The Emancipation Proclamation and British Public Opinion

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The protectionists say they do not seek to put down slavery. The slaveholders say they want free trade. Need you wonder at the confusion in John Bull's poor head? He gives up! Leaves it to the Government. (1)

John Bright

UNTIL THE 1960S, students and scholars thought of the historiography of British public opinion during the Civil War in clear-cut terms: the landed aristocracy and Conservatives were pro-Confederacy, while the working classes and Liberals were pro-Union. However, as John Bright's letter to Charles Sumner suggests, British opinion during this time was in fact ambiguous and divided on the "American question." Far from simply supporting one side or the other, the British wrestled with the economic, moral, and political implications of the War Between the States, often changing their opinion of the belligerents as the war progressed. Ultimately the British government remained neutral in the conflict, thereby providing de facto support for the Union government, despite early pleas from within Britain and from France for mediation and support of the Confederacy. What was it, then, that prevented the British from intervening on behalf of the Confederacy?

The issue of slavery and the extent of its role in causing the fracture between the North and South at the onset of the war was ambiguous to most of the British public, whose country had ended slavery in her colonies in 1834. Even vaguer and more frustrating to the British was the North's inchoate stance on slavery; for while a very small minority of abolitionists from the North were loudly pushing the war as a crusade against slavery, its president claimed to have "no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists." (2) Indeed, the Federal government's position on slavery would remain unclear until the fall of 1862, when President Lincoln, freed from concern over the possible secession of the four slave-owning Border States, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which would go into effect 1 January 1863. From this point forth, the abolition of slavery in the states in rebellion was to be a war aim of the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a pronouncement to the British--indeed, to the world--that the North was fighting against the institution of slavery. It guaranteed that any government considering intervention or mediation on behalf of the South would no doubt face intense public pressure from within their own countries against aiding a pro-slavery nation, and it was this, more than anything else, that prevented the British from intervening in or mediating the conflict across the Atlantic. Despite questions over the real motives of Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the initial negative reaction to it and its potential for causing racial strife in the U.S. South, the British in time came to accept and support the North's abolitionist aims as legitimate and in good faith. The story of how British opinion of the belligerents oscillated throughout the war, until ultimately siding with the North because of its abolitionist stance, is a tale worth telling.

By 1860, the United States and Great Britain shared many political, economic, and ethnic bonds that were forged as far back as the 1600s, when the fledgling American colonies were under the wing and direction of the British Empire. Despite the fact that the American colonies fought to move out of the British household during the American Revolution, these two countries remained cousins, linked by a strong tradition of respect for democratic institutions and sharing rapidly expanding and industrializing economies. Of particular importance and consequence to the U.S. Civil War was the dependence of British manufacturers on U.S. cotton to feed their textile mills. By 1860, Britain imported almost 1.4 billion pounds of cotton annually; of this, U.S. cotton accounted for 1.12 billion pounds, or over 80 percent of the supply. …