How the British workers’ movement helped end slavery in America: Part two

By Joe Mount
7 January 2015

This is the second part of a two-part article on the role of the British working class in the victory of the Northern Union forces in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States. The first part was posted January 5.

The workers’ fight against capitalism was bound up with the struggle for the abolition of slavery. Recognising the common plight of slaves and working people, a London trade union meeting declared that “the cause of labour and liberty is one all over the world,” and opposed the diplomatic recognition of any government “founded on human slavery.”

Karl Marx wrote in Capital, “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

British workers were conscious of their shared stake in the great democratic revolution being fought on battlefields across the Atlantic Ocean. Another public meeting condemned the “tyrannical faction [the Confederacy] that is at this very moment in rebellion against the American republic and the sworn enemy of the social and political rights of the working class in all countries.”

In Britain, two years after the Union victory in the American Civil War, the Second Reform Act enfranchised some workers for the first time and doubled the electorate. The passage of the act was inconceivable without the impact of the American Civil War and the movement it engendered, which stoked the bourgeoisie’s fear of revolution. Trotsky later observed that the “revolutionary victory on American territory gained the vote for a section of the British working class (the 1867 Act.)”

The workers’ intervention in the Civil War demonstrated the revolutionary potential of the working class. Marx explained that it “was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the west of Europe from plunging into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic.” He called the movement “brilliant proof of the indestructible staunchness of the English popular masses.”

The anti-slavery movement was a historic step forward for the international workers’ movement. Marx said: “The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.”

The working class was entering the stage of world history. As the World Socialist Web Site noted last year on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: “The powerful demonstration of working class solidarity with the Union and the slaves also nourished a spirit of internationalism developing among the most advanced English workers and helped to set the stage for the founding of the First International (or the International Workingmen’s Association—IWA) the following year in London.”

The impact of Chartism and the anti-slavery movement reverberated across the world. Both movements portended a new era in world history. Their potential would be fulfilled with the victory of the Russian Revolution half a century later.

Lincoln in Manchester

This heroic tradition is commemorated by the statue of Abraham Lincoln that stands in Manchester today. Lincoln never set foot in the city, but the British workers’ role there in the war for the destruction of slavery brought them and the “Great Emancipator” together.

An 1862 meeting held at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall sent a message to Lincoln that is now engraved on the plinth below the Lincoln Statue in the city. It states that “the vast progress which you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us all with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot on Civilisation and Christianity—chattel slavery—during your Presidency will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity. We are certain that such a glorious consummation will cement Great Britain and the United States in close and enduring regards.”

This flour barrel (now located at Rochdale Museum) was part of the relief sent from New York and Philadelphia.

In a demonstration of sympathy for the distressed British workers, America sent three relief ships loaded with food funded by public subscriptions. Lincoln thanked the workers for their support in a message read to large crowds that welcomed the first relief ship, the George Griswold :

“I know and deeply deplore the suffering which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this government built on the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one that should rest exclusively on the basis of slavery, was likely to obtain the favour of Europe.

“Through the action of disloyal citizens the working people of Europe have been subjected to a severe trial for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt. Under these circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.

“I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between two nations will be as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”

This text is also engraved below the Manchester statue of Lincoln.

George Grey Barnard, Abraham Lincoln (marble), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The statue was commissioned over a century ago, the task falling to American sculptor George G. Barnard (1863-1938). He created a number of expressive likenesses, the product of devoted work over a number of years. The results, in particular, the six-foot-tall statue that stands in Manchester today, are moving.

Barnard strove to capture Lincoln’s persona, announcing, “I shall give future generations the real Lincoln .” He was determined to convey Lincoln as he was before taking office, a “Lincoln for the People,” wearing worn-out, common clothes. He modeled Lincoln’s body after an unemployed railway worker with a similar physique who lived in Kentucky, not far from Lincoln’s birthplace. “I have seen the models of Europe—men of Greece and Italy—symmetrical and beautiful in a classical way, but nothing ever impressed me like the form of this Kentuckian,” said Barnard.

The statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Square, Manchester

Barnard worked long hours for five years to create an artistic masterpiece. The 3.5-metre-high monument was finished in 1917 and deeply moved its viewers. Historian Harold E. Dickson said, “Each of its carefully studied and treated parts contributes to a totality of striking characterization: very large feet, long limbs in trousers that bulge at the knees, the homely gesture of hand clasping wrist across a flat stomach, the sharply sloping shoulders, and, poised on a long neck, the eloquent head, expressively imbued with qualities of strength, wisdom, gentleness, and unassuming pride.

“Bluntly and astringently naturalistic, devoid of elegance and of pretensions to factitious nobility, this is Barnard’s ‘mighty man who grew from out the soil and the hardships of the earth’ to become champion and symbol of democracy. Above all, it is a visual record of findings in the course of what its creator simply and truthfully called ‘my journey in the heart of Lincoln.’”

Barnard had run afoul of his paymasters. As US imperialism prepared to enter the First World War, calls arose for castings of Lincoln to be sent to the European capitals as a symbol of the fight for “democracy,” as part of the campaign by the American bourgeoisie to paint their imperialist appetites in bright colours.

The American social elite loathed Barnard’s “warts and all” approach. They saw in the statue only “radicalism in rags,” a disreputable person, a “slouch” and a “hobo.”

They denounced Barnard’s Lincoln in the press, provoking a stormy debate. Barnard was unshaken. He said to his wife during the controversy, “Don’t worry over talk about the Lincoln statue. It is a great work and nothing can change it.”

After the heat died down, it was sent to England alongside an existing, more “statesman-like” statue, lifeless and dour, which was erected in Parliament Square, London.

In Britain, despite The Times describing Barnard’s statue as resembling “a tramp with colic,” it found a home in industrial Manchester, the former “workshop of the world,” where it was placed in Platt Fields Park in 1919. It was relocated to Lincoln Square in the town centre in 1986 and the engraving was restored in 2007 for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain.

Manchester’s Lincoln monument stands as a testament to the powerful, broad-based anti-slavery sentiment and incipient internationalism among British workers.


· Manchester Art Gallery, “Abraham Lincoln

· Harold E. Dickson, “George Grey Barnard’s Controversial Lincoln,” Art Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 8-15, 19, 23

· Leon Trotsky, Where is Britain Going?, 1925

· David G. Surdam, “King Cotton: monarch or pretender? The state of the market for raw cotton on the eve of the American Civil War,” The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 113-132

· BBC Manchester, “Why Stalybridge was put to the sword by the police,” 15 January, 2010

· The Guardian, “Lincolns great debt to Manchester,” 4 February, 2013

· Tom Mackaman, “The British working class and the American Civil War: 150 years since London’s St. James’ Hall meeting,” World Socialist Web Site, 26 March, 2013

· James Heartfield, British Workers & the US Civil War: How Karl Marx and the Lancashire Weavers Joined Abraham Lincolns Fight Against Slavery, 2012

· Terry Wyke and Harry Cocks, Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester

· The American civil war and the Lancashire cotton famile,

· Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1887

· Karl Marx, “A London Workers’ Meeting,” 1862

· Karl Marx, “Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln,” 1865

Contribute to the fight for socialism in 2020

2019 has been a year of mass social upheaval. We need you to help the WSWS and ICFI make 2020 the year of international socialist revival. We must expand our work and our influence in the international working class. If you agree, donate today. Thank you.