- American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863 by Peter O'Connor
All civil wars understandably cast enormous shadows over a nation's history, as did the epic conflict that fractured the American republic in the 1860s. As a result, associated themes are often examined within the context of the moment of conflict. Hence, British opinion about American sectionalism is generally viewed as reactionary, a singular matter of a North-versus-South struggle over the nature and survival of the republic played out from Fort Sumter to Appomattox. Peter O'Connor's study draws the British view of American sectionalism out of the war's shadow to establish that opinion in Britain at the start of the conflict was not only deeper and more complex but also far from reactionary. It was, in fact, a nuanced view of divergent American interests, ethnicities, cultures, politics, and attitudes informed by an impressive range of British writers examining and assessing American behavior throughout the antebellum years. According to O'Connor, "literate" Britons had either read or been exposed to the observations of travel narratives, novels, and "published philosophical musings on the United States" for at least three decades before the secession winter of 1860-1861 (p. 2).
The conventional image rooted in the notion of a slave South battling a free North did not emerge in British opinion, O'Connor contends, until after the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. He convincingly shows that prewar British commentators diluted the moral question of slavery; consistently ranted against the racism of the North; mitigated the cruelty of the South by, in varying degrees, promoting the paternalism of southern slave [End Page 432] culture; and profiled not two but "three ethno-cultural regions" (p. 8). British observers living and interacting with and writing about Americans generally noted "the ethnically and culturally British Cavalier South, the ethnically and culturally British Puritan New England, and the ethnically and culturally heterogeneous mid-Atlantic" (p. 84).
The parameters of the study—1832 to 1863—place the work between the implementation of British emancipation and that of the Union and during a period when economic protectionism joined the conversation on the American sectional divide. Drawing on the works of British commentators from the famous (for example, Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau) to the lesser known (for example, Amelia M. Murray and Thomas Brothers), O'Connor examines the British sense that slavery was a national issue and not confined to the South and that the treatment of free black people, especially in New York, was as indefensible as the "mitigated" station of enslaved black people in the South (p. 13). He further notes that the British people had ample opportunity to ingest images of mob democracy in Irish-infused mid-Atlantic culture, to follow the politics of states' rights led by South Carolina's tariff nullification gambit, and to determine that many northerners profited from a slave system against which they issued only tepid resistance.
The last two chapters address the first two years of the war, but only to "demonstrate the extent to which Britons presented and understood the Civil War with reference to antebellum sectional discourse" (p. 123). For example, the British failure to support the Union cause derived from decades of skepticism over the sincerity of northern abolitionism, confirmed by President Abraham Lincoln's failure to pronounce eradication of slavery as a war aim, and by the Federal government's persistent commitment to protectionism, confirmed by the Morrill tariff at the beginning of the war, which, Dickens believed, was intended "to enrich the North at the expense of the South" (p. 125). In O'Connor's estimation, it was Lincoln's pronouncement of emancipation that, while received coolly at first, eventually turned British opinion toward the more rudimentary North-South construct.
O'Connor's thoroughly researched interdisciplinary study of British opinion about American sectionalism makes an important contribution to a growing library on the global dimensions of the U.S. Civil War. American...