Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 188-189
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Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War. By R. J. M. Blackett. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 273. Cloth $49.95.)
With Divided Hearts, R. J. M. Blackett has written the most comprehensive-to-date account of British public opinion on the American Civil War. Relying on a wide variety of literary sources—both printed and manuscript—along with reconstructions of the membership profiles of both pro-Union and pro-Confederate organizations, Blackett has argued that while Conservatives in England tended for the most part to be pro-Confederate, Radicals and Liberals adopted a far more diverse and confused set of reactions to the struggle across the Atlantic.
Conservatives saw in the war a North demonstrating the excesses of American democracy and in the Confederacy the embodiment of English moderation and genteel prudence. For some English progressives, Lincoln's early and explicit devotion to a war in the service of Union rather than immediate emancipation invited a stance of moral equivalence with respect to the belligerents, especially among those Radicals with pacifist inclinations. The war's stoking of nationalist sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic also helped divide British reformers from their Northern brethren. Blackett thus completes (and corrects) Mary Ellison's now-thirty-year-old critique in Support for Secession: Lancashire and the American Civil War,which gave the traditional reformist account of a British public opinion divided between progressives and workingmen who backed the Union and reactionary aristocrats who backed the Confederacy.
British opinion was not without some underlying coherence, however. Most defenders of the Confederacy shared, or at least recognized, their countrymen's near-universal distaste for human bondage; they argued that emancipation would be furthered more quickly by separation than by forcible reunion. Most Englishmen, even those who advocated further domestic political reform, also saw the war as a patriotic vindication of Great Britain's constitutional arrangements. Diplomatic tensions between the Union and England over tariff policy and Confederate recognition also helped stoke English nationalism. Nevertheless, England's long-standing tradition of antislavery helped to push public sympathy toward support for the Union, culminating in the apotheosis of Lincoln after his assassination.
Most importantly from a historiographical standpoint, Blackett also attempts to reconstruct the sociological composition of pro-Union and pro-Confederate organizations. Using records from membership rolls, accounts of public meetings, petitions, and letters to newspapers, Blackett concludes that Dissenters tended to back [End Page 188] the Union while most Anglicans supported the Confederacy; aristocrats usually stood for the Confederacy while working class leaders generally rallied to the Union's cause; and British business and manufacturing interests tended to be Unionists, while most middle class professionals backed the Confederacy. Blackett's conclusions about working class support carry a special significance; they add a useful corrective to Ellison's revisionist claims about the depth of working-class support for the Confederacy among textile workers suffering from the effects of the cotton famine.
There are limits, however—limits acknowledged by Blackett himself—to his sociological reconstructions. Blackett bases much of analysis on detailed biographical data he collected on 337 supporters of the Confederacy and 530 backers of the Union; more precise and impressive a sample than previous studies to be sure, but still more than a little impressionistic. And despite Blackett's admirable attempt to reconstruct the role of such non-elite actors as African Americans and women in the British debates on the American Civil War, a reader might be forgiven for seeing Divided Heartsas at base more a study of elitethan public opinion. Unfortunately, in light of the available sources, one wonders if historians ever will be able to sustain a fully fleshed out reconstruction of top-to-bottom British public opinion on the war.
Blackett's conclusions also highlight problems that merit further study by historians. For example, since the publication of David Brion Davis's seminal The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), much of the scholarship on antislavery and other nineteenth- and eighteenth...