“I am the last president of the United States,” said James Buchanan on December 20, 1860.
South Carolina had just seceded from the Union. Ten more states would follow.
Had Buchanan remained in office, there is no question he would have let the South go. The United States would have ceased to exist 160 years ago.
“So what?” some readers may retort. “Buchanan was right. There’s nothing sacred about the Union. If states want to secede, let them.”
A recent poll by the University of Virginia Center for Politics claims that 41 percent of Biden supporters and 52 percent of Trump supporters now supposedly favor secession.
While these numbers might be exaggerated, the trend is clear.
As tensions rise between “red” and “blue” states, many Americans have come to believe that coexisting with our quarrelsome countrymen is no longer worth the trouble. Many hope that peaceful separation—“national divorce,” as they call it—might allow Americans to part ways amicably, without bloodshed.
But will it? History suggests otherwise.
In 1861, secession did not bring peace. It led directly to civil war.
War came for the same reason it always does, because powerful men wanted it, and stood to gain by it.
An old saying holds that, when two dogs fight, a third dog gets the bone.
In 1861, the third dog was Great Britain.
Britain had a strong interest in breaking up the Union, which she saw as a competitor for global dominance. Britain’s plan was to carve up the United States into colonial spheres of influence, to be distributed among the great powers of Europe.
Had the British succeeded, North and South alike would have lost their independence.
This fact—once widely known to Americans—has been wiped from our history books.
Before we rush headlong into Civil War 2.0, it might be wise to relearn the forgotten story of Lincoln’s struggle against foreign intervention.
It would be foolish to walk into the same trap twice.
Seward’s Call for War
On April 1, 1861, the Civil War had not yet begun. That day, Secretary of State William Seward drafted a memorandum to Lincoln seeking action against “European intervention.”
“I would at once demand explanations from France and Spain categorically,” Seward wrote. “I would demand explanations from Great Britain and Russia… And if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France, I would convene Congress and declare war against them.”
Seward’s concerns were legitimate.
Sensing America’s weakness, foreign powers had begun challenging the Monroe Doctrine, which forbade European intervention in the Americas.
Spain had begun saber-rattling over its lost colony of Santo Domingo, pointedly increasing its Cuban garrison to 25,000 men. France was applying similar pressure over Haiti.
Meanwhile, British diplomats were working hard to bring Spain, France, and Russia into a coalition strong enough to force Lincoln into recognizing the Confederacy.
These intrigues plainly violated the Monroe Doctrine. But no one cared what America thought anymore. The U.S. was falling apart.
“Our domestic dissensions are producing their natural fruit,” wrote The New York Times on March 30, 1861. “The terror of the American name is gone, and the Powers of the Old World are flocking to the feast from which the scream of our eagle had hitherto scared them. We are just beginning to suffer the penalties of being a weak and despised Power.”
When Seward wrote his memo to Lincoln, the attack on Fort Sumter was still eleven days away. The first shot of our Civil War had not yet been fired.
Yet, the mightiest powers in Europe were already spoiling for a fight.
Britain was the Ringleader
Great Britain was the driving force behind these plots. The British had been planning America’s downfall for years.
England made no secret of her ambitions in North America.
On January 3, 1860, the London Morning Post bluntly called for the restoration of British rule in America.
The Post was known as a mouthpiece for Lord Palmerston, Britain’s Prime Minister. Indeed, Palmerston himself was rumored to write unsigned editorials for the paper, now and then.
Should North and South separate, said the Morning Post on January 3, 1860, the colonies of British North America (later combined into the Dominion of Canada) would then “hold the balance of power on the Continent.” Canada would find herself in a strong position to annex the quarreling fragments of the former USA.
The first target should be Portland, Maine, the Post suggested. Strategically located at the terminus of Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway, Portland harbor provided Canada with vital access to the Atlantic during the winter months, when every port on the St. Lawrence River was frozen.
Why leave such a vital asset in American hands?
“On military, as well as commercial grounds, it is obviously necessary,” argued the Morning Post, “that British North America should possess on the Atlantic a port open at all times of year…”
The newspaper recommended that the state of Maine should join the British Empire voluntarily, once the Union collapsed. “[T]he people of that State, with an eye to commercial profit, should offer to annex themselves to Canada,” it suggested.
Canada’s growing power in a post-U.S. world would soon lead to further annexations, the Post predicted, culminating in what the paper called “the restoration of that influence which more than eighty years ago England was supposed to have lost.”
With these words, the Morning Post made clear that it favored a return to British rule in America, of exactly the sort England had enjoyed “more than eighty years ago” (prior to 1780, that is).
Britain’s Plan for Proxy War
The threat of reconquest in the Morning Post was not idle.
Indeed, it almost succeeded.
We know from other sources, including diplomatic correspondence, that England planned to use the Confederacy to fight a proxy war against the United States.
When America’s strength was spent, Britain and her European allies then intended to demand international mediation to end the war.
If Lincoln refused, the British Navy would break the Union blockade and relieve the South, thus forcing Lincoln to the bargaining table, whether he liked it or not.
The arbitrators would partition the United States into two separate countries, North and South.
Later, they planned to break up the U.S. even further, into four or more mini-states, too weak to resist re-colonization.
British Military Support of the Confederacy
The first step in Britain’s plan was to exhaust America’s strength through civil war. To accomplish this, Britain became the chief supplier of arms and supplies for the Southern rebels.
On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria issued a proclamation granting belligerent status to the Confederacy. This meant rebel warships could now operate legally from British ports.
British shipbuilders provided the Confederates with a modern navy. Many of the finest rebel warships were assembled in British shipyards, financed by British bondholders, and, in some cases, manned by British crews.
Confederate raiders paralyzed Union shipping, sinking almost a thousand ships. One raider, the British-built CSS Alabama, destroyed 65 Union merchantmen and warships in a two-year rampage, until she was finally sunk in June, 1864. The Alabama’s crew was mostly British.
British technical support also proved vital in building a gunpowder mill in Augusta, Georgia in 1861. It was the only such facility in the South. Without it, the Confederates would have had no powder.
Troop Deployments in Canada
England provided more than just logistical support to the South. She also menaced the North with troop deployments and threats of war.
For instance, in December, 1861, Britain deployed 11,000 troops in Canada, called out the Canadian militia, and made plans for a naval blockade of the northeastern United States, as described in Dean B. Mahin’s One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War (1999).
The official reason for these preparations was purportedly to retaliate for the so-called Trent Affair, an incident in which a U.S. Navy vessel had boarded a British mail packet in the Caribbean, arresting two Confederate envoys.
However, the Trent Affair merely provided an excuse to roll out existing British plans.
Mahin notes, for example, that British strategists in December, 1861 recommended seizing Portland, Maine, to prevent Union forces from cutting off British access to the port.
As noted above, seizing Portland was an existing British war goal, announced in the London Morning Post nearly two years earlier.
Troop Deployments in Mexico
While Britain was reinforcing Canada, she also joined France and Spain in a joint invasion of Mexico. All three countries landed troops in Veracruz on December 8, 1861, igniting a Mexican civil war that raged until 1866.
The pretext for the invasion was to force payment of Mexico’s national debt. Its true purpose, however, was to secure Mexico as a staging area for intervention in America’s Civil War, a fact which soon became obvious.
The French emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III was Britain’s closest ally, beholden to England for his throne.
A nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon seized power in a coup of December 2, 1851, overthrowing France’s Second Republic, with the endorsement of Lord Palmerston.
Napoleon III then joined his British patrons on a series of military adventures, including the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the 1861 invasion of Mexico.
“One War at a Time”
The enormity of French and British provocations clearly justified a military response from the North. Yet Lincoln’s steady hand on the tiller prevented the Civil War from becoming a global conflagration.
In his book One War at a Time, Mahin suggests that Lincoln played a deliberate game of good-cop, bad-cop, allowing his hot-headed Secretary of State William Seward to make reckless threats against encroaching foreign powers, while Lincoln provided the soothing voice of reason.
On April 4, 1861, for instance, Seward told the The Times of London that he was “ready, if need be, to threaten Great Britain with war” should she dare to recognize the rebel government.
Possibly in response to Seward’s threat, the Queen’s Proclamation of May 13 stopped short of granting diplomatic recognition to the South. Nonetheless, Queen Victoria did grant belligerent rights to Confederate warships, which enraged Seward.
He promptly drew up instructions for Charles Francis Adams Sr., US ambassador to London, ordering him to warn Great Britain that recognizing the Confederacy would be an act of war.
“One war at a time,” Lincoln famously counseled Seward, after reviewing a draft of his letter on May 21, 1861. Lincoln edited the document with his own hand to soften the tone.
Throughout the war, these sorts of private interactions between Lincoln and Seward had a tendency to leak out. To some extent, it seems likely the two men were play-acting, putting on a show for foreign diplomats and newspaper reporters.
If Lincoln’s good-cop, bad-cop routine was indeed a deliberate strategy, then it was successful. It kept the British nervous, off-balance, and indecisive through the first three years of war.
Had Britain and her allies acted early and boldly—breaking the Union blockade of the South; sealing off the Union coast; and seizing New England ports; as they had originally planned—a divided America might have been too weak to resist.
Lincoln would have lost public support, and, with it, the war.
Motivating the Confederates
Seward’s constant threats intimidated the British, making them fearful of direct action. But they never hesitated to spend Confederate blood in their proxy war against the North.
To motivate their Southern clients, the British made shrewd use of carrots and sticks.
They continually offered the carrot of British recognition.
The Confederates knew that, once Britain recognized the Confederacy, other European powers would follow. Lincoln would find himself isolated in the Western world. He would be forced to the bargaining table.
But there was also a stick.
The British made clear that they would not risk war with the Union until the Confederacy had proved she could carry her weight on the battlefield.
On August 14, 1861, British foreign secretary John Russell met with three Confederate envoys in London, advising them that England would consider recognizing their government only when, “the fortune of arms… shall have more clearly determined the respective position of the two belligerents.”
Lord Palmerston echoed this view in a letter of October 20, 1861, in which he sympathized with Southern independence, but cautioned that, “the operations of the war have as yet been too indecisive to warrant an acknowledgment of the southern Union.”
The Engine of War
The promise of British intervention, made privately and repeatedly to Confederate leaders, was the driving engine of the rebellion. Without these promises, there is some doubt as to whether Confederate leaders would have dared go to war in the first place.
As early as the spring of 1860, when Lincoln was still campaigning for president, British consuls in the southern states notified London that secession plans were underway and the rebels were counting on British support.
After a year of fighting, then-Secretary of State for the Confederacy Judah Benjamin still hoped that British recognition might succeed where the Confederate Army had so far failed.
In a letter of April 12, 1862, Benjamin wrote, “A few words emanating from Her Britannic Majesty would in effect put an end to a struggle which so desolates our country.”
But the British were unmoved by Confederate whining. Only bloody action on the battlefield would satisfy them.
And so the Confederates fought on, ever hopeful that their next victory might be the one that would convince their British patrons to act.
England’s Attempt to Force Mediation
The Second Battle of Manassas proved a turning point. Following the Confederate victory of August 30, 1862, British leaders decided the time was ripe.
Russell wrote Lord Palmerston on September 14, 1862, noting that Union forces had “got a very complete smashing” at Manassas.
“[W]ould it not be time for us to consider whether in such a state of things England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation?” Russell suggested.
By stipulating that the proposed mediation should be “upon the basis of separation,” Russell admitted that the peace talks would be a sham. “Separation” had already been settled upon as the only acceptable outcome.
Lord Palmerston replied on September 17, “I agree with you that the time is come for offering mediation to the United States Government, with a view to the recognition of the independence of the Confederates. I agree further, that, in case of failure, we ought ourselves to recognise the Southern States as an independent State. … We ought, then, if we agree on such a step, to propose it first to France, and then, on the part of England and France, to Russia and other powers, as a measure decided upon by us.”
England’s Hidden Goal
If Britain’s goal in our Civil War had merely been to seek a peaceful separation of North and South, her actions might be excused as naïve but well-intentioned.
However, Britain’s hidden goals diverged sharply from her official ones.
The diplomatic correspondence published in Britain’s annual Parliamentary Blue Book tends to give a whitewashed version of British intentions, inasmuch as those dispatches were written with the full knowledge they would be published.
A less sanitized version of British intentions can sometimes be gleaned from non-official sources, such as newspaper reports, observations from foreign diplomats, and from the actions of the British government itself.
Careful study of such sources reveals that Britain aimed not so much at a peaceful separation of North and South as at the complete destruction of the United States, which she hoped to accomplish by splintering the country into many pieces.
Divide and Rule
As discussed below, Napoleon III harbored a “Grand Design” for breaking up the United States, which would leave Texas, Louisiana, Florida and other U.S. territories under French control.
The British had similar plans, which they no doubt coordinated with their French allies.
On September 25, 1861, following a long string of Union defeats, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a leading British statesman and member of Parliament, gleefully predicted America’s break-up into four or more pieces, “with happy results for the safety of Europe.”
“That separation between North and South America which is now being brought about by civil war I have long foreseen and foretold to be inevitable,” said Bulwer-Lytton.
He predicted that the U.S. would split not into, “two, but at least four, and probably more than four separate and sovereign commonwealths.”
This was good news for Europe, Bulwer-Lytton declared, for, as long as the U.S. remained united, it “hung over Europe like a gathering and destructive thunder-cloud. But in proportion as America shall become subdivided into different States… her ambition will be less formidable to the rest of the world.”
“You Will Break Into Fragments”
Bulwer-Lytton was not merely expressing his personal opinion. Other sources confirm that high-level British statesmen favored America’s partition into several pieces, not just two.
Russia’s foreign minister, Prince Alexander Gorchakov, warned Lincoln of this plan.
“One separation will be followed by another; you will break into fragments,” said Gorchakov, in an October 27, 1862 meeting with Bayard Taylor, the American Chargé d’Affaire in St. Petersburg.
U.S. Ambassador to Britain Charles Francis Adams, Sr. drew a similar conclusion.
“The predominating passion here [in England] is the desire for the ultimate subdivision of America into many separate States which will neutralize each other,” wrote Adams to Seward on August 8, 1862.
England Moves Toward War
All evidence suggests that British planners knew from the beginning that their goals in America could never be achieved without bloodshed.
Even the first step of separating North from South would require military intervention.
As noted above, Seward had made clear on April 4, 1861 that the Union would declare war on Britain if she recognized the South. In such a case, the British planned to use the Royal Navy to break the Union’s blockade, fully aware that the North would respond by invading Canada.
For this reason, when Lord Palmerston approved the mediation plan, he emphasized, in a letter to Russell of September 17, 1862, that, “We ought to make ourselves safe in Canada, not by sending more troops there [in addition to the 11,000 already deployed the previous year], but by concentrating those we have in a few defensible posts before winter sets in.”
Thus the Prime Minister admitted that his “mediation” proposal would likely lead to a ground war between Britain and the United States.
Palmerston chose to proceed nonetheless.
A meeting of Queen Victoria’s cabinet was scheduled for October 23, 1862 to discuss plans for a joint intervention by France, Russia and Great Britain.
“They Have Made a Nation”
Two weeks prior to the Queen’s cabinet meeting, Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone set the stage for recognizing the South in a speech at Newcastle given October 7, 1862. Gladstone said:
“Jefferson Davis and the other leaders have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either, they have made a nation. … [We may] anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern States so far as regards their separation from the North.”
In his speech, Gladstone came perilously close to recognizing the South as a sovereign nation.
Notwithstanding Gladstone’s bravado, British leaders were nervous, hesitant to proceed without support from other European powers.
On November 17, 1862, Russia’s Chargé d’Affaires in Washington, Edouard de Stoeckl, reported to his government that a French and British attack upon the Union was imminent. Since neither the French nor British had “any illusions of their offer of mediation being accepted… The next step will be recognition of the South… [and] forcing open the Southern ports…”
Before taking this step, the British sought to line up support from all the Great Powers of Europe. Stoeckl reported that Lord Lyons, Britain’s ambassador to Washington, wanted “the [mediation] attempt to… come not only from France and England but from the entire civilized world.”
The Russian Question
For all these reasons, the British were keen to get Russian support for their move against Lincoln.
They knew Russia was Lincoln’s strongest supporter in Europe, yet hoped they could break the friendship, if they applied the right pressure.
In fact, Tsar Alexander II was double-crossing the British. While pretending to give ear to their mediation schemes, Russian diplomats promptly reported everything back to the Americans.
The British tried to lure Russia into cooperating with them, by offering concessions in other parts of the world.
For instance, a Polish revolt against Russia had been brewing since 1861, providing France and Britain with an excuse to threaten Russia with intervention. Also, England, France and Russia were negotiating to decide who would become the next King of Greece.
Rumors reached Seward that the Russians might support intervention in the American Civil War, in exchange for concessions in Greece. Seward was sufficiently concerned that he summoned de Stoeckl to the State Department in early 1863 to demand an explanation.
Lincoln’s Appeal to the Tsar
With French and British intervention looming, and Russia’s position still uncertain, Lincoln made a secret appeal directly to the Tsar.
This was a shrewd move.
Russia was the only European power with land armies in Asia sufficient to challenge British dominance over India and the Middle East. For that reason, England and Russia were bitter and permanent foes.
Adding to these tensions, England, France and their Ottoman allies had recently defeated Russia in the Crimean War of 1853-1856. The Russians burned for vengeance.
Lincoln knew it was long-standing Russian policy to play off America against England, a strategy dating back to the Revolutionary War, when the Russian Empress Catherine the Great had supported the right of American colonists to seek independence.
In 1839, Tsar Nicholas I had famously told George Mifflin Dallas, the U.S. minister to St. Petersburg at the time, “Not only are our interests alike but our enemies are the same.”
The “approaching dissolution of the American Union” would pose a threat to Russian interests, Stoeckl warned Prince Gorchakov, in a letter of January 4, 1860, since Britain’s rivalry with America had previously “been the best guarantee against the ambitious projects and political egotism of the Anglo-Saxon race.”
Better to keep the Anglo-Saxons divided!
The Tsar agreed that preserving the American Union was “essential to the universal political equilibrium.”
Thus a basis existed for Russian-American cooperation.
The Tsar’s Promise to Lincoln
In early 1862, Lincoln ordered the new U.S. ambassador to St. Petersburg, General Simon Cameron, to secretly question the Tsar as to what he would do if France and Britain intervened in our Civil War.
The Tsar promised Lincoln that, in the event of a foreign intervention, “or upon the appearance of real danger of it, the friendship of Russia for the United States will be known in a decisive manner, which no other nation will be able to mistake.”
Upon receiving this assurance, Seward went out of his way to spread the rumor that some secret understanding existed between the U.S. and Russia.
“It might be well if it were known in Europe that we are no longer alarmed by demonstrations of European interference,” Seward wrote to the U.S. consul in Paris, John Bigelow, on June 25, 1862.
Henceforth, wrote Seward, any European state “that commits itself to intervention anywhere in North America, will sooner or later fetch up in the arms of a native of an oriental country not especially distinguished for amiability of manners or temper…”
When he spoke of an “oriental country” not “distinguished for amiability,” Seward plainly meant Russia.
The spring of 1863 saw Union hopes at their lowest ebb. In his book Czars and Presidents, Alexandre Tarsaïdzé describes the situation thus:
“The Northern armies had nothing to show for two years of bloodshed… When Lee threatened to invade the Northern States, Baltimore was joyous, Philadelphia paralyzed, and New York City ready to secede. … In July, 1863, riots broke out in New York City over the Conscription Laws, and within two days a thousand soldiers and civilians… lay dead in the streets.
“Secretary Seward was informed that French troops in Mexico were pressing northward. At about the same time came news that a British regiment, to the spirited strains of Dixie, had landed in Canada.”
Meanwhile, Harper’s Weekly reported that two new rebel ironclads would be launched from British ports in September, whose obvious mission was to help break the Union blockade.
On the night of June 26, 1863, a Confederate raiding party entered Portland Harbor on two captured ships, intending to destroy the port. U.S. Navy vessels engaged and captured the Confederates, but the Battle of Portland Harbor, as it came to be called, raised unsettling questions about the continuing British troop buildup in Canada.
Capturing Portland was a well-known British war goal. Did the raid on Portland foreshadow some imminent British action?
The French Make Their Move
French troops took Mexico City on June 10, 1863, deposing the liberal president Benito Juarez, who fled to the mountains to organize a guerrilla resistance.
A month later, Mexico’s new French-controlled government invited Austrian Archduke Maximilian to form a puppet regime and accept the title of Emperor of Mexico.
By October, 1863, some 40,000 French troops were fighting in Mexico.
As French involvement in Mexico deepened, Confederate officials rushed to ingratiate themselves with Louis Napoleon. Rumors flourished of a secret alliance between the Confederacy and the new French regime in Mexico.
“[T]he Confederate States will be our allies and will guarantee us against attack by the North,” declared a French propaganda pamphlet of 1863.
Previously, on January 19, 1862, Lord Palmerston had written approvingly to his foreign secretary John Russell noting that French plans to establish a monarchy in Mexico would discourage further southward expansion by the United States.
Napoleon III’s Designs on Southern Territory
However, the French proved to be troublesome allies for the South, as Louis Napoleon had long dreamed of annexing large tracts of Southern territory.
Years earlier, Louis Napoleon had carelessly admitted that he wished to “establish a French Gibraltar at Key West, to seize Florida, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast, and to bring the Mexican Empire under French domination,” according to Alexandre Tarsaïdzé in Czars and Presidents (1958).
It now appeared that Louis Napoleon might get what he wanted.
In January, 1863, French consuls in Galveston and Richmond were caught red-handed trying to organize a Texas rebellion against Jefferson Davis.
At the same time, a prominent Viennese newspaper reported a rumor that Confederate officials had agreed to hand over Texas voluntarily to the French regime in Mexico. If the Union dared to block this transfer, the paper warned, Louis Napoleon would likely “interfere with armed force in favor of the South.”
Louis Napoleon’s interest in Texas was part of a larger scheme which he called his “Grand Design.” As documented in Howard Jones’s Blue and Gray Diplomacy (2010), the “Grand Design” sought to break up the United States into three different countries, North, South, and West, while bringing Texas, Louisiana and other Southern territories into the Mexican Empire.
Lincoln was sufficiently alarmed by reports of Louis Napoleon’s “Grand Design” that he diverted troops from General Grant’s Mississippi operations to invade Texas four times between 1863 and 1864, trying to establish a U.S. “toehold” in Texas to discourage French occupation.
With General Lee on the offensive in Pennsylvania, and 40,000 French troops potentially menacing Texas, fears of an Anglo-French intervention intensified.
Three miracles saved the Union.
The first was victory at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
The second was the fall of Vicksburg the following day, July 4, 1863.
The third miracle was the arrival of two Russian fleets in New York and San Francisco, in September and October, 1863 respectively.
Russia’s Baltic Fleet suddenly arrived in New York between September 11-24, 1863, under the command of Rear Admiral Stepan Lisovsky.
On October 12, Russia’s Far East Fleet dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay, under the command of Rear Admiral Andrei Popov.
The Russian Navy remained in U.S. waters for seven months. By the time they left, the war had turned decisively in Lincoln’s favor. The danger of foreign intervention had passed.
Mystery and Secrecy
To this day, mystery, controversy and secrecy surround Russia’s 1863 naval deployment.
Academic historians have long argued that the Russian deployment had nothing to do with the American Civil War. Few facts or documents are available to clarify the matter.
It is certainly true that the Tsar needed to get his fleet out of harm’s way. If the French and British decided to go to war over the Polish revolt, the Russians feared their ships might be trapped in their harbors.
Yet there are many other places the Tsar could have sent his ships. By sending them to America, he deployed them in the midst of what was then the world’s hottest war zone.
It seems reasonable to conclude that, whatever other motivations the Tsar may have had for sending his ships, one motivation was to warn England and France not to break the Union blockade, as they had threatened to do many times.
Evidence of Russian Intentions
Certain statements attributed to Prince Gorchakov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, may help shed light on the reasons for the Russian deployment.
In February, 1862, Prince Gorchakov asked U.S. diplomat Charles A. De Arnaud whether the Union had enough ships to maintain the blockade. De Arnaud admitted he was not sure, to which Prince Gorchakov replied (according to De Arnaud’s memoirs):
“I shall find out whether they have vessels enough to maintain the blockade, and if they haven’t we have! The Emperor, my August Master, will not permit any one to interfere with this blockade, even if he has to risk another allied war!”
Eight months later, in October, 1862, the same Prince Gorchakov responded to a letter from President Lincoln by offering these assurances to Bayard Taylor, America’s Chargé d’Affaires in St. Petersburg:
“Russia alone has stood by you from the first, and will continue to stand by you. … We desire, above all things the maintenance of the American Union as an indivisible nation. … Proposals will be made to Russia to join some plan of interference. She will refuse any invitation of the kind. … You may rely upon it.”
Thus, ten months before the Russian fleet was deployed, Prince Gorchakov had warned Lincoln to expect a final intervention attempt by France and England—an attempt which everyone knew would involve naval action to break the Union blockade.
In view of these facts, it does not seem farfetched to conclude that the Tsar sent his fleet, at least partly, to discourage France and Britain from their plan.
In that case, it would appear that the Tsar kept his promise to Lincoln that “the friendship of Russia for the United States will be known in a decisive manner, which no other nation will be able to mistake.”
We may very well be indebted to Russia for defending the Union at a crucial hour.
How Britain Caused the Civil War
The preceding account has hopefully convinced at least a few readers to question whether Great Britain was “neutral” in our Civil War, as many historians claim.
Britain’s meddling clearly violated any reasonable definition of neutrality.
But there is more.
Some evidence suggests that England may have actually caused the Civil War.
Lincoln’s top economic advisor, Henry Charles Carey (1793-1879) believed this. He accused Britain of instigating the war, for her own profit.
In his 1867 pamphlet Reconstruction: Industrial, Financial and Political, Carey charged Britain with enflaming secessionist passions through a network of “British agents” working “in close alliance with the slave-holding aristocracy of the South…”
The Southern economy depended on Britain, which purchased 70 percent of Southern cotton exports each year. According to Carey, Britain used its influence to push Southern leaders toward secession.
The British knew that an independent South would be free to cut tariffs and use slave labor, keeping cotton prices low.
Unless the underlying problem of British influence was addressed, Carey predicted that Union efforts to “reconstruct” the South would fail.
“British free trade, industrial monopoly, and human slavery, travel together,” Carey concluded, “and the man who undertakes the work of reconstruction without having first satisfied himself that such is certainly the fact, will find that he has been building on shifting sands, and must fail to produce an edifice that will be permanent.”
“British System” v. “American System”
Carey believed that two rival economic systems were competing for dominance in the 19th century, the “British System” and the “American System.”
He argued that our Civil War was fought, very largely, to determine which of these two systems would prevail.
The British System sought to make England the “workshop of the world,” with a global monopoly on industrial production. Other countries were to provide food and raw materials, in exchange for British manufactures.
By contrast, the American System encouraged national self-sufficiency. Americans were urged to produce everything they needed in their own country, including food, raw materials and manufactures.
The two systems were incompatible and bound to collide.
America was the natural arena for this contest, inasmuch as the industrialized North followed the American System, while the agricultural South followed the British System.
Why England Supported the Confederacy
The British had much to lose if the North prevailed.
The North was building its own textile mills and trying to replace England as the South’s leading trade partner. If that happened, the British System could potentially collapse.
Britain would lose her supply of cheap cotton. She would lose her global textile monopoly. And she would lose the American South as a market for England’s manufactures. Southerners would henceforth buy manufactured goods from the North.
On March 7, 1862, Lord Robert Cecil addressed the British Parliament in these words:
“[T]he Northern States of America never can be our sure friends… because we are rivals, rivals politically, rivals commercially. We aspire to the same position. We both aspire to the government of the seas. We are both manufacturing people, and in every port, as well as at every court, we are rivals to each other. … With respect to the Southern States, the case is entirely reversed. The population are an agricultural people. They furnish the raw material of our industry, and they consume the products which we manufacture from it. With them, therefore, every interest must lead us to cultivate friendly relations, and we have seen that when the war began they at once recurred to England as their natural ally.”
With these words, Lord Cecil made clear that the relationship Britain desired with America was a colonial relationship, in which the “colonies” would export food and raw materials to the mother country, while the mother country supplied manufactured goods in return.
Britain favored the South precisely because Southerners had never broken the colonial bond. The South remained economically dependent on the mother country.
The North, on the other hand, had sought to better its lot by industrializing and building its own merchant fleet, thus competing with Britain. In so doing, the North became England’s rival, and ultimately her deadly enemy.
“Free Trade” vs. “Protectionism”
Many historians hold that the British System encouraged “free trade,” while the American System promoted “protectionism.” However, this is misleading.
Actually, both systems were protectionist.
The confusion arises from British propagandists who learned early to camouflage their protectionist policies beneath the rhetoric of “free trade.”
In his 1776 book Wealth of Nations, British economist Adam Smith held that all countries should trade freely with each other, without tariffs or other restrictions. The “invisible hand” of the markets would ensure that each country received the goods it needed, at the best price.
Smith’s idea may or may not have been practical, but it was never actually tried.
Instead, Britain applied free trade selectively, only in those markets where she held a secure monopoly or some other advantage.
Britain’s 1810 trade agreement with Brazil illustrates the point.
The Quiet Conquest of Brazil
In 1807, the British Navy rescued the Braganzas—Portugal’s royal family—by transporting them to the Portuguese colony of Brazil, out of reach of Napoleon’s invading troops.
In return for this favor, the Braganzas agreed to open Brazilian ports to “free trade.”
It was a trick. British dominance of the seas guaranteed that Brazil’s newly opened ports would mainly benefit Britain. The English seized the lion’s share of Brazil’s overseas trade.
Some royal counselors warned the Braganzas against further concessions, but a “liberal” faction within the bureaucracy opposed them. Rodrigo de Souza Coutinho and José da Silva Lisboa had studied Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and urged the Braganzas to trust the “invisible hand” of the free market.
By 1810, the British were sufficiently entrenched in Rio de Janeiro to force Brazil into signing a new treaty granting special privileges to Britain, including a preferential tariff which taxed British goods at only 15 percent, compared with 24 percent for other nations. Even the mother country Portugal was taxed at 16 percent.
Thus, under the guise of “free trade,” Britain effectively replaced Portugal as Brazil’s mother country, reducing Brazil to a client state.
The Trade War of 1783
Like the Portuguese liberals, America’s Founding Fathers were ideologically inclined toward free trade.
Some, like Thomas Jefferson, feared that protective tariffs would change America from a rural nation to an urban one, in which bankers and industrialists would hold all the power.
Others remembered that the Declaration of Independence had condemned King George for “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world,” a reference to the restrictions imposed by Britain’s Trade and Navigation Acts.
Despite these scruples, the harsh reality of British trade war soon forced the Founders to reexamine their assumptions about free trade.
The wake-up call came in 1783. Immediately after signing the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War, Britain started dumping huge quantities of cheap manufactured goods on the U.S. market, selling them far below their English prices, and in many cases, below cost.
America’s fledgling manufacturers could not match such prices and went under. The economy collapsed. Debtors lost their homes.
From 1786 to 1787, an armed uprising arose in Massachusetts, known as Shay’s Rebellion, seeking relief from debts, evictions, and British dumping.
Many states clamored for secession. The Republic was on the brink of dissolution.
Political v. Economic Independence
Through this experience, the Revolutionary generation learned that political independence is worthless without economic independence.
As long as the British controlled America’s purse strings, she controlled America.
The trade war of 1783 made clear that Britain would not surrender her monopoly on manufactures in America.
For all practical purposes, America remained a British colony.
The essence of a colonial relationship is that the colony produces food and raw materials, while the mother country produces manufactured goods. Because raw materials are cheap and manufactures expensive, profits flow continually to the mother country.
Prior to the Revolution, Britain kept a tight rein on American commerce through the Trade and Navigation Acts of 1660, 1663 and 1672.
The colonists were forbidden to engage in manufacturing. Moreover, all ships transporting cargoes to and from the colonies were required to call on English ports to pay duties and other carrying charges, regardless of their ultimate destination or point of origin. Even a ship going from Boston to Rhode Island and back again had to cross the ocean twice, stopping twice at English ports, to pay duties and other carrying charges.
As a result of these laws, Great Britain enjoyed a ten-to-one trade imbalance with her American colonies by 1677, a ratio which remained constant till the Revolution.
In his book The Unity of Law (1872), Henry Carey calculated that colonial trade regulations enabled Great Britain to extract “three fourths of the produce of American labor” each year.
Independence: “A Piece of Parchment”
During the Revolutionary War, Americans had to fend for themselves. They learned to make their own clothes, ropes, paper, iron, and other essential goods. Many hoped these new homegrown industries would give rise to a prosperous, independent economy.
But British dumping ended that dream in 1783.
Edward Everett, a fervent proponent of the American System, recalled in 1831:
“Thus was presented the extraordinary and calamitous spectacle of a successful revolution, wholly failing of its ultimate object. The people of America had gone to war, not for names but for things. It was not merely to change a government administered by kings, princes, and ministers, for a government administered by presidents, and secretaries, and members of congress. It was to redress their own grievances, to improve their own condition, to throw off the burden which the Colonial system laid on their industry. To attain these objects, they endured incredible hardships; and bore and suffered almost beyond the measure of humanity. And when their independence was attained, they found it was a piece of parchment.”
Americans learned that trade war can devastate a nation as cruelly as fire and sword. They also learned that the only way to fight trade war is to retaliate in kind.
The Articles of Confederation, then in force, offered no means of retaliation. Individual states could impose tariffs, but not the national government.
In response to the crisis, some states set up their own custom houses and imposed tariffs, but this only led to trade wars between states, further dividing the country.
In the four years following the Battle of Yorktown, from 1781-1785, the trade balance between Great Britain and the U.S. remained more than three-to-one in Britain’s favor.
Fighting Fire with Fire
By the time the Constitution was signed in 1789, virtually every one of the Founding Fathers had come to agree that protective tariffs were necessary to counteract Britain’s trade war.
In a speech of April 9, 1789, James Madison told Congress that “commerce ought to be free.” He noted, however, that this principle only worked when everyone played by the same rules. Madison observed:
“If America was to leave her ports perfectly free, and make no discrimination between vessels owned by her citizens and those owned by foreigners, while other nations make this discrimination, it is obvious that such policy would go to exclude American shipping altogether from foreign ports, and she would be materially affected in one of her most important interests.”
Thus, the only defense against British protectionism was American protectionism. Americans would have to fight fire with fire.
“Washington and his secretaries, Hamilton and Jefferson, approved this course of action,” wrote Carey, “and, in so doing were followed by all of Washington’s successors, down to General Jackson.”
Many Americans have forgotten that our Constitution arose from the urgent need to defend U.S. industry from British trade war.
Fisher Ames, who took part in the Convention, stated that, “the present Constitution was dictated by commercial necessity more than by any other cause. The want of an efficient government to secure the manufacturing interests, and to advance our commerce, was long seen by men of judgment and pointed out by patriots solicitous to promote our general welfare.”
Signed on September 17, 1787, the new Constitution empowered Congress to impose tariffs.
“The power to regulate both foreign commerce and that between the states was clearly vested in the national government by the new document, and forever taken away from the states,” wrote Robert Ellis Thompson in Political Economy with Special Reference to the Industrial History of Nations (1882).
For his inauguration, George Washington wore a suit of homespun cloth, to show his solidarity with America’s beleaguered manufacturers.
If I may indulge in a personal aside, some readers might be interested to know that defending protectionism does not come easily or naturally to me. I was a 19-year-old college student when I first read Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty, and have called myself a libertarian ever since.
Nonetheless, after studying Britain’s colonial system and her many trade wars against the United States, I can find no defense against these evils but the one our Founding Fathers eventually decided upon — protective tariffs.
Britain plainly had both the will and power to crush U.S. manufacturing, and did so repeatedly, in the early years of our Republic.
In 1816, as Britain once again assailed U.S. industries with a dumping campaign, Mr. (and later Lord) Brougham declared in the House of Commons that, “It is well worth while to incur a loss… to stifle in the cradle those infant manufactures in the United States which the war has forced into existence.”
David Syme, a one-time English free-trader, emigrated to Australia and saw with his own eyes the destructive effects of British dumping.
In his book Outlines of an Industrial Science (1876), Syme described how Britain maintains its monopolies through economic warfare. He wrote:
“The manner in which English capital is used to maintain England’s manufacturing supremacy is well understood abroad. In any quarter of the globe where a competitor shows himself who is likely to interfere with her monopoly, immediately the capital of her manufacturers is massed in that particular quarter, and goods are exported in large quantities, and sold at such prices, that outside competition is effectually crushed out. English manufacturers have been known to export goods to a distant market, and sell them under cost price for years, with a view to getting the market into their own hands again.”
The British System of Free Trade
In his writings, Henry Carey habitually enclosed the term “free trade” in quotation marks, to remind readers that “free trade” was simply a rebranding of Britain’s traditional colonial policy.
While self-proclaimed disciples of Adam Smith were evangelizing the world through such groups as the British Free-Trade League, Britain herself continued ruling her markets through brute force.
As an example, Carey cited the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60, in which Britain used military force to compel China to buy opium from government-licensed producers in British India.
Carey noted that military action, orchestrated financial crises, prohibitory duties, and dumping campaigns were just a few of the state-directed and state-subsidized interventions which Britain’s “merchant princes” routinely used to protect their monopolies, all the while pushing “free trade” on their intended victims.
A member of Parliament, Mr. Robertson, largely confirmed Carey’s view when he told the House of Commons, on October 22, 1831:
“It was idle for us to endeavor to persuade other nations to join with us in adopting the principles of what was called ‘free trade’. Other nations knew, as well as the noble lord opposite, and those who acted with him, what we meant by ‘free trade,’ was nothing more nor less than, by means of the great advantages we enjoyed, to get a monopoly of all their markets for our manufacturers, and to prevent them, one and all, from ever becoming manufacturing nations.”
British Monopoly in the American South
By 1860, Britain had become the world’s leading producer of cotton cloth and thread, importing 80 percent of her raw cotton from America.
Cotton thus became the South’s main export and Britain her main customer. The South depended on Britain for her livelihood.
When, in 1824, protectionists sought to encourage U.S. textile production by placing duties on foreign imports, Southern Congressmen fought them. The North could never hope to replace England as the South’s trading partner, they argued, because the North would never be able to buy as much cotton as England.
England supplied cotton goods to the world, they argued, while Northern mills supplied only America, and only a fraction of America at that.
David Christy’s Cotton is King (1856) — an anti-protectionist polemic which helped inspire the Southern rebellion—argued that U.S. mills in the North lacked the capacity to process more than one quarter of the South’s total cotton yield. Moreover, the U.S. population at that time could not consume more than a third of the South’s produce, even if U.S. mills managed to churn out enough cotton clothes for all of them. England was thus the only viable customer for Southern cotton, Christy concluded.
The South’s loyalty to her British trading partners was striking, but was not reciprocated. Britain never ceased looking for alternative cotton sources to replace the South, hoping to find them in Egypt, Brazil, British India and elsewhere.
How the British System Encouraged Slavery
England’s tireless search for cheaper cotton kept Southern planters scrambling to provide the lowest prices possible, which they managed to do only by using slave labor.
One of Carey’s chief criticisms of the British System is that it encouraged slavery by depressing the price of labor—that is, by depressing wages—all over the world.
Under the British System, every country was forced to rely on overseas trade. None was allowed to become self-sufficient.
Thus, every buyer, in every country, was constantly scouring the earth, in search of the cheapest goods. Likewise, every seller around the world was competing to attract those global buyers by providing the cheapest goods.
The easiest way to produce cheap goods is to pay workers less.
Thus the British System persistently rewarded those who paid workers least. The most cheaply-made products, produced by the most poorly-paid workers, inevitably gained the widest distribution.
Slave labor is the cheapest of all, for which reason, slave-produced goods have a natural advantage under the British System.
“[A]ny system based on the idea of cheapening the raw materials of manufactures, [and] the rude products of agricultural and mining labor, tends necessarily to slavery…” Carey concluded in his 1867 pamphlet Reconstruction: Industrial, Financial and Political.
“The Imperialism of Free Trade”
The British System exerted an additional pressure on the South.
Because the South had no homegrown industries of its own, it was forced to buy everything it needed elsewhere, mainly from England.
If the South raised cotton prices too high, the British would buy their cotton elsewhere. Southern income would dry up.
Southern consumers would then find themselves unable to afford the imported goods on which they depended. In such a crisis, the plantation system itself could easily collapse.
Southerners lived in fear of such a collapse, and would do anything to prevent it.
For this reason, British historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson called the antebellum South a “colonial economy” of Britain, in their 1953 paper “The Imperialism of Free Trade.”
Dependence on British trade left Southerners no choice but to appease and cooperate with Britain in all matters—the very definition of colonial dependency.
Britain’s Dixie Empire
“British business turned the cotton South into a colonial economy, and the British investor hoped to do the same with the Mid-West,” write Gallagher and Robinson. “But the political strength of the country [the United States] stood in his way.”
With these words, Gallagher and Robinson reveal the essential conflict which led to the American Civil War.
Having succeeded in establishing a “colonial economy” in the South, the British opposed any moves by the North to interfere with their monopoly. In particular, they opposed any effort by the North to replace Britain as the South’s preeminent trading partner, which the North continually tried to do by imposing prohibitive tariffs on British products.
In their paper “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Gallagher and Robinson admit that Britain saw the fledgling industries of the North as a threat to their colonial control of the South.
“It was impossible to stop American industrialization,” they write, “and the industrialized sections [the North] successfully campaigned for tariffs, despite the opposition of those Sections [the South] which depended on the British trade connexion.”
Herein lay the cause of the American Civil War.
Why the Confederates Put a “Free Trade” Clause in Their Constitution
One of the ways Southerners sought to appease and cooperate with Britain was by inserting a “free trade” clause in the Confederate Constitution, adopted March 11, 1861.
Article I Section 8(1) states that no “duties or taxes on importations from foreign nations [shall] be laid to promote or foster any branch of industry…”
With these words, the Confederates assured their British patrons that they had no ambitions to build homegrown industries. They were content to remain low-cost producers of foods and raw materials.
Confederate diplomats used this “free trade” clause as a selling point in their negotiations with Britain.
For instance, when Confederate envoys met with John Russell, the British foreign secretary, on May 4, 1861, they enticed him with visions of a new, independent South, which would never again allow Washington to restrict British commerce.
Russell responded favorably.
Following this conversation, the envoys reported to then-Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs the happy news that, “England is in reality not averse to the disintegration of the United States and [England and France] will act favorably toward us upon the first decided [military] success which we may obtain.”
Economic Dependency Leads to Political Dependency
By imposing “free trade” on Brazil, Britain had effectively established what Gallagher and Robinson call “informal” rule over the country.
Likewise, the Confederacy’s “free trade” Constitution ratified Britain’s “informal” rule over the American South.
In their 1953 paper, Gallagher and Robinson argue that there were really two British Empires, “formal” and “informal.”
The “formal” empire consisted of those countries over which Britain exerted direct control, usually shown as red or pink on old maps. The “informal” empire consisted of those countries which Britain controlled through economic arrangements.
The difference between “formal” and “informal” rule is actually trivial, the authors argue, since Britain retained political control either way. “[F]ormal and informal empire are essentially interconnected and to some extent interchangeable,” they conclude.
The Fuzzy Limits of British Power
Trying to determine the limits of British power by the amount of territory “coloured red on the map” is “like judging the size and character of icebergs solely from the parts above the water-line,” Gallagher and Robinson argue.
Those countries which came under “informal” British rule at various times were integral parts of the British Empire, Gallagher and Robinson insist, notwithstanding the fact that they were never “coloured red on the map.”
The names of some of those “informal” dependencies will surprise some readers.
India, which had ostensibly won its “independence” in 1947, still remained under “informal” British rule at the time the authors were writing (1953), or at least so they claimed.
“India has passed from informal to formal association with the United Kingdom and, since World War II, back to an informal connexion,” they wrote.
Other examples of past British dependencies—according to Gallagher and Robinson—include China, Brazil, Argentina, and the antebellum American South.
The South’s Colonial Elite
Gallagher and Robinson note that, once Britain installed a “free trade” regime in a country, local elites would naturally seek to perpetuate the system. They write:
“For once their economies had become sufficiently dependent on foreign trade the classes whose prosperity was drawn from that trade normally worked themselves in local politics to preserve the local political conditions needed for it.”
In other words, those locals who profited from trading with Britain would serve as local proxies for the British, enforcing British interests on the ground.
This is what Carey meant when he wrote that “British agents have been always in close alliance with the slave-holding aristocracy of the South.”
Carey’s “slave-holding aristocracy” formed a colonial elite in the South, of the same sort described by Gallagher and Robinson, an elite “whose prosperity was drawn” from “foreign trade” and who could consequently be relied upon to “work themselves in local politics” for the preservation of British power and the advancement of Britain’s “free trade” agenda.
It was this class of people, wrote Carey, which was constantly trying to water down America’s tariffs to the point where U.S. duties were too low to affect British monopolies.
One such watered-down “free trade” tariff, The Walker Tariff of 1846, led directly to the financial crises which precipitated our Civil War, according to Carey.
He wrote in 1867: “From the date of the re-establishment in 1846 of the British monopoly system [by means of the Walker Tariff] we went steadily forward destroying the domestic commerce, increasing our dependence on Liverpool as a place of exchange with all the world, and augmenting our foreign debt, until all at once the inevitable result was reached— that of dissolution of the Union.”
More than 156 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Americans remain deeply divided over the Civil War.
No event in our history stirs up deeper resentments, nor does any subject generate more puzzling and intractable controversies.
Neither this article, nor the many thousands that follow it, will bring Americans any closer to agreeing on why we fought the Civil War.
I do hope, however, that by collecting these few curious and forgotten facts, I have sparked the curiosity of at least a few inquisitive minds, who may come to realize that our history is incomplete, that vital events have been erased from our memories, and that we must strive to recover what was lost.
For how can we face the future, without guidance from the past?
As the old saying goes, when two dogs fight, a third dog gets the bone.
Great Britain was our third dog in 1861.
But who is the third dog today?
Answering this question will not solve all our problems. But it may enable us, at the very least, to begin discussing the topic of “national divorce” in a more useful way.