The American Civil War is imprinted upon the popular consciousness in important battlefields like Vicksburg and Antietam, in rousing speeches like the Gettysburg Address, in the Emancipation Proclamation, and in the death of Abraham Lincoln. Knowledge, or at least awareness, of each of these events goes a long way to understanding the conflict that very nearly destroyed the American Union forever. However, any understanding of the Civil War is incomplete without an awareness of the foreign policy dimension that the war possessed.
At first glance, such an aspect might seem counterintuitive. After all, a civil war is by its very nature a domestic conflict. But from the very beginning, the outcome of the American Civil War could have been heavily influenced, if not outright changed, by the interference of the major European powers. Moreover, it would not have required even active interference from the European powers; rather, mere recognition of the Confederacy as an independent power would have opened the door to official loans and diplomatic pushes for arbitration between the two sides in the conflict, the result of which might have been armed intervention. The Confederacy understood this and tried to obtain the help it desperately needed to survive, principally from Great Britain and France. The Union understood this and did its best to stop the Confederacy from receiving such help. Through the concerted efforts of its minister in London, Charles Francis Adams, the Secretary of State, William H. Seward, and other American diplomats in Europe, the Union was ultimately able to stave off the foreign powers from interfering directly in this decidedly domestic issue.
That is not to say, however, that Abraham Lincoln played no part in preventing foreign interference in what he classified as a general insurrection, traitorous acts by a people unconstitutionally suspending their normal relations with the federal government. Lincoln knew very well what was at stake in diplomatic relations with other nations. The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, can be understood in part as an attempt to persuade foreign governments to accept the Union’s diplomatic position and to stay out of the war (look, for instance, at Lincoln’s reply to a Chicago Emancipation memorial from September 13, 1862: “emancipation would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition”). For our purposes, however, we can see Lincoln’s contribution to the foreign policy effort most clearly in the public exchange he had in January of 1863 with the workingmen of Manchester, England. The address of support that the workingmen offered to Lincoln, and his response, perfectly encapsulate the attempt of the government in Washington to win not only the hearts and minds of its own citizens, but the citizens of another nation—and, moreover, the most vulnerable citizens of another nation.
Indeed, the workingmen of Manchester represented not the moneyed classes residing in Parliament, but rather those whose interests and livelihoods were, more than anyone else in Great Britain, tied to the cotton that the Confederacy withheld from their use. The end of the war was hardly in sight in January of 1863; the continued shortage of cotton in the factories these men worked in could, for instance, have caused widespread starvation. And yet, as we will see, here were people starkly in favor of Lincoln’s efforts to bring the South back in the Union and, at this point, to end slavery in the United States forever—even if that meant damage to their own livelihoods. In the months leading up to this point since the outbreak of fighting, the same kind of support could not be said to have come from Great Britain’s leadership.
It may seem strange to think that Great Britain, which had abolished slavery in its colonies decades before, and which was the international leader of efforts to suppress the slave trade, would ever seriously consider aiding the Confederacy, fighting as it was in support of the peculiar institution. Yet we have already seen at least part of the answer—economics. Cotton was the South’s greatest export, and it fueled the textile mills, Great Britain’s most important industry. Senator James Hammond (D-SC) predicted such a reaction nearly three years earlier in what was widely known as the King Cotton speech: “What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? I will not stop to depict what every one can imagine, but this is certain: England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.” The Confederacy keenly understood the pull of cotton, and nearly its whole diplomatic effort was based on making that clear, ultimately going so far as to burn cotton stocks in order to prevent them from going to Great Britain, to place pressure on the government in London. Coupled with what became an effective Union blockade of the South, this loss of cotton had the potential to devastate Great Britain’s economy and, especially, its hundreds of thousands of workers. Luckily, however, this never happened. Bumper crops of cotton grown and imported into Britain in the years before the Civil War left Britain with enough stock to weather the first few years of war; additionally, a large supply of cloth, otherwise sitting in warehouses, further mitigated the loss of new cotton. The potential for starving and riotous workers remained only that, potential, ultimately preventing the British from facing the extreme realities of losing “King Cotton.”
There were other complicated issues at play in British calculations. One, for instance, consisted of their assessment of Lincoln’s stated war aims. From the first shots on Ft. Sumter until the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln fought the war as one not to emancipate slaves but to restore the rightful relation between the rebelling states and the rest of the Union. Lincoln’s position at least partially freed the British cabinet from looking at the war through the lens of slavery, because to them slavery would continue to exist no matter the victor. For that matter, there were at least some in Britain who believed that a Confederate victory in the war would actually lead to the end of slavery. Another factor, although of uncertain import, was a certain aristocratic glee at seeing the world’s first and foremost democracy failing, coupled with sympathy for the aristocratic nature of Southern plantation culture. A third issue was a concern for international law—for instance, the Union’s blockade, at least at the outset, was arguably nothing more than a “paper blockade,” and therefore not to be recognized under Britain’s interpretation of international law. And finally, in light of the horrific casualties in the early years of the war, the British were quick to condemn the war for humanitarian reasons.
Even the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough to put the British in line with Union objectives. No, in fact there were many in the leadership of Great Britain who believed that the Emancipation Proclamation was immensely dangerous; in their opinion, Lincoln was trying to incite a race war in the United States that would quickly and irreparably spread around the world. The timing of the Proclamation was critical in this aspect—the Union had lost several major battles and it was unclear that it would be able to turn around its war prospects. The Proclamation appeared to many in the British government and upper classes as a hypocritical and desperate, last-ditch attempt to win the war.
Regardless of London’s feelings about Lincoln’s move, there was at least some element of hypocrisy in London’s response to the Proclamation. Before, the British were unwilling to say no definitively to aid the Confederacy because in their eyes, Lincoln’s war aims made slavery an inevitability no matter who won. Now, with Union war aims enhanced to include not only re-union but also the end of slavery in the rebellious states, the British continued (at least briefly) to maintain an ambiguous posture. William Seward noted the hypocrisy in a letter he wrote to the ambassador to France (who was dealing with the same problems as his counterpart in London), William Dayton, on November 4, 1862: “You inform us virtually that those very interpreters of public opinion, who four weeks ago could see no merit in saving our country because the President seemed to be willing to tolerate slavery to effect that end, now pronounce the preservation of the Union to be equally undesirable because it is contingently proposed to abolish slavery in the insurrectionary states.”
The Manchester Address to President Lincoln
The support of the workingmen of Manchester did not come out of nowhere. The working class of England had long been antislavery—after all, often working in deplorable conditions themselves (that is not to say in conditions nearly as bad as slavery, however) they had a general understanding of the plight of slaves. And so, in the early part of the Civil War, the leaders of the working class in trade unions were often aligned against factory owners, parts of the middle class, and aristocrats who were concerned with their loss in wealth caused by the decline of cotton stocks. At least some among the wealthier classes were in favor of supporting the Confederacy—a position widely advocated by newspapers under their influence. Free labor, naturally opposed to slave labor, could not abide this. So, in response, trade union leaders, religious and emancipation groups, and others around Great Britain began to call together mass meetings of laborers. These meetings featured pro-Union/antislavery speakers, and typically ended with the adoption of resolutions in support of Lincoln and the Union.
A mass meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, held on New Years’ Eve, 1862, approved an address to President Lincoln, urging him to prosecute the war vigorously, stopping short of nothing but the “complete uprooting of slavery.” The document begins by acknowledging the fraternal sympathy that Great Britain and the United States share, a fraternity “whose orderly and legal freedom you have applied to new circumstances, over a region immeasurably greater than our own.” The laborers tell Lincoln that previously, the only thing holding them back from full sympathy with the Union was the Union’s tacit acceptance of slavery. The adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation, however, caused them to discern that “the victory of the free North in the war which has so sorely distressed us as well as afflicted you will strike off the fetters of the slave” and thus has earned the President and the Union “our warm and earnest sympathy.”
The workingmen argue that in freeing the slave, Lincoln and his Union are finally fulfilling the prophecies of the American Founding Fathers. They go on to list the actions both domestic and international that Lincoln and the Union have taken to destroy slavery once and for all. However, despite all this, the address does recognize that the Emancipation Proclamation has not yet freed all the slaves, and so accordingly they provide some guidelines Lincoln should follow until that day when every slave is free: “human beings should not be counted chattels. Women must have the rights of chastity and of maternity, men the rights of husbands, masters the liberty of manumission. Justice demands for the black, no less than for the white, the protection of law.”
In the end, the workingmen compare Lincoln’s program of emancipation to a providential mission that will remove “every stain on your freedom” and whose conclusion will erase “that foul blot upon civilization and Christianity” while causing “the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honored and revered by posterity.” Ending slavery once and for all will, in the opinion of the free laborers, forever cement a relationship between Great Britain and the United States, two nations but truly one people. Even if there had been those in positions of power who desired to aid the Confederacy, the free laborers of Manchester say, “be assured they are chiefly those who oppose liberty at home, and that they will be powerless to stir up quarrels between us, from the very day in which your country becomes, undeniably and without exception, the home of the free.” Again, what an astounding proclamation of freedom from those who stood to lose the most in the decline of cotton stocks.
In some sense, such an address from free laborers should not have been unexpected. Free laborers had long, in both the United States and Great Britain, fought against slavery. Anti-slavery organizations were a way of life for many in Great Britain and had been for some time. Just like their counterparts in the northern half of the United States, laborers in Britain were able to recognize the threat that slavery posed to free labor; slavery and free labor are naturally in opposition, no matter how many materials slavery furnished to free labor.
The text of the Manchester address was published in several English newspapers in early January and came to Lincoln’s attention through Adams and then Seward. The Mayor of Manchester had it specially delivered to Adams in London, who forwarded it to the Secretary of State. And Lincoln simply felt it was fit to reply, as an opportunity to recognize popular pro-Union sentiment in England and to encourage more such outpourings of support when the Union most needed it.
As we read Lincoln’s reply to the workingmen of Manchester we must remind ourselves that British policy towards the war remained ambiguous. Lincoln is still trying to convince both the people of Great Britain and their leadership that noninterference in the affairs of Americans is the only course they should take. Although the address from the free laborers of Manchester, the men and women most affected by cotton shortages, was certainly hopeful, they did not speak for all of Great Britain and certainly not for their political leadership. It would ultimately take more diplomacy and a show of Union battlefield prowess to get the matter settled once and for all.
Lincoln begins his reply by reaffirming the Union’s original decision to fight the Civil War. Some might have argued that slavery had given the Union so many problems that perhaps the North would have been better off by accepting the separation of the slave states, rather than forcibly resisting their departure. This was cause for at least some of the confusion in Britain over Lincoln’s war aims. Lincoln did not think in these terms, however. He knew from the very beginning that it was his duty to keep the Union together: “whatever might have been the cause, or whosever the fault, one duty paramount to all others was before me, namely, to maintain and preserve at once the Constitution and the integrity of the federal republic. A conscientious purpose to perform this duty is a key to all measures of administration which have been, and to all which will hereafter be pursued.” His arguments elsewhere about the “Take Care” clause and his duty towards his Constitutional oath reinforce these points, and help to at least partially illuminate why emancipation was not a war aim from the beginning; Lincoln’s fight for the republic fulfilled his constitutional obligations and emancipation did not factor into that equation. “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union,” Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley in August of 1862, encapsulating an explanation for why emancipation was not a war aim from the very start (of course, when Lincoln wrote these words, he had already decided to issue the Proclamation).
He continues on to acknowledge the possibility of interference from foreign powers. “The duty of self-preservation rests solely with the American people,” Lincoln wrote, “But I have at the same time been aware that favor or disfavor of foreign nations might have a material influence in enlarging and prolonging the struggle with disloyal men in which the country is engaged.” Nations often relish an opportunity to interfere in the affairs of others, Lincoln seems to be saying, and he was keenly aware of that from the very start. Hence, his administration’s attempts to head off Confederate diplomatic efforts.
Lincoln also points out to the workingmen that the “past action and influences of the United States were generally regarded as having been beneficent towards mankind.” Possessing such an outlook led Lincoln (or so he says) to believe that other nations would forebear to interfere. In fact, “circumstances, to some of which you kindly allude, induced me especially to expect that if justice and good faith should be practiced by the United States, they would encounter no hostile influence on the part of Great Britain.” Left unexpressed was the disappointment that the Union felt over Britain’s perceived tilt towards the Confederacy. Lincoln expresses instead the hope that, going forward, “the demonstration you have given of your desire that a spirit of amity and peace toward this country may prevail in the councils of your Queen, who is respected and esteemed in your own country only more than she is by the kindred nation which has its home on this side of the Atlantic.”
The reply’s final paragraph recognizes and sympathizes with the plight of the workingmen of Manchester. Indeed, Lincoln recognizes that not only those he addresses but also the workingmen of Europe as a whole have had to suffer from the loss of cotton because of the war: “I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the workingmen at Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis.” In unequivocal terms, Lincoln expresses his gratitude for their support through their sufferings—especially when the Confederates appealed in various ways for their support, and when “it has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this government, which was built upon the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of human slavery, was likely to obtain the favor of Europe.” With the possibility of losing their livelihoods to a war that would otherwise have nothing to do with them, Lincoln applauds their support for liberty and their opposition to slavery: “I cannot but regard your decisive utterance upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.” To Lincoln, the workers’ act of supporting what they found moral, despite their material sufferings, was “an energetic and reinspiring assurance of the inherent power of truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom.”
Lincoln ends his reply in much the same way the workingmen of Manchester ended their address. He hopes that their sentiments would soon be adopted by Great Britain as a whole and that their support for the Union will excite among Americans “admiration, esteem, and the most reciprocal feelings of friendship.” Just as the workingmen of Manchester acknowledge their kinship with Americans, so too does Lincoln hope that “whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exist between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”
The address from the workingmen of Manchester, and Lincoln’s reply, is but one diplomatic incident (in this case, one of public diplomacy) in the long course of the Civil War. Even so, it reflects an important milestone in Lincoln’s campaign to prevent foreign intervention in the war; that is, it represents Lincoln’s attempt to win the hearts and minds of the European public. If the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough, at least in January 1863, to stop talk of foreign intervention among European leadership, perhaps it was enough to win the admiration and support of the laboring classes of Europe; at the very least, affirmation of emancipation as a war aim seems to have won over the men of Manchester. Although the issue of intervention persisted for at least some time after Lincoln’s exchange, it is arguable that the support of the laborers throughout Great Britain went a long way towards cementing the minds of the British leadership against intervention. At least, that is what we should hope from a people that both Lincoln and the laborers affirmed was so alike to those of the Union.
 In the interest of brevity and subject matter, this essay will not focus on France’s role in the Civil War. Although French interference could very well have changed the outcome of the war, Napoleon III was generally unwilling to act unless the British acted definitively themselves. Return to Text.
 We might ask: why couldn’t Britain get its cotton from another source? It did, from Egypt, India, and elsewhere. However, the common opinion of the time was that cotton from the southern United States was superior in color, texture, and workability than most other cotton. Return to Text.
 Antietam, which the Emancipation Proclamation followed, was nominally a Union victory but in reality somewhat indecisive, especially in light of Union defeats in the Fall and Winter of 1862. Return to Text.
 Remember, of course, that the Emancipation Proclamation only aimed to free slaves within the rebellious states. Return to Text.
For Further Reading
Address of the Working-Men of Manchester, England, to President Abraham Lincoln, December 31, 1862, published in the Manchester Guardian, January 1, 1863.
Other Primary Sources of Interest
Seward, William H. The Works of William H. Seward v.5, edited by George Baker. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884.
For Further Reading about the American Civil War and foreign policy
Adams, Ephraim Douglass. Great Britain and the American Civil War. New York: Russell and Russell, 1958.
Crook, D.P. The North, the South, and the Powers. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974.
Doyle, Don H. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
Foreman, Amanda. A World on Fire. New York: Random House, 2010.
Jones, Howard. Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Peraino, Kevin. Lincoln in the World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2013.