During the 1850’s and 60’s, was the free North (and its cause in the U.S. Civil War) considered more virtuous than the slave-holding South?

Do we find authors or politicians in the U.K. or France expressing outrage or contempt for American slavery or the American southern states because of slavery? Do we find public comment that while some advantage may lie in taking the Confederate side in the U.S. Civil War, it would be disgraceful or evil to support that side because of slavery? Was a pro-South or pro-Confederacy posture disreputable? Was this attitude arguable, controversial, or obvious?

Charles Dickens' 1842 American Notes apparently contains the following words:

While upon the subject of ears, I may observe that a distinguished abolitionist in New York once received a negro's ear, which had been cut off close to the head, in a general post letter. It was forwarded by the free and independent gentleman who had caused it to be amputated, with a polite request that he would place the specimen in his 'collection.'

I could enlarge this catalogue with broken arms, and broken legs, and gashed flesh, and missing teeth, and lacerated backs, and bites of dogs, and brands of red-hot irons innumerable: but as my readers will be sufficiently sickened and repelled already, I will turn to another branch of the subject.

All things considered, this strikes me as pretty cautious and tepid disapproval. Are there many examples this strong or stronger?

  • 3
    A Pro-Confederate posture was not at all disreputable at the time: cotton prices were high and the area was a major producer. If anything the Confederates lost supporters when new cotton sources arose at the same time in Egypt. Jul 31, 2017 at 22:26
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    1850's would be too early for that. Jul 31, 2017 at 23:55
  • @Chaim This still makes no sense since the CSA did not exist in 1850s. Perhaps, you meant to say "slavery as an institution". Aug 1, 2017 at 21:03
  • @Moishe Cohen Does that do the trick?
    – Chaim
    Aug 1, 2017 at 21:20
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    @Mark C. Wallace I'm afraid I can't understand the confusion. Today the consensus concerning antebellum slavery is such that statues and other monuments to the Confederacy are being removed, flags and seals are being re-designed, etc. It's strange to look back on the complete silence of the world then. Did they share the modern abhorrence of American slavery? There were activists, as today there are activists about many questions of no widespread interest. But where are the analogies to the widespread condemnation of Apartheid in the 1980's from singers, actors, poets? Did the world agree?
    – Chaim
    Aug 3, 2017 at 20:03

3 Answers 3


Since the US Civil War didn't actually start until 12 April 1861, there wasn't really a Union cause to support during the 1850s.

That said, the official position for the UK was that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (and, by extension, the British Empire) remained neutral throughout the American Civil War. However, that is not to say that the citizens of the UK were disinterested.

Behind that official neutrality the conflict became one of the most debated topics of the day. Pamphlets were published (in support of both sides), letter-writing campaigns were organised, pro-Confederate balls were held, anti-slavery petitions were set up, and there were even cotton boycotts which caused genuine hardship to the workers in mill towns, but who generally supported the boycotts nevertheless.

Broadly speaking, radicals. the lower-middle class, and the working class tended to support the democratic, anti-slavery, industrialised North, while the ruling and middle classes felt an affinity with Southern society - even if they viewed the institution of slavery with distaste.

In fact, until Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 in the aftermath of the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, it was possible for many to argue that the root cause of the conflict wasn't slavery at all. People could, and did, make a case that the war was simply about the right of the Southern states to secede from the Union.

So, to answer your questions:

  • Yes, authors and politicians argued that it would be wrong to support the Confederacy because of slavery.
  • No, pro-Confederate posture was by no means disreputable.
  • Yes, the attitude was arguable and controversial, and by no means obvious to everyone.

This page, part of an online exhibition about Britain and the American Civil War by the British Library, discusses several aspects of Anglo-American relations during the US Civil War. It includes a list of useful references at the end of the article.

  • I tried again to correct the supposed anachronism you refer to in your first sentence. But I feel there’s still a gap, perhaps partly because I don’t seem to have access to your JSTOR link. I realize that there were anti-slavery activists, but they are not generally well-known figures for any other reason. I wonder whether well-known people took the opportunity to condemn slavery, as current celebrities must enthuse about illegal immigrants or homosexuals in the wrong bathrooms. Do we know the expressed views of famous actors or prime ministers or clergy or journalists or nobility?
    – Chaim
    Aug 1, 2017 at 21:43
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    @Chaim The Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, favoured the Confederacy, despite being a long-time opponent of the institution of slavery. John Bright argued eloquently in support of the North. Both were extremely well known men in their day. Aug 1, 2017 at 22:04
  • @Chaim A (very limited) preview of the book English Public Opinion and the American Civil War by Duncan Andrew Campbell (the one I linked to on JSTOR) is available on Google Books. I also saw a couple of pdf versions when I searched, but I suspect that they are pirated content. In extremis, it is also probably available at a local library. Aug 4, 2017 at 10:30

The "Union" (antislavery) cause was considered "virtuous" by keepers of virtue.

For instance, the movement for abolition of slavery in England began with the Quakers. In 1807, "Abolitionists" in Britain won a ban against slave trade in the British Empire; in 1833, slavery was banned outright. In the 1840s, a British ""Anti-Slavery Society" was formed to fight slavery elsewhere (mostly in the Americas).

In the U.S., the anti-slavery movement won the support of the northern clergy. One particularly famous clergyman was Henry Ward Beecher, who sent "Beecher's bibles" (rifles) to northerners fighting slavery in Kansas in the 1850s. (He is even more famous for his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.)

It is also worth noting that slavery was abolished for the second, and final time in France, in 1848, just shy of 1850. (It had been abolished during the French Revolution, and reinstated with the return of the monarchy.)

Not everyone was in the "virtuous" camp. European countries like Britain and France debated long and hard before deciding not to support the Confederacy. Those that wanted to do so used "pragmatic" arguments such as trade, cultural affinity, or balance of power considerations. To take one example, Britain's Lord Palmerston was both anti- slavery and anti-U.S., and his policies were driven by the latter. According to Wikipedia,

"Although a professed opponent of the slave trade and slavery, he held a lifelong hostility towards the United States and believed a dissolution of the Union would weaken America – and therefore enhance British power. Additionally, the Confederacy 'would afford a valuable and extensive market for British manufactures'".

"Virtue," did not necessarily trump other considerations at the time.

  • I find it puzzling that the British, who opposed slavery to the point where they would intercept slave-carrying ships which could not have been profitable for them, nonetheless for essentially economic reasons were supportive of the Confederates -- not outright but it seems to me the Brits could have done more to discourage slavery by simply choosing not to trade with the South. Canada also seemed friendly to the Confederacy even while giving refuge to escaped slaves. Maybe I should ask this as a question.
    – Jeff
    Aug 1, 2017 at 4:24
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    @Jeff: The "British" were not of one mind, because there were different (and opposing) groups within. To their credit, they ran a democracy and all the competing interest groups got to make their weight felt in one way or another.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 1, 2017 at 7:27
  • In a democracy, you essentially vote on a policy, right? So that if the policy is to oppose slavery, you would not also support it. I think the complexity is that Britain was willing to compromise its stance for not so much economic reasons (I understand that Southern cotton was not as crucial as the Rebels felt) as a desire to see the USA weakened and even at this late date, there were some who saw Britain re-establishing itself in the region, maybe even retaking much of the USA.
    – Jeff
    Aug 1, 2017 at 7:43
  • @Jeff Maybe, they supported South because the reason of the war was not slavery, but customs taxes? South was for the free trade and North for the high cstoms taxes. North wanted to make the industrialization on the account of South. South disliked the idea, but finally was robbed even worse. And slavery was unimportant in reality, but widely used for propaganda. And British were the supporters of free trade that time.
    – Gangnus
    Aug 1, 2017 at 9:04
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    They leaned towards the South because their industry relied on cotton. Once the Emancipation Proclamation appeared, this became politically untenable. Aug 1, 2017 at 15:23

This compendium of declarations of several southern states stating the reasons for breaking away, specifically mention slavery, and the anti-slavery efforts of the northern states as a primary reason for breaking away. This didn't happen overnight... slavery had been a contentious issue for some time, producing among other things the Mason-Dixon line.

To add perspective, this wasn't so much a matter of good and evil, more that the agrarian south relied heavily on slave labor while the industrial north had learned that slaves don't do very well in the more complex industrial jobs prevalent in the northeast US. The north could easily take a 'virtuous' stand because it wasn't giving up anything in the process.

Another factor: tariffs put in place by the federal government to protect the emerging northern industry by curtailing manufactured goods import from Europe brought down retaliatory tariffs by Europe, which reduced the primary export of the US: agricultural goods like cotton, which came from the southern states.

Nor did the north invade the south with the explicit goal of abolishing slavery.

So, while the slavery debate was the most visible symbol of differences, the economic inequity visited on the agriculture of the south to benefit the industry of the north was also a motivating factor.

Figuring out if there was any great degree of virtue on the part of the 1860's federal government is a bit more difficult.

No less than Abraham Lincoln, while president, proposed plans to remove the former slaves from the US, and relocate them, either to British Guyana (Belize), or back to Africa. His untimely death put an end to that idea, despite some contemporary articles that publish unsourced and uncredited accounts that Lincoln had changed his mind on this plan. There was an effort to send Africans back to Africa: the nation of Liberia was created in the 1800's, and populated with former slaves sent back to Africa.

So it would appear that while the north didn't want slavery, they weren't exactly in favor of the former slaves living among them.

In fact, discrimination against Africans by the federal government didn't see any great curtailment until the 1950's. WW2 was fought by segregated troops with blacks relegated to service posts: construction, truck driving, cook, with the general (and incorrect) belief that blacks weren't good combat soldiers. Similar military segregation was not visited upon other ethnic groups.

And this sudden outburst of 'virtue' didn't stop the same federal government from committing genocide against native tribes in the west, or exploiting the Chinese and killing quite a few of them, while building the railroads. Both of those events happened in in the late 1800's.

Viewed from the perspective of the time, the 'virtue' looks more like a matter of convenience, because it was not accompanied by any sacrifice on the part of the north, nor were the ostensibly high morals championed as the source of the anti slavery efforts evident in how the north treated other minorities, or even how they treated the Africans after the war.

  • That is an interesting answer, although perhaps to a different question. This question is about contemporary attitudes in the UK and France to the two protagonists in the US Civil War. Aug 2, 2017 at 7:57
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    Sources would improve this answer - the Mason Dixon line was not reated by slavery, but in response to an attempt by Virginia to colonize Pennsylvania. The Mason Dixon line came to symbolize the distinction between North and South, but did not originate from slavery.
    – MCW
    Aug 2, 2017 at 9:23

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