The American Enemy
What surprised the French was the conflict's violence and durability more than the secession itself. Most observers considered the latter logical and in keeping with the terms of America's original covenant. Supporters of the South insisted that the right to secede that the Confederates had made use of was inherent in the United States' Constitution. Detractors avoided legal grounds as unfavorable and attempted to steer the debate into the realm of abolitionist principles. It was a waste of their energy, though, because the Souths supporters professed to be every bit as abolitionist as they were.
This was perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the French attitude toward the Civil War: a majority sympathetic to the South coexisted with a massive condemnation of slavery. It was a contradiction that would have to be skirted, at least rhetorically, by reformulating the problem. In order to reconcile pro-South sentiment and abolitionism, wasn't the best idea deciding that slavery was not really the main reason for the war? So in France, with the help of pro-South propaganda, which was very attentive to this point, the war was carefully separated from the slavery question, and slavery was presented as a mere pretext for the North's aggression.
If the interventionist hypothesis scared off many Frenchmen, the majority undeniably felt sympathy for the South, particularly at the top of the social ladder. It was the 'elite' who were, with a few intellectual exceptions, the most pro-South. Slidell, the Confederate commissioner in Paris, was pleased to inform his minister, Benjamin, that 'the sentiment of the intelligent classes is nearly unanimous in our favor.' This sympathy was deepened by the reality of economic interests and commercial ties; it was encouraged by zealous Catholic circles, bolstered by the inveterate myth of shared roots (it was believed and often repeated that half of the Souths inhabitants had French blood), and relayed by regional and Parisian papers largely won over to the Confederate cause—the Southern propaganda agent Hotze estimated that three-quarters of the Parisian newspapers were favorable to his government and only counted two, all in all, that were openly hostile.
But, as contradictory as it may seem, opposition to slavery was still more unanimous, a fact that Southern diplomats and agents were the first to recognize, marvel at, and worry about. De Leon, in his confidential dispatches, saw this as an enormous handicap to his work. He considered the problem even more serious than in Great Britain, though abolitionist groups were strong and effective there. 'Almost incredible as it may appear,' De Leon wrote to the same Benjamin, 'the Slavery Question is more of a stumbling-block to our recognition in France than in England, for it is really and truly a matter of sentiment with the French people, who ever have been more swayed by such consideration than their cooler and more calculating neighbors on the other side of the channel.' The French, De Leon insisted in the same dispatch, had a 'sentimental repugnance' toward slavery.
Whether this disposition was 'sentimental' or not, the observation seems accurate. In France, the Souths staunchest supporters unequivocally diverged with Confederate doctrine on the legitimacy of their 'peculiar institution'—a euphemism the Southerners held dear, and that fell on deaf ears in France. Nothing seemed able to shake a French conviction that was a mix of Enlightenment and Christian humanism and was dominated by the certainty that slavery was not only morally unjustifiable but historically outdated.
But it was precisely the widely held belief that slavery was incompatible with the modern world that would give the South its best chance with the French. Slavery was more than morally objectionable, it was historically doomed; that much was clear for all to see. Even the Southerners knew it. There was no way for them to ignore it. The French press repeated it over and over: in good faith, you could not suspect the South of wanting to eternally prolong a clearly outdated institution. How much of this was naivete on the part of the Souths French apologists? How much was duplicity? It does not matter. While Hotze, who replaced De Leon in France, dreamed of rallying to the Confederate flag men of science with 'correct views of the place assigned by providence to different branches of the human family,' the pro-South French press found better answers to its readers' hopelessly 'sentimental' 'repugnance' for slavery.
Le Constitutionnel gave an example of this type of pro-South justification that is all the more remarkable because the newspaper had at first strongly favored the North. In May 1861, negotiating a tricky turn, it affirmed as self-evident—'we know only too well'—that the immediate goal of this 'war of no ideas' was not 'to exterminate slavery.' Repeating a motif that was popular in the pro-South press, the paper added that 'the Negroes do not have many friends among those who will defend Washington,' which was being threatened by Confederate troops at the time. The press as a whole struck the same chord. 'And above all it was insisted that slavery counted for nothing in the causes of the struggle.' One year later the same Constitutionnel, decidedly cured of its former naivete, recognized 'the truth' in 'these recent words from Mr. Gladstone: the North is fighting for supremacy, the South is fighting for its independence.' And then it moralized on the Souths behalf: 'it is a fact often overlooked, moreover, that more than six million souls would be subjugated,' on the pretext of liberating four million blacks. This accusation would show up again, post factum, in the writings of anti-American essayists of the 1880s. A shift can be sensed even in liberal circles like that of the Revue contemporaine, which reckoned, in the summer of 1862, that the tide of the war had turned, and opposed a South that knew or 'felt' that slavery was doomed to a North that was cynically using the fact as a weapon:
The North is no longer waging war against slavery; it uses abolitionism here and there as a weapon, as a way of undermining its enemy. The South is no longer fighting for slavery; it is perfectly aware that the war, whatever its outcome, has given slave owners' prosperity the deathblow; it even suspects that the only way of prolonging slavery's existence even a little and galvanizing a dying institution would be to put it back under the federal government's protection.France, which had witnessed two emancipation proclamations in the course of its own history, had trouble understanding Lincoln's dithering: his 'preliminary emancipation proclamation' in 1862, which did not decree pure and simple abolition, met with consternation from supporters of the North in France. La Presse noted that 'half-measures will satisfy no one.' As for Le Constitutionnel, it was indignant and triumphal over what it saw as Lincoln's hypocrisy: 'Far from banishing slavery, [Lincoln] is promising to uphold it; he has made it the bonus incentive for any state willing to come back into the Union before January 1.' Having witnessed this incredibly unprincipled stance, 'who could still dare to say that the North is fighting for the suppression of slavery?'
Unanimity against slavery coupled with a predominant sympathy for the South would lead to a paradoxical but not illogical situation: the conviction that the Civil War had in no way been a high-principled, liberating crusade, but rather a pitiless attempt by the North to politically and economically subjugate the South would become lastingly rooted in French public opinion. The South was doubtlessly wrong in being so slow to eliminate its 'peculiar institution,' but weren't the Northerners a hundred times more blame-worthy for having cynically exploited the slavery question in order to demolish the South?