Despite having no representation in parliament, the British working class were able to restrain the pro-slavery leanings of the ruling class...
In December 1860, 11 slave-owning states broke away from the United States of America to form the Confederacy. When Abraham Lincoln became President in March 1861, he denounced the secession as unconstitutional. April saw a Union blockade of Confederate ports and the onset of a bitter civil war.
Between 1840 and 1860 the United States provided 80 per cent of Britain’s cotton. The Confederacy thought “cotton famine” caused by the blockade would cut off Lancashire’s textile industry from its supplies of raw materials and propel Britain into conflict against the Union to end the blockade. But matters did not develop in that way.
Great distress overwhelmed the British cotton industry. Between 1861 and 1865 the Lancashire textile industry suffered a period of severe unemployment with over 320,000 workers unemployed out of 533,950 by November 1862; there were still 190,000 fewer jobs in December 1864.
Fairly ample stocks of cotton had been stored in British factories and warehouses. It was the speculative bidding up of the price for raw cotton that did damage, particularly hitting smaller manufacturers who could not withstand the strains of the high price. The crisis in the textile industry also gave British manufacturers the opportunity to extend the working day, depress wages and equip factories with labour-saving machinery.
The civil war acutely divided British opinion. Friends of the Confederacy in Britain came largely from the aristocracy (who had social and political ties with American slave-owners) and the commercial classes (who had business links and wanted to escape Union tariffs). These upper classes dominated parliament. Their newspapers – such as The Times – openly advocated aiding the Confederacy.
British workers transcended narrow economic self-interest to support the Union cause.
But British workers, driven by a deep hatred of slavery and striving for a more democratic government at home, restrained the pro-confederate leanings of the government class. Though not represented in parliament, the working class was the preponderant part of society and therefore not without political influence, able to pressure the government into adopting a policy of non-intervention in the civil war and thwarting assistance to the Confederate States.
At the beginning, northern US leaders asserted the main object of war was to preserve the Union and not to touch slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation of the Slaves Proclamation strengthened British workers’ support for the Union cause. The spinners and weavers of Lancashire transcended their economic self-interest and took the lead in upholding the Union blockade. They realised that helping the slave-owners win would defeat the cause of freedom represented by the North and set back their own struggle for political reform in Britain.
Throughout 1862 and 1863, massive pro-Union meetings were held by workers in Ashton-under-Lyne, Blackburn, Bury, Stalybridge, Liverpool, Rochdale, Leeds, London and Edinburgh, calling on the government to not depart from strict neutrality in the conflict. On 31 December 1862, thousands of working men in the Manchester Free Trade Hall expressed sympathy with the North and called for Lincoln to eradicate slavery.
The efforts of those seeking to glorify the slave power and corrupt the minds of working people were utterly in vain. Working-class newspapers not only printed the Manchester meeting’s Address to Lincoln but also President Lincoln’s reply recognising British workers’ sacrifice.
In order to ascertain the effects of the “cotton famine”, The New York Times sent a reporter to Lancashire in September 1862 who reported on the acute distress of the cotton manufacturing workers and came up with a practical suggestion – launching a campaign to send food aid supplies to Lancashire workers.
Meetings were held and money raised throughout the Union. On 9 January 1863, the George Griswold relief ship, loaded with gifts of food, left New York to the cheers of spectators. Her cargo consisted of flour, bacon, pork, corn, bread, wheat and rice. American stevedores loaded the ship without charge. Additional ships were soon sent: the Achilles and the Hope.
When the Griswold docked at Liverpool, all the dock workers refused payment for their services and the railways offered free transport. On 23 February 1863, 6,000 working men were at the Free Trade Hall (inside and out) to greet the arrival of the George Griswold. One speaker observed, “If the North succeeded, liberty would be stimulated and encouraged in every country on the face of the earth; if they failed, despotism, like a great pall, would envelop our social and political institutions.”
‘The cause of labour is one’
On 26 March 1863, 3,000 skilled workers at St James Hall assembled in a pro-Union gathering organised by the London Trades Council to hear trade union speakers including a bricklayer, engineer, shoemaker, compositor, mason and joiner. Two contributors noted: “The cause of labour is one, all over the world” and “We are met here ... not merely as friends of Emancipation, but as friends of Reform.” With the North’s victory, a working class newspaper wrote “No nation is really strong where the majority of its citizens are deprived of a voice in the management of public affairs.”
As a result of working-class resistance, Britain neither recognised the Confederacy nor intervened to break the blockade. Despite terrible hardships, particularly in the northwest, workers refused to allow their sufferings to be exploited by pro-Confederate sympathisers.
As Marx said, “It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the West of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic.”
The American Civil War generated a broadening of horizons among British workers that blossomed even further in the First International. ■