How Britain Imagined the American Civil War

The academic study of the British public’s attitude toward the American Civil War began almost a century ago with the publication of Ephraim Douglass Adams’s Great Britain and the American Civil War (1925). This subject initially attracted interest among historians because they assumed that public opinion influenced British foreign policy, and that policy, in turn, exercised a decisive influence on the outcome of the war. Early studies tended to dwell on the influence of politics and class in shaping British opinion toward the American crisis. From this perspective, to put the matter crudely, opinion supposedly divided in the following fashion. On the one hand, bourgeois radicals and the working classes supposedly supported the North because they despised slavery and hoped the republican experiment in America to succeed so that it could serve as an example to the rest of the world. On the other, the upper classes and conservatives championed the South because they feared the triumph of democratic values. Historians operating in this tradition have tended to stress the impact of the war on British politics, particularly parliamentary reform. A number of scholars have since pointed out the problems with this “traditional” interpretation, but it still survives today in a modified and much more nuanced form. An alternate, “revisionist” version of British opinion emerged later, arguing that Britain’s policy of neutrality reflected a public opinion that was generally uncommitted if not hostile to both the North and the South.

Since then, scholars have increasingly placed the Civil War in a transatlantic and even global context, perspectives that have the potential to change understandings of British public opinion. Analyses of this opinion, though, remain largely beholden to the traditional and revisionist interpretations which, for all their substantial achievements, suffer from several common weaknesses. First, these interpretations tend to pay insufficient attention to the antebellum period during which the British developed the intellectual apparatus for understanding America during the war years. Second, largely due to the complexity of the subject, both the traditional and the revisionist approaches have experienced difficulty in formulating a unified principle or theory that accurately encapsulates British opinion during this period. Third, existing analyses of British attitudes toward the American Civil War have not always correctly assessed the impact of the conflict on British thinking in a variety of areas. In writing Ambivalent Nation: How Britain Imagined the American Civil War, it was my intent to come to terms with these issues. In this book, I argue that the antebellum post-colonial Anglo-American relationship—which was influenced by a host of factors—fundamentally shaped Britain’s response to the American crisis. Among other things, it accounted for the passionate ambivalence with which most Britons surveyed American affairs during the war. To measure the impact of the war on British ideas, Ambivalent Nation looks at several key subjects associated with the conflict that particularly interested the British and became thoroughly integrated in their public discussions: race, politics and society, military affairs, and nationality. The influence of American events on British thinking varied from subject to subject, but the war did wreak one lasting change; the Americans conjured up such awesome power that British observers felt compelled to accord the United States much more respect than ever before. The war, then, represented the beginning of the end for the postcolonial relationship.

We historians like to think that our work improves the state of knowledge in a given field, but we must always remember how utterly dependent we are on the scholars who came before us. The works below have either exerted a great influence on my ideas or constituted the most interesting forays in the topic.

P. Crook, The North, the South, and the Powers 1861-1865 (Wiley, 1974). Although Crook’s book is now out of print, it is notable for two reasons. First, it was one of the first works that sought to place the American Civil War in a global context—mainly by looking at how the conflict fit within great power competition in the western hemisphere and Europe. Second, in this book and a series of articles, Crook went beyond merely pointing out the problems with the traditional interpretation of British opinion—he actually substituted a revisionist analysis that stressed the degree to which the British policy of neutrality reflected public opinion. While I don’t fully agree with Crook’s analysis of British opinion, I find myself returning to this book over and over with much profit.

Martin Crawford, The Anglo-American Crisis of the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The Times and America, 1850-1862 (University of Georgia Press, 1987). Crawford is one of the few scholars who has shown much interest in how the patterns and traditions of the antebellum Anglo-American relationship fundamentally conditioned Britain’s response to the secession crisis. In this book, he looked at the role of The Times in this relationship—a newspaper that many contemporaries believed was especially important in influencing and representing the thoughts of Britain’s “governing classes.” This work is especially important in that it stresses the degree to which the newspaper, which many Northerners vilified for its editorial stance, was fundamentally conflicted about secession and the war, at least in its early stages. Moreover, Crawford is particularly interested in The Times’s efforts to sustain a positive Anglo-American relationship—until the stresses of the war and an accumulation of resentments finally led the newspaper to aim an unending stream of vitriol at the federal government.

R.J.M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2001). Divided Hearts is a meditation on British opinion produced by a scholar who had studied Britain and the Civil War from a variety of angles over the course of a long career. Blackett’s book is the most elaborate, sophisticated, and nuanced expression of what is, at heart, a traditional interpretation of British opinion. Although he recognizes the diversity of opinion that characterized British responses toward the north and the south (as well as the multitude of forces that produced that diversity), Blackett employs a sociological examination of each side’s partisans to make generalizations about who supported whom and why. The amount of research that went into this book is prodigious. Since Divided Hearts is sometimes dense and elliptical, it probably should not be the first book you read on British opinion toward the Civil War, but if you are truly interested in the topic, read it you must.

Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random House, 2012). No brief summary can do A World on Fire justice. Foreman’s book is not specifically about British attitudes toward the Civil War. Rather, it narrates the way the Civil War played out in the Anglo-American world. In reading this book, one comes to realize just how large, intricate, and integrated this world was—and how badly the Civil War disrupted it, leaving no part untouched. One great virtue of this work is the vast number of perspectives from which Foreman surveys the conflict. To trace the tangled skein of relationships between Britain, the North, and the South, she quotes politicians, soldiers, diplomats, journalists, industrialists, agents, propagandists, financiers, social reformers, and authors. This diversity of vantage points allows her to capture the full complexity, messiness, and interconnectedness of opinion on both sides of the Atlantic.

Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (Basic Books, 2015). The Cause of All Nations is part of a recent effort among historians to make the story of the Civil War part of a global narrative. Doyle is primarily interested in the public diplomacy that increasingly characterized relations between states during this period. He also investigates the interaction between hard and soft power on the international stage during the Civil War. While Doyle’s story ranges far afield, involving North America, Europe, and Central America, the focus rests primarily on the United States, France, and Britain. In this complex but entertaining story, Doyle focuses on the relationship between diplomacy, domestic politics, and public opinion. He argues that by winning the battle of public diplomacy while coordinating its soft and hard power, the federal government not only saved the Union but also pushed the world in a more liberal direction. One of the most intriguing parts of Doyle’s argument is the intimation that world opinion—one that exerted some influence on international relations—emerged for the first time during this period.

And so far as primary sources are concerned:

William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South (Louisiana State University Press, 2001). It is hard to choose just one primary source, but if one it must be, then this is it. Russell, who made his name as a star correspondent during the Crimean War, was sent by The Times to the United States in March 1861 and stayed there until April 1862. Russell was by no means perfect or without his biases, but he made a perceptive and empathetic observer who tried his level best to be fair. As Martin Crawford has pointed out, British correspondents were indispensable links in the Anglo-American relationship during the Civil War, and Russell was the most significant of those correspondents. Indeed, he probably did more to shape British views of America during the secession crisis and the first year of the war than anyone else. After he left the United States, the victim of worsening Anglo-American relations that he inadvertently helped precipitate, The Times’s—and Britain’s—sources of information became far less disinterested and trustworthy.

Hugh Dubrulle is a professor of history at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire and the author of Ambivalent Nation: How Britain Imagined the American Civil War.