Foreign Intervention during the Civil War

By Maura James

A Harper’s Weekly article from Saturday July 12, 1862 titled “The Ten Who Save the City” invokes a subject on the forefront of Americans’ minds 149 years ago this week.  In a section titled Foreign Intervention Again, the debates in the English Parliament and addresses by the French Emperor were repeated and Americans were reminded of the ever present threat of European intervention into their Civil War.

Today, foreign intervention is not much discussed in Civil War Curriculum.  Volumes have been written and on historic tours, such as the tour here at President Lincoln’s Cottage, the subject is addressed, but modern day visitors tend to forget the importance the threat played in the mind of the average 1860s American.  “The Ten Who Save the City” reminded readers that, though the English and French were a serious threat to the Union Cause (in July 1862 they certainly were a threat), Americans had English Brothers who spoke against tyranny and wrote for justice.  The article notes J.E. Cairnes, an Irishman who eventually taught at University College London, and his recently published book, The Slave Power, its Character, Career and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest.

In the introduction of a 2003 version of the book Mark M. Smith described Cairnes’ “attention to the interaction between politics and economics” (Cairnes and Smith xx).  The work was used by Cairnes to deter the English parliament from intervening on the side of the Confederacy for economic reasons.  Not only did the book conclude that Slavery was a bad practice, not morally but economically, it also argued that the South was “economically-unviable”.  It is a point on which Lincoln and Cairnes most certainly agreed.  Slavery was not an institution on which an economy could or should be based.  When Lincoln was elected in 1860 he felt if slavery was contained it would most certainly end by its own devices.  Cairnes, too, believed slavery was unsustainable because it “sped up soil erosion, discouraged the introduction of technical innovations, and stifled commerce and enterprise more generally” (“John Elliot Cairnes, 1823-1875).  The two differed on how they thought slavery should end.  Because Cairnes saw a symbiotic relationship between politics and economy, he felt the institution must be ended by government action, whereas when Lincoln was elected he felt confined by the constitution.

Perhaps the Harper’s Weekly article best surmises the importance of such voices of opposition from across the pond.  “It is not that they take precisely the same view of our struggle that we do ourselves – for in many things we differ; but that they see clearly the cardinal fact that it is a fight between Liberty and Despotism, between Class Privilege and Equal Rights” (Harper’s Weekly, July 12, 1862).  Although, Cairnes mentioned nothing of the moral evils of such an institution, the Harper’s article ended on a moral note in recognizing the shared “loyalty to human liberty which is the sole hope of mankind” (Harper’s Weekly).  A quote Lincoln himself might enjoy and endorse.

Works Cited 

Cairnes, J.E. and Smith, Mark M. The Slave Power. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia: South Carolina. 2003.

Harper’s Weekly July 12, 1862. “The Ten Who Save the City”.

The History of Economic Thought Website. “John Elliot Cairnes, 1823-1875”.


 Ms. James is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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