Posted by: Democratic Thinker | April 23, 2012

Francis Lieber—The Latin Race

American Thought

In November 1871, Francis Lieber, author of the Civil War’s Lieber Code,—in a letter published in the New York Evening Post—remarks upon efforts to invent a “Latin” race.


There are no Latin people by birth; and, although language does not necessarily decide anything as to races, there is no Latin race were it otherwise, for there is no people now that speaks Latin or a language partly Latin. Neither Italian, nor Spanish, nor French is more than a language mixed with a more or less predominant element of totally changed or corrupt Latin.

The Latin Race.


To The Editors Of The [New York] Evening Post:

MUCH has been heard within the last fifteen years of the Latin race, and great has been the endeavor to utilize this novel idea on the part of Napoleon III. and his adherents. M. Chevalier’s book on Mexico is almost exclusively founded upon the idea that the Latin race—that is, France—ought to be strengthened against the Teutonic race, which has assumed a general sway by its representative power, Great Britain. Closely connected with the erroneous term Latin race was the word Cæsarism, first used in a pamphlet ascribed to the present Bonaparte, and published when he was president of the so-called French republic, and desirous of preparing the public mind (if, indeed, we can speak of a public mind in press-bound France), for the Empire; an imitation also of the Latin idea of the fiercest democratic monarchy. And now, when France has challenged the German hosts, it has been loudly uttered again that it is a “war of races”; meaning, of course, of the Germanic and Latin races.

Thus the attempt is made to carry Latinism into international politics, as it has long been applied to religion. The term Latin race had not been used, but it was an error accepted even by many Protestants that Roman Catholicism was better adapted for the more imaginative southern races than “ cold Protestantism.” A strange delusion! Was the syllogism of the cold Frenchman, Calvin, more imaginative than the poetic, soulful, fervent German, Martin Luther? Nowhere has the difference between the so-called Latin race and the Germanic race decided between Catholicism and Protestantism. It is the dragoon, the torture of the inquisition; it is bloodshed, and not difference of races, which forced so many people in Europe back into the Roman church or prevented them from publicly leaving it. Italy, France, and Spain were as ripe for the Reformation as England and Germany, and the south of Germany quite as much as the northern portion.

Thus Micheli, the Venetian ambassador in France, wrote to the Doge of the republic in 1561, that many bishops and priests, most monasteries and nunneries have been tainted by the new faith, and adds “with the exception of the very lowest people, the whole nobility and the young men under forty years, almost without exception, have fallen from the old faith.” Leopold Ranke has shown this simply in his work, The Roman Popes, etc., in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century. Not the differences of races, but fire, sword, and torture, have stopped the further development of the Reformation—the sinister pomp and power which the Petrine Monarchy had acquired and into which the “ Holy Church and Republic of God,” as the church was styled at the times of Pepin, had changed.

It is always dangerous, and has often proved in the last degree mischievous, to act on arbitrary maxims, vague conceits, or metaphorical expressions—the more mischievous and tragical the higher the sphere of thought or action may be. Let us inquire then, briefly, into the meaning of this often-used term Latin race.

Much has been said of races and their predetermining character, as if the whole history of countries and portions of the earth were flowing in the veins of each individual; just as others believe that the whole character of a people’s history is foreshadowed or predestined in the geography of the land and islands occupied by it. The doctrine of races has recently expanded into the discussion of the Aryan and Semitic races. For this subject we must refer the reader to Disraeli’s Lothair. Our inquiry lies within narrower limits.

The word race has probably been abused in modern times more than any other. The rebels told us and each other again and again that they were a race totally different from the race of the North; Buckle finds the history of Spain natural, and in accordance with the race inhabiting Spain; yet there is no race, or at least a mixture of some twenty races.

We are all aware that there are certain races in Europe—the Sclavonic, the Celtic, and the Germanic race, with numerous remnants of important and unimportant races. In looking at these races of the present time and at those of the past, certain pregnant reflections force themselves on our minds.

Some great and eminently leading nations—such as the Greek and the English—have been and are a mixture of varied tribes and races. There are, unquestionably, distinct characteristics belonging to different races; but it must never be forgotten that the tendency of all our civilization is to the greater and greater assimilation of these Cis-Caucasian races, and that all the noblest things—religion, truth, and science, architecture, sculpture, and civil liberty—are not restricted to races. To all these the mandate is given: Go into all the world.

Lastly, races are very often invented from ignorance, or for evil purposes. The pitiful attempt of inventing a separate race on the part of the rebels has been mentioned. The fictitious Latin race is another instance, but of far greater import and far more dangerous.

We know what the Latin language means; we know that the Roman church is frequently called the Latin church; we know that lateen sail means the triangular sail, which is common to this day in the Mediterranean, and which people were obliged to distinguish from the Dutch square sail when this came into use; but what is the meaning of Latin race? It has no ethnographic meaning. There are no Latin people by birth; and, although language does not necessarily decide anything as to races, there is no Latin race were it otherwise, for there is no people now that speaks Latin or a language partly Latin. Neither Italian, nor Spanish, nor French is more than a language mixed with a more or less predominant element of totally changed or corrupt Latin.

Thus it comes to this, that the totality of nations whose different languages have some portion—say from one-fourth to one-fifteenth—of corrupt Latin admixture, are called the Latin race, in order to separate them from the common advance of civilization, and to keep them apart from the noble self-government which first showed itself, rudely but strongly, with the Germanic nations; and to make them look upon the Roman imperialism and the senate of imperial Rome with complacency, and even admiration, while mankind had learned from Tacitus and Suetonius to shudder at those institutions as degradations of our kind. This period, in which cupidity, gastronomy, licentiousness, and cruelty flourished in the palaces of those who make the labels of history, was held up for admiration.

We must be much mistaken if the great mischief-maker who invented the word “Cæsarism,” and the oily term “personal government” for what used to be called despotism or tyranny, did not also invent the term “Latin race.” He utilized it to his heart’s content until of late. France was of course represented as the first of the Latin nations. Strange! The German element preponderates, or is very strong, in the most industrious and densest-peopled portion of France, including the Franche-Comte, Alsatia, Lorraine, Flanders, Artois, as far as Normandy; and a greater proportion of genius for pen or sword has come from this portion of France than from the other parts of this proud and, unfortunately, presuming country.

Let the term “Latin race” be forever banished from church, state, or any other sphere of thought or action as unmeaning, full of mischief, unscientific, and intended to mislead.

—Francis Lieber.