The Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and Antislavery among Manchester Textile Workers

Julian O. Davidson. Battle of Mobile Bay. ca. 1864 (Louis Prang & Co.)

Julian O. Davidson. Battle of Mobile Bay. ca. 1864 (Louis Prang & Co.)

British support for the Union was no guarantee when the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861.[1]  In fact, British neutrality did little to hide the fact that large segments of the population favored an alliance with the Confederacy.  The cotton manufacturers of Lancashire, for example, had strong ties to the southern plantocracy and the slave system it had established.  After all, cheap American cotton fed their textile mills and made them rich.  When the North blockaded southern ports, their cotton supplies were threatened. In turn, they invested in ships and crews to run the blockade.

By 1862, cotton manufacturers were complaining of distress.  They argued that with the lack of raw cotton their factories were becoming redundant.  Their businesses were crumbling. Wages were dropping, and unemployment was on the rise.  Editorials in conservative newspapers, claiming to speak for the workers, argued that the loss to wages would be at least 10,000,000l. sterling over the next year.[2]

Since the United States had been the primary source of cotton imports, the prolonged conflict had them scrambling for solutions.  Some argued for expanding their colonial infrastructure in India, which could eventually replace the United States as a source of raw material.  Others argued that the Civil War so threatened Britain's financial interests that military intervention would be necessary to break the blockade.[3] Quite often, these self-interested positions were couched in philanthropic language -- action needed to be taken to improve the lives of the millworkers suffering from the so-called "Cotton Famine.".

But their claims on behalf of the working classes did not necessarily represent the voices of the people.  And, in fact, there was a long history of antislavery among workers -- even when, at times, principles threatened livelihoods. This was the case on 31 December 1862 when a "Committee of Workingmen" assembled at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.  Between 7pm and 11pm, the group heard speeches by J.C. Edwards and E. Hobson, millworkers who organized the event.  They also listened to John Anderson, a fugitive slave who had recently published his memoir; William Jackson, a spy who had escaped from Jefferson Davis's household; and Thomas Bazley, an M.P. and President of the Cotton Supply Association.  Other speakers included Professor Greenbank, J.R. Cooper, R. Cooper, T. Bayley Potter, James Edwards, Thomas Evans, S. Pope, W.J. Williams, Charles Thompson, J.H. Raper, and Dr. J. Watts. [4]  While the New York Times's report that the majority of the speeches were "entirely from the class of mill hands" may have been an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the majority of attendees were millworkers who passed several resolutions. [5]

This would be the final meeting of the year, a crescendo to dozens of similar meetings. The organizers planned to make a grand pronouncement in support of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. And, in the weeks leading up to the meeting they gathered support through their epistolary networks, receiving letters from numerous individuals.  John Stuart Mill, for example, wrote to them, praising

Free Trade Hall, Manchester. Illustrated London News. 11 February 1865

Free Trade Hall, Manchester. Illustrated London News. 11 February 1865

“the state of mind which prompts it, a moral greatness which is at once a just rebuke to the mean feeling of so great a portion of the public, and a source of unqualified happiness to this whose hopes and fears for the great interests of humanity, as mine are, inseparably bound up in the moral and intellectual prospects of the working classes.”[6]

The final proclamation was printed in the Daily News (Manchester) on 2 January 1863 and is transcribed in full below:

It does not properly belong to any one or two classes of the community to maintain the honour and character of the British nation in the eyes of the world.  But there is no class which may not aspire to do so when others make default.  This duty of the working classes of our great towns are now performing in a particular direction, to the advantage of the entire country.  To them has fallen, as it has fallen to no other class, the task of asserting, in respect of this American struggle, England's old attachment to the principles of freedom, and its undying hatred to oppression in every form.  So our governing classes have willed it, and so it is.  It was for them to judge whether they could sincerely hold the ancient language of Englishmen and to take their part.  They have accounted themselves unworthy to do so; but the work is not the less done.

Two years ago, when the hearts of men were but little tried, the charity which believeth all things would have said unhesitatingly that the heart of the country was as sound as ever on the subject of slavery.  Now, whatever we might wish to think, we are not permitted to believe so.  One by one the reserves and disguises of decency have been thrown off.  At first sympathy with the slave oligarchy was like "the tawny lion, pawing to set free his hinder parts"; now the beast "has broke from bounds, and, rampant shakes his brinded mane."  The courage and fortitude with which the slaveholding caste has upheld the grandest iniquity in the modern world could never have dazzled men whose principles had not been undermined and sentiments corrupted previously.  The brutal mob may admire the pirate who "dies game," but we are not fascinated by material virtues displayed in the defence of causes which we detest as morally bad.  At first the admirers of the South thought it politic to declare their conviction that the triumph of their friends would prove the death of slavery.  We forget whether it was two or three days afterwards that this declaration was formally withdrawn.  Since then a vague and general repudiation of slavery, accompanied with unbounded eulogy of slaveholders and energetic vituperation of Abolitionists, has been held to satisfy the requirements of opinion.  Even this formality is now laid aside as unnecessary or useless, and the latest profession which our betters deign to gasp out as their New Year's gift to the world is, "We are not enthusiastic just now for the oppressed or the negro."

Such being the conspicuous result to which the leisured and refined classes have worked their way, it was the turn of the common people, the sons of labour, to speak; and at Manchester they have made a good beginning.  Perhaps no speech could be more eloquent than the patience with which the Lancashire operatives have borne a calamity directly due to the American war, notwithstanding the attempts that have been made to stir them up to demand action against the Government of the United States.  But as a part of the nation they would be heard.  The sympathizers with the Slave oligarchy will not find much to please them in what was said or what was applauded.  For their talk was of the "sacred and inalienable rights of every human being," and of "the common brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind" -- words big with the hopes of many, but an offence and foolishness to the privileged few.  The cause which our governing classes delight to honour in their literature, in their public appearances, and in society, the attempt to organize on the American continent a nation having slavery as its basis, is one for which they express their strong detestation.  They do not share the unbounded admiration of their superiors for the virtues peculiar to conquerors.  And although they had been strongly counselled not to meet and encourage the North in attempting to "subjugate" the South, they were not to be made the dupes of words.  They say the absurdity of pretending that a war to restore a union of self-governing and equal states was a war of subjugation.  The subjugation which came home most vividly to their minds and aroused their indignation was something real.  Why should the Lancashire labourers sympathize with the labourers in the Southern States. Why should they not, like the economists, argue that the slavery of Alabama is a part of the complex labour system by which they live, and wish it to go on?  Why not assume the languid indifference of the upper classes as to the result of the great struggle?  Simply because they are men whose hearts guard their understandings.  Perhaps it is also because, possessing little more than our common humanity, they prize that above artificial distinctions of class and colour.  At all events, whatever others think is to be said for the slaveowner, in their eyes his offence is the greatest that man can commit against man, the sum and parent of all villanies.  It does not matter under what the fine names, of old associated with freedom, republic or democracy, the slaveholding caste organizes itself, its character is fixed by the fact that it holds millions of men in bondage, denying to them education, the rights of family, and the rewards of labour.  Let it be known at Richmond that whatever favour the Southern oligarchy have found in England, our working classes understand their cause.  The "chivalry" have inflicted on honorable industry, by the position assigned to the labourers in their system, a stigma and an insult that will never be forgiven.

The Manchester workmen were not content to dwell in abstractions, but declared in a resolution their "profound sympathy with the efforts of the Government of the United States to maintain the Union in its integrity," and also adopted an address to President LINCOLN.  We printed this address yesterday for the information of our readers, and we print it again to-day for the honour of Old England and the instruction of all whom it may concern.  Let the Scribes who have laboured to pervert the moral sentiment of the nation read it.  Let the Pharisees who made soirées for Mrs. STOWE, when the reputation of a philanthropist involved no responsibility, and whose voice is not now heard except in favour of the slaveholder read it.  Let the Epicurean, who deems it a folly to distress himself about the wrongs of others, read it.  And let all who have laboured to glorify the Slave Power, the most monstrous outgrowth of the modern world, read it, and see how vain have been their efforts to corrupt the minds of the working classes, and how wide a gulf is fixed between them and the great body of people.


As citizens of Manchester, assembled at the Free-trade Hall, we beg to express our fraternal sentiments towards you and your country.  We rejoice in your greatness, as an outgrowth of England, whose blood and language you share, whose orderly and legal freedom you have applied to new circumstances, over a region immeasurably greater than our own.  We honour your Free States, as a singularly happy abode for the working millions, where industry is honoured.  One thing alone has, in the past, lessened our sympathy with your country and our confidence in it -- we mean the ascendancy of politicians who not merely maintained negro slavery, but desired to extend and root it more firmly.  Since we have discerned, however, 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, you have attracted our warm and earnest sympathy.  We joyfully honour you as the PRESIDENT, and the Congress with you, form many decisive steps towards practically exemplifying your belief in the words of your great founders, 'All men are created free and equal.'  You have procured the liberation of the slaves in the district around Washington, and thereby made the centre of your Federation visibly free.  You have enforced the laws against the slave trade, and kept up your fleet against it, even while every ship was wanted for service in your terrible war.  You have nobly decided to receive ambassadors from the negro republics of Hayti and Liberia, this for ever renouncing that untrustworthy prejudice which refuses the rights of humanity to men and women on the account of their colour.  In order more effectually to stop the slave trade you have made with our QUEEN a treaty, which your Senate has ratified, for the right of mutual search.  Your Congress has decreed freedom as the law for ever in the vast unoccupied or half-settled Territories which are directly subject to its legislative power.  It has offered pecuniary aid to all States which will enact emancipation locally, and has forbidden your generals to restore fugitive slaves who seek their protection.  You have entreated the slavemasters to accept these moderate offers; and after long and patient waiting you, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, have appointed to-morrow, the 1st of January 1863, as the day of unconditional freedom for the slaves of the rebel States.  Heartily we do congratulate you and your country on this humane and righteous course.  We assume that you cannot now stop short of a complete uprooting of slavery.  It would not become us to dictate any details, but there are broad principles of humanity which must guide you.  If complete emancipation in some States be deferred, though only to a predetermined fay, still, in the interval, human beings should not be counted chattels.  Women must have 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 -- that his voice be heard in your courts.  Nor must any such abomination be tolerated as slave breeding States and a slave market -- if you are to earn the high reward of all your sacrifices, in the approval of the universal brotherhood and of the DIVINE FATHER. It is for your free country to decide whether anything but immediate and total and emancipation can secure the most indispensable rights of humanity against the inveterate wickedness of local laws and local executives.  We implore you, for your own honour and welfare, not to faint in your Providential mission.  While your enthusiasm is aflame, and the tide of events runs high, let the work be finished effectually.  Leave no root of bitterness to spring up and work fresh misery to your children.  It is a mighty task, indeed, to reorganize the industry not only of 4,000,000 of the coloured race, but of 5,000,000 whites.  Nevertheless, the vast progress you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot upon civilization and Christianity -- chattel-slavery -- during your Presidency will cause the name of ABRAHAM LINCOLN to be honoured and revered by posterity.  We are certain that such a glorious consummation will cement Great Britain to the United States in close and enduring regards.  Our interests, moreover, are identified with yours.  We are truly one people, though locally separate.  And if you have any ill-wishers here, be assured they are chiefly those who oppose liberty at home, and that they will be powerless to stir up quarrels between us, fro the very day in which your country becomes, undeniably and without exception, the home of the free.  Accept our high admiration of your firmness in upholding the proclamation of freedom." [7]

Within a few weeks, Lincoln replied:

George Grey Barnard. Abraham Lincoln. bronze. 1919. Lincoln Square, Manchester, UK

George Grey Barnard. Abraham Lincoln. bronze. 1919. Lincoln Square, Manchester, UK

To the Working-men of Manchester:

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the address and resolutions which you sent me on the eve of the new year. When I came, on the 4th of March, 1861, through a free and constitutional election to preside in the Government of the United States, the country was found at the verge of civil war. Whatever might have been the cause, or whosesoever 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 the key to all the measures of administration which have been and to all which will hereafter be pursued. Under our frame of government and my official oath, I could not depart from this purpose if I would. It is not always in the power of governments to enlarge or restrict the scope of moral results which follow the policies that they may deem it necessary for the public safety from time to time to adopt.

I have understood well that the duty of self-preservation rests solely with the American people; but I have at the same time been aware that favor or disfavor of foreign nations might have a material influence in enlarging or prolonging the struggle with disloyal men in which the country is engaged. A fair examination of history has served to authorize a belief that the past actions and influences of the United States were generally regarded as having been beneficial toward mankind. I have, therefore, reckoned upon the forbearance of nations. Circumstances -to some of which you kindly allude - induce me especially to expect that if justice and good faith should be practised by the United States, they would encounter no hostile influence on the part of Great Britain. It is now a pleasant duty to acknowledge 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.

I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working-men of Manchester, and in all Europe, are called to endure in this crisis. 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. Through the action of our disloyal citizens, the working- men of Europe have been subjected to severe trials, for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt. Under the circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent power of truth, and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom. I do not doubt that the sentiments you have expressed will be sustained by your great nation; and, on the other hand, I have no hesitation in assuring you that they will excite admiration, esteem, and the most reciprocal feelings of friendship among the American people. I hail this interchange of sentiment, therefore, as an augury 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.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Submitted by Capt. Gary Holman, Federal Staff [8]

This link between Lincoln and the Workers of Manchester was commemorated by the installation of George Grey Barnard's bronze statue of Lincoln in Platt fields in 1919 (moved to Lincoln Square in 1986).  This statue -- at the time not considered noble enough to stand outside the halls of Westminster -- is one of three.  The other two stand in Cincinnati, OH and Louisville, KY.

[1] Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War (New York: Random House, 2010).

[2] M. P. "The Cotton Workers," Times (31 Oct. 1862): 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[3] A. E. "European Intervention in America," (London, England): 21 Jan. 1862: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[4] “Monthly Summary,” The Anti-Slavery Reporter 11, no. 2 new series (5 February 1863): 25

[5] “Emancipation Meetings in England,; The Workingmen of Manchester,” New York Times (15 January 1863)

[6] Ibid.

[7] "The Manchester Workmen and Emancipation" Daily News [Manchester] (2 January 2 1863).

[8] Abraham Lincoln to the Working-Men of Manchester, England, 19 January 1863.