- American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832–1863 by Peter O'Connor
In the winter of 1860–61, Americans had a choice to make. Would the Union continue to survive intact as it had, or would the election of Abraham Lincoln prove momentous enough to finally rend the union of the states? The choice they made inaugurated the bloodiest conflict in the nation's history. But Americans were not alone in making a choice. Nations, primarily in Europe, decided between Union and Confederacy just as Americans did at home. Nowhere else was this decision as important as it was in Great Britain. Peter O'Connor's American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832–1862 examines the dilemma British elites faced in deciding whether to support the North or the South. O'Connor's study follows from the simple question of why Great Britain did not offer its full-throated support of the Union cause until fully two years into the war. The answer, O'Connor contends, is rooted in an underappreciated degree of nuance some in Britain had in how they understood sectionalism in the United States, an understanding that was decades in the making.
The British mind O'Connor claims to study is not nearly as capacious as the title would suggest. O'Connor's source base—primarily works of fiction, travel narratives, and published political pamphlets—has an unmistakably elite bias, as he narrows his focus to "public intellectual[s]" writing for "the literate public" (4). The author's decision to limit his focus follows from his characterization of the existing literature as overly reliant on the analysis of class to understand the fissures the Civil War engendered in Great Britain. While O'Connor does an expert job in detailing how "a minority of the population" engaged with the Civil War and American sectionalism, his analysis does not provide an understanding of anything approximating the "British mind" (4). As O'Connor shows, even the limited group under study was hardly ever of one mind about the events that transpired in North America during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
As Americans lined up under the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars, most Britons were hard pressed to distinguish between the two in any meaningful way. Not even the Confederacy's unambiguous embrace of slavery, O'Connor confidently asserts, swayed many in Britain. Even though many Britons saw American slavery as an odious institution, they were quick to characterize slavery in the American South as a gentler, more benign iteration based on paternalism. Combined with a focus on the poor state of race relations in the North, their understanding of American slavery did not allow for a stark moral dichotomy between North and South. [End Page 154] That distinction was only made in 1863 as the Emancipation Proclamation made liberation an unambiguous Union war aim. Throughout the antebellum period, O'Connor contends, Britons "did not see slavery as a purely southern problem" (13), thus allowing observers to "level the moral playing field when North and South were contrasted" (15–16).
Just as with issues pertaining to race and slavery, British perceptions of ethnocultural regions in the United States were complex. In the British mind, the United States was divided into three cultural regions. Farthest north was New England, dominated by a Puritan tradition that was unmistakably English in origin. The South was dominated by the Cavalier culture, which likewise had strong ties to England. In between, however, was a region that was distinctly anti-English and dominated by recent migrants from Ireland and central Europe. While elites in Britain harbored a close cultural connection to the English-derived communities they imagined in New England and in the South, they recoiled from the anti-English attitudes they perceived in the mid-Atlantic. Again, O'Connor pushes back against a simple divide between the North and the South in the British perception of the United States.
In considering the workings of American politics, British observers displayed a nuanced...