Slavery, Confederate Diplomacy, and the Racialist Mission of Henry Hotze

By Bonner, Robert E. | Civil War History, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Slavery, Confederate Diplomacy, and the Racialist Mission of Henry Hotze


Bonner, Robert E., Civil War History


From its inception, New World slavery depended on the willing collaboration of Atlantic empires, kingdoms, and colonies on four different continents. This matrix of international cooperation only began to dissolve with the American and French Revolutions, which initiated a countervailing sequence of international conflicts that began an era of emancipation. By the outbreak of the American Civil War, armed conflict and diplomatic pressures had already played a decisive role in slavery's end across much of the Western Hemisphere. This process culminated in the military clash between the Northern Union and the Southern Confederacy, which forced governments on both sides of the Atlantic to contemplate the future of slavery in North America and, by extension, in Brazil and Cuba, the two remaining outposts of bondage. As the preeminent player in international politics, Great Britain occupied a central role in indirectly assuring Union victory, the freedom of four million Southern slaves, and the ultimate end of chattel slavery throughout the Americas. While the United Kingdom's devotion to "King Cotton" proved to be less important than some Southerners had predicted, British statesmen did not adopt a consistently pro-Union or pro-emancipation policy. A dialogue between government officials and the broader British public involved a calculus of commercial interests, moral and religious convictions, political infighting about democracy's future, and an emerging battle between inherited antislavery sympathies and a newfound openness to scientific racism. (1)

Confederate officials who worked within this international framework were more attuned to the complexity of the British view about slavery and race than most historians have allowed. (2) Whatever their own stances, Southern diplomats simply could not ignore the prevailing assumption of British representatives like Lord Richard Lyon, who in 1861 predicted that "the taint of slavery will render the cause of the South loathsome to the civilized world." While slavery had long been condemned as a relic of barbarism, its notoriety intensified in 1852 with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which would quickly become a global sensation. Given this tide of opinion, some Confederates considered that a government of their own might permit them to defy such negative outside judgments. Alexander Stephens, the new vice president, staked out this position when he identified white mastery of black inferiors as the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy and in the process openly invited the world's scorn. More typical were those repeated attempts to obscure the connections between the Confederacy and chattel bondage and to link the rebellion to less controversial topics such as free trade, the inherited principles of constitutionalism, or the supposed racial differences between Northern and Southern whites. (3)

Henry Hotze, the most important Confederate propagandist in Europe, developed a third strategy in the middle of 1863, at the same time that Confederate officials in Richmond abandoned efforts to lobby the British for official recognition. Both Hotze's private dispatches and his public statements indicate a conscious move from an earlier emphasis on the white South's Christian piety and martial heroism to a consideration of how its defining system of slavery exemplified the scientific principles of racial anthropology. After writing a series of anthropological notices for the London Index, a weekly paper he had founded in 1862, Hotze traveled to France and Italy in 1864, where he worked to nurture the emerging racialism in those countries and to put a pro-Confederate gloss on news dispatches from North America. After the Confederacy's defeat the next year, Hotze attempted to bring his racialist mission back to the New World, briefly forming plans to convince leaders of a re-United States to accept the permanence of human difference. In transforming himself from a Confederate editor into an international racial propagandist, Hotze returned to his own intellectual convictions about racial hierarchy that he had formed a decade earlier when he had translated Arthur de Gobineau's important work, Essai sur l'Inegalite des Races Humaines. …

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