"France's Opportunity": an Englishman's Plea for French Intervention

By Charles Priestley

In a pamphlet published in French in 1865, distinguished British banker John Welsford Cowell told his readers that he had "For four years...tried, on various occasions, to explain to my fellow-countrymen the vital duty which England had, in 1861, been called upon to fulfil towards herself, towards her race in the South and towards the whole of humanity."

One of the more curious examples of Confederate propaganda in Europe is a pamphlet of 30 pages entitled La France et les États Confédérés ("France and the Confederate States"). Published in February 1865, it was the work of an Englishman named John Welsford Cowell, who is described on the title page as "agent et représentant, muni de pleins pouvoirs, de la Banque d'Angleterre aux États-Unis dans les années 1837, 1838 et 1839" ("agent and representative, with full powers, of the Bank of England in the United States in the years 1837, 1838 and 1839"). It is of interest chiefly because its English author, despairing of any such action on the part of his own country, makes a sustained and, indeed, passionate plea for France to intervene on the side of the Confederacy.

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / Cowell

John Welsford Cowell was born on 30 March 1796, the son of John Cowell of Bedford Square, London, and was educated at Eton and (like Beresford Hope) at Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1818. He had been admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1815, but appears to have found the law less appealing than the world of economics. He tells us that he helped David Ricardo and James Mill (father of the perhaps better-known John Stuart Mill) to set up the Political Economy Club in 1821, and we know that he served both on the Poor Law Commission and later, in 1833, on the Factory Commission, which aimed at improving conditions for those employed in Britain's factories, particularly the children. As such, he must surely be the only Old Etonian mentioned by Marx in "Das Kapital"; in Chapter 20 (Chapter 22 in the first English edition), the bearded revolutionary quotes Cowell as saying, in a report on the spinning industry, that "in England wages are, in effect, lower for the manufacturer than on the Continent, even though they may be higher for the worker." In this context, incidentally, it is interesting to note that the impulse for factory reform in England appears to have come mainly from Anglican Tories, while the largely Nonconformist factory-owners, fervent Abolitionists where America was concerned, seem to have been curiously reluctant to accept any suggestions for ameliorating the lot of their own workforce.

The Cambridge University lists describe Cowell simply as having been "in the Bank of England." Curiously enough, the Archive of the Bank has no record of precisely when he joined and when he left its employ. We do know, however, that in November 1834 he was appointed Agent at the Bank's Gloucester Branch, the previous Agent having proved unsatisfactory. To obtain this position, Cowell was required to provide security to the value of £10,000, a considerable sum for those days. So successful was he in this post, however, that in 1836 he was made responsible for the Bristol Branch as well. Then, in 1837, the Bank sent him to America.

At this time, a number of British firms (the so-called 'American Houses') which had been doing business with companies in the United States found themselves in serious financial trouble as a result of the failure of their American business partners to settle their debts. In order to avoid a crisis, the Bank agreed, in March 1837, to support these firms by taking over responsibility for the debts. Since the sums involved were large, the Directors of the Bank then decided to send a representative to America to collect the money due to them as backers and creditors of the British firms. The employee entrusted with this delicate task was Cowell, who was thereupon instructed to take the packet ship Independence, due "to sail from Liverpool on or about the 24th September to New York", in order "to recover from persons in the United States the amounts of unpaid Bills and Notes, drawn, endorsed or accepted by them."

Cowell had married, on 30 March of that year, Frances Maberly, daughter of a former MP for Abingdon; the marriage took place in the British Embassy in Paris. Leaving behind his pregnant wife (their son, John Jermyn Cowell, was born on 30 January 1838 in London), Cowell now embarked for New York and took up residence in Philadelphia; this city was chosen probably because it was the seat of the United States Bank of Pennsylvania (formerly the Bank of the United States), with which the Bank of England had been in contact for a year or two past. Here he stayed until the spring of 1839, joined, at some point, by his new family. The Bank of England Archive contains a long and interesting letter to the then Governor of the Bank, T A. Curtis, dated 19 February 1839, in which Cowell lists the sums of money successfully collected, complains of the "interference" and the "dilatory" attitude of various representatives of British companies on a similar mission to his own, states that he has achieved what he was sent out to do and, accordingly, asks to be allowed to return home in April because he wishes "to spend as much time as I can in Switzerland this year."

In the first paragraph of this letter, Cowell tells his correspondent: "I go to Washington tomorrow where I have not yet been and where I wish to pass a few days before the breaking up of Congress on the 4th proxo for the purpose of seeing some of (the) distinguished men of the States." Was one of these "distinguished men" John C. Calhoun? Certainly Cowell seems to have had a number of meetings with the Southern spokesman, whom he describes as an "eminent statesman" ("homme d'État éminent") and who had apparently informed him that the cotton-producing states had "taken the irrevocable decision to withdraw from the Union at the first favourable opportunity" ("pris irrévocablement la résolution de se retirer de l'Union à la première occasion favorable"). Cowell's stay in the United States and his position there as the representative of the Bank of England inevitably brought him into contact with many of the important men of the day, North and South, and gave him a chance to see at first hand the workings of American public life ("tous les rouages de la vie agricole, industrielle, commerciale et financière de l'Union"). In particular, his background in economics enabled him to understand what he described as "the most complete organisation of the protectionist system ever seen", which, he quickly decided, was "incompatible with the maintenance of the Union". He returned to England convinced, both from his own observations and from his conversations with Calhoun and others, that Southern secession was both inevitable and justified.

When the Civil War began, more than twenty years later, Cowell lost no time in expressing his views, which remained unchanged. "For four years", he tells us, "I ... tried, on various occasions, to explain to my fellow-countrymen the vital duty which England had, in 1861, been called upon to fulfil towards herself, towards her race in the South and towards the whole of humanity." As a part of his efforts on behalf of the South during the first years of the war, he published two pamphlets, Southern Secession: A Letter Addressed to Captain M. T Maury Confederate States Navy, on his Letter to Admiral Fitzroy (1862) and Lancashire's Wrongs and the Remedy (1863). England having failed to listen, however, he had no option, as "a devoted friend of the cause of the South" ("un ami dévoué de la cause du Sud"), but to turn to France. "My only aim," he explains, "is to contribute to bringing about between France and the South an agreement which will spare the latter any further suffering and put her in a position to establish her independence."

' La France et les États Confédérés' was apparently published simultaneously in Paris and London. Its Paris publisher was E. Dentu, of 17 & 19, Galerie d'Orléans, in the Palais Royal; in London, it was issued by Hardwicke, of 192, Piccadilly. Both firms had already published a number of pro-Confederate pamphlets by various authors. It seems unlikely however, that Cowell would have found many readers in England for his final literary effort on behalf of the Confederacy, since the pamphlet deliberately addresses, from the start, the interests of a patriotic French audience. He explains that if it had been a purely political question, he would have accepted England's lack of action as the decision of the majority of his countrymen. In this case, however, it is a question of principle, involving "the highest and most sacred interests of human nature" ("les intérêts les plus élevés et les plus sacrés de la nature humaine"), and these must take precedence over the "narrow and purely material interests" of his own country. It is therefore "the French people, and the populations (sic) of the Confederate States, and not the English public, that I am addressing today."

He starts with an appeal to French national and commercial pride. The whole world knows that France has a natural and, indeed, legitimate desire to be as powerful on sea as she is on land. Furthermore, her manufacturers long to be free of their dependence on England for their supply of cotton. Napoleon III now has in his hands the means to achieve both of these objectives and to establish French naval and commercial supremacy for the future to an extent which he can never have imagined possible. However, France must act fast. England might yet decide to move, and tomorrow the opportunity could be gone for ever.

Cowell then goes on to deal with the background to the war, emphasising, in passing, his qualifications, in terms of both his profession and his experience, for speaking as he does. Calhoun had shown him, he says, that the apparent power of the Yankees (Cowell uses this term throughout the pamphlet) depended entirely upon the South. First, the protective tariff of 1816 had given Yankee ship owners a monopoly to transport Southern products, principally cotton. In 1860, "the last year of the Union", the value of American exports, excluding gold from California, amounted to 1,750,000,000 francs (£70,000,000), in round figures; of this, cotton and other Southern crops accounted for 1,250,000,000 francs (£50,000,000), or more than 70%. Secondly, Northern industry relied entirely upon a system of protectionism; this had led to a form of capitalism which had eventually involved, directly or indirectly, the entire population of the North in an "artificial system of exploitation" of the country's resources. The South was "the victim whose blood fed this system." Secession, however, had ended at last Northern exploitation of the South. The Yankees thus now had a desperate need to regain both their sole right to transport Southern products and their monopoly of the Southern market. Otherwise, they were doomed to lose all political, commercial and naval power. As a result, in order to recover their privileges they were now "massacring men, women and children throughout the South" and showing "a degree of ferocity which surpasses the cruelties practiced in the Wars of Religion."

This leads Cowell into a brief sketch of the Yankee character. The narrow, fanatical puritanism of their ancestors, which was at least sincere, has now, he tells us, "degenerated into a mixture of hypocrisy, cruelty, falsity, total lack of self-respect, gross presumption, indifference to the opinions of others, absolute ignorance of good, savage delight in doing evil and total moral depravity." These, he says, are now revealed to the entire world as the characteristics of the Yankee, female as well as male, and he follows this up by listing a selection of contemporary villains conforming to the type of the "pureblooded Yankee", including Butler, Seward and Sheridan but also (rather unfortunately for his argument) the Russian-born Turchin.

The South, however, was a different matter entirely. The natural riches of "these privileged regions" had inevitably impelled the first colonists there to adopt the agricultural way of life, "which men have everywhere found the most agreeable and which has always contributed most powerfully to forming a national character of the noblest stamp." Cowell shared the view, common among the more upper-class sympathisers with the Confederacy in Britain (and not uncommon in the South itself, of course), that the Virginians, Carolinians and Georgians, at least, were of the stock of the old English country gentry. This race, "generous of old, noble alike in the men and the women it produced," had "in no way degenerated on Southern soil." Secure on their plantations, which provided all their needs, confident in their ability to supply the world's ever-increasing demand for their wonderful crop, the Southerners were not tempted to indulge in commercial or maritime ventures. They "never had nor ever could have the slightest interest in common with the Yankees"; their temporary alliance during the Revolution had ceased in 1783, and since then they had gained nothing but harm from the association. The South's one aim was to cultivate its cotton and other crops to meet European demand; the "natural role of the European nations" was thus to send their ships