Part II of Secession and Slavery in Great Britain

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Feb 5, 2017

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain II: John Lothrop Motley and the Causes of the Civil War in The Times of London

By Niels Eichhorn | July 2, 2019 | Comments 1 comment

To read Part I of my analysis of this debate, click here. Part I discusses two articles by Cassius Clay, an antislavery Kentuckian and U.S. Minister to the Russian court, and Edwin DeLeon, a secessionist and former U.S. minister to Egypt.

British neutrality inspired Clay and DeLeon to present their section’s reasoning to gain British support. Sandwiched between their articles on Thursday and Friday, May 23 and 24, 1861, was a third letter by well-known historian John Lothrop Motley, the future minister of the Lincoln administration to Vienna. Like Clay and DeLeon, Motley geared his appeal to the British people and based it on his many connections in British society, so Motley’s voice should have carried much weight. Motley also hoped he could change British policy with regard to the United States. However, a number of Motley’s arguments were designed for the United States, where his editorial was eventually published in pamphlet form, and he overlooked serious British concerns with regard to the Lincoln administration’s policies. Motley’s letter illustrates how focusing on upper-class opinions could undermine arguments, and even more, the importance of understanding the desire for official statements instead of opinions by private individuals. Nevertheless, Motley’s arguments highlight the issues of importance in May 1861 for the British.

Focused on legality, Motley started with a distinction between the de facto and de jure situations in the United States. De facto secession had occurred; the conflict in North America had become a war, and the United States would survive or die as the “great Republic.” However, de jure secession was illegal, according to Motley. He described the insult to the national flag at Fort Sumter and expressed fear that the same fate could happen in Washington. Motley laid out a lengthy and complicated legal argument against secession, making clear that the United States was “not a Confederation, not a compact of Sovereign States, not a copartnership, it [was] a Commonwealth” with a constitution that acted as fundamental and organic law. The United States had abandoned the state of chaos with the Constitution, an argument designed for readers in the United States and not Great Britain.[1]
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