The Story the Republicans forgot: How Marx & The British Working Class helped Abraham Lincoln defeat the slaveholding Confederacy


“It was one of Karl Marx’s finest moments : to help organise, from England, in support of the Union & for the abolition of slavery – because the British ruling class was completely, militarily & economically, on the side of the South, and tried as best it could to strangle the Lincoln Government.”- Christopher Hitchens

The abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean became effective in 1838. As a result, Britain and Ireland became very important in the propaganda war against slavery in the southern states of America. Ex-slaves such as William Wells Brown, Henry Box Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs came to Britain to campaign and raise awareness of the slavery that was still happening in America.

America had laws which meant any enslaved person that ran away could be recaptured and returned to slavery. In fear of these fugitive slave laws many runaways made the journey to Britain. As Frederick Douglass eloquently stated of his two visits to Britain in 1845-47 and 1859, ‘I escaped Republican slavery for monarchical freedom’

In the build up to the American Civil War black abolitionists made hundreds of speeches at public meetings throughout the country. They brought people from across the world together to campaign against the system of slavery. There were World Anti-Slavery Conventions in London in 1840 and 1843. Black Americans participated and local abolitionists’ groups sprang up in small towns and cities such as Carlisle, Kendal, Manchester and Rochdale. These towns welcomed American abolitionist speakers, both black and white.

American Civil War and the cotton famine – As the debate about slavery got fiercer and fiercer in America, civil war became unavoidable. The north west of England then became important for two reasons: abolition and importing raw cotton. It was a place where the arguments for and against slavery were hotly debated.

“British cotton workers, not happily, but willingly, suffered a great deal during the US Civil War because of their enormous support for the emancipation of slaves – don’t forget, it was British people who bought Frederick Douglas’ freedom.” – Peter Hitchens.

Although some north west workers supported the southern ‘slave’ states, the majority supported the ‘anti-slavery’ northern cause, despite it meaning that they might suffer unemployment. The extent of this support for the northern states can be seen by the many well attended meetings in communities throughout Lancashire. Here, many made the connection between the chattel slaves in the Americas and their own position of ‘wage slavery’ in poor conditions in the mills.

Lincoln’s propaganda master stroke of sending the George Griswold with over 13,000 barrels of flour for the struggling mill-workers helped to secure their support. Its arrival in Liverpool in February 1863 was greeted by an enthusiastic pro northern public meeting of between 3-4,000 people. The only surviving barrel is in the collection at Touchstones Rochdale

‘We have a general impression amongst us that the once despised and enthralled African will not only be set free, but be enfranchised and in spite of his master; and when the slave ceases to be and becomes enfranchised free men, that the British workman’s claim may be listened to.’  – An Ashton man 1865

The region’s need for cotton for its mills made it important too. Selling cotton was crucial to the economy of the southern states of America and as the war began Abraham Lincoln blocked southern ports so they could not get ships carrying cotton across the Atlantic to England. This meant that raw cotton was prevented from reaching the mills of Lancashire. It led inevitably to unemployment and great hardship in the north west of England in the ‘Cotton Famine’ of 1862-63.

Liverpool shipbuilders such as John Laird MP (later of Cammel Laird) had supported the southern states of America in several ways. They had been responsible for the secretive building of ships such as the Alabama which had broken the blockade on southern ports and so let out ships carrying cotton. These ships supplied by the pro south Liverpool shipbuilders had also attacked northern shipping. However, the huge public meeting in Liverpool to greet the George Griswold shows that even in Liverpool – with its centuries long support for the slave power and its housing of an Embassy representing the southern slave states – support for the South was by no means 100%.

 ‘I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis … I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of the 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 truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.’ Abraham Lincoln, 1862

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