Academic journal article Journalism History

"The Beginning of the End"

Academic journal article Journalism History

"The Beginning of the End"

Article excerpt

An Analysis of British Newspaper Coverage of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation

Although negative perceptions of the character of African Americans were at the center of the British press debate over the merits of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, it was the way that his character was portrayed that gave it potency and direction. Editors who opposed the Proclamation besmirched him in a way that enabled them to argue that they were not defending slavery but keeping their commentary within Britain's popular anti-slavery traditions. In contrast, those papers which supported the Proclamation believed he was a liberal statesman who shared the core moral values of the British. Because the debate occurred when newspapers were undergoing profound and innovative changes, this helped shape the character of the debate, increased its intensity, and provided a commentary on the evolving nature of British newspaper journalism.

On October 21, 1862, the editor of The Times newspaper in London informed readers that events in the American Civil War had reached a turning point:

We have here the history of the beginning of the end, but who can tell how the pages will be written which are yer to be filled before the inevitable separation is accomplished? Are scenes like those which we a short time since described from Dahomey yet to interpose, and is the reign of the last PRESIDENT to go out amid horrible massacres of white women and children, to be followed by the extermination of the black race in the South?1

The editor answered his rhetorical question by accusing Abraham Lincoln of being the instigator of "a servile war." Such emotive and colorful language pointed to the revolutionary significance of his Emancipation Proclamation. While not all British newspapers responded as fervently as The Times, the vast majority of editors felt obliged to explain the significance of his history-making measure.2

The Proclamation divided the British press just as it did public opinion in the United States.3 This article analyses this division through two major arguments. First, it argues that the debate about the Emancipation Proclamation was focused on the racial character of African Americans and the question of servile insurrection. Whether editors supported or opposed Lincoln's Proclamation depended on the stance that they took on these two issues, which formed the fulcrum of the debate. Second, it argues the way that the debate was contextualized gave it dynamism and potency. For racial imagery of servile insurrections to have persuasive power, it had to be related to the president's leadership, the progress of the war, the landscape of British journalism, and the social and political fabric of the British nation. For the sake of clarity, both the preliminary Proclamation (September 22, 1 862) and the final Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) are considered as part of the same liberating process rather than two different edicts.

The Civil War attracted wide scale reporting and a large newspaper readership. Because of the distances involved and the relative freedom given to foreign and war correspondents, news of the war reached the British public as a series of interpretative essays long after the events had occurred. This delay in publication could influence the way news was received. For example, news about the Emancipation Proclamation reached Britain at the same time as reports about the Union's heavy defeat at Fredericksburg. The largely simultaneous reporting of these two events enabled the prosouthern press in Britain to depict the Proclamation as a desperate gamble by a beaten nation seeking to avoid ultimate defeat.4

During the war, British newspaper correspondents based in America actively engaged in partisan reporting. E.L. Godkin, the correspondent for the Daily News, produced reports so favorable to Washington that he was accused of being paid by Union authorities. …

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