EXASPERATION ABOUT POLITICS
From an issue in April 1861, before war actually broke out, there was much exasperation about the politics that had caused such a deep division. There doesn't seem to have been concern about the slaves:
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, it brought to mind an invention patented by him some years previous. The thought occurred to us that the fact would interest our readers, and, in publishing an engraving of it in our columns, we also expressed the hope that he might have better success in governing the country than he appeared to have had in introducing his invention.
No sooner had our paper appeared which contained the engraving of Mr. Lincoln's craft, than some Northern correspondent took the matter up, and accused us of undertaking to cast a slur upon "Honest Old Abe"....The matter, however, did not end here, for in a few days afterward we received letters from the South, threatening, on the same state of facts, to stop the paper, "because we rejoiced over the election of a Black Republican rail-splitter."
The conclusion of the article was that everyone should ignore political reality and just get back to work:
We will offer one panacea for the national disorder, which was suggested to us the other day by a worthy mechanic from Roxbury, Mass....We asked him the time-honored question, "How is business in your town ?" He replied "'twas very bad some time ago, but we have nothing to complain of now. A few weeks ago we resolved to read no more political papers and to go to work. Since that time we have had much less trouble, and a good deal better times." We hope the hint will not be lost to the community in general.
[Scientific American, April 13, 1861]
CRITICISM OF AN ILLUSTRATION
Scientific American was a magazine of invention and science. A large part of the business of the magazine was to patent inventions, many of which were for farming and agriculture. One invention, from Macon, Mississippi, was a cotton-picking machine. It was illustrated in May 1858. Evidently there was some negative reaction to it, as we note in the editorial in April 1861:
Some months ago, to please the notion of an inventor in preparing an engraving of his cotton seed planter, and with a view to show its operation, we represented the figure of a healthy looking negro in the act of operating the machine. Presently some one of our Northern readers wrote to us in high dudgeon, charging that we were burlesquing the colored race, and cottoning to the South.
[Scientific American, April 13, 1861]
EXASPERATION AT WAR
The bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter on April 14 inaugurated the Civil War. This article from April 27, 1861 has an exasperated tone, implying that nothing was worth fighting about if it threatened prosperity, not even the plight of the slaves:
Civil War Inaugurated
Reluctantly we recall the deplorable fact that civil war has actually broken out in our own country, where peace, happiness and financial prosperity have so long existed. For some time past a feeling of animosity has prevailed in some of the remote Southern States against the people of the Northern States, who have been charged with imbibing hostile feelings toward the South, for the sentiments there existing on the subject of African slavery.
Soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidential Chair, the citizens of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas formed themselves into a Southern Confederacy, and after meeting in convention, they adopted a constitution; and elected Hon. Jefferson Davis, formerly member of Congress from Mississippi, President of the Confederated States. The first step of these Secessionists was the seizure of various forts, arsenals, custom houses, and other public buildings belonging to the Federal Government, and their occupation in opposition to the will of the Federal authorities.
[Scientific American, April 27, 1861]
ENTHUSIASM FOR WAR
The tone of the issue of one week later, May 4, 1861, is distinctly different. Certainly the public response was enthusiastically in favor of war. The magazine's response was now also in favor. But not out of concern for slaves, but because of the question of democracy and the Union:
For the first time, we saw large bodies of armed men moving down Broadway in response to the call of the Federal Government, stating that the national flag had been struck to the dust by those who were once its friends, and required to be vindicated against further assault at the hands of a rebellious organization.
Following the attack upon Fort Sumter, and the threat of the Secretary of War of the Confederate States that the flag adopted by them should wave over the capitol of the nation, the whole North is thoroughly aroused, and such enthusiasm to uphold the honor of the flag has never before been witnessed in this country since the days of Washington. The great conservative city of New York comes to the rescue of the government in this its hour of peril with astonishing alacrity, and will pour out its men and money like water to uphold the Federal authority.
It is indeed sad to see brethren of the same country rushing to arms against each other; but the heart of even a traitor or a coward cannot but feel a throb of brave and loyal devotion to see the call of the government so promptly obeyed.
[Scientific American, May 4, 1861]
WHERE DO THE EX-SLAVES GO?
The question about where slaves could live after they were freed was heavily influenced by widespread prejudice against African-Americans. Remember the article about the "Randolph slaves" from December 1846? One answer to the problem was to encourage African-Americans to leave the country and settle in "colonies" such as Liberia in Africa. The article from May 4, 1861, enthusiastically reports:
A colony is now organizing in this city under the charge of the Rev. Henry Hiland Garnett[sic], an able and energetic minister of the Presbyterian Church, this city, who will soon proceed to Abbeakuta [southwest Nigeria] with colored mechanics and machinery and other implements necessary to found a colony there. A liberal treaty has already been formed with the king, and he promises the most ample protection and support to the colonists. This is no idle scheme--it is in the hands of some of the shrewdest and wisest men in the city, and will be pushed forward with zeal and fidelity.
[Scientific American, May 4, 1861]
But the vast majority of free and enslaved African Americans did not want to leave home. Four short years later, in 1865 the same Henry Highland Garnet "became the first black minister to preach a sermon in the hall of the House of Representatives. He used the occasion to claim for his people 'every right of American citizenship'" [From "The Fiery Trial," by Eric Foner. W. W. Norton, 2010].
EXPLAINING THE WAR
We tried to explain to our foreign readers the cause of the war in an editorial on May 11, 1861. We do not mention slaves or slavery:
The South having lost an election which they went into, and imagining some great wrong, commenced to defy the government which had never injured them in the slightest degree, when, lo and behold, civil war is upon us! Because we refuse longer to be kicked and cuffed about by them, and are not willing to give up all our forts, and even the Federal Capital itself, from which they seceded. Jefferson Davis, who has been plotting the overthrow of the government for years, would be perfectly satisfied if we would give up everything, and submit to the degradation of allowing the President of the United States to set up his government on a drumhead.
The article rounds out with this underestimation:
The entire North is aroused, and should it cost her a hundred thousand human lives, and a hundred millions of dollars, the government will be sustained.
[Scientific American, May 11, 1861]
The actual number of deaths was at least six times greater. The cost was at least 40 times greater.
PEACE, YES. JUSTICE, NO.
It seems our editors were keen to end the war and get back to business. An editorial from May 25, 1861 says that South Carolina (which had been the first to secede), if it returned to the Union, would be free to continue the institution of slavery:
The Federal government...says to the Southern people, 'Obey the laws, and you shall have, as heretofore, all the protection to life and property that you desire.' The government could do no less; it seeks to do no more; and all this talk about subjugation is mere claptrap. If South Carolina will but obey the laws, as the great States of New York and Pennsylvania are now doing, not a single right belonging to her people would be withheld. She will have a Governor of her own choice, two Senators in Congress, and her proper quota of Representatives. Federal judges will execute the laws, the mails will be carried as usual, her slave property respected, and insurrection suppressed, if need be, by the Federal government. Could anything be more reasonable?
[Scientific American, May 25, 1861]
Letters sent to the magazine, then as now, undoubtedly came from every part of the social and political spectrum. In 1861 we were accused of being "abolitionists," a charge that was huffily denied. Bear in mind, though, that in 1861 the label "abolitionist" was more appropriately applied to for someone on the extreme end of the antislavery spectrum. There were other beliefs in favor of ending the institution of slavery by a more gradual approach. It is difficult to ascertain the beliefs of the editors as they did not publish a definitive set of writings on the subject. So it is up to us to guess the reality by "reading between the lines" of snippets gleaned from over the years. These letters from June 1861 accuse the opposition of belonging to the most extreme position--a common tactic then as it is now:
From a reader in Petersburg, Virginia:
You say we of the Middle States are beside ourselves. For what? For contending for our constitutional rights, and quitting your corrupt, rotten and rascally government, governed by a mean, vile abolitionist, who tramples on the constitution as he does the dirt he walks upon. Yet you say you are all for the "Stars and Stripes." Well, we of the South are just as unanimous against the "Stars and Stripes" as you abolitionists are for them, and we never intend to live under your "Stars and Stripes" again. You never can conquer or subdue us. We will fight--every man, woman and child of us--as long as we live, and will teach our children, from generation to generation, to hate and fight a Yankee worse than hell and the devil. I tell you our negroes will fight you all nearly as unanimous as their masters; for they, too, know the meanest masters in the South are Yankees who have settled among us. You may think these statements not correct, but when your mean, low, mercenary soldiers invade the South you will then see what I have written you is true.
From a reader in Mobile, Alabama:
You will please stop my Scientific American. I want no communication in any shape with abolitionists. I will never patronize anyone that will sustain Lincoln and his blood-thirsty, Heaven-daring crew.
Our editors responded, sounding somewhat irritated:
Our correspondent having failed to give us his name, we are unable to stop his paper. If, however, he wishes us to cease only on account of our supposed abolition sentiments, we shall doubtless be able to continue our intercourse with him for some time to come. It is a matter of surprise to us that many Southern people cannot tolerate a supporter of the Federal government without denouncing him as an abolitionist. Knowing this charge to be false, not only with reference to ourselves, but also in reference to our people generally, we might be content to pay no attention to it; but the charge is persistently made to influence the whole population of the South against the North in a most unworthy manner, and deserves to be rebuked.
[Scientific American, June 8, 1861]
THE COTTON CONNECTION
Southern states held fast to the notion that demand for cotton in the U.S. and across the world (especially in England) would mean an early end to the Union blockade of trade, recognition of the Confederate States of America, and an end to war. The editors here not only chided the South about this belief, but included a note of derision about abolitionists.
We recently published an article setting forth the conviction that if the struggle should be a prolonged one, it would put an end to the preeminence of the cotton States in the supply of this important staple. For this assertion one or two of our subscribers in the cotton States are denouncing us as enemies to the South. It will ultimately appear, when the events now transpiring have reached their practical solution, that those who have "precipitated the South into revolution" will have done more to uproot their institutions than all the noisy abolitionists to be found in the country.
[Scientific American, June 1, 1861]
CONFISCATION BILL PROPOSED
There were some who wanted emancipation of the slaves because it was the right thing to do. There were some who believed that freeing the slaves would make it harder for the South to continue fighting the war. Either way, support grew for a bill that would confiscate property and free African-Americans who were the slaves of those fighting against the Union. Our article from July 1862 says:
The confiscation bill has finally passed both Houses of Congress by a large majority, and only wants the President's signature to be made a law of the land. It provides that if the rebels do not return to their allegiance within sixty days, their property, excepting slaves, shall be confiscated to the government, and their slaves shall be set free. This is the most important measure that has been adopted in this country since the Declaration of Independence. It is simply saying to the rebels, "We have been trying to coax you back for more than a year, and now the question of power is to be tried between us. If you are strong enough to fight the whole power of the North and to hold your slaves down at the same time, you may succeed in your mad enterprise, but if you are not, then shall your plantations be taken from you and given to our soldiers, and your negroes, shall be set to work for them instead of for you."
[Scientific American, July 26, 1862]
The article doesn't say whether the plantation hands would be working for "our soldiers" as paid or slave labor.