A lesser-known member of the distinguished Adams family of Massachusetts is Union cavalry officer Charles Francis Adams Jr., son of Congressman Charles Adams, who served as U.S. ambassador in London during the Civil War, and brother of Henry Adams, who accompanied his father to London as his private secretary and wrote anonymous commentaries on the war. Charles Francis Adams’ letters offer a sophisticated, frank look at the war and the issues central to it. Raw cotton imports from the American South were a huge component of England’s textile industry, and the Federal blockade of the South’s cotton trade was shutting down work in the Lancashire mills. In the following two letters, Charles Francis urges his brother Henry to make the case for England allying with the Union and outlines the stark future freedmen will face following emancipation and the transformation of the South’s cotton-based economy. Adams survived the war and went on to become a historian and a prominent figure in the railroad industry.
This cotton question is beginning to pinch and soon, if ever, if you have any desire to be useful to your country, you can be useful where you are.
For some time I have been turning over in my mind an elaborate article on this cotton supply question, but necessarily to be of any good to any one it must be directed more to English eyes than to ours. I touched on it in my last letter, and now I should like to hand it over to you, to see if you can do anything with it. I would write it for the Edinburgh or some really influential review or magazine, but to have effect it should appear in November, when the cotton-shoe will begin to pinch dreadfully….
Start at once with the paradox that, instead of desiring to break this blockade, England should pray it might last for two years and if necessary assist in enforcing it, as if enforced its inevitable result must be, after one or at most two years of high prices, to forever break down the price of cotton to a reasonable profit over the cost of its cheapest possible production. This opens the whole question of supply. Two things are necessary to the production of cotton—an abundance of labor and a cotton soil. Look into the question of soil first. A semi-tropical heat, with a distribution of rain, are the only essentials. India has not the last and will not do; but Central and South America, all of Africa (which is not a desert), Australia and the Fiji Islands are better than our cotton states and need only organized labor. This with all the necessary material of ships, channels of trade, custom and experience, our planters have to such a degree that while they would furnish a fair supply of cotton on moderate terms, they could kill competition.
Now is England’s chance to free herself from what has been her terror for years. In India, in Egypt, in Abyssinia and in South Africa, there is an unlimited amount of cotton land of the finest quality and labor is abundant, costing almost nothing, but unorganized. Two years’ competition will organize it and once organized it can sell the South. In Australia, the South Sea Islands and Central America, there is no labor and here the cooley questions rises. Properly regulated the trade would be a blessing. This would bring cotton down to the cost, with a profit, of its production in cheap labor countries, say three pence a pound. But it would also lead to immense indirect advantages. As a missionary scheme Africa would be opened up; slavery in America would be killed and the slave-trade closed for ever, as the African would be more useful at home than abroad.…Finally it would open the untold tropical fertility of Africa to the commerce of the world and these advantages cannot be estimated. Thus cotton would be produced on both sides of the equator year round in unlimited quantities, and England would have by two years’ suffering cut the meshes which she could never have broken.
On the other hand [if] England breaks the blockade, or the South is victorious, England may then as well hug her chains, for she must wear them. The Southern confederacy will be aggressive and more slaves and more cotton will be the cry. In spite of England the slave-trade will flourish and their system will spread over Mexico and Central America. Then with the advantages of their organization, slave labor will win the day and England may look for competition in vain. The cotton monopoly will stifle her in the end. They will pretend in Parliament that the recognition of the Confederate States will not extend the area of slavery. Expose this, for it will be a victory of slavery. Recognition will mean war and the prostration at the feet of slavery of free society in America. England can do this if she chooses, but let her not deceive herself and let the results of her action be patent.
Milne Plantation, Port Royal Island
Monday, April 6, 1862
Adams was serving as a cavalry officer under Brig. Gen. Isaac Stevens, drilling pickets on South Carolina’s Sea Islands, which were captured early on by Union troops. Missionaries, educators and cotton agents joined Federal forces on the islands in a project known as the Port Royal Experiment—a dry run for emancipation—in which some 10,000 former slaves worked abandoned plantations and were taught to read.
Here I am on the Milne Plantation in the heart of Port Royal Island. Cotton fields, pine barrens, contrabands, missionaries and soldiers are before me and all around me. A sick missionary is in the next room, a dozen soldiers are eating their suppers in the yard under my window and some twenty negroes of every age, lazy, submissive and as the white man has made them, are hanging about the plantation building just as though they were not the teterrima causa of this consuming bella [Adams’ Latin words refer to a quote by the Roman poet Horace meaning “the most shameful cause of war”]. The island is now just passing into its last stage of spring. The nights are cool, but the days are hot enough to make the saddle no seat of comfort. The island, naturally one of the most delightful places in the world, is just now at its most delightful season.
The brown unhappy wastes of cotton fields unplanted this year and with the ragged remnants of last year’s crop, still fluttering in the wind, do not add to its beauty, but nothing can destroy the charm of the long plantation avenues with the heavy grey moss drooping from branches fresh with young leaves, while the natural hedges for miles along are fragrant with wild flowers. As I canter along these never ending avenues I hear sounds and see sights enough to set the ornithologist and the sportsman crazy. Nor are less inviting forms of animal life wanting, for snakes cross your path more frequently than hares and, even now, the soldiers under my window are amusing themselves with a large turtle, a small alligator and a serpent of curious beauty and most indubitable venom, a portion of the results of their afternoon’s investigation.
One can ride indefinitely over the island and never exhaust its infinite cross-roads and out-of-the-way plantations, but you cannot ride fifteen minutes in any direction, however new, without stumbling over the two great facts of the day, pickets and contrabands. The pickets are recruits in active service without models— excellent material for soldiers and learning the trade, but scarcely soldiers yet. The contrabands were slaves yesterday and may be again tomorrow, and what slaves are any man may know without himself seeing who will take the trouble to read [Frederick Law] Olmsted’s books. No man seems to realize that here, in this little island, all around us, has begun the solution of this tremendous “nigger” question.
The war here seems to rest and, for the present, Port Royal is thrown into the shade, and yet I am much mistaken if at this minute Port Royal is not a point of greater interest than either Virginia or Kentucky. Here the contraband question has arisen in such proportions that it has got to be met and the Government is meeting it as best it may. Some ten thousand quondam[former] slaves are thrown upon the hands of an unfortunate Government; they are the forerunners of hundreds of thousands more, if the plans of the Government succeed, and so the Government may as well now decide what it will do in the case of the success of its war plans. While the Government has sent agents down here, private philanthropy has sent missionaries, and while the first see that the contrabands earn their bread, the last teach them the alphabet. Between the two I predict divers results, among which are numerous jobs for agents and missionaries, small comfort to the negroes and heavy loss to the Government. Doubtless the world must have cotton and must pay for it, but it does not yet know what it is to pay for it if the future hath it in store that the poor world shall buy the next crop of Port Royal at prices remunerative to Government.
The scheme, so far as I can see any, seems to be for the Government, recognizing and encouraging private philanthropy and leaving to it the task of educating the slaves to the standard of self-support, to hold itself a sort of guardian to the slave in his indefinite state of transition, exacting from him that amount of labor which he owes to the community and the cotton market. The plan may work well; if it does, it will be the first of the kind that ever has. Certainly I do not envy the slaves its operation. The position of the Government is certainly a most difficult one. Something must be done for these poor people and done at once. They are indolent, shiftless, unable to take care of themselves and plundered by every comer—in short, they are slaves. For the present they must be provided for. It is easy to find fault with the present plan. Can any one suggest a better? For me I must confess that I cannot. I think it bad, very bad, and that it must end in failure, but I can see no other more likely to succeed.
This is the solution of the negro question I take it no one but the missionaries and agents will contend. That is yet to come, and here as elsewhere we are looking for it, and trying to influence it. My own impression is that the solution is coming—may already in some degree be shadowed out, but that it is a solution hurried on by this war, based on simple and immutable principles of economy and one finally over which the efforts of Government and individuals can exercise no control.
This war is killing slavery. Not by any legal quibble of contrabands or doubtful theory of confiscation, but by stimulating free trade. Let any man ride as I do over this island. Let him look at the cotton fields and the laborers. Let him handle their tools and examine their implements, and if he comes from any wheat-growing country, he will think himself amid the institutions and implements of the middle ages—and so he would be. The whole system of cotton growing—all its machinery from the slave to the hoe in his hand—is awkward, cumbrous, expensive and behind the age. That the cultivation of cotton is so behind that of all the other great staples is the natural result of monopoly, but it is nonetheless disgraceful to the world, and to give it an impulse seems to have been the mission of this war. The thorough and effectual breaking up of its so much prized monopoly will be the greatest blessing which could happen to the South, and it seems to be the one probable result of this war. Competition involves improvement in ruin, and herein lies the solution of this slavery question. Northern men with Northern ideas of economy, agriculture and improvement, are swarming down onto the South. They see how much behind the times the country is and they see that here is money to be made. If fair competition in the growth of cotton be once established a new system of economy and agriculture must inevitably be introduced here in which the slave and his hoe will make room for the free laborers and the plough, and the change will not be one of election but a sole resource against utter ruin. The men to introduce this change or any other are here and are daily swarming down in the armies of the Government, soon to become armies of occupation. A new tide of emigration has set in before which slavery has small chance.
But how is it for the African? Slavery may perish and no one regret it, but what is to become of the unfortunate African? When we have got thus far we have just arrived at the real point of interest in the “nigger” question. The slaves of whom I see so much here may be taken as fair specimens of their race as at present existing in this country. They have many good qualities. They are good tempered, patient, docile, willing to learn and easily directed; but they are slavish and all that the word slavish implies. They will lie and cheat and steal; they are hypocritical and cunning; they are not brave, and they are not fierce—these qualities the white man took out of them generations ago, and in taking them deprived the African of the capacity for freedom.
My views of the future of those I see about me here are not therefore encouraging. That they will be free and free soon by the operation of economic laws over which Government has no control, I thoroughly believe; but their freedom will be the freedom of antiquated and unprofitable machines, the freedom of the hoes they use which will be swept aside to make way for better implements. The slave, however, cannot be swept aside and herein lies the difficulty and the problem. My impression from what I see is that Emancipation as a Government measure would be a terrible calamity to the blacks as a race; that rapid emancipation as the result of an economic revolution destroying their value as agricultural machines would be a calamity, though less severe; and finally, that the only transition to freedom absolutely beneficial to them as a race would be one proportioned in length to the length of their captivity, such a one in fact as destroyed villeinage in the wreck of the feudal system.
Were men and governments what they should be instead of what they are, the case would be different and all would combine in the Christian and tedious effort to patiently undo the wrongs they had done, and to restore to the African his attributes. Then the work could be done well and quickly; but at present, seeing what men are, and how remorselessly they throw aside what has ceased to be useful, I cannot but regard as a doubtful benefit to the African anything which by diminishing his value increases his chances of freedom. A revolution in cotton production springing from competition may work differently by gradually changing the status of the African from one of forced to one of free labor but I do not regard this as probable. The census already shows not only that cotton can everywhere be cultivated by free labor, but also that the best cotton now is so cultivated, and the most probable result of a permanent reduction in the price of cotton would seem to me to be a sudden influx of free white emigration into the cotton felds of the South. Such a result would produce untold advantages to the South, to America and to the white race; but how about the blacks? Will they be educated and encouraged and cared for; or will they be challenged to competition in the race, or go to the wall, and finally be swept away as a useless rubbish? Who can answer those queries? I for one cannot; but one thing I daily see and that is that no spirit exists among the contrabands here which would enable them to care for themselves in a race of vigorous competition. The blacks must be cared for or they will perish, and who is to care for them when they cease to be of value?
I do not pretend to solve these questions or do more than raise them, and their solution will come, I suppose, all in good time with the emergency which raises them. But no man who dreams – at all of the future can wander over Port Royal Island at present and mark the character and condition of its inhabitants, without having all these questions and many more force themselves upon his mind. I am a thorough believer in this war. I believe it to have been necessary and just. I believe that from it will flow great blessings to America and the Caucasian race. I believe the area of freedom will by it be immensely expanded in this country, and that from it true principle of trade and economy will receive a prodigious impetus throughout the world; but for the African I do not see the same bright future. He is the foot-ball of passion and accident, and the gift of freedom may prove his destruction. Still the experiment should and must be tried and the sooner it is tried the better….
Adapted from A Cycle of Adams Letters, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford and originally published by Houghton Mifflin Co. in 1920.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.