The New York Times

By Marc Palen

Civil War buffs have long speculated about how different the war might have been if only the Confederacy had won formal recognition from Britain. But few recognize how close that came to happening — and how much pro-Southern sympathy in Britain was built on a lie.

During the first years of the Civil War, Northerners worried incessantly about the possibility of British recognition of Southern independence, and with good reason. To the dismay of the North, much of the British press and public initially showed remarkable sympathy for Southern secession. England’s Liverpool Post recollected with only some exaggeration that “nearly all the aristocracy and a large portion of the middle classes were adverse to the North and in favor of the South. … Out of four or five hundred English newspapers, only five were bold enough openly to support the North.”

Trans-Atlantic trade played a crucial role in developing this pro-South sympathy. British reliance on imported Southern cotton heightened the prospect of Confederate recognition, bolstering secessionist sentiment. Early on, Confederate diplomats believed that England might feasibly acknowledge its independence if only the South withheld cotton exports to Europe, what the historian Frank Owsley famously termed “King Cotton Diplomacy.”

Early British support for the South was further buttressed by something as mundane as a protective tariff — the Morrill Tariff — approved by Congress on March 2, 1861. This new tariff, passed to protect American infant industries, also unwittingly gave rise to a troublesome myth of mounting trans-Atlantic proportions.

The tariff had been opposed by many Southern legislators, which is why it passed so easily once their states seceded. But this coincidence of timing fed a mistaken inversion of causation among the sympathetic British public – secession allowed the tariff to pass, but many in Britain thought that the tariff had come first, and so incensed the Southern states that they left the union.

Nor was this a simple misunderstanding. Pro-Southern business interests and journalists fed the myth that the war was over trade, not slavery – the better to win over people who might be appalled at siding with slave owners against the forces of abolition. On March 12, 1861, just 10 days after the Morrill Tariff had become law, The London Times gave editorial voice to the tariff lie. The newspaper pronounced that “Protection was quite as much a cause of the disruption of the Union as Slavery,” and remarked upon how the Morrill Tariff had “much changed the tone of public feeling” in favor of “the Secessionists.”

The pro-North magazine Fraser’s made the more accurate observation that the new Northern tariff had handily given the Confederacy “an ex post facto justification” for secession, but British newspapers would continue to give voice to the Morrill myth for many months to come.

Why was England so susceptible to this fiction? For one thing, the Union did not immediately declare itself on a crusade for abolition at the war’s outset. Instead, Northern politicians cited vague notions of “union” — which could easily sound like an effort to put a noble gloss on a crass commercial dispute.

It also helped that commerce was anything but crass in Britain. On the question of free trade, the British “are unanimous and fanatical,” as the abolitionist and laissez-faire advocate Richard Cobden pointed out in December 1861. The Morrill Tariff was pejoratively nicknamed the “Immoral” tariff by British wags. It was easy for them to see the South as a kindred oppressed spirit.

Northern observers foresaw precisely the problems that the tariff would cause the Union in Europe. The New York Times promptly warned that, as Europe was moving toward laissez faire, the North’s passage of this “ill-timed, ill-advised, and … disastrous measure” would put it “in conflict” with the Confederacy “in every court of Europe,” and that the South would seek recognition “by appealing to the popular sentiment” of free trade.

Cobden, though a supporter of the Union, explained England’s confusion to his longtime American friend, the radical Republican senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts: “There are two subjects on which we [the English] are unanimous and fanatical — personal freedom and Free Trade.” Cobden noted as well that when British eyes peered across the Atlantic, all they saw was “on one side protectionists, on the other slave-owners. The protectionists say they do not seek to put down slavery. The slave-owners say they want Free Trade. Need you wonder at the confusion in John Bull’s poor head?”

Pro-Southern forces did well with such confusion. The Liverpool merchant James Spence, in his influential 1861 publication “The American Union,” for instance, spent just one chapter on slavery, and the other seven on the Morrill Tariff, the right to secession and why he thought a future reunion was culturally and philosophically impossible. And, after a close reading of Spence in late 1861, Charles Dickens himself came out decidedly for the South and argued in the pages of the magazine “All the Year Round” that the Morrill Tariff had “severed the last threads which bound the North and South together.”

Such pro-South sentiments led the English antislavery advocate John Bright to write that the subject of the tariff in Britain was of such “great importance” that little “would more restore sympathy between England and the States than the repeal of the present monstrous and absurd Tariff,” as it handily offered “all the speakers and writers for the South an extraordinary advantage in this country in their discussion of the American question.” Yet “no American … attributed the disasters of the Union to that cause,” he observed. “It is an argument made use of by ignorant Englishmen, but never by informed Americans.” The war, Bright concluded, was “a question of slavery” and nothing else.

The Union soon obtained some much needed trans-Atlantic help from none other than the English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. By the beginning of 1862, the tariff myth had gained enough public traction to earn Mill’s intellectual ire, and he proved quite effective at voicing his opinion concerning slavery’s centrality to the conflict. He sought to refute this “theory in England, believed by some, half believed by many more … that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of slavery at all.”

Assuming this to be true, Mill asked, then “what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery.” Yet, Mill noted, the Southerners themselves “say nothing of the kind. They tell the world … that the object of the fight was slavery. … Slavery alone was thought of, alone talked of … the South separated on slavery, and proclaimed slavery as the one cause of separation.”

Mill concluded with a prediction that the Civil War would soon placate the abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. That, as the war progressed, “the contest would become distinctly an anti-slavery one,” and the tariff fable finally forgotten.

Mill’s prescient antislavery vision eventually begin to take hold in Britain, but only after Abraham Lincoln himself got involved in the trans-Atlantic fight for British hearts and minds when he put forth his Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.

By February, Cobden happily observed how Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had aroused “our old anti-slavery feeling … and it has been gathering strength ever since.” It also led to mass meetings, the result of which “closed the mouths of those who have been advocating the side of the South.” John Bright seconded Cobden’s observation, writing: “Opinion here has changed greatly. In almost every town great meetings are being held to pass resolutions in favor of the North, and the advocates of the South are pretty much put down.”

And so, two years after the Morrill Tariff’s March 1861 passage, Northern antislavery advocates had finally exploded the transatlantic tariff myth. Goldwin Smith, a radical English abolitionist and Oxford professor, afterward explained the initial British acceptance of the tariff lie to his Boston audience in 1865: “Had you been able to say plainly at the outset that you were fighting against Slavery, the English people would scarcely have … been brought to believe that this great contest was only about a Tariff.” Over the years, Smith had “heard the Tariff Theory called the most successful lie in history,” he said. “Very successful it certainly was, and its influence in misleading England ought not to be overlooked.”

This article was originally published at the New York Times