historian, author, film producer

The British View of Lincoln and the American War

In the fall of 1860 as the United States presidential election heated up with four major party candidates in the field, few observers in England had formed much of an opinion of Abraham Lincoln, the prairie lawyer from Illinois. The rise of the Republican Party and the emergence of Lincoln as its standard bearer took place so quickly that many in Britain were uninformed about the party and the man.

Few commentators, for example, were as widely known in Britain as Harriet Martineau who traveled to the United States in the 1830s and wrote over one thousand letters in the London Daily News on American affairs. A renowned political economist, highly successful author, and committed abolitionist, Martineau knew little about Lincoln. Naturally, she was doubtful. Her overall impression of the Northern United States was that the white politicians there had been so subservient to the South’s slaveholders for so long that as a group they possessed no moral backbone, and consequently could not be trusted. The North was a fallen, immoral society, complicit in the greatest evil of the day–slavery. To Martineau, a Garrisonian and a close friend of Maria Weston Chapman, the Republican party and Lincoln seemed hopelessly conservative.

After Lincoln’s election she wrote her editor, “I fancy Lincoln is honest, as far as he goes; but it is a very short way.” As the sectional crisis deepened and Virginia threatened to secede, she admitted to a growing admiration for the man. He had at least done the things she had hoped and not done the things she thought should be avoided. When Virginia left the Union and Lincoln issued his call for troops, Martineau revised her opinion of him: “he is an immense relief!”

Martineau’s friend, Richard Cobden, also initially misjudged Lincoln. Cobden, an influential M.P. and longtime free trade and antislavery proponent, met Lincoln in Springfield when he went to Illinois to evaluate the prospects for his investment in the Illinois Central Railroad. Cobden took this trip in 1859 and only briefly spoke with Lincoln. In March 1861, however, he wrote his friend John Bright, also an M.P. and leading antislavery man, that Lincoln was a “backwoodsman of good sturdy common sense but evidently unequal to the occasion.” Such views were common.

If Lincoln did not initially impress the liberal British politicians and observers, he certainly held little weight with the conservative classes. August Belmont, a British emigrant to the U.S. in 1837 and a successful New York financier, reported every week on American political affairs to his London banker N. M. Rothschild. Belmont was a Democrat and viewed Lincoln’s Republican Party nomination over William Henry Seward as entirely unexpected. When his election prompted South Carolina’s move to secede, Belmont was surprised again, admitting to Rothschild that he had had no idea the situation was so serious.

Because Belmont kept Rothschild informed on political affairs every week, and perhaps because Rothschild held large shares in U.S. federal and state bonds, the London banker showed little surprise when Lincoln was elected. Only when Lincoln began to pursue a policy of unrelenting war for the Union was Rothschild stunned. To a significant degree Rothschild’s realism left him unprepared for a civil war that traced its proximate cause to a presidential election. Rothschild, like many other British observers, expected a settlement and compromise to come quickly and doubted whether Lincoln, and the North, had the resolve to carry out a war with such a limited political objective of keeping the Union together as its chief war aim.

Few presidents have been nominated and elected who had less experience in political office than Abraham Lincoln. None have been confronted with the crisis he faced in his first weeks in office. Knowing how successfully Lincoln waged the war, it would be easy with hindsight to smirk at the way Lincoln’s contemporaries underestimated him. Yet, the British concerns about Lincoln point to an important, and often overlooked, dimension to the Civil War: the conflict had significant international ramifications and there were huge differences of perspective between the British and Americans on the war.

On no issue was this more pronounced than the British view of the violence and destruction in the war as a humanitarian crisis. The Americans were willing to kill one another at a rate and with a determination the British had not anticipated.The assessment of Lincoln that British observers conducted in late 1860 and 1861 mirrored their assessment of American affairs more generally. Lincoln and his party represented a resurgent Northern determination to contain slavery, a goal widely admired in Britain. But the prospect of a modern, large-scale war offended British sensibilities and ideas of progress. Lincoln’s election and the move to secession were surprises, but the war and its unprecedented bloodshed were a shock.