Proudhon on “the American question”

[from a letter to Gustave Chaudey, September 1, 1862.]

On the American question, I can only tell you that my opinion changes every day; I have no faith in the philanthropy of the North; I do not accept that the federal Constitution prevents the separation; on both these connections, the English public is entirely turned around. Then there is the fact that the armies of the North experience failure upon failure; England, Belgium and France, devoured by pauperism, are clamoring for cotton; and if the imperial government, joining with a certain felicity the two questions of Mexico and the Confederates, reestablished relations between Europe and New Orleans, would you still attack from that side? More than ever, I tell you: Watch out! Conqueror of Garibaldi in Italy, Napoleon III would have the voice of the clergy behind him once again; victor in Mexico and the United States, he would have the factories and the bank; all these undertakings, first judged so unfortunate, would appear glorious; and you know that France willingly pays for glory.

[from War and Peace, Vol. 1]

American Question. — The States of the North and the States of the South, long divided on the question of slavery, finish by separating. In a State strongly constituted, surrounded by powers ready to profit from its weakening, such a separation would be very perilous; it would not be supported: there would be war. In America, thanks to the security which surrounds the territory, it is possible for things to occur otherwise. It is Israel which would separate from Judah: the Eternal would make known which is the people after his own heart. But it is also possible that they would fight: in this case, two questions are to be dealt with. On the one hand, we ask if the Southerners have the right to secede, if those in the North have the right bring them back and settle the question de slavery by force; on the other, what must we think of slavery in itself, setting aside the political question.

First, is there a case for war? To this first question I would respond as I have previously with regard to religious wars: The battle, whatever its outcome, will prove absolutely nothing for or against the very fact of slavery. The right of war knows nothing of civil right or the right of peoples. This what makes war. We could not contest, on the one hand, that a puritan majority had the right, within the nation that it represents, a practice that offends its religious and humanitarian feelings; on the other hand, that the minority, considering things from an entirely different point of view, and that moreover is not offered either indemnities nor laborers to replace its slaves, also has the right to combat the inappropriateness of the emancipation and to defend its interests. I will say right away what this minority can invoke for that defense. The war, brought by the incompatibility of principles, and rendered inevitable by the danger or insult of a schism, will thus be legitimate, legal on both sides; and its decision, insofar as it would aim to uphold the idea of the larger part of the country, would be fair. It remains then to examine in itself that question of slavery, that must be resolved sooner or later, either by the right of force, or by still other considerations than force.

On this point, although I reject slavery as much as anyone in the world, I am still far from blaming completely what we in Europe are accustomed to do with regard to the exploiters of the Southern states. It is not with biblical citations and sentimental novels that such a question of moral practice, humanitary/humanitarian economy and general civilization can be judges. Humanity is worthy of respect in all its races, I know; justice, in my view, has no other foundation than this respect. That is why, according to the Gospel, all the nations have been called to salvation, or as we positive philosophers say, called to civilization, to liberty. Je profess that universal calling of the peoples and races to liberty as the first article of the right of peoples. But whoever desires the ends must also desire the mean; and then, to each thing its season, tempus laborandi, et tempus liberandi, as it says in Ecclesiastes. Now, if the Americans of the South can be justly suspected of avarice, are those of the North sheltered from the reproach of imprudence, or even that of self-righteousness [pharisaism]?

We think about the blacks as if they were our peers, as the Roman or Greek could have thought of the Gaul or Jew, their equal as a human being, who had become, though the fortunes of war, their slave. But a fact which must strike all minds, and which it is impossible for any serious friend of humanity not to take into account seriously, is the inequality which exists among the human races, and which makes the problem of social and political equilibrium so difficult. It is not only by the beauty of their features and the elegance of their figure that the Caucasians are distinguished from the other; it is also by the superiority of their physical, intellectual and moral strength/force. And that superiority of nature is multiplied tenfold by the state of society, so that no race stands before us. A few English regiments contain and govern one hundred and twenty million Indians, and we have just seen that a small army of Europeans was sufficient to conquer China. What comparison shall we make between the Anglo-Saxons and the Redskins, who let themselves die rather than be civilized, or the negro imported from Sudan? The races of the New World disappear before the progress of the whites: the massacres of the Spanish have been less deadly to them than contact with more civilized races. Will we forget, finally, that, since abolition of the feudal system, in our industrialist society liberty is, for individuals weak in body and mind, whose families do not assure them some income, something worse than slavery—the proletariat? Force requires it to be so, as long as it remains the dominant law of society; and I say that the right which still dominates us today, is not the right of labor, which is still not recognized, nor the right of intelligence, source of so many deceptions, it is still, whatever we say, the pure right of force.

Certainly, I have no intention of renouncing here my own thesis and combating precisely what I intend to rehabilitate, when I stand, in support of the blacks, against the hypocritical thought that, under pretext of emancipating them, tends to do nothing less than cast them under the pure regime of force, and to make of them a proletariat a hundred times more abject and revolting than that of our capitals. It is, on the contrary, because I want to restore to honor this right, misunderstood for so long, of force, that I protest, with regard to slavery, against the unintelligent, odious application that will be made of it. Well! The worker of the English race, la race forte par excellence, dies of hunger in the streets of London; what will be the fate of the negro, one day, in the streets of Washington and Baltimore?

The abolition of slavery is a question that springs from the right of peoples, let us say rather, from the right of the races, since here we must make the distinction marked by these two terms; it arises then primitively from the right of force, from which is derived, as we have seen, all international relations, all the formations of States, incorporations, centralizations and federations.

But, in the case of which it is a question, the right of force, applicable in its strictness, in so far as it is solely a question of States, can no longer be followed, and why? Because it tends to the extermination of individuals, and because, as it has been explained in the definition of the right of peoples, if the sacrifice of a State can be required, in the name of the right of force and in the interest of the general civilization, the human person remains sacred, and that all that we have to do ourselves, as a superior race, with regard to the inferior ones, is to raise them up to our level, that is to attempt to improve, fortify, instruct and ennoble them.

Who are the true enemies of the blacks? Those who, knowingly or unknowingly, it does not matter, seriously consider making them perish in the desolation of the proletariat. Who are, on the contrary, the true negrophiles? Those who, holding them in servitude, exploiting them, it is true, insure their subsistence, improve them insensibly by labor, and multiply them by marriage. [1]

What there is to do, then, is not a pure and simple emancipation of the slave: that would almost amount to sending him to the pillory [or Gehenna, depending on how you read the figurative language]. It is, by an adroit intervention of the State, by a serious responsibility imposed on the master, to make of that master an educator, a tutor, a patron for the slave, instead of a consumer of the slave that he had made by the right of the strong, property.

Every race is called to labor. If there was one which could not or would not work, it would be condemned by that alone, and, given over to poverty, it would soon disappear. Sooner or later the Europeans will establish themselves in the middle of the Sudan, as they have established themselves in the heart of the two Americas; so it is necessary that the negroes work. Let them work from now on: it is our right to compel them to do it. In that regard I would have preferred, I admit, that instead of abolishing the slave trade, it had been placed under the inspection of the governments.

Every race must improve, reform and instruct itself. Let the law that protects the weak as well as the strong watch over the workers of the inferior races employed by agriculture and industry, as it does its own proletarians. That is the true solution of the problem of slavery…


  1. Since the split began between the North and South in America, with regard to slavery, incitements to revolt and the murder of masters do not cease to divide the states of the North from England itself. The English ministry supports them; certain French liberals repeat them. These provocations are contrary to the right of peoples. It is not the love of the negro that inspires them: they are instead the effects of a scheme which, not daring, like the Spanish of the sixteenth century, to engage in massacre, tends to exterminate the inferior races by dispossession, sickness and poverty.
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.