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Foreign recognition of the Confederacy — letter from Honorable James Lyons.

Dear Colonel — I received your letter when I was too ill to reply to it, and have been since so fluctuating between convalescence and sickness as to be unable to prepare the statement of our conversation when I had the pleasure to see you at my house in Richmond, which will, I hope, excuse my delay. In that conversation I advanced the opinion that slavery was not the cause of the late war between the North and the South; that the real cause of the war was the reduction of the tariff by the compromise measures which were introduced by Mr. Clay, the love of power and the desire of aggrandizement being the real motives. In support of this view which I have always entertained, I repeated the statement made to me by my friend James M. Mason. He told me in Washington, soon after the passage of the compromise bill, that Mr. Seward said to [354] him, “You have hit me in a vital point, and now I must recover by striking you in a vital point” ; to which Mr. Mason replied: “What is that — slavery?” Seward said, “Yes.” Without the protective tariff, the wealth and influence of the New England States would be very much diminished, and the popularity of Mr. Seward so far impaired as to destroy his hopes of the Presidency, unless he found a remedy for the disease. The agitation of the abolition of slavery commenced, therefore, at that time, in selfish and sordid considerations, and from those motives it was continued by its originators, the fanatics joining them and fanning the flame until Mr. Seward announced “the irrepressible conflict.” There were, in point of fact, very few sincere fanatics at that time, and those not at all among the politicians. John Quincy Adams, the ablest and most daring of the agitators, as well as the most vindictive, because he and his father had been curtailed of their “fair proportions,” as he thought, by not being elected to the Presidency for the second term, did not pretend to any false philanthropy or fanaticism, but put his action upon the ground that by the provision of the constitution which allowed fractional representation for “all others” besides the whites, the North was governed by the votes of slaves; and you doubtless recollect his ferocious declaration to Mr. Dillet, of Alabama, when he remonstrated against his abolition scheme, and said, “The gentleman from Massachusetts does not reflect how much blood will be shed and how many lives lost if his scheme succeeds” ; and Mr. Adams roared out at the top of his voice, “Let it come, though millions be bathed in blood.”

Soon after Mr. Seward left the gubernatorial chair of New York, he went to Washington to argue a cause in the Supreme Court (he told me, I think, that it was a patent case), and from Washington he came to Richmond. Mr. Webster, with whom it was my good fortune to hold the most cordial relations — and a man of larger heart and more genial nature I never knew — wrote me a very warm letter of introduction by him, and I entertained him at my house at night, because he said he had not time to stay to dinner next day. Mr. Stanard, Mr. Leigh, Mr. Johnson, and all the prominent lawyers of Richmond and many others were invited to meet him. In the course of the evening, when Mr. Seward and myself were sitting on a sofa, Messrs. Stanard and Leigh, who were among Seward's green ones, being on the opposite side of the room, the conversation turned upon the annexation of Texas, then [355] lately disposed of, and I said to Mr. Seward, “Governor, may I ask you one question?” “Oh, as many as you please,” was the reply. I then said: “Did you confide in the opinion” (which, as Governor of New York, he had put forth, viz:) “that it was unconstitutional to annex Texas?” And with his peculiar laugh, he replied: “Oh, no; I was very much surprised to see that some of you men down South were green enough to be caught with that idea. If you had given us free territory every man of us would have voted for Texas.”

(I was not one of the “green ones,” but was always and to the bitter end in favor of the annexation of Texas, as, by the way, Mr. Clay told me he was, “with the consent of the North and peace with Mexico,” when he explained his plan to me of dividing Texas into three free and two slave States). But that night fixed my opinion of Mr. Seward as a man destitute of all public principle, and I never spoke to him afterwards, except once, per force almost, in the library of the Supreme Court.

In further proof of the correctness of my opinion, I mentioned to you the fact that in the year 1859 (I think it was), at the residence of the late Robert C. Stanard, in the city of Richmond, I had a conversation with Mr. Jo. Holt, now the Judge Advocate-General, I believe, of the army, in relation to the abolition of slavery, in which I told him that I was very much surprised that he, a Kentuckian, should be in favor of it; and for the purpose of illustrating the injustice and inhumanity of it more strongly, I said, after pointing out the horrors to flow from it, commencing with the right of suffrage and political equality which must be conferred upon them, “Suppose, that to avoid these ills, we of the South were to emancipate all the slaves — then about two million five hundred thousand in round numbers — and could drive them all across the Potomac, what would you say to it?” He replied, “We would meet you on the north bank of the Potomac with all the muskets and bayonets we could command and drive them back or drive them into the river.” “Then,” said I, “you admit that you would inflict upon your white brethren of the South an evil so great that, rather than be subjected to it yourselves, you would put to death two million five hundred thousand of your pets, the objects of your philanthropy?” “Well,” said he, “I can't help that.” Not very long after that the election took place, followed by the war, the more immediate agents in producing which were Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois (which State unjustly denounced Mr. Davis lately). Mr. Douglas, in the hope of getting the Southern [356] vote for the Presidency, had, when Hon. Jefferson Davis proposed to extend the Missouri compromise line to the Pacific ocean, met him by a counter proposition to repeal it, which was carried by Northern against Southern votes; and in a subsequent discussion with him before the people of Illinois, Mr. Lincoln was the first man who brought the abolition of slavery into the Presidential election by declaring that the country could not “be half free and half slave, but must be all free or all slave” ; and with this idea, and with Douglas' repeal of the Missouri compromise, “fired the Northern mind” with the belief that the Southern people and their allies intended to carry slavery into the North; and Mr. Lincoln afterwards declared war against the South in defiance of his own maxim just quoted — not because the Southern people were attempting or intending to extend slavery over the North, but because they proposed to extempt the North from all risk of such evil, and asked only to be let alone and have their evils confined to themselves. The war progressed, however, and we of the South were all denounced as traitors, because we would not do that very thing for the alleged contemplation of which we had been previously denounced as the enemies of the country and of humanity, to wit: propagate slavery in the Northern States; and ten Governors sat in judgement upon us and doomed us, unheard, to extermination, for since the war of Alyattes against the Milesians (and including it), five hundred years before the birth of Christ, so cruel and savage a war has never been waged by any nation, however barbarous, against another, as that waged upon us. Besides the employment of countless mercenaries to slaughter our people, many of whom were blood relations of the assailants, our slaves were made, or attempted to be made, our masters; private property was taken or destroyed, including our dwellings, wherever a Sherman, a Sheridan, or a Hunter appeared, in violation of the rules of civilized modern war, and all our archives and judicial records which were accessible were destroyed or removed, with a view, of course, to destroy the titles to our property and make it almost impossible to recover it where an invader or other wrong-doer had possession of it — an outrage previously unheard of in any country. Still, I repeat, that this infamous war was waged from no sympathy with or humanity for the negro, and from no love of country.

In proof of this, I will relate a conversation I had at my house, Laburnum, near Richmond, with Count Mercier, the French Minister, in the month of May or early part of June, 1862. He, it will [357] be recollected, visited Richmond by permission of the Northern Government, but was interdicted from holding direct intercourse with President Davis or any of his Cabinet, and he spent nearly two days of his time at my house, in Henrico. In point of fact, as the sequel will disclose, he was sent here (by Mr. Seward) with a view to make peace — in Seward's slang, “to save the life of the nation.” In the course of a day's discussion in my library, he asked me a great many questions; among others, the question:

Can you whip McClellan?

who was then lying with an army of two hundred thousand men within six miles of Richmond, confronted by General Lee.

I told him, in reply, that I felt sure we could and would, and if the Emperor of the French would open the ports and keep them open we would march to New York and not ask the loan of a man or a dollar. With great animation he sprang to his feet and said in French:

If such be the temper of your people, you are invincible. But why do you think you will whip McClellan?

I answered, “Because the President and General Lee tell me they believe we will.”

Then he added, “But do you know how many men are bearing upon Richmond?”

I replied, “The President thinks there are two hundred thousand. General Lee thinks not so many — but more than one hundred and fifty thousand.”

To which he replied, “They are both mistaken. There are two hundred and twenty-five thousand. General Burnside's force at Port Royal is a part of the force bearing upon Richmond — sent to Port Royal merely in the hope of inducing General Lee to detach a part of his army to meet it. I am just from the War Office, and have all the statistics here,” (holding up a paper which he drew from his pocket); but, he added, “Can't this war be stopped? Can't you come back under the old flag?”

I said, “I suppose that is impossible, for Mr. Seward would not permit us to do so without the abolition of slavery, and it would be useless to propose that to the men from the extreme South.”

To that he replied, “You are mistaken. If you will only return and acknowledge the flag, Mr. Seward will permit you to return without any conditions.”

“What!” said I, “with the institution of slavery?”

“Yes,” he said. [358]

I then said, “But there is yet one thing more to be considered. To use the phrase which was so much hackneyed with respect to the Northeastern boundary question of ‘indemnity for the past and security for the future,’ we can't ask, I know, indemnity for the past, but we must have security for the future. We cannot live hereafter in the state of harassment and excitement in which we have lived for some years past.”

Then drawing his hand across a piece of paper lying upon the library-table, upon the opposite sides of which we were sitting, he said:

Mr. Seward will allow you to write your own guarantees.

I expressed my individual readiness to consent to those terms. I had been in favor of the Southern convention which South Carolina proposed through Mr. Memminger, her commissioner, believing as I did, in which I am now confirmed, that if all the Southern States met in convention, as proposed by South Carolina, such guarantees would be asked of the Northern people as they would grant, and which would protect us, and in that event there would be no secession, and I certainly did not wish secession if we could be protected in the enjoyment of our constitutional rights, and that I believe was the general sentiment of the South. I believe I have given you almost, if not exactly verbatim, these conversations to which I referred in my conversation with you. I will add that the day following the conversation with the French Minister, a large company of gentlemen dined with him at my house, and he left there after ten o'clock at night in a rain, in order, as he said, to send a dispatch to Norfolk to fire up a steamer which could take him or his dispatches, I forget which, to New York before the next Atlantic steamer sailed.

The battle of Cold Harbor and the other battles around Richmond occured not long afterward, and I had no doubt of our acknowledgment by the French Government, and was very much suprised that it did not come.

Some time afterward the French Consul, Monsieur Paul, drove up to my house one Sunday afternoon, and very soon entered into conversation about the acknowledgment of the Confederate Government by the Emperor of the French, and asked me if we could not pass some bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in fifty or sixty years. Maybe it might do even if it was longer, and said that if that were done the Emperor would immediately acknowledge us, but that the French people would not be satisfied without [359] such a provision for the abolition of slavery. They did not care how distant it was, so the fact was secured as the price of recognition, and the Emperor would be fully justified.

I expressed my individual willingness to accede to those terms, and promised to see the President upon the subject next morning when I went into Congress, and if he agreed with me I would immediately introduce a bill for the purpose.

“But,” said I, “Monsieur Paul, what guarantee can you give us that, if we take so important a step, the Emperor will acknowledge us?”

He replied, “Mr. Lyons, nobody can guarantee the Emperor, but you may be sure that the Emperor will do what I tell you he will do,” which I considered as but another mode of saying that he had been authorized to do what he had done.

It is due to Mr. Davis to say that I saw him next morning, at his own house, before Congress met, as soon as I went into town, and told him what had passed between the French Consul and myself. His answer was, “I should concur with you in accepting these terms but for the constitutional difficulty. You know that Congress has no jurisdiction over the subject of slavery.” “True,” I said, “but that difficulty may be gotten over, in my opinion, without any violation of the constitution. Let the bill providing for the gradual abolition of slavery also provide that it shall not take effect until the States have, by acts of their respective Legislatures, duly passed, approved and ratified it, which you know will be just as good as if passed beforehand, authorizing Congress to do the thing. I will not be guilty of the presumption of offering such a bill upon my simple responsibility, but if I may say that you concur with me I will introduce the bill to-morrow.” He then asked me why the French Government could not deal with the States in the matter, so as to avoid all constitutional questions. I told him I had put that very question to the French Consul, and his answer was, “France does not know the States, but she knows the Confederate Government and President Davis.”

Mr. Davis then said, “Well, I must consult the Cabinet, and if they agree with you I will send for you.” And there the matter ended.

Yours truly,

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