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225 8 The View from Abroad Europeans Look at the Election of 1860 Lawrence Sondhaus In sharp contrast to the depth of European interest in the bloody war that resulted from it, the U.S. presidential election of 1860 attracted relatively little attention across the Atlantic. Few European commentators foresaw the outcome of the election campaign or appreciated its significance after the results were known. Fewer still accurately predicted what would happen next, after an entire region of the American republic refused to accept the overall verdict of the electorate. From the party conventions of May 1860 to the shelling of Fort Sumter eleven months later, the quantity and quality of information about the looming American crisis depended first and foremost on the traditional diplomatic channels, with European diplomats in the United States, along with their American counterparts in European capitals, shaping European opinion about the crisis by the way they interpreted it. Second, and no less significant, were the impressions of prominent American visitors to Europe and European visitors to the United States. The former included the Republican leader William H. Seward, in Europe from May to December 1859; the latter, Albert Edward , Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), visiting the United States in September and October 1860. Decades before the onset of international news services, essentially the same articles would appear in the press of both continents; London newspapers copied New York newspapers and vice versa. Diplomats, foreign travelers, and the press alike suffered from the problem that their dispatches, letters, and newspapers took time to cross the Atlantic. The transatlantic telegraph cable, operational as of July 1858, failed that September and would not be replaced by Fuller text.indb 225 1/15/13 2:55 PM 226 · The Election of 1860 Reconsidered a second, permanent cable until July 1866. Until then—and thus throughout the Civil War—the United States once again was separated from Europe by roughly two weeks, a fast steamer’s average passage time from New York or Boston to British ports. Whereas European intellectuals viewed the United States as a laboratory for the political ideals of the Enlightenment (liberals generally sympathizing with the republican experiment, conservatives viewing it with skepticism), European interest in American affairs naturally centered on the economic importance of Southern cotton production and the slave labor that made it possible. In the average year during the decade of the 1850s, the American South accounted for 72 percent of the raw cotton imported by Britain; in 1860, “a bumper crop in Dixie” drove it to 85 percent. France’s much Fig. 31. His Royal Highness, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. (Harper’s Weekly, October 6, 1860) Fuller text.indb 226 1/15/13 2:55 PM The View from Abroad · 227 smaller textile industry was even more dependent on the South, which produced 93 percent of French raw cotton imports during the 1850s. In some years, cotton textiles accounted for as much as 55 percent of all British exports , and at least 4 million British workers depended on the textile industry for their livelihood. Such statistics fed the “King Cotton” arguments of slave-state politicians, who entered the crisis of 1860–61 increasingly confident that an independent union of Southern states would be both economically viable and supported by powerful allies abroad.1 Because Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833, with France following suit in 1848, the slave labor essential to American cotton production posed a moral dilemma for the leading European states. Well before mid-century, a majority of Britons from across the political spectrum condemned slavery on humanitarian or religious grounds. This should have predisposed most of them to sympathize with the free states of the North, but patience had its limits. British abolitionists and other idealists considered the Compromise of 1850 morally bankrupt; afterward, some had difficulty identifying with a North whose leading politicians could be so pragmatic when it came to the greatest moral issue of the age. Their despair soon gave way to fresh hope with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first London edition of the novel appeared in May 1852, and by the end of that year, it had sold over a million copies in Britain, at least triple the number it sold in the United States. Stowe toured Britain in 1853, then again in 1856 and 1859, reigniting interest in the issue of American slavery and the politics surrounding...


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