This Paper, originally written for me in 1857, and published in Titan for July of that year, has not appeared in any collective edition of the author’s works, British or American. It was his closing contribution to a series of three articles concerning Chinese affairs; prepared when our troubles with that Empire seemed to render war imminent. The first two were given in Titan for February and April, 1857, and then issued with additions in the form of a pamphlet which is now very scarce. It consisted of 152 pages thus arranged:–(1) Preliminary Note, i-iv; (2) Preface, pp. 3-68; (3) China (the two Titan papers), pp. 69-149; (4) Postscript, pp. 149-152.
In the posthumous supplementary volume (XVI.) of the collected works the third section was reprinted, but all the other matter was discarded–with a rather imperfect appreciation of the labour which the author had bestowed upon it, and his own estimate of the value of what he had condensed in this Series–as frequently expressed to me during its progress.
In the twelfth volume of the ‘Riverside’ Edition of De Quincey’s works, published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston, U.S.A., the whole of the 152 pp. of the expanded China reprint are given, but not the final section here reproduced from Titan.
The Chinese questions stirred DE QUINCEY profoundly, and roused all the ‘John Bullism’ of his nature. Two passages from the ‘Preliminary Note’ will show his object in throwing so much energy into this subject:–
‘Its purpose is to diffuse amongst those of the middle classes, whose daily occupations leave them small leisure for direct personal inquiries, some sufficient materials for appreciating the justice of our British pretensions and attitude in our coming war with China. It is a question frequently raised amongst public journalists, whether we British are entitled to that exalted distinction which sometimes we claim for ourselves, and which sometimes is claimed on our behalf, by neutral observers on the national practice of morality. There is no call in this place for so large a discussion; but, most undoubtedly, in one feature of so grand a distinction, in one reasonable presumption for inferring a profounder national conscientiousness, as diffused among the British people, stands upon record, in the pages of history, this memorable fact, that always at the opening (and at intervals throughout the progress) of any war, there has been much and angry discussion amongst us British as to the equity of its origin, and the moral reasonableness of its objects. Whereas, on the Continent, no man ever heard of a question being raised, or a faction being embattled, upon any demur (great or small) as to the moral grounds of a war. To be able to face the trials of a war–that was its justification; and to win victories–that was its ratification for the conscience.’
To this doctrine, thus limited, no man could reasonably demur. But to some people it has seemed that the limitations themselves are the only unsound part of the argument. It is denied that this original right of refusing a commercial intercourse has any true foundation in the relations of things or persons. Vainly, if any such natural right existed, would that broad basis have been laid providentially for insuring intercourse among nations, which, in fact, we find everywhere dispersed. Such a narrow and selfish distribution of natural gifts, all to one man, or all to one place, has in a first stage of human inter-relations been established, only that men might be hurried forward into a second stage where this false sequestration might be unlocked and dispersed. Concentrated masses, impropriations gathered into a few hands, useless alike to the possessor and to the world, why is it that, by primary arrangements of nature, they have been frozen into vast, inert insulation? Only that the agencies of commerce may thus the more loudly be invoked for thawing and setting them free to the world’s use. Whereas, by a diffusive scattering, all motives to large social intercourse would have been neutralised.