British workers and American slavery

Submitted by AWL on 29 June, 2020 - 12:39 Author: Sacha Ismail
Cotton operative

• This story is told in more detail in the pamphlet Workers against slavery: the US Civil War, the First International and the British working class
• For a shorter version of the following article, see the PDF of Solidarity issue 554

In the 1860s, through a four year, 600,000-death civil war, slavery in the United States was destroyed. The defeat of revolutionary movements unleashed by the war, above all movements of the ex-slaves, created the system of white supremacy and racial segregation which endured till the 1960s and whose legacy shapes the US today.

Solidarity has told this story before (eg see here) and will again.

One of its many remarkable aspects is the role played by workers in Britain – who not only rejected ruling-class attempts to use them against the US anti-slavery struggle, but responded with energetic protests in its support.

If the British government, which leant strongly towards the Southern slave-owners, had intervened more decisively in their favour, the outcome of the war might have been different. If British workers had played the role assigned to them from above, it is more likely that would have happened.

In any case, it had both huge symbolic significance and a major, international impact on the politics and class struggle of the time.

Britain and the civil war

The US (Northern states) had many advantages over the Southern Confederate States of America: population, industrial base, economic dynamism. Yet early on the outcome was in doubt. One factor favouring the Confederacy was that its immediate aim was to defend its own territory. Another that seemed likely was support from foreign governments. France’s dictator Louis-Napoleon sent troops to Mexico to overthrow its US-allied republican government, and installed a puppet monarch supported by the Confederacy.

The British government of Viscount Henry Palmerston joined France in recognising the Confederacy as a belligerent power, giving it various rights in international relations. A blind eye was turned to the illegal building of Confederate warships in Britain. Senior government figures publicly advocated proposals ranging from “mediation” to stop the war to outright military intervention in support of the Confederates. Palmerston discussed such proposals with Louis-Napoleon.

Palmerston et al claimed to be anti-slavery, so why did they favour a regime founded to promote slavery? Karl Marx, who wrote extensively about the conflict, put his view in a letter to German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle: “They are the same fellows who wearied the world with their anti-slave trade philanthropism. But – cotton, cotton.”

As he put it in the New York Tribune, for which he was chief European correspondent:

“As long as the British cotton manufacturers depended on slave-grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted that they rested on a two-fold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black man on the other side of the Atlantic.”

A Confederate victory would mean vast Western territories being dominated by the production of staple crops for the world market (including cotton for the British textile industry); a US victory free commercial farming fuelling the growth of industrial capitalism (in competition with Britain).

Britain’s governing caste was also eager to see the closest thing to a democratic republic fail. In the US in 1860 only male and, for the most part, white workers could vote; in Britain no workers at all could.

Future Tory Prime Minister Robert Cecil set up “Southern Clubs” to agitate on the side of the Confederacy, receiving funding from a number of large employers.

The long-established “British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society” refused to take a stand on the war. Its leader Lord Brougham violently attacked the US government and denounced its eventual measures against slavery as “hostility to the whites”.

In November 1861, the US navy stopped a British ship, the Trent, carrying two Confederate diplomats across the Atlantic. War seemed imminent. The thousands of troops Palmerston had dispatched to Canada were put on alert and the Canadian Governor General told to prepare for war.

It did not happen, then or during later flare ups. A range of factors militated against it. The stand taken by Britain’s workers may not have been the most important in actually stopping war; it was extremely important politically.

Pressure on the workers

Many workers suffered appallingly as a result of the war, as the dependable supply of cotton ceased and swathes of British industry froze up. “English intervention in America has therefore become a bread-and-butter question for the working class”, wrote Marx in the Vienna newspaper Die Presse. “In addition, no means of inflaming its anger against the United States is scorned by its ‘natural superiors’.”

Unemployment in the Lancashire textile areas went from near zero in November 1860 to something like 330,000, about 50 percent, two years later. It was still 240,000 in December 1863 and 170,000 a year after that. In a society without a welfare state, millions of people were reduced to grinding poverty. Many tens of thousands of “cotton operatives” (textile workers) struggled to get food or heating, or were evicted from their homes. Mill-owners took the opportunity to depress wages and lengthen the working day for those who stayed in work.

“The working class is... fully aware”, commented Marx in Die Presse, “that the government is only waiting for the intervention cry from below, the pressure from without, to put an end to the American blockade and the distress in England”. At the start of the war a Confederate leader had boasted to the Times:

“We have only to stop shipment of cotton for three months and a revolution will occur in England. Hundreds of thousands of your workers will starve without our cotton, and they will demand you break the blockade.”

In the early 1860s the British workers’ movement was weak, and had been since the defeat of Chartism in the late 1840s. Trade unions got bigger in the 1850s, but they were not generally very radical. The Lancashire operatives had previously been involved in many mobilisations, but less and less so in recent years.

Many of the best established union leaders, and papers and journals which said they spoke to and for the working class, refused to support the North or even supported the Confederacy – for reasons including tailing the ruling class, racism, illusions that the Confederates were fighting a national liberation struggle, but also because of viewing anti-slavery activists as bourgeois hypocrites unmoved by the suffering of workers in Britain.

In Lancashire, pro-Confederate capitalists hired former radicals and working-class activists who had more recently been involved in arguing against strikes to propagandise for the slaveowners’ cause among workers.

Defenders of the Confederacy argued slavery was not at stake in the war, or even that Confederate independence would help free the slaves. (For the first year of the conflict, the US government was extremely reluctant to take action against slavery.)

Of course numerous workers accepted these kind of arguments. But overall the propagandists were frustrated by their inability to make a real dent in workers’ solidly pro-Northern views. A Confederate agent who had travelled to Britain from Alabama wrote back to his bosses: “The Lancashire operatives [are the only] class which as a class continues actively inimical to us... With them the unreasoning... aversion to our institutions is as firmly rooted as in any part of New England” (the most strongly anti-slavery part of the US).

Workers against slavery

As the former Chartist leader Ernest Jones, who played a crucial role on the other side, put it:

“Those base planters [the Southern slave-owners] did not know what English workingmen were made of... The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton, more glorious, indeed, than a satisfied stomach – it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

Pro-Confederate union leaders and journals “seem to have been increasingly out of touch with their following”, as a TUC pamphlet issued for the 1960 centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s election and the creation of London Trades Council explained.

Britain had a long history of anti-slavery campaigning. Slavery had been clearly illegal inside Britain since 1772; after big campaigns, the British Empire banned the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in the 1830s and 1840s. Under pressure from slave revolts and calculating how to gain advantage over its rivals, the British state worked to suppress the slave trade and sometimes slavery in other countries.

The US civil war, when the interests of British capital were threatened, was another matter. But large numbers of working- and middle-class people had come to take anti-slavery ideas more seriously. There was an early 19th century tradition of specifically working-class campaigns against slavery. Many in Britain, and other European countries, admired the US as the most democratic society in existence.

In this context, trade union activists who argued and fought for an internationalist, anti-slavery stance (see below) were able to have an important impact.

From the time of the Trent affair, British worker-activists began to organise mass meetings against military intervention and slavery. A resolution passed by one of the first ones Marx reported on, in Marylebone in January 1862, declared:

“This meeting considers it the particular duty of the workers, since they are not represented in the senate of the nation, to declare their sympathy with the United States in its gigantic struggle for maintenance of the Union, to denounce the base dishonesty and advocacy of slaveholding indulged in by the Times and kindred aristocratic journals, to express themselves most emphatically in favour of the policy of strictest non-intervention in the affairs of the United States... to protest against the war policy of the stock-exchange sharks, and to manifest the warmest sympathy with the endeavours of the [American] Abolitionists to bring about a final solution of the question of slavery.”

In the course of 1862, under pressure from Confederate victories, anti-slavery agitation and action by the slaves themselves, US war aims radicalised. The North started to fight something more like what Marx called a “revolutionary war” instead of a “constitutional” one, freeing larger and larger numbers. British workers’ mobilisation stepped up.

In the North

In the second half of 1862 a series of pro-Northern working-class rallies – something like a combination of public meetings and demonstrations, usually attended by thousands – swept across Lancashire and Yorkshire.

These meetings typically adopted anti-slavery and pro-US resolutions unanimously or by overwhelming majorities.

When pro-Confederate campaigners attempted to hold meetings, they were often taken over by hostile workers who passed anti-slavery resolutions. In July 1862, for instance, something like four thousand people attended an outdoor meeting in Blackburn called to demand British “mediation” of the war, a step towards recognising the Confederacy. Of those, all but twelve voted for an amendment from the secretary of the town’s Weavers’ Association turning the motion into an anti-slavery and pro-Lincoln one.

The climax of this wave was a meeting of six thousand people, overwhelmingly workers with many cotton operatives, in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 31 December 1862 – the day before Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation”, legally freeing three million slaves in the Confederacy and authorising the recruitment of black soldiers, came into effect. Called by working-class activists including former Chartists in the city, this meeting agreed a resolution which stated:

“Why should the Lancashire labourers sympathise 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? … Perhaps it is... because, possessing little more than our common humanity, [we] prize that above artificial distinctions of class and colour... whatever others think is to be said for the slaveowner, in [our] eyes his offence is the greatest man can commit against man, the sum and parent of all villainies.”

A black American named William Jackson, who had previously been a slave to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was in the audience, and addressed the meeting to cheers after cries from the floor for him to speak.

The Manchester Guardian (predecessor of today’s Guardian) poured scorn on the meeting and expressed a wish that no more working-class meetings on this issue should take place in the city. It was to be disappointed.

Out of the Manchester meetings was born the Union and Emancipation Society, to replace the discredited official “Anti-Slavery Society”, organising three hundred and fifty meetings during the civil war.

In London

Mass meetings/demonstrations took place across the country, from Brighton to Edinburgh – even in previously pro-Confederate Liverpool, built on the slave trade. Two took place in London on New Year’s Eve 1862, at the same time as the first Manchester Free Trade Hall meeting.

Most important was the 26 March 1863 meeting in St James’ Hall, Piccadilly, organised by London trade unionists.

This gathering, attended by about three thousand people, heavily made up of skilled workers, was addressed by a new generation of left-wing union leaders. Those present passed an address to Lincoln which urged him to complete the task of destroying slavery, arguing that the American Civil War had

“...opened the gates of freedom to millions of our negro brothers who have been deprived of their manhood by the infernal laws which have so long disgraced the civilisation of America... like our brothers in Lancashire... we would rather perish than band ourselves in unholy alliance with the South and slavery.”

Heap, the engineering worker who seconded the address, joked in his speech that nobody could any longer say trade unionists had “no sympathy with non-society [un-unionised] working men... for no one could deny that the negro labourer was a non-society man”. George Odger, shoe-maker and secretary of the London Trades Council, used his to link anti-black racism in America to anti-Irish racism in Britain.

T.J. Mantz of the compositors’ (typesetters’) union said that “he did not believe a hundred workmen could be found to meet together to justify a recognition of the Southern Confederacy, even on the ground of finding employment for the distressed operatives of Lancashire”. He pointed out that “trade unionists were determined at last to take an interest in political questions”.

The significance of the struggle

This strongly anti-racist and internationalist stand taken by many British workers and trade unionists was widely recognised at the time. Abraham Lincoln himself said:

“I never knew anything truer than their conduct. They knew that to get cotton would be to them to get work and food. Their instinct would be to break through the blockade and get the cotton. But they could not allow their instinct to override their consciences.”

The end of slavery in 1865 would lead to a huge growth of struggles by working people – by the former slaves in the South and by a newly confident working-class movement in the North (most of it, unfortunately, much worse on questions of racism than the British movement). The campaign by British workers in support of the fight against slavery led to a new birth of working-class politics in Britain too.

These mass mobilisations involved the British labour movement in new kinds of political issues and activity widely seen as controversial or unacceptable during the more conservative period of the 1850s, and brought new, more progressive leaders to the fore.

St James’ Hall was a triumph for a new layer of trade union leaders who had emerged in the fight to build the first large, stable unions of skilled workers in the 1850s, using relatively militant tactics in strikes and struggles in industries including engineering and construction. In London they cooperated closely, running the Trades Council which they had formed in 1860.

These new labour movement leaders wanted to campaign on political questions like winning workers the vote and international solidarity. They pushed back those who argued unions should not be political, and to marginalise those who wanted to take regressive positions – particularly on the American Civil War. The influence of union leaders who had refused to support the US anti-slavery struggle was severely weakened. George Troup, who as editor London Trades Council paper the Bee-Hive had published pro-Confederate propaganda, was forced out of office and the paper reoriented.

The connections British labour activists built with activists in other countries in the course of this struggle resulted, in November 1864, in the creation of the International Working Men’s Association and a growth of working-class organisation internationally.

In Britain it led directly into a trade union campaign to win workers the vote. In 1867, the same year (male) ex-slaves were enfranchised by a Congress dominated by the radical wing of the Republican Party, over a million (male) British workers got the vote, paving the way for further reforms in the decades that followed. Between 1865 and 1885, the UK’s population grew by 20%; the number of voters by 400%.

For a while at least many of the same union activists, working with Marx in the International, also took a strong stand against Britain’s oppression of Ireland.

It would take a long time, but these were also steps on the road to the development of a mass labour movement and independent working-class politics in the 1880s and after.

The working-class activists who fought this battle stood up to the pressure and politics of their rulers in the name of class solidarity, anti-racism and internationalism. In the face of today’s nationalist reaction, and in the context of international anti-racist struggles, we should draw inspiration from their story.

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