The Journal of Liberal History: A special edition on Liberals and the American Civil War

The Spring 2022 issue of the Journal of Liberal History has just been published. One of our themed special issues, this edition covers the important topic of Liberal attitudes and responses to the American Civil War. The war was a pivotal event in American history but one which also sent shockwaves around the world, provoking argument and debate on questions of Republicanism, democracy, nation-building and, of course, slavery.

The entire period of the Civil War (1861–65) took place during the Liberal administration of Lord Palmerston, and the contents of the special issue look at some of the significant Liberal and Radical reactions to the turbulent events of the times. The articles include:

Introduction: Co-editor of the special issue, Eugenio Biagini (Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Cambridge University), contextualises the contributions.

The Palmerston Ministry and the American Civil War. Duncan Andrew Campbell examines the tensions and disagreements in Anglo-American relations leading up to the war and follows the efforts of the Palmerston administration to remain neutral during the conflict, which angered both North and South in the process. The article also considers the impact of the war on British political thought, with some surprising conclusions.

The ‘voice of reason’: John Bright and his relationship with the Union. Radical MP John Bright was one of the most outspoken proponents of the North throughout the Civil War. Along with Richard Cobden he was even nicknamed ‘the Member for the Union’. In this article Shannon Westwood uses Bright’s speeches and letters to trace his influence on Liberal and wider British attitudes to the war.

John Stuart Mill, moral outrage and the American War. According to one recent biographer of Mill, the Civil War galvanised and politicised him in the same way as the French Revolution had. In this article, Timothy Larsen focuses on Mill’s contribution to developing Liberal support for the North, particularly when some senior Liberal voices seemed to be moving towards acquiescing in the secession of the Southern states.

‘An undoubted error, the most singular and palpable’. One of the voices which would have worried J S Mill was that of William Gladstone. Despite Gladstone’s expressed detestation of the institution of slavery, events in 1861–62 gave Gladstone pause for thought about the ability of the Union to reunite the country. In a speech at Newcastle in October 1862, Gladstone declared that the leaders of the South ‘had made a nation’. In this article, Tony Little examines Gladstone’s views on the speech which he later came to consider one of the worst mistakes of his political life.

Commerce, conscience and constitutions. By no means all Liberals and Radicals automatically sided with the North. In this article Graham Lippiatt unpicks the motivations of two contrasting Liberal MPs who chose to support the Confederacy: William Schaw Lindsay, a man of business and a strong free trader, who saw the economic damage the Civil War was doing and understood Southern resentment at US government policy on tariffs; and Lord Acton, the great historical thinker on rights and liberties whose legacy includes the famous aphorism that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

The American Civil War and the British women’s movement. Anti-slavery activism in Britain was one area where women were able to play a prominent role in the 19th century. Liberal voices including Barbara Bodichon, Harriet Taylor Mill and Harriet Martineau, were pre-eminent in these struggles and in this article Alastair Reid shows how British women anti-slavery campaigners influenced and strengthened other campaigns, leading to improvements in the position of women in education and public life.

Subscribers to the Journal should by now have received their copy of the special edition. If you aren’t a subscriber you can buy a copy through the Liberal Democrat History Group’s website shop. And while you are there please browse our other publications – you will almost certainly find something to interest you in the history of our party and its political traditions.

* Graham Lippiatt is a contributing editor to the Journal of Liberal History and co-edited the special issue on the American Civil War, with Eugenio Biagini.

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2 Comments

  • I don’t have anything hugely constructive to say Graham except thankyou, to you and the LDHG. You do a great job in keeping us linked to our heritage.

  • Duncan Brack 3rd Jun '22 - 2:34pm

    Thanks, TonyH! Graham put in a huge amount of work on this issue, as guest editor.

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