Fearing for his country’s existence, Ingersoll chastises northern warmongers, their thoughtless voters, and reckless activists.

Charles Ingersoll's "Letter to a Friend in a Slave State," Part One

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In a previous series, we introduced readers to Charles Jared Ingersoll, a Pennsylvania lawyer and some‐​time Congressman whose reflections on American life deserve much more attention than they have commanded. Ingersoll was a Jeffersonian Democratic‐​Republican, but his preference for small, sensible government by consent did not neatly map onto either the Jacksonian or Lincolnian nationalisms of his day. He was a nationalist in that he believed the Union was a consolidated creation of the whole American people; but he sharply departed from those who thought militancy, intimidation, and conquest could subdue a free people. During the Civil War, Ingersoll was a Unionist, but hardly your typical sort. Throughout his last major work, the “Letter to a Friend in a Slave State,” Ingersoll illustrates the complicated ideological and practical calculus Americans employed during the war years quite unlike most other observers. Back and forth, he pivots from advocating the Unionist cause to chastising its adherents for their feckless methods. If peaceful, prosperous reunion was the goal, it could only be accomplished through true self‐​government and good will.

Ingersoll wrote his letter “to explain…some of the views of the persons in this State [Pennsylvania] who regard conciliation as our only available resort, and look upon the extreme course of the Government as ruin.” He classed northerners together under three headings: 1) “The original abolitionists” who recklessly pursued their obsession regardless of the consequences; 2) “The political abolitionists” who rode the radicals’ coattails to power that they might more easily plunder the Treasury; and 3) The Whiggery’s old remnants who voted for Lincoln out of lingering hatred for Democrats. His familiarity with dirty northern politics perhaps inspired one of his most interesting speculations: “There is no identity for Pennsylvania or any other State, when the Union is broken up.” Unlike the Europeans, whose identities have been handed down over the centuries and shaped by constant warfare, the American’s sense of self emerged out of Revolutionary wholecloth. There really was no sense of national identity in Americans’ thinking until the Revolutionary period, and in Ingersoll’s estimation, whatever sense did emerge was essential to keep the states from preying on one another. Without the Revolutionary, overarching sense of Americanness, the people of the states would fight as incessantly as the people of nascent “France.” By cutting their ties to the Union, southern Democrats abandoned their northern, anti‐​Lincoln counterparts. In a ridiculous attempt to prevent war by going to war, the Republicans jeopardized their country’s very existence.

By a Citizen of Pennsylvania


These pages were meant to be published without the writer’s name, but for reasons not necessary to trouble the reader with, it has been thought proper to add it. – Charles Ingersoll, Philadelphia, March 24, 1862


My dear –

Everybody recollects the turn given to the idea that the fence of the law cannot be made perfect, when the Englishman said he never saw an Act of Parliament he could not drive his coach through; now signalized, alas! but a thousand years too soon, in the illustrious instance of the Constitution of the United States. Any one or more of the States which drove into this great work may drive out again by the Southern road, and we are taught by lessons, both Legislative and Executive, that as long as the States which remain to us are united, the Constitution is unwounded, though the Northern chariot and scythes be driven through every clause of it. What the South accomplishes at a blow, we do piecemeal. Eight millions of people hold that, if a State had called a convention and asked of the Federal Government a boon, which was refused, or being refused, nothing whatsoever, had expressed a preference to live alone, they might make their act of constitutional secession, and bow themselves out of the Union. Nor would it be possible to exaggerate the heresies of those that are leading the fortunes of the other eighteen millions, who assail, in his liberty and property, the plainest rights of the citizen; who mean to consolidate the Government, if they can, and whose schemes for the consolidation of large parts of it, are already before Congress. These are the extremes of thought and action that accompany national calamity.

In any other part of the globe the next act would be anarchy, the edifice would come down and crush its inhabitants under the ruins of centuries; but our house was built yesterday, with our own hands, and we can hold it up if we will. We must not deceive ourselves; we must accept, what is upon us, as revolution. If we conquer the South and take possession of their vanquished country, it is revolution; to make peace and separate from them, for which there is no power in the Constitution, would be revolution, and that revolution is the name that applies to our existing condition, every man’s senses assure him.

We are in the midst of civil war, to North and South alike unexpectedly; for when was civil war deliberated on? The North did not believe the South would leave them; the South did not believe the North would fight to retain them; the South armed and struck the blow, and now the sword is drawn on both sides, and cannot be sheathed without conquest or a compromise. We have to conquer the South or settle with them; and their unconditional conquest seems the policy of those that rule us.

The purpose of this letter is to explain to you some of the views of the persons in this State who regard conciliation as our only available resort, and look upon the extreme course of the Government as ruin.

In such a crisis, the most perilous in which a nation can stand, of what materials is composed the party in possession of the Government, and which controls our destinies? They may be classed under three heads. The original abolitionists who engage themselves, without disguise or denial, in the work for which they [were] ordained, and which they have from the beginning, when they were but a speck on the remote horizon, steadily pursued, that of destroying the Constitution and Union; the political abolitionists, or those who, for the sake of power and access to the treasury, have adopted their principles, and act with them; and last, the body of the Republicans, who voted for Mr. Lincoln as the anti‐​Democrat candidate, and who, sincerely attached to both the Constitution and the Union, yet stand helplessly by, and allow the stakes of national existence to be played by the abolitionists.

If the President and his advisers were reliable men, though the philosophy of freedom teaches to distrust power, every citizen with the love of country in his breast, would be disposed, in a great emergency, to bestow on them a liberal confidence; but when his want of force and their want of virtue are the vice of our position, instead of the call not to embarrass the Government, which we hear from so many mouths when a measure of the administration is challenged, a watchful jealousy is the duty of all.

Nothing but a restoration of the Union can save us. Peace and a separation cannot be agreed on with the South; the President and Senate having no power to make a treaty by which the Union is divided. It would have the effect of restoring the States, upon the instant, to the condition of independent sovereignty, in which they stood before they came under the Constitution of 1789. And the attempt which you may expect to see, some day, made by Mr. Lincoln’s government, to give effect to the secession of at least part of the South, by letting them go, would be futile. The President and Senate may enter into treaties with foreign nations, but they cannot convert into foreign nations, States of the Union. What then is to become of us?

Mr. Seward has well said that we are not to break at what he calls a “line of latitude;” meaning probably that the present line, between the two hostile sections of the country, or any other line, could never be a permanent demarcation of boundaries. When he stated his proposition, he struck a chord which vibrates to every heart, for the question directly follows, if we cannot divide by this line, and if the States cannot live isolated in their separate sovereignties, and it is plain they could not, what line is there to divide by; and if, which is equally plain, there is none, where shall we be, and where find habitation for our liberties, when the Union is broken up? When we came together in 1790, we had never been separated; we had not quarreled; yet the Union was effected with much difficulty, and not at the first intention; though having all the advantages of the auspices of Washington and the other men of that day.

If, by some process of disintegration, through political mishap, the territory of any people, for example, France – a very compact country, which has added to its square miles from century to century – could be divided by a “line of latitude” or separated into the many parts which originally composed it, so that those, which once were independent sovereignties, might live alone, and those which were wrested from Germany, Spain, and England, renew their relations with them, it is plain that these disjointed members, if they did not come together again as France, would have altogether new combinations to form. Now in what particular would our condition, in case of final disunion, whether divided into two parts or many, be better than theirs?

We have existence as an united country, by compact, a fairer and better than any other that could be devised, and which was for seventy‐​one years respected. If it be broken, not to be renewed, our condition is just as much worse than would be that of France, as the cohesion of the provinces of a country, accustomed to highly centralized rule, is greater than that of a system of States in a union or confederacy. Where then, the force of arms and habit that united France, the force of compact that united us, being broken, would be found the new combinations that must settle their destinies? The answer is, in war! War gave to France, in about a thousand years of fighting and negotiating, their territory as we see it to‐​day. This process must be with them begun, for the second time, and with us, for the first. Every cause of strife, that makes war so frequent between the different powers of the earth, that it may be said to be always imminent, would be reason enough for hostilities among us; and there would be elemental questions to settle besides.

In Europe their map is made. Each country has its identity, any two or more of them may engage in conflict; but it would not be allowed to affect a question which has been settled for them, for centuries, and must not be touched, not only because it has long since been decided, but because it is in the interest of other nations, of that part of the world, for the sake of the general peace to insist upon, and if need be, enforce it. To alter the map of Europe by the annexation of a part of Savoy to the French Empire, though by treaty between the nations concerned, backed with the consent of the population affected, as expressed by their votes at the poll, startled the Continent.

But what map have we, when there is no longer the United States of America? There is no identity for Pennsylvania or any other State, when the Union is broken up. They are not nations, founded, fixed and established, but things of yesterday, whose relations with themselves and with surrounding territory, were based upon, and adjusted to the Union; which being gone, there is no identity left to be respected, and if there were, no power to enforce it. War, therefore, would be with us a necessity of our situation, and not as with other countries, an occasional fact, depending on accident, interest, or passion. It would be our normal condition until we came to a settlement; and that could only be when we had mastered one another. Whoever will look at our present map will perceive that the line that the states are divided, for the most part, by surveyors’ lines. Pennsylvania, which bounds on six states, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey, is separated from five of them by the surveyor, and from one only by a natural boundary, so that, perchance, the farmer in plowing his field, does not know whether he is plowing in Pennsylvania or Virginia. When we had the Union, this was cement to it; but make us no longer one, and it becomes the source of bitter and incessant hostilities.

We must be broken and shaped into nations; the process will be long, and nobody can anticipate its results. The strong will establish themselves behind rivers, chains of mountains, and lines of fortresses, and encroaching on the weak, annex, absorb, and divide them into provinces, or rule and scourge them as colonies. States will recede or advance – some will become great nations, others will disappear, and new ones will arise, as Oland has left the family of nations, and Holland and Prussia have come into it; as France and Russia have advanced, and Austria and Sweden receded. South Carolina, with her swamps and rice fields, will fall a prey to the more vigorous regions of the upper country of Georgia and Tennessee. Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky, which, on their fertile soils could maintain four hundred souls to the square mile, will be strong; New England, which could not support a third of that number, will be weak; and so must be immense tracts of country in the South which are better adapted to the mosquito and crocodile than to the habitation of man. Physical force, measured by population, and the number of men they can bring into the field, will settle all mooted points, and neither South Carolina nor Massachusetts, which will have had so much hand in doing away with the old form of abitrament, would find reason to congratulate themselves on the new.

In the midst of these discords, and it would be long before the questions dividing the country were sufficiently settled to give hostilities any other character than that of civil war, liberty would be engulphed. We see now, in the first stage of our disturbances, the proneness of power to usurpation and violence; we witness audacities which, a year ago, would have been pronounced impossible. Already the liberties of the citizen are a thing not jealously regarded; and we are told that the Government must be sustained today, and the Constitution righted to‐​morrow. But for this fatal mistake of our rights, and for the duty we owe our country, and the yet more flagrant error that it is not in the power of events to do us permanent political injury, under the influence of which we made our first misstep, and by which we seem to this day to be infatuated, we would not be where we are.

That this is not only an unexaggerated, but the only view to be taken of our future, in the event of failure to restore the Union, and dividing at a “line of latitude,” or in any other manner, we learn by lessons taught in the history of the world, on too many of its pages, to be doubted either by the exalted, like Mr. Seward, or the more humble, like you and me. We might swear to treaties and enter into well‐​schemed divisions of the country; and they might last a few feverish years, but the sword must make our map at last.

A word now – the question for the country being war or compromise – upon the war which we are at this time waging, and the probabilities, as they strike people generally, of its success as a war of conquest. Let us suppose to ourselves all the advantages of an immense force. Let us grant we can keep it up to 700,000 men, and that is out of the question, for no free people will pay heavy taxes, which in the much burdened countries are imposed by one class, and paid by another, and not imposed by the people on themselves. Let us also suppose, which is equally out of the question, that for any length of time we can safely tempt authority with the control of such a force.

You and I would not venture to criticize campaigns, but there are things belonging to them, as plain to the common soldier as to the commander‐​in‐​chief. If we had declared war with England, or taken the chances of one, rather than pass under the Candine forks and surrender Mason and Slidell, the people might have praised the firmness of their rulers; but if pursuing the bold train of his diplomatic thinking, when just before, Mr. Seward expressed himself to his representatives abroad, as ready to fight all Europe together, should they cross his path, he had gone to war, not to save our honor, but with the object of conquering and keeping the British islands, we should, any of us, have been able to give good reasons against so extreme an undertaking.

We must assume that the South will resist with all their might, and that our progress in their territory is to be effected by a force of arms. Not only has there been no evidence, but the contrary, by many Northern witnesses, of a desire to see a Northern army among them; and whatever the Union feeling in the South, if kindly dealt with, it is against all reason and probability that a spirited and free people should invite to their conquest a government, however legitimate, which their immediate State, by organized action, and a majority of their people, has agreed to throw off. It is in the nature of men, especially freemen, to be regulated by the will of the majority, a human instinct on which republican government is founded, which carried us through the Revolution of ’76, when a minority submitted their opinions, and which we see operate in the daily circumstances of life, where the leading few commonly infuse their ideas into and control the action of the many. We also assume that the troops of either side fight equally well, with the single difference that the South has the advantage of us in contending in defence of their homes. As to the claim of superior skill on the part of Southern generals, it seems to be not only against probabilities, but disproved by facts. We further assume that we fight, not on our part prodigiously superior numbers, for, though we are much the more numerous population, and able to pay more soldiers, yet, having to invade a widely extended territory, there is no reason why they should not be as strong as we are, at the point of conflict.

If then the forces are of nearly equal numbers, and equally well led, how ought we to count the chances, the question being the conquest of the Southern States? In Missouri, Kentucky, and other states, where, divided in opinion, they resist the secession movement, Northern armies find a country in which, no more being necessary than to give military aid to the well‐​affected part of the population, conquest is not in question: but the vast region comprising Western Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Eastern Virginia, have to be brought to submission by the sword. I do not mean, by the sword, the sort of ruin like that of the iron pot coming against the earthen one – which must ensue to them at last, as co‐​terminous neighbors of a hostile people, stouter, stronger, richer and more numerous than themselves – but military subjugation. To accomplish this, to invade, conquer, and occupy, it is indispensable that our military movements have the positiveness and certainty of those of trained armies, led by experienced officers, and supported by a vigorous government, supplying them with constant reinforcements.