American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863

By Raney, David A. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863


Raney, David A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863 * Peter O'Connor * Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017 * xii, 268 pp. * $47.95

British perceptions of the "American question" were a topic of interest on both sides of the Atlantic well before southern guns fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Indeed, as Peter O'Connor argues convincingly in his new monograph, British attitudes about secession and the American Civil War did not originate with these crises. Rather, they were rooted deeply in sophisticated and decades-old understandings about the differences between the northern and southern sections of the United States.

The avowed purpose of O'Connors work is two-fold. First, the author sets out to paint a portrait (which, he admits, is impressionistic) of antebellum British attitudes toward American sectionalism that captures the nuances of such complex issues as slavery, trade, and ethno-cultural identity. To achieve this aim, O'Connor examines a wide variety of influential cultural commentary from British novelists, journalists, scientists, travelers, and social critics. The author's second objective is to analyze British reactions to secession and the Civil War through the lens of prewar understandings of American sectionalism.

The author is largely successful in achieving his goals. His discussion of how Britons refused to view slavery as an exclusively moral or sectional issue is especially instructive and useful. O'Connor demonstrates how a host of British commentators portrayed slavery in the South as a "mitigated" institution that was paternalistic and temporary. He also highlights the views of writers who criticized the North for its hypocrisy regarding slavery and race relations. They claimed that abolitionism in the section was a weak and localized movement often driven more by political calculation than altruism, and they suggested further that northern free blacks experienced a level of privation and discrimination unknown to slaves in the South. Such claims as these led many educated Britons to conclude that a moral equivalence of sorts prevailed between the sections. …

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