16 February, 2009Issue 8.4EssaysHistoryNorth America

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Britannia and the Slaves

James Appell

To mark the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial, Oxford University will play host to a July conference on “The Global Legacy of Abraham Lincoln” at which, no doubt, British academics and cultural commentators will add their voices to the acclaim for America’s 16th President.

It might seem strange, then, that looking back on contemporary British attitudes to Lincoln, we find a host of rather unflattering opinions on the man. We also find opinions on his prosecution of the Civil War, which, in view of its ultimate accomplishment in abolishing American slavery, may make uncomfortable reading for the modern inhabitants of the British Isles.

Take this from Alexander Beresford-Hope MP from 1861, comparing Lincoln to Jefferson Davis in a lecture on the American Civil War:

Without relying too much on physiognomy, I appeal to the carte-de-visites of both Lincoln and Davis, and I think all who see them will agree that Jefferson Davis bears out one’s idea of what an able administrator and a calm statesman should look like better than Abraham Lincoln, great as he may be as a rail-splitter, bargee, and country attorney.

Lincoln’s distinctive features made him a favourite of satirical magazines and cartoonists in Britain, but there was also criticism of Lincoln’s politics. A Punch magazine satire of September 1863 featured an American conscript saying:

Fever, too, and gangrene I regard with infinite aversion,
I had sooner die at once, so let them shoot me for desertion!
Hearth and home I’d fight to guard, and consequences little think on,
Won’t go South to bleed and rot by order of Dictator Lincoln.

And then there was the Times’ verdict on Lincoln’s crowning moment, the Gettysburg Address: “Anything more dull and commonplace it wouldn’t be easy to reproduce.”

The British elites spent much of the American Civil War despising Abraham Lincoln and the Union, and some even hoped that the South, with its slaves and its whips, but also its lucrative fields of cotton, would emerge intact at the end.

If many in British government and high society had had their way, thousands of British troops would have crossed the Atlantic to aid the Confederacy against the Union. It was not just the cotton trade that they sought to protect—it was the potential for dividing in two the only nation on Earth which could challenge Britain’s economic and political might—the United States. The plight of the millions of black slaves in the American South, although “terribly frightful”, was purely incidental.

Initially the British establishment actively hampered Lincoln’s war effort while simultaneously insisting on their government’s declared neutrality. Neutrality allowed Britain to continue supplying the Confederate South with arms throughout the war, which, given the Confederacy’s lack of a domestic weapons industry, became a major contributor to the prolonging of hostilities. Had the North attempted to curtail the war by halting the British arms trade, properly enforcing the blockade around Southern ports, a major diplomatic crisis likely would have ensued, drawing the British into the war on the side of the Confederacy.

Precisely this outcome almost occurred in November 1861. The USS San Jacinto stopped the British mail ship Trent in waters off Havana and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, from on board. The envoys were bound for Britain and France to argue the case for the Confederacy’s diplomatic recognition by Europe. For a number of weeks tensions mounted over whether the British would deem this an act of war, and Lincoln himself quickly realised the folly of violating the terms of neutrality, stating that “if Great Britain shall now protest against the act, and demand their release, we must give them up, apologise for the act…and thus forever bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals”. Mason and Slidell were released after eight weeks and the matter was gone, if not forgotten. It was clear, though, that the British had come perilously close to entering the war on the side of the slave-owning South.

Putting aside the issue of slavery for one moment—no matter how distasteful that may be—the British had some reason to dislike the Union. Considering that the Union had declared war without an explicit commitment to emancipating the slaves, the British government felt it was hypocritical of the North to attempt to block Confederate secession, given that the northerners themselves had fought for independence against the British on similar terms nearly a century earlier. In addition, the anti-British tone of the Northern press after Britain’s declaration of neutrality had alienated the British ruling classes. The effectiveness of the Northern blockade, and the English cotton famine which resulted, had taken its toll on one of the most lucrative elements of the British economy, and furthermore, the aforementioned Trent Affair had aroused British military sensitivities.

Although Britain had drawn up plans for sending troops to Canada in case they were drawn into the war, the British never again came as close to declaring for the Confederacy as they did during the Trent Affair. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 meant that British support for the South would be seen as a pro-slavery stance, one that could not have been abided in a nation where the practice had been abolished some 30 years before. Having found alternative sources of cotton in India and Egypt, the economic motive was no longer so strong.

Still, it took until the end of the war for the British elites to change their mind about Lincoln. Punch magazine, one of his cruellest detractors in the period 1861-65, printed what effectively amounted to a full-page apology upon his assassination, an act that historian Oscar Maurer has described as “perhaps the most drastic reversal of opinion, openly acknowledged, in the history of journalism”. Accompanied by a cartoon of Britannia mournfully laying a wreath on Lincoln’s coffin, editor Tom Taylor wrote:

You, lay a wreath on murdered Lincoln’s bier,
You, who with mocking pencil wont to trace,
Broad for the self-complacent British sneer,
His length of shambling limb, his furrowed face.

You whose smart pen backed up the pencil’s laugh;
Judging each step as though the way were plain;
Reckless, so it could point its paragraph,
Of chief’s perplexity, or people’s pain.

The Old World and the New, from sea to sea,
Utter one voice of sympathy and shame!

By 1920, Lincoln’s reputation in Britain had been so completely revised that the British government built a statue in his image in Parliament Square. Accompanying it, another in Manchester commemorated Lincoln’s solidarity and support for the North West’s cotton-workers whose livelihoods were so imperilled by the Civil War. In fact the English working class was the one constituency where Lincoln consistently found favour throughout the war. Unfortunately this latter monument is rather less flattering to the 16th President of the United States, as it depicts him with his arms clasped across his stomach as though he had rather overdone it on chicken fricassee with biscuits (reportedly his favourite meal).

Such a progression in the British public’s perception of Lincoln’s memory to a certain extent mirrors the path of relations between the two states in general. Much of the bile directed at Lincoln during his lifetime can be ascribed to the Great Power rivalry across the Atlantic. As Lincoln’s legacy has been treated more generously by British commentators, so the rivalry between Britain and America has been remoulded into a partnership. While, in view of the Bush presidency, Brits have begun to question the value of such a close relationship, the fact that this re-evaluation has been accompanied by an appreciation of the cause for which Lincoln fought and died is a welcome development.

James Appell is reading for an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is the Sport editor at the Oxonian Review.