THE SOUTHERNERS NEEDED TO DECIDE who were their enemies and who were their friends. The enthusiastic secessionists brandishing the Palmetto Flag wanted fervently to believe that Great Britain would be more than a friend—that it would be their ally. Many assumed it had to be their ally because of the cotton question. But now that South Carolina was about to declare itself an independent republic, as everyone knew, the leaders of secession needed more than assumptions about British behavior; they needed assurances. Which is how it came to pass that in early December Charleston’s most famous fire-eater, Robert Barnwell Rhett, paid a visit to Bunch’s home to talk about “commercial relations.”
Not since 1852, before his resignation from the U.S. Senate, had Rhett held such sway with the citizens of South Carolina. When moderation remained the watchword through the middle of the decade, the fire-eater rhetoric of Rhett and his sons had fallen from favor, and the radical banner passed to more original firebrands, such as Leonidas Spratt, or those with stronger backing to the West, such as William Yancey. But with the tympani of war growing ever louder, subscriptions to the Charleston Mercury rose, and Rhett’s scorched-earth exhortations were echoed on the lips of many of his Southern countrymen. He could see for himself a role, now, as a great statesman of the South, perhaps the president of what he called “a great Slaveholding Confederacy.” But unlike the “cooperationists” throughout the South, who believed a united front of Southern states was necessary for secession to succeed, Rhett figured prominently among those who called for “separate action”—if one powerful state took the lead, other states would soon follow. He and his allies would consult with prominent figures from other states, but they put South Carolina at the head of the charge. The Secession Convention scheduled in Columbia in just a few weeks
would spell the beginning of the end of the Union and the true beginning of Robert Barnwell Rhett’s new nation.
So when Rhett knocked on Consul Bunch’s door to ask about commercial relations between the South and Britain, he was not asking theoretical questions.
How hard it must have been for Bunch to open that door. With the possible exception of Leonidas Spratt, there was no prominent figure in Carolina politics for whom Bunch felt more distaste than Rhett, the thin-lipped, thin-skinned “Mr. Smith” who affected an aristocratic British heritage.
Rhett’s hunger for nullification and secession were avowed and abiding, but his family organ, the Charleston Mercury, had been less than enthusiastic about the pivotal issue of the slave trade with Africa. Rhett’s old-money supporters were among those didn’t want to see their expensive human livestock devalued by cheap African imports, and Rhett had thought there were other paths to secession that might work better. Now that the path was wide open, Bunch wanted to test Rhett’s mettle on the question he thought could and should kill the future of the Confederacy while it was still in the cradle.
When the initial pleasantries were over, the conversation started as if it were almost a discussion of technicalities, with Rhett the self-important statesman condescending to Bunch the mere consular officer. Rhett asked Bunch how he thought Britain would act if ships arrived in its ports that came from the seceding states but that did not have clearances from the customs collectors of the Federal government—assuming, of course, the Federal government didn’t object to their sailing and wasn’t going to “coerce the Seceders back into the Union.”
“Is that what you believe will happen, Senator?”
“The course most likely to be pursued by the President is that he will not acknowledge the right of a State to secede as an abstract question, but, practically, he will not interfere with it for doing so.”
“Indeed? And the customhouses and forts?” Bunch was asking the questions now.
“He will surrender them upon receiving official word that the State has left the Union. Under these circumstances,” Rhett continued, “foreign nations would be at perfect liberty to consider the secession as an accomplished fact and to use their own discretion as to recognizing or making treaties with the new state.”
“Senator,” said Bunch, “I am not in possession of the sentiments of Her Majesty’s government upon such a subject, and so I cannot really pronounce any opinion about it.” But, of course, Bunch went on and did pronounce an opinion he hoped would draw Rhett out. “To my mind,” he said, “a great deal will depend upon the views of secession taken by the president and by Congress, which will in great measure serve as a guide for foreign nations.” Suggesting these matters would be up to Washington to decide was a direct provocation, and it worked.
Rhett quickly came to the point. He expected the cotton states to form a Confederacy within the next sixty days, and he wanted to make it clear that “the wishes and hopes of the Southern states centered in England”; that they would prefer an alliance with her to one with any other power; that they would be her best customer; that free trade would form an integral portion of this scheme of government, with import duties of nominal amount and “direct communication by steam between the Southern and British ports.”
Rhett had come to believe, along with many of his cohorts, that recognition from foreign powers—the more quickly, the better—was essential to the survival of any incipient Confederacy. And so in his conversation with Bunch he was not shy as he tried to hit every point of possible leverage. “I hope,” he continued, “that with Great Britain dependent upon the South for cotton and the South upon her for manufactured goods and shipping, an interchange of commodities would lead to an unrestricted intercourse of the most friendly character.”
Bunch knew this script by heart. He had heard it at the Jockey Club, at the St. George’s, in the grandstands at the races, in the drawing rooms of polite society, and in the market stalls near the port. This was the boilerplate of secession, and to a seceder’s way of thinking, its logic was ineluctable. All Bunch had to do was raise an eyebrow or remain silent for an extra second, and Rhett would just keep going, saying more, perhaps, than he should.
“Now, I’m not obscuring the fact that the feeling of the British public is against the system of slavery,” Rhett went on, “but I don’t see any reason at all why this sentiment should stand in the way of commercial advantages. Great Britain trades with Brazil, which is a slaveholding country, and Great Britain is, moreover, the largest customer of the Southern states for the productions of slave labor.”
Bunch sat back and listened, smiling, perhaps, enigmatically. With all the finesse he could muster, he started moving Rhett toward the critical issue.
“Let me be explicit,” said Bunch. “I have no authority to speak on behalf of Her Majesty’s government, so any remarks I might make here would be strictly my own. We’re talking about this as friends, you and I, nothing more. But as far as I can judge, there seems to be no reason why your ideas shouldn’t be carried into practice. Great Britain has a great interest in the success of free trade and is a firm believer in its benefits. If the South wants to carry out this idea and perhaps open its coastal trade to British ships, I think that such a movement would be perfectly acceptable to the British people.
“As for the question of domestic slavery,” Bunch continued, throwing plenty of chum into the water before he set the hook, “I really see no reason to expect the British public to interfere with it, since it’s a matter with which they have no direct concern. Of course, they could wish that their own example might influence the South in its judgment of the moral wrong of such a system of labor, but beyond this, they’re not likely to go. But—there is one point you haven’t touched on, and it appears to me to offer a difficulty of considerable magnitude. I would really like to have your opinion about it.”
Perhaps Rhett was expecting this moment. Certainly he should have been.
“I am talking,” said Bunch, “about the African slave trade, which Great Britain views with horror and which, as far as I’ve been informed, is likely to be tolerated if not encouraged by the new Confederation. In my own personal opinion, Great Britain would require from that Body some very distinct assurance of a satisfactory nature on this subject before she could be brought to enter cordially into communication with this Confederation.”
The old fire-eater bristled. Probably he sensed a trap. But Robert Barnwell Rhett was not a man to hold back on a matter of principle, and he was not going to hide his true feelings from this impudent British consul. Suddenly the conversation became a declamation.
“No Southern State or Confederacy will ever be brought to negotiate upon such a subject,” said Rhett. “To prohibit the Slave Trade would be virtually to admit that the institution of slavery is an evil and a wrong, instead of, as the South believes, a blessing to the African Race and a system of labor appointed of God.”
AFTER HIS TALK with the great fire-eater, Bunch sent a brief word to Lyons, just to make sure he took notice: “I think that Your Lordship will be interested in the account of Mr. Rhett’s pow-wow with me, and I trust that you will concur with me in the impression that Lord J. Russell ought to know of it.”
Indeed, when Bunch sent a confidential dispatch detailing the conversation, the Foreign Secretary did take notice, and so did Prime Minister Palmerston. Bunch had read him well. A cryptic, hand-scrawled note interleaved in the bound consular dispatches from the end of December 1860 addresses the Bunch letter directly. It is signed, simply, P and makes clear once again where the British government generally, and Palmerston individually, drew the red line on slavery. “The example of Brazil and of Spain and of Portugal shew that an engagement to abolish Slave Trade is not incompatible as Mr. Rhett asserts it to be with the maintenance of slavery within the territory of a state.”
The South might keep its slaves as it tried to woo Great Britain, but it would have to agree not to bring new ones from Africa. And Bunch had gotten Rhett to say that was impossible.