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It is well known that not only had Great Britain outlawed slavery but even interfered with ships of foreign powers carrying slaves.

However, there are multiple cases of Britain supporting the South. One notable case is allowing Judah P. Benjamin to live openly there after the war. They also sold warships and engaged in trade with the Confederacy.

It could be argued that Britain liked the split itself, expecting to perhaps move in and re-take the colonies of a weakened United States.

But as far as slavery itself, did Britain object more strongly against the slave trade than against enslaved people remaining enslaved? Or was it simply that despite their opposition to slavery itself, it was worth it to the Brits to ignore this major aspect of the Confederacy and perhaps they themselves saw one result of their taking back the colonies as being Britain abolishing slavery in the rewon colonies?

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    There is a saying that politics makes strange bedfellows. Commented Jul 8 at 7:17
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    Could it be that, instead of contemplating another war to reconquer America, they simply considered that the economic benefits of continued trade with the South outweighed their abhorrence of slavery?
    – bof
    Commented Jul 8 at 7:48
  • @bof: I consider it more probable that they thought temporarily allowing slavery to continue was worth undermining a rising world power. Plenty of people living then remembered the War of 1812. I really believe Britain saw retaking the USA as a possibility. Heck, they may be thinking of it right now and I am not entirely kidding.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jul 8 at 8:26
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    It is a (typical) example of politics being guided not by principles, but by interests. An even more striking example in this context is Louis XVI crucial support for the American War of Independence - because it served his interests vis-à-vis Britain. A few years later revolution came to France and he had his head cut off.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Jul 8 at 8:26
  • @KillingTime I am a fan of the phrase itself. I recall Moby Dick and in real life Lincoln shared a bed with future VIPs who were then his secretaries. People today complain in hotels when room service is late; imagine sharing a bed with a complete stranger like the tattooed harpooner in Moby Dick or the blanket-stealing granny of True Grit.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jul 8 at 8:33

2 Answers 2

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The British support for confederacy was more cynical than paradoxical.

Britain was one of the most important commercial partner of the ex-colonies.

The north and the south had different economic policies and trade effect with Britain, in particular:

Those two views were one of the drive to secession, other than slavery.

So Britain had more interest in keep the cotton flowing, specially as "around one quarter of the British population at the time depended on the cotton textile industry for their income.", other than having difficulties to export to US.

The population was split, by different beliefs and social class.

In the end we can say that officially England was neutral, but wanted to keep the raw materials flowing, as it was needed for its own industrial revolution.

On a side note - thanks to @releseabe for the comment - trading slaves from Africa was abolished by both Britain and US in 1807, so way before civil war, with the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves for the US and the Slave Trade Act 1807 for Britain.

(On the side, this generated work for lawyer - see United States v. The Amistad, portrayed by Spielberg's Amistad film)

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  • But why intercept slave ships at all? Expensive, purely a moral act afaik.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jul 8 at 8:35
  • @releseabe the import of slaves from africa was banned by US in 1807 - so lot of years before the civil war (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Act_Prohibiting_Importation_of_Slaves). The Britain were simply fighting smuggling. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amistad_(film) for a fictional reference
    – Dan M
    Commented Jul 8 at 8:38
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    IIRC, cotton was essential not just as a consumer good (as noted in the answer; correct, but incomplete), but was a strategic good in British Naval sails. While steam was the future, British Admiralty reacts slowly. Also note that British foreign policy was complicated by a rogue member of the government who supported the South against government direction. A fact for which the UK was nearly a party in the war (legally should have been, but none of the countries involved felt that was a desirable outcome.)
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 8 at 14:07
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    The ruling class supported the South but... ilovemanchester.com/… "As the largest processor of cotton in the world, Manchester took a strong moral and political stance by supporting Lincoln despite his blockade of the Confederate states ... Manchester and the surrounding area, which had once clothed the world, found 60% of its mills falling idle, largely as a result of the blockade ... in a meeting in 1862, in a show of defiance despite potential starvation and destitution, workers agreed to maintain support for Lincoln and the embargo." Commented Jul 14 at 21:37
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I think hypocritical would be a better term. In that you are asking if the nation's support of the Confederacy was contrary to its stated values. In fact, it was not hypocritical, and the moment it did become publicly hypocritical, the UK stopped doing it (publicly).

The thing you have to realize here is that while the South always maintained, from the very beginning of secession, that the purpose of their actions was to preserve slavery, that was not the story in the rest of the United States.

Initially Lincoln's chief goal was to preserve the union of the United States of America. At the very beginning, this meant to limit the amount of states that joined the Confederacy.

So since the rebels' main casus belli was the preservation of slavery, the Lincoln Administration, and the POTUS himself, repeatedly asserted that the war was not about slavery at all, and the USA had no intention of ending slavery.

From his first Inaugural Address (about a month after the secessions started)

I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Given that repeated public position from the US Administration that slavery wasn't actually under threat, and an ultimate Union victory would not alter it, it was a quite reasonable position in the UK to consider the war a domestic American matter, not a moral matter. In that circumstance, it made perfect sense for foreign policy to center the domestic commercial interests of the UK1.

This is why it is often said that the Emancipation Proclamation, and its timing (announcement in late September 1882, release in 1863), was largely calculated for its foreign policy effect. While it didn't free a lot of slaves directly, it promised to free every slave in any rebelling territory that got reconquered. Thus the war became, indisputably, about ending slavery. This made public recognition of the rebelling states as their own nation politically impossible in the UK and France, and public support of them politically dangerous (publicly).


1 - As mentioned in Dan M's answer

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    it is interesting how the government policy was quite different from the feeling of the people - see the manchester' support of Union at the end of 1862 (just a couple of days before the official declaration of Lincoln) - see scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/…
    – Dan M
    Commented Jul 8 at 15:00
  • @DanM - That would have been well after the issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, on September 22, 1862, and probably in reaction to it and anticipation to its release.. It stated what was going to be in the proclamation pretty directly: "That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." I've edited the text to clarify that point.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 8 at 15:09
  • Be careful about that Lincoln quote! Lincoln and the South both knew that the non-slave states were richer and growing faster than the slave states and if the Union was preserved, slavery was doomed -- as soon as the West was organized into (free) states, abolition would have the 3/4 majority of states needed and slavery would be abolished. Lincoln was smart and didn't want a war merely to speed the process up. The South understood that time was not on their side.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jul 8 at 19:29
  • @MarkOlson - I 100% agree that the Senate getting that majority of non-slave states was the bugaboo behind a lot of otherwise seemingly unnecessarily aggressive Southern tactics in the mid 19th Century. However, that doesn't mean those non-slave states would have been particularly quick to fiat ban all slavery in unwilling states (in some alternate past where they weren't forced to by war). It more seems like Southern pride couldn't deal with a future where they couldn't use brute political force vs. the softer arts of persuasion to retain their way of life.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 8 at 20:29
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    In either event, the lesson of history here is that in reality it took the bloodiest war in American History, not any popular enlightened realization of core founding principles of freedom, to get slavery outlawed. Any assertion that it didn't have to be that way is quite attractive, but unproven.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 8 at 20:32

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