Transatlantic Ties: January 2021 Update – Inaugurations, MPs and Presidents

By Jo McConville, Project Archivist

“United States Capitol, Washington, D. C.” by Boston Public Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The day finally arrives for Joe Biden’s inauguration as 46th president of the United States, following an extraordinary few months of controversy and division since his election victory in early November, culminating in the attack on the US Capitol on 6th January 2021. Amongst reams of media coverage and analysis on this political unrest, connections have been drawn by some to another troubled presidential election, which eventually led the country to civil war. While Joe Biden’s victory has been surrounded by (unsubstantiated) allegations of voting fraud, conspiracy theories and lawsuits, the triumph of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 was deemed so unacceptable to a portion of the electorate that it led to the secession of seven of the southern states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas) from the Union before his inauguration on March 4th 1861, with a further four states (Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina) following shortly afterwards. These states declared their independence as the Confederate States of America, installing Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis as their own president.[1]

“Abraham Lincoln – head & shoulders portrait” by Believe Creative is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rather than contesting the legitimacy of the voting itself, southerners were simply unable to accept the authority of a President and a party whom they perceived as a threat to the nature of their society and way of life. That society, of course, being based on white supremacy and the enforced labour of enslaved Africans who were regarded as property to be bought and sold. The events following Lincoln’s election occurred with dramatic speed, but the underlying tensions had been brewing for years,[2] with southern rebellion an ongoing threat.  As the original 13 ‘United States’ expanded their reach into the North American continent, disagreements arose over how and where the slave system on which the cotton-growing economy of the southern states depended might be permitted to extend into this new territory.

“President Jefferson Davis” by Marion Doss is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Whilst the abolitionist movement swept across the northern states, attacking slavery as a moral wrong, the slave-owning classes of the South became more entrenched in their views on the right to retain their ‘property’. Congress was divided between the interests of free and slave states, with each side battling to curb the power and influence of the other. There were many degrees of opposition or approbation in relation to the slavery question, but the broad division between northern and southern concerns was a stark one. When Lincoln, representing the newly formed Republican party, swept to victory in the 1860 election, he did so by winning all of the free (northern) states with the exception of New Jersey. Although Lincoln was regarded as a moderate candidate, and at that time sought only to control the expansion of slavery rather than abolish it, the Republicans were so unpopular in the south that Lincoln’s name did not even appear on the ballot in ten states. A split in the Democratic party, then the dominant party in the south,[3] into separate northern and southern factions was one notable factor in the outcome of the election. With the South set on independence, and the North’s refusal to countenance dissolving the Union, the country was set on the course to civil war.

WSRO Cobden Mss 841 – Sitting portrait of Richard Cobden

Observing these events from afar was MP and free-trade campaigner Richard Cobden, whose birthplace and home was the small town of Heyshott, near Midhurst. Known particularly for his role in repealing the Corn Laws (a tax on imported grain), Cobden was a long-term admirer of the American republic (‘this great & glorious Union’), who had travelled to the country on two extended trips and made a number of friends and contacts. His extensive correspondence held at WSRO (in both original and copy form), particularly during 1861-1865, the last years of his life, features a treasure trove of commentary and analysis as Cobden exchanges opinions (and comes to exert influence – of which more in another post!) on political developments across the Atlantic. Cobden’s views on the issues and players involved came to evolve as the war progressed, but it is fascinating to read his remarks to his friend and colleague John Bright in a letter written in March 1861, following the secession of a number of southern states and shortly prior to the outbreak of the civil war in April of the same year.

WSRO Cobden PD 88 – Engraving print showing the rural cottage where Richard Cobden was born

With Cobden’s own role as a free-trade advocate and ambassador, his first complaint concerns a new tariff[4] on imports, aimed at protecting American industry and wages. Not mincing his words, Cobden bemoans the ‘…ignorance and stupid suicidal selfishness’ this displays, hoping that it ‘cannot last two years…’ Turning to the political division, Cobden laments the probability of the country descending into war (he was a fervent pacifist) and appears to feel that ‘a peaceful separation’ would be the most desirable outcome. Cobden was opposed to slavery and came to sympathise more strongly with the northern cause as the war progressed; however he makes no mention of it in this letter, and expresses no desire that the southern status quo be disrupted – rather suggesting that the north should allow the south to do as they will:

‘…the South has a settled determination to secede. – The cotton States believe in a prosperous future owing to a direct trade with Liverpool. – This has been their dream for a long time. – Besides, the Southern leaders are very determined able men, & not likely to draw back from any motives of fear or prudence.’

Cobden also expresses considerable admiration for Jefferson Davis (the new Confederate president) – ‘an accomplished gentlemanlike man with whom I found myself for a couple of days on board a Mississippi Steamer.’[5] . His opinion of Abraham Lincoln, ‘whom I saw at Springfield’[6] meanwhile, is rather more reserved. Cobden calls him ‘a backwoodsman of good sturdy common sense’ in reference to Lincoln’s humble origins – he was born in a one room log cabin in Kentucky to a farming family and had almost no formal education, unlike many of his more privileged contemporaries in the political scene.  Rather more controversially, Cobden then goes on to pronounce him ‘…evidently unequal to the occasion.’ In terms of the civil war, and Lincoln’s presidency, this was very early days, before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg address, northern victory and the Thirteenth Amendment.

Still, Cobden’s scathing verdict on a man long venerated as one of the most significant figures in American history is a diverting reminder of the contrast between judgements made in the moment and the perspective given by the benefit of time and distance.

“Washington D.C. – Lincoln Memorial Abraham Lincoln 04” by Daniel Mennerich is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[1] The flying of the Confederate flag at the Capitol riot caused particular shock https://theconversation.com/the-confederate-battle-flag-which-rioters-flew-inside-the-us-capitol-has-long-been-a-symbol-of-white-insurrection-153071 and https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/us/politics/confederate-flag-capitol.html

[2] For a fuller understanding of the situation leading up to secession and the Civil War, I’d strongly recommend James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom

[3] In case you’re as confused as I was by the changing positions of Republicans and Democrats in the US: https://www.livescience.com/34241-democratic-republican-parties-switch-platforms.html

[4] The Morill tariff was adopted on 2nd March 1861 during the administration of Democrat James Buchanan, but was supported by the incoming Republican party, who made it part of their election platform.

[5] This occurred during Cobden’s travels in the United States in 1859, and is also recorded in Cobden’s American diaries

[6] Cobden visited Springfield in May 1859

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