the North, and especially the East, are almost entirely manufacturers, but they need strong protection. The South could supply itself with all necessary items in Europe, at prices from twenty-five to forty percent lower than what they have been paying up to now. It contends that these duties do it no good and that the money goes back into the pockets of the Northern manufacturers. Therefore it wants to escape from this tax. The suppression of, or even a strong reduction in, these duties would completely ruin the eastern states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which could not compete with the cheap prices attained by England and even by France. Thousands of men would find themselves unemployed and would therefore threaten the well-being and the very existence not only of their employers, but even of the merchants and the producers in those areas, leading to an imminent danger of social revolution, which the North must avoid at all costs.

This question of tariffs has been discussed in the deliberative assemblies for more than twenty years, and despite the efforts of the South, despite the majority which its supporters in the North gave it, the country has leaned more toward protectionism than toward free trade. Since a Republican President was elected, the South felt that its cause was lost, that the encroachments on its principles would become greater and greater each day under the protection of the federal government. It therefore preferred to fight at once rather than be paralyzed by the measures of the President.

In accordance with the theory of the sovereignty of the states, the South declared that since the federal government did not keep the terms of the contract with the South and threatened its liberties, it had the right to secede, and it did so, impelled to this extreme decision by ambitious politicians who exploited the passions of the masses to their advantage, and who hoped in this way to preserve the power which they lost through the election of the Republican candidate.

The North says that certain states have the right to secede, if the majority of the states meeting in general convention permits them to, but that they cannot do so without this authorization. It says that the Union is one of the principles of the Constitution, and that it must be maintained at all costs. And, indeed, if it is not, the North would cease to exist as a nation. If the principle of secession is recognized, there are no reasons why, within the two new confederations that would be formed, there should not be an individual secession of dissatisfied states, or, within the state itself, a secession of cities or of counties. Anglo-Saxon America would then be reduced to the wretched state reached in Spanish South America by the application of this unfortunate principle.

Even supposing that things didn't go that far, all the advantages would be found on the side of the South, and the North would have no market. (1) With an imaginary and geographical line being the only separation between two countries of the same origin, of the same race, and of the same language, the smallest matter could plunge the country back into war. (2) Why did the North spend millions and fight for many years to bring the South into the Union? It was certainly not because of philanthropy for the people that inhabited it, but rather to be master of all the ports of the Atlantic and of the Gulf of Mexico, and of those of the Pacific, from Canada to the Rio Grande. Furthermore, it was in order to have a sure market for the products of the West through the Mississippi Delta. By recognizing the Southern Confederacy, the other states would abandon themselves to the good will of a rival nation, which, on any given day, could blockade all commerce for the purpose of obtaining new concessions. The North would be committing suicide morally. It therefore prefers to perish and to be ruined, with its weapons in its hands and with a chance for success, rather than to die from a lingering illness.

Many people think that the struggle won't last long because of the important question of the "Almighty Dollar"; it is precisely the "Almighty Dollar" that will prolong the contest.