“Opposition to the British empire, we repeat, is the sentiment of the whole world… The British government would unparadise the world to perpetuate its power.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In the early 1840s, the British Empire steadily creeped its way around the globe, increasing its reach in virtually all corners of the earth. Though the British lost many American colonies in 1783, they endured a generation of cataclysmic battle with the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic regimes, emerging in 1815 as the foremost global power. Britain was the world’s first military, industrial, and cultural power, rivaled only by defeated and declining France and the young, but promising United States. The Empire felt the Americans’ troublesome influence most keenly during the Napoleonic Wars and Jacksonian era, when American power entrenched itself across the western continent. From 1837–1839, American filibusters and Canadian republican revolutionaries unsuccessfully contested imperial rule in Canada, pushing the British to reconsider governance in the settler colonies. The 1839 Durham Report on the Canadian rebellions recommended internal self‐government in areas directly settled by Englishmen, providing the basis for the later Dominion and Commonwealth systems.
This slow pace toward a version of republicanism hardly appeared benevolent to American contemporaries. Radical Democrats like New York’s Levi Slamm looked on in horror as Queen Victoria added jewels to her crown. To Slamm and his fellow “Young American” radicals, the British Empire constituted a corporate‐aristocratic elite ruling over an absolutely titanic portion of the planet and the population. It was medieval feudalism writ large: the all‐powerful State farming out titles, commissions, and corporate charters without regard to any natural laws or preexisting socio‐political orders. In the following articles, Slamm’s New York Daily Plebeian attacks the British Empire as the greatest force of piratical destroyers that has ever existed and an institution too powerful for individuals around the world to ignore. In the first piece, Slamm identifies the Empire as a violent, destructive evil, as evidenced in the Opium Wars with China. The second article (a letter‐to‐the‐editor) turns to examine the effects of imperial land and trade regulations in Ireland, including the mass starvation steadily driving the Irish diaspora. Finally, Slamm considers the recent proceedings of an Ohio “Oregon Committee” meeting, and the Anglophobic sentiments proliferating throughout the American West.
According to the most extreme anti‐British voices, only the unceasing spread of American republicanism could counter the unceasing spread of British imperialism. The great tragedy for this chapter of liberal history, of course, remains that the most radical of liberals were so often scared from their most significant first principles. In fearful and prideful response to Victoria’s empire, Americans haphazardly and incrementally organized and justified their own.
The news from Great Britain, received by the Great Western, has somewhat astonished us, inasmuch as we expected to learn that the famishing multitude who were a short time ago struggling to better their condition, had made some progress in the cause; but it would appear that “agitation” is not the means whereby the suffering population of the British empire hope to obtain the enjoyment of their rights. It is very strange that a people on the verge of starvation, “with every thing to gain and nothing to lose” except their lives, the which they would cheerfully risk in defence of their country, will not make an effort for their own freedom; and it is a great pity that while they call themselves men, they will allow the rest of the world to consider them as no better than creatures well trained to bear their masters burdens. Yet so it is; and it would seem that they have yet to learn that,
New York Daily Plebeian
“Oppression vs. Freedom” (21 September 1842)
By Levi D. Slamm
“Who would be free himself must strike the blow.”
There are many men in this country who desire that the condition of the people of Great Britain should be represented, and their voice regarded by the government; and there is no doubt that such persons would be glad to hear that those people had obtained their liberty, though it might be by means of sword and gun, “e’en at the cannon’s mouth!” But at the same time, if they were to hear, beforehand, that such means were to be used for the attainment of their object, no doubt they would express their dissent to such a measure, on the ground that a vast loss of life and destruction of property must inevitably ensue. Such people seem to look at things as they are, and not as they should be; and while they would shudder to hear of the destruction of the royal palace, the retreat of Queen Victoria, and her darling Albert to Hanover, the abolition of titles and hereditary pensions, together with all singular the clap‐traps, and other machinery of the present government of Great Britain, they could read with the utmost complacency the news by the last steamship, wherein it might be stated that the British troops made a glorious descent on Quang Whang, in China, which resulted in the complete destruction of the town, and the retreat of some thousands of helpless women and children into the water, or the wilderness, or elsewhere, “to escape the just indignation of her Majesty’s forces.”
Thus the world wags. Far‐off calamities are read of, and wondered at for a moment, and then forgotten; her majesty’s troops may travel hither and thither, bearing destruction and desolation in their path, and it is all right; nothing is said against it, though they may proceed, as in the China war, against people who never injured them, and who so far from being aggressors, are too weak and timid to defend themselves against the attack of one‐tenth their numbers; but let a people rise up against oppression, declare their hostility to monarchical government, and maintain their declaration by force of arms, and straightway a cry is raised against them, and they are denounced as thieves and robbers, state‐prison convicts and sans culottes whose chief object is plunder, and whose desert is death, summarily without jury or benefit of clergy. Much would be said about the loss of human life, and the great destruction of property which must ensue, if such “wicked and wayward men,” were suffered to go on in their mad career, the sympathies of men in the same condition of life, would be enlisted in behalf of their oppressors, the standing army would be arrayed against the “sons of liberty,” and even ministers of the gospel, whose great Head and Leader, taught His hearers, the people, to “call no man master,” would be hired to preach against them and persuade them that “whosoever resisteth the powers that be receiveth unto himself damnation.” In short, all the power that men can exert, fairly or unfairly, justly or unjustly, is brought to bear against a people struggling for their rights. Under such disadvantages do the people of Great Britain labor, and all men of feeling pity them. Under such disadvantages do the people of RHODE ISLAND labor, but who pities them? Will the Federalists answer?
“Ireland and her Wrongs” (12 June 1843)
“Never was a people on the face of the globe so cruelly treated as the Irish.”–O’Connell.
Let us look a moment at the clamor raised by some of the New York press, at the course pursued by the Plebeian, in reference to the subject of Repeal, and the foundation upon which it is based.
I lay it down in the first place as an admitted principle in modern civilized government, that when the grievances of a people become intolerable, and their natural inalienable rights are trampled upon by their rulers, they are justified in rising to abate those wrongs; has this been the case with Ireland? I appeal to the history of that country, from the commencement of the English dominion over her, in 1172 to the present time, in answer. It commenced in blood, was continued in blood and rapine, up to 1800, when the last spark of independence and separate government was extinguished by the fraudulent abolition of her national legislature, the Irish Parliament…Let all who doubt read Irish history…Irish citizens, who may happen to be resident in this country, are equally justified in aiding their brethren at home; for the British law itself, holds that a native born Englishman, Scotchman or Irishman, cannot by any act of his expatriate himself and cease to be a Briton, by attaching himself to any other government or country. Now as to the question whether natives of the United States have the same right to help a suffering people as they themselves have: In the aid extended to the Greeks and Poles, in their last struggle, England herself offers a striking authority in point. France also in the assistance furnished us during the Revolution; although one government has not the right to interfere with the mere municipal or civil policy of another, yet when a people are oppressed and deprived of their natural rights, and that people belong to a nation who were basely and cruelly conquered, whose consent to a union was never fairly obtained; but who were beaten down by overwhelming force, crushed and kept in subjection by sheer physical power, until they were exhausted; to say that the people of another government, nay the government itself, has not the right to sympathize, to assist them, is contrary to all humanity–to all history–for history is replete with instances of governments interfering to prevent one and another from perpetrating a wrong upon a weaker. The British government has recently taken violent possession of the Sandwich Islands, and these same papers are loud in their calls upon the government of the United States to interfere.
But the New York American gravely says–As well might the British government have interfered in the disputes between our separate States as the people of this country with the Irish question. By no means–there is no State in the Union but that came in voluntarily; nor is there a State in this Union where the natural and fair rights of the people are wrongfully infringed so as to afford such States any grounds to cast off the authority of the general government. This subject of government is a great bugbear; what is government? It is composed of a few men, or one woman, if you please, who is placed over the destiny of millions for their welfare. To say say [sic] that we must pay a blind reverence to that accidental power and disregard the cries of the many, our own flesh and blood, for whose happiness that government was alone instituted, in contrary to the dignity of human nature, and the precepts of the Christian religion. The Irish people do not ask (although we think they might) an actual dismemberment of the kingdom, but the restitution of their native parliament; this we enjoyed when we were colonies, and this the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada now enjoy under the British government.
“Opposition to the British Empire” (23 June 1843)
By Levi D. Slamm
In the address of the Oregon Committee of Ohio to the Eastern States…[it] says “if anything distinguishes the Western pioneer, it is a lively jealousy of the growing power, and a deep, instinctive, unalterable, and unmitigated hatred of Great Britain.” What is remarkable, this sentiment was promulged at a popular convention, attended by at least 20,000 citizens of New York, at about the same time the address of the people of the Far West was published upon a question which seems to occupy the attention of our whole Western population, and yet we are told by the Federal press that it is a misrepresentation of the popular feeling. He must be blind who does not know that opposition to the British empire is not alone the prevalent idea of our people, but that it is the prevalent idea of the world. The system of ethics which prevails and which has for years marked the conduct of the British government in all its foreign relations has created this universal feeling of hatred and contempt. England, in her domestic policy, it is said, is governed by her Constitution. And where can that Constitution be found? What Englishman has ever read it? It may be collected from Blackstone’s Commentaries on English laws, and from innumerable books, report and decisions. The principles collected from them, and they are varied in hue and antagonist in doctrine, form its fences of legislation! Thus are principles or doctrines applied, which for the time being, accord with or promote the views of the dominant party with no regard to any rule of truth, justice or right. Internationally the British government has pursued the same line of conduct. Its grand object has been to increase its POWER. The restraints of moral honesty are never permitted to operate on British policy, when they will impede the accomplishment of this primary and momentous purpose. Professions of peace and good will are indeed, on some occasions used, but their hollowness is now so easily distinguished, that they only contribute, among thinking men, to increase the detestation which they were intended to extenuate.
Opposition to British empire, we repeat, is the sentiment of the whole world. That government has earned the reputation of the Great Universal Robber, and what other feeling can pervade? Her history has been one of fraud and treachery. Neutralities have been instituted to prevent the interruption of neutral commerce with her consent, and she has been the first and most violent in destroying them. She has time and again broken the law of nations by insulting their ambassadors. She has, while professing herself the friend of liberty, entered into alliances with and subsidized the plunderers and oppressors of unhappy but glorious Poland. She has, while pluming herself on her love of order and religion, and while rolling her eyes in holy horror at the cruelty of the nation with whom she was at war, suffered the Indies to be pillaged, and its inoffensive inhabitants slaughtered by her subjects. She has, while professing a religious abhorrence of the enslavement of the Africans, enslaved with iron shackles, millions of Asiatics. In our own revolution, she did encourage the Indians to tomahawk our own people, and she did hire mercenaries of European princes to do the work of death in a contest in which they had no immediate concern. She turned counterfeiter by forging assignats, during the French revolution, and by her wily machinations and intrigues, overclouded the morning which rose so beautifully in the political horizon of France. The budding hopes of those who meditated in that most popular contest, the establishment of Republican and the demolition of absolute rule, were blasted by the murderous policy of Britain, and a movement, originating in the purest and most elevated designs, brought to a sanguinary and most untoward conclusion. Look too, at the means she used to consummate the Union of Ireland–bold and forced bribery, open and profligate corruption, the intimidating influence of ninety thousand armed mercenaries. These were the means resorted to, and which induced the Irish Parliament, by a meagre majority, to vote itself out of being, and to merge itself into that of Great Britain. We need say nothing of her recent acts of bloodshed and treachery–the slaughter and pillage of the Chinese and Hindoos, and her theft of the Sandwich Islands. These incidents in her history, are fresh in the public mind. The British government would unparadise the world to perpetuate its power, and the feeling of universal opposition which is developed, is but the consequence of its treacherous conduct.