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Abraham Lincoln and John Bright: a special relationship

The English radical and anti-slavery campaigner had a profound influence on the US president.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

For those who have seen the brilliant film Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis, you may have noticed in the scenes set within the study that there was a photograph in the left hand corner of the mantelpiece of a great British statesman, John Bright. I have that exact photograph in my personal collection, as described in my book, John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator (IB Tauris, 2011). Bright was the leading advocate in Britain against slavery throughout the American Civil War and who was highly esteemed by Abraham Lincoln for his advocacy in the run up to the Emancipation Proclamation – which had its 150th anniversary on 1 January, 2013.

During the course of the American Civil War, Bright had devoted all his energies to protecting his beloved American democracy – a key influence on his own campaigns for parliamentary reform – centring his arguments on the moral repugnance of slavery. In this, he had the support of the workers at his own cotton mill in Rochdale who, even when impoverished during the cotton famine caused by the war, refused to accept Southern slave-grown cotton. Yet, the relationship between Bright and Lincoln was not merely a real influence on Lincoln himself but on the history of the civil war and the relationship between Britain and America from that time on and still today.

When Steven Spielberg and Day-Lewis were interviewed on television about the film, both of them revealed that what had fascinated them, as much as everything else, was the mind of Abraham Lincoln. And what the photograph in the film represented was the extent to which Lincoln himself paid his own tribute to Bright.

It was testimony to Bright’s influence that Shuyler Colfax (who, as those who have watched the film will have seen for themselves voted for the constitutional amendment in 1865) and Henry Janney – both of whom were confidants of Lincoln – wrote to Bright after the assassination telling him that his portrait and only his portrait was in President Lincoln’s reception room. Lincoln had sent two portraits of himself to Bright, and of the two portraits hanging in Lincoln’s own office, one was of Bright.

Vice-President Shuyler Colfax, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote to Bright in 1866, requesting a likeness of Bright, saying, "Your face is quite familiar to me already, as your portrait hung up in President Lincoln's Reception room, and often, in the many evenings I spent with him there, he referred to you with sincere regard & even affection. Every loyal man & woman in the land knows you, knows you and esteems you. But your correspondence with Senator Sumner, whom I often meet (& we often talk about you, you may be assured) has informed you of all this."

A letter from another of the confidants of Lincoln, Henry Janney (dated 24 April, 1865, immediately after the assassination), wrote to Bright relating how he "told the President I had a letter from thee and he requested me to bring it up and let him see it, saying, 'I love to read the letters of Mr Bright.' I complied, when he read carefully every word, then remarked to those around him, 'my friend has show me a letter from Mr Bright. I believe he is the only British statesman who has been unfaltering in his confidence in our ultimate success - look there.' I stepped up to the wall and seeing a familiar face read beneath it John Bright MP It was the only portrait in the room."

It is perhaps, then, no surprise that a long-standing testimonial from Bright calling for Lincoln’s re-election was found in Lincoln’s pocket when they were emptied immediately after his assassination. Bright was known to Lincoln’s intimate friends as greatly influencing the president's mind.

In 1863, Bright defeated a resolution in the House of Commons for an alliance between Britain, the Emperor Napoleon II of France, and the southern Confederate states against the North, as well as ditching the £16 million support raised in England to support the South – the equivalent today of $1.7 billion (estimated by reference to the UK retail price index) – with the British Navy ruling the waves, this undoubtedly would have tipped the balance against the North, particularly given the support of Prime Minister Palmerston, Gladstone and Russell for the South at that time.

As a Quaker, Bright had indeed played a significant role, not only in taking on Gladstone, Russell and Palmerston to ensure that Britain was not drawn into the conflict on the side of the Confederacy – particularly during the tense times of the Trent and Alabama affairs – but also as a key influence on Abraham Lincoln himself.

In 1865, Bright’s speeches were published in New York as The American Question by the celebrated journalist, Frank Moore, who said, "Mr Bright was ever a sincere friend to the United States and often bestowed unstinted praise upon the institutions of this country..."

As Trueblood writes in the book Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish, "John Bright is remembered for his influence upon American history, both in the way he helped to avoid armed conflict between Britain and America, and also in the way he prevented the recognition of the Confederacy by Great Britain and France. But many who are familiar with the work of Bright as a statesman are not equally familiar with him as a thinker who influenced the mind of Abraham Lincoln."

About two years ago, I found it fascinating to witness the address of President Obama at Westminster Hall on 25 May 2011 and I wrote shortly after in my book, that, for Bright, this would have been a dream come true. I launched my book at the Reform Club, his spiritual home, on the 200th Anniversary of his birth that year. Bright would certainly have appreciated the President quoting his own phrase "the mother of Parliaments" and more than this, the very presence of the first black President of the United States of America would have been the ultimate vindication of his battle on behalf of the North and against slavery in the American Civil War.

The relationship, at the very least, is a demonstration of the respect and influence which flowed between these two great statesmen who changed the course of history.