English Liberty, American Emancipation

By David Gleeson

150 years ago today, 22 September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation stating that on 1 January 1863, ‘all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.’[1] Thus, Lincoln changed the course of America’s Civil War, making it about ending slavery and not just saving the Union.

The reasons for this shift were numerous but English immigrants living in the United States were sure that it was English precedents, and not just American circumstances, that had refocused their new home’s bloodiest conflict on the enslavement of four million African Americans.  When the War had broken out in April 1861 the St. George’s Society of New York was sure that southern ‘secession’ was wrong because it broke up the United States but even more so because it was done to preserve slavery. Its chaplain stated clearly at their St. George’s Day dinner that:  ‘The Word of God had proclaimed to man that by the sweat of his brow he should eat bread; but the inauguration of the present rebellion which was threatening the Union was based on the notion instigated by the Prince of Darkness, that man should not eat bread by the sweat of his own brow, but by the sweat of others.’[2] In April 1862 the St. George’s group in Cleveland, Ohio, also extolled against living purely on the ‘sweat of others’ calling for ‘the unchaining of all God’s yeomen.’[3]

English Americans felt justified then that they had been ahead of popular and political opinion in the United States when Lincoln came around to their view.  They had led on this vital issue because of the English tradition of liberty and resistance to arbitrary power going back to the Anglo-Saxons and Magna Charta, continuing through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the United Kingdom’s abolition of slavery in the early 1830s.  Now that America had come around to their view, ‘England and America’ could ‘shake hands over an emancipated race they both helped to enslave and refreshed with a new an unfettered spirit of liberty, will go on in their own spheres to the accomplishment of their one great mission—to advance and perfect civil and religious liberty all over the world.’[4] The troubles of the Trent Affair, so recent in memory, that had almost brought the US and the UK into conflict at the turn of 1862, could be forgotten in the now joint struggle to spread the benefits of English liberty.

What these English citizens of America were doing was typical of ethnic minorities in the U.S. as a whole.  They were using their own history to establish their compatibility with the United States.  The Irish, for example, were always keen to make parallels between the Irish struggle for freedom and America’s struggle.  The fact that England had been the U.S.’s historical antagonist and that it retained a monarch made it tougher for English immigrants to integrate their traditions into the American milieu.  Lincoln’s Proclamation, however, and the resulting effort to end slavery provided the English with an excellent opportunity to show their American patriotism while celebrating their own Englishness.  They embraced this chance with gusto, in the process displaying an American loyalty that surpassed other groups, such as the Irish, who remained skeptical of Emancipation.   The message was loud and clear.  The English could be as good, or even better, Americans, as any other immigrant group.


[1] National Archives and Records Administration, ‘Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, 1862.’ Available at  http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals_iv/sections/preliminary_emancipation_proclamation.html

[2] New York Herald, 30 April 1861.

[3] Cleveland Morning Daily Herald, 25 April 1862.

[4] Ibid.

David Gleeson’s piece here is taken from an essay in the book Civil War, Global Conflict, ed. David T. Gleeson and Simon Lewis to be published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2013. It cannot be used or excerpted for any purpose without his express permission.

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