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The Terrible Cost of Reconciliation


Americans could never have won their national independence in 1783 without the naval and military aid of France. Similarly, the Union could not have been preserved in the Civil War if England and France had carried out a tempting and much-debated proposal to recognize the Confederacy and impose a truce that would break the Union’s naval blockade of the South. France’s Emperor Napoleon III strongly favored such joint action with Britain, and both Lord John Russell, England’s foreign minister, and William E. Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer, advocated recognition of the Confederacy, which, as Gladstone asserted in October 1862, had by a series of military triumphs already “made a nation.”1

The American South had supplied three quarters of the raw cotton for Britain’s textile industry, the very heart of the British industrial economy, and by the summer of 1862 such cotton imports had fallen to one third of their 1860 level. This led to a “Cotton Famine” and widespread unemployment. Yet Britain’s prime minister, Viscount Palmerston, remained cautious in the face of French pressure and reluctant to give formal recognition to the Confederacy until he could be certain of the latter’s impending military victory. After a summer of Union defeats in 1862 and growing pressure from his cabinet for some kind of intervention, Palmerston and the Union were saved, at least temporarily, by Robert E. Lee’s defeat in Maryland, on September 17, 1862, at the extremely bloody Battle of Antietam. It was this longed-for if marginal Union victory that opened the way a few days later for Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The central question, for both Palmerston and later historians, was the issue of British public opinion.

In Divided Hearts R.J.M. Blackett oddly ignores, or takes for granted, the debates over the Civil War in Parliament and Palmerston’s cabinet. But he presents the most thorough and deeply researched study ever done of the British public’s extraordinarily complicated response to the American Civil War. Because of the Britons’ remarkably strong sense of linguistic, cultural, and historical bonds, the public became absorbed with the American Civil War to a degree that surpassed any other external event, even for those who regarded the once-rebellious colonies with contempt and hate. Moreover, like the British government, both pro-Confederate and pro-Union factions knew that the mobilization of British public opinion, including the disfranchised working class, would have a crucial effect on British intervention and thus on the outcome of the American war. Though Britain was surely not a democracy, public pressure had been decisive in such earlier decisions as Catholic emancipation, political reform, and the freeing of colonial slaves.

Even readers familiar with Civil War literature will be astonished by the extent and diversity of British anti-Union opinion, especially during the period from April 1861 to October 1862. As might be expected, the landed aristocracy, country gentlemen, Anglican clergy, and even many lawyers, doctors, and other professionals supported the right of the South to leave the Union. Apart from the pro-Confederate Tories and Whigs, many Liberals had supported the moves for self-determination by Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, and others, and saw an element of hypocrisy when the Northern “children of revolution” took up arms to prevent their Southern brethren from proclaiming independence.2 Liberals were no less antagonized by Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the imprisonment of political dissenters, and the North’s restrictions on freedom of the press.3 Indeed, such arbitrary actions nearly ignited war with Britain in 1861 when Union naval officers removed two Confederate agents, James Mason and John Slidell, from a transatlantic British mail packet, the Trent. England even sent troops to Canada before Union apologies and the freeing of Mason and Slidell began to mitigate British fury.

Surprisingly, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society refused to take any part in the Civil War debate. By 1861 the first two generations of British abolitionists were dead or decrepit (William Wilberforce’s conservative son, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, supported the Confederacy). The numerous Quaker abolitionists opposed war of any kind, and the British followers of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who had favored secession of the North on ethical grounds, were dismayed when their American counterparts renounced nonviolence and appeared to have been caught in a frenzy of nationalism. Other British abolitionists argued that the slaves’ chances for a genuine emancipation would be better in an independent Confederacy, presumably more subject to British economic and political pressure.

The initial caution and passivity of British abolitionists may well have been related to a subject that has been neglected or underestimated by historians: the drastic “failure” of West Indian slave emancipation. I use quotation marks to suggest that the disappointment and embarrassment did not concern the happiness and well-being of blacks but rather the expectations of whites, including many abolitionists, who often assumed that freed slaves would work harder and more efficiently on colonial plantations. However, wherever freedpeople could find plots of land for subsistence agriculture, they fled the plantations or worked as little as possible. After the end of so-called apprenticeship in 1838, both Britain and the Southern states absorbed a stream of evidence showing that freed blacks did everything they could to escape slave-like gang labor, and that plantation production and land values had plummeted. The evidence showed moreover that Britain had desperately turned to India and other poverty-stricken regions to find thousands of indentured laborers who could be transported to the West Indies, and that Cuba and Brazil, which still imported large numbers of slaves from Africa, had greatly prospered, especially in producing sugar and coffee for the world’s expanding markets.

As Thomas Carlyle summed up the matter in his essay “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question,” published in 1849, the freed slaves had simply refused to work and the economies of the West Indies had collapsed. Lord Wolseley, Blackett tells us, “was convinced that West Indian emancipation had been ‘a failure in every respect.’” Anthony Trollope and numerous others conveyed the same message of Negroes “squatting” in idleness, an image confirmed by even a former Chartist, Joseph Barker, who became “one of the Confederacy’s most active proponents” after returning from a residence in the United States.

While this point falls beyond Blackett’s purview, American diplomats had deluged Southern leaders with similar tales of West Indian catastrophe, which reinforced the older horrors associated with the Haitian Revolution that took place between 1791 and 1804. Interpreting these disasters as the inevitable results of French and British abolitionism, Southerners greatly overestimated the power of Northern abolitionists and thus escalated their demands in a self-defeating way. This finally antagonized many moderate Northerners and thus contributed to secession and civil war, despite Southern dominance of the federal government from Washington’s time to that of President Buchanan (1789–1861).

James Spence, the Liverpool merchant who led the pro-Confederate movement in Britain and wrote over forty articles for the anti-Unionist London Times, was also aided by the growth in Britain of anti-black racism. Frederick Douglass and other African-Americans who visited Britain were shocked by this transformation in the years between 1845 and 1859. Part of the change can be attributed to the immense and sudden popularity in Great Britain of “Ethiopian Minstrels” and “nigger dancing.” Pro-Confederate Britons tended to see Southern and Northern whites stereotypically as the descendants of noble cavaliers and of oppressive Puritans and regicides. Similarly, minstrelsy stereotyped blacks as happy-go-lucky, monkey-like subhumans. This view of African inferiority was increasingly confirmed, on a supposedly scientific level, by such groups as the London Anthropological Society, founded in 1863, to say nothing of various species of Social Darwinism.

But the influence of Spence, the Southern Independence Association, and other supporters of British intervention began to wane in the summer and fall of 1862. Rumors that the government was seriously considering recognition of the Confederacy alarmed large numbers of Britons who equated a Union victory with furthering social and political reforms in their own land. It was no secret that the strongest supporters of the Confederacy were precisely those privileged minorities who opposed labor unions and the extension of suffrage in Britain. No less important, Lincoln’s commitment to slave emancipation gave a moral objective to the preservation of the Union, a goal that coincided with an abstract and residual British pride in having led the global struggle for the liberty of slaves.

During the first part of the war, most Britons thought that the North had no chance of victory; even the able American ambassador Charles Francis Adams concluded that it was only a matter of time before Britain recognized the Confederacy. Yet defenders of the Union took it as their task to convince the British government to continue on its course of neutrality, and to persuade most of the working and middle classes that a united, democratic America was a symbol of hope for all people favoring political reform as well as a place of refuge for the world’s oppressed. These were the arguments of John Bright, the liberal manufacturer and MP from Birmingham, who helped to overcome the appeal of Confederate agents like the Swiss-born Henry Hotze, who published many articles in the press. Bright’s campaign gained much ground when working-class leaders organized and financed a huge meeting of the Union and Emancipation Society in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall a day before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

While Lincoln’s actions undermined those abolitionists who contended that slaves would have a better chance of freedom in an independent Confederacy, a large cadre of African-American speakers, including J. Sella Martin, William and Ellen Craft, and Henry “Box” Brown, challenged racist stereotypes and kept reminding Britons that slavery stood at the center of the American war. Nothing could embody this point more forcefully than the speeches of William Andrew Jackson, the escaped slave and former coachman of the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis.

Blackett observes that the British public was surprisingly well informed about America; the frequent meetings and rallies concerning the Civil War were not spontaneous but carefully planned and organized. Even so, there was much heckling and disruption, as when pro-Union groups would join in singing “John Brown’s Body” to drown out pro-Confederate speeches. Though pro-Confederate agents succeeded in organizing many unemployed workers in Lancashire, this was not the case in the cotton towns of Scotland and Ireland. A larger than expected number of millowners supported the Union cause, as did an increasingly wider cross section of businessmen and manufacturers. Thus despite the large number of pro-Confederate newspapers, Blackett documents an overwhelming public enthusiasm for the Union during the last years of the war, culminating in widespread acclaim, grief, and huge funeral processions following the assassination of Lincoln, whose portrait would long be a common fixture in British artisan homes.

Though Blackett fails to recognize the importance of free-labor ideology, he makes it clear that a Confederate victory would have created an enormous impediment to the growth of democracy in Britain. This conclusion, underscored by the political and class alignments in Britain, conforms with the grim speculations of the economic historian and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel. After briefly surveying the plight of most workers in Europe and even England in the 1850s and 1860s, Fogel suggests that a Confederate victory would have delivered a devastating blow to antislavery and progressive politics, replacing democracy and liberal reform with “a drive for aristocratic privilege under the flags of paternalism and the preservation of order.”4

  1. 1

    It should be noted that Russia aided the Union by opposing any joint European effort to recognize the Confederacy and break the Union blockade.

  2. 2

    Of course defenders of the Union pointed to Britain’s own oppressive measures in Ireland and especially India, where thousands had been killed in the recent Sepoy Mutiny.

  3. 3

    For important recent works on Lincoln, see William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Knopf, 2002); The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon, edited by Gabor Boritt (Oxford University Press, 2001); and Ronald C. White Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and Schuster, 2002).

  4. 4

    Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (Norton, 1989), pp. 414–415.

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