Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Quotable Rhett Butler: The Fat Dutch Woman

After a long holiday, the Quotable Rhett Butler is back! We're also getting close to the end of this series, only two or three quotes left. So, this week and the next, we will have twin lines, pertaining to Britain's and France's involvement in the American Civil War (or, rather, lack thereof) and then it's time to say goodbye. But first, let's take a look at Britain and its queen:
"Why, Scarlett! You must have been reading a newspaper! I'm surprised at you. Don't do it again. It addles women's brains. For your information, I was in England, not a month ago, and I'll tell you this. England will never help the Confederacy. England never bets on the underdog. That's why she's England. Besides, the fat Dutch woman who is sitting on the throne is a God-fearing soul and she doesn't approve of slavery. Let the English mill workers starve because they can't get our cotton but never, never strike a blow for slavery."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XIII
By the time Rhett and Scarlett had this conversation, in the spring of 1863, the chances of England rising to help the Confederacy were indeed slim. But it hadn't always been like that. Indeed the Confederacy had all along relied on the hope that the European powers, France and England in particular, would recognize it as a legitimate state, separate of the Union, and come to its aid. And at some points early during the war (see the Trent Affair), it had seemed that it might indeed happen.

Arguments in favor of this outcome? Firstly, Europe (and especially England) was dependent on the cotton produced in the South. Secondly, Europe (and especially England) was not a great fan of successful extra-European states and in fact quite fancied the idea of a divided Union. And finally, the European aristocrats had a natural affinity with the refined Southern upper classes and an equally natural distaste for the more... democratic Northerners.

Arguments against this outcome? Firstly, the European states were a little busy with their own engagements (i.e. being passive-aggressive and occasionally aggressive-aggressive to each other at any given chance). Secondly, no self-respecting empire precisely enjoyed creating a precedent by supporting seceding rebels. Thirdly, if they were going to pick camps, the European states wanted to be absolutely sure they were siding with the winner.  Fourthly, Europe needed the South's cotton, but Europe also needed the North's cereals just as much, if not more. And, last but not least, there was the moral issue: neither France, nor England particularly wanted to be associated with chattel slavery at this point in the 19th century. 

During the first two years of war, when the odds were not so clearly in favor of the Union and the war was framed more in terms of States' Rights than abolition of slavery, England might have been persuaded to step in on the side of the Confederacy. By the spring of 1863, this was no longer an appealing political action. The Battle of Antietam in the autumn of 1862 had shown the Confederacy to be the underdog and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863, had added a moral stake to the war. The Union had framed its actions as  a fight for human freedom, and no European government would want to be seen opposing such an endeavor.

It wasn't even, as Rhett suggests, that a minority at the top was opposed to slavery on moral or religious grounds. It was that, by this time in the 19th century, the public opinion was against it. While Queen Victoria* disapproved of slavery, in keeping with her desire to maintain a Christian kingdom, so did the British working classes, the same ones that were starving without the South's cotton. During the famous Lancashire Cotton Famine, the cotton workers in Manchester sent a letter that contained this passage to Lincoln:
"... the vast progress which you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity – chattel slavery – during your presidency, will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity."
--read more here
So, as you see, at this point in history a Confederate newspaper that still expressed hope for an English intervention was bound to addle anyone's brains... (Which we devotedly hope was Rhett's meaning with those first sentences there *cough*.)

*On a random note: Queen Victoria was of German origins, not Dutch. Her mother was the German-born Princess Victoria of Sexa-Coburg-Saalfeld. Americans used the word Dutch to refer to Germans, result of anglicizing the word "Deutsch."

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