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  • English Public Opinion and the American Civil War
  • Lorraine Peters
English Public Opinion and the American Civil War. By Duncan Andrew Campbell. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003. Pp. 266. Cloth, $70.00.)

In this contribution to the debate surrounding Great Britain's reaction to the American Civil War, Duncan Andrew Campbell offers a bold interpretation of English opinions, in a work which is both thematic and chronological. Campbell attacks what he sees as the perpetuation of the traditionalist view of Anglo-American Civil War attitudes, blaming a continued dependence upon the "propaganda" expressed by the English radical and Northern apologist John Bright. He is therefore more willing to accept Mary Ellison's revisionist approach in Support for Secession: Lancashire and the American Civil War (1972), than recent historians have been inclined to, denouncing what he claims is the myth of a pro-Northern working class and a pro-Southern aristocracy. He also argues that this overdependence on the views of Bright has led to an exaggeration of the role which democratic reform played in the formulation of opinions.

In his analysis of English public opinion, Campbell can be applauded for not equating English attitudes with British ones. He concentrates on the English [End Page 224] point of view from a London perspective, emphasizing the distinct nature of Scottish and Irish opinions. He points out that English opinion on the war was not split between two distinct and opposing camps and thereby contributes to recent scholarship in this field which has emphasized the complex nature of the British reaction. Denouncing the "myth" that the English were pro-Southern, he describes instead the ambivalence felt by many English observers toward both protagonists in the conflict as a result of the slavery issue. He shows that neutrality was a more common stance than has often been recognized, and in particular, he criticizes the assumption that hostility towards the North, engendered by the threatening behavior of Northern politicians and newspapers, automatically implied a pro-Southern position. His work should also be praised for establishing the English wartime commentary within the domestic political context, illustrating, for example, that the English taste for local government during the nineteenth century resulted in an appreciation of the concept of states' rights. The support of some liberals for the right of the South to self-determination was an example of principled backing for the South, which he argues is often overlooked by historians who prefer only to recognise the ethical nature of Northern support.

Campbell's denunciation of the credence given by historians to John Bright's role in the dissemination of English opinions is a prominent theme. He echoes the views of Ellison in stating that Bright (along with allies such as Richard Cobden and Karl Marx) misrepresented English opinion by exaggerating the extent of working-class support for the North and upper-class support for the South, and falsely equated the cause of the North with that of democratic reform in Britain. Many will feel that this represents something of an overstatement, along with Campbell's opinion that the subject of democratic reform played little part in the formulation of Civil War attitudes in England. While Bright did not represent English liberal or labor opinion as a whole, recent localized studies have shown that working class, radical, and conservative commentators consistently associated the subject of reform with the American Civil War. In Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (2001), R. J. M. Blackett has shown that while a number of factors played their part in the formulation of Civil War attitudes, "the sides people took in the war determined to a measurable degree their commitment to political reform" (240), and that despite some exceptions "the links between support for the Union and political reform are indisputable" (240).

Campbell emphasizes the complex nature of Anglo-American relations during the Civil War, and in offering an often provocative approach to the subject, he has no doubt provided a stimulus for further examination of the [End Page 225] British context of the American Civil War. He calls for more regional studies of Civil War attitudes, recognizing that local divergences led some areas to be more pro...


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