Myth, Manchester, and the Battle of British Public Opinion during the American Civil War

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Manchester 'working men' approved an address in support of Abraham Lincoln's emancipation policy and the American Union at the Free Trade Hall on 31 December 1862. The US president described their gesture as 'sublime Christian heroism' when hopes of restoring the cotton supply and reopening the mills were better served by Confederate recognition. This transatlantic exchange became an integral part of the scholarly traditional interpretation that the British working class frustrated the pro-Confederate designs of the upper classes during the American Civil War. It formed the historiographical orthodoxy until revisionists countered that Lancashire workers advocated Confederate recognition. The Manchester meeting, revisionists claimed, was contrived to give the impression of working-class support for Lincoln which was, in fact, a myth. These two incompatible interpretations simplify and flatten the complexity of an event with local, national, and international ramifications. This article presents the first detailed examination of who organized the Free Trade Hall meeting and why. It moves scholarly understanding of the British public response to the American Civil War beyond its current stasis of 'traditional' versus 'revisionist' by placing the field in conversation with the recent history of radicalism and 'class' in the Victorian era. Copyright © 2023 The Author(s).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)818 – 841
JournalHistorical Journal
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jun 2023


  • England
  • Manchester [England]
  • United Kingdom
  • civil war
  • complexity
  • free trade
  • political history


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