Lost in the Files: British Public Opinion Concerning the U.S. Civil War

The first volume of FRUS, issued in 1861, contained excisions. Unfortunately, we don’t know precisely why material was taken out—the people who did this work left us no written notes about their thought process. But by comparing the printed volume to original copies of the documents at the National Archives, we can see what material was taken out. This, in turn, can help us understand the why question.  

On June 21, 1861, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom, sent to Washington a wide-ranging assessment of divisions in British opinion on which side to support in the Civil War. Adams’s basic conclusion, “that the British desire only to be perfectly neutral, giving no aid nor comfort to the insurgents,” was published, but the lengthy reporting which led to this conclusion was excluded. To be sure, Adams assessed, there were many who opposed slavery, yet “those who sympathize the most with the position of the Free States as unfavorable to the extension of domestic slavery are the least inclined to favor their policy of war against the Slave States.” Rather, British opponents of slavery seemed to agree with the Confederacy; that there should be a “permanent and peaceful separation” of North and South. The reason? British opponents of slavery “fear a reunion of our States because they think it cannot be effected excepting at the expense of principle. They favor a separation because they think it will keep the Free States consistent and determined enemies of Slavery.”

Charles Francis Adams
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Such arguments must have struck the editors of the 1861 messages as potentially corrosive to Union morale. A second category of British public opinion was the “merchants and the manufacturers,” who also “look with great favor on a permanent separation of the States” and assessed the “difficulties” of the United States “in their purely material aspect and in the single interest of their own country.” Yet a third category of opinion was “purely political and purely English.” Here Adams identified British conservatives who saw the conflict as “the realization of all their predictions of the failure of republicanism in its most portentous form.” This portion of the population “have no preference” for the Union or Confederacy but wanted them to “continue to devour each other.”

Adams noted that these three sectors of opinion represented the “very large proportion” of the British population. By contrast, the portion of the population “who really understand the nature of the question at issue and who advocate the cause of the United States as identical with the progress of free institutions all over the world is comparatively insignificant.” Only this last group, Adams noted, saw the war as a “necessity”; all others “consider it as more or less the offspring of mere passion.” Perhaps the Lincoln administration feared the effect on Union morale of suggesting that a large portion of the British population would have been satisfied with Confederate independence. Whatever the reason for its exclusion, the editors deleted Adams’s long discussion of British opinion, along with his statement that Seward’s strong reaction to any “proclivity to a recognition” produced the desired effect. Only the conclusion that Adams was “earnestly assured” that the “sympathy with the government of the United States is general” made it to publication, preserving the appearance of support at the expense of conveying a more complex political situation.

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