Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Birmingham MP who persuaded President Lincoln to abolish slavery

The Birmingham MP who persuaded President Lincoln to abolish slavery

Many of us will visit our local cinemas in the coming weeks and watch Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Lincoln’. I haven’t yet seen the film, but I am confident that they will not show how a Birmingham MP (and that’s Birmingham, England, not Birmingham, USA) persuaded him to make the ending of slavery completely, a central issue of the American Civil War.

When the Civil War began, Lincoln’s stance was that slavery could continue in the Confederate states, but any new states would be slavery free. Indeed, Lincoln prohibited his Generals from freeing slaves in captured states. In 1861, Lincoln sacked Major General John C. Frémont, the commander of the Union Army in St. Louis, for freeing slaves in captured terriorities.

It was John Bright who persuaded President Lincoln to harden his stance on abolishing slavery. On 22nd September 1862, eighteen months into the War, Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation, where every slave in the USA would be freed as of 1st January 1863.

Indeed, John Bright’s friendship with President Abraham Lincoln was so important, that when President Lincoln was assassinated, on his body was found a newspaper article about his presidency by John Bright. In Lincoln’s study were two portraits, one of which was a photograph of John Bright. And today, just inside the main entrance of the White House is a bust of John Bright, which was found by Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s in the basement and put back on display.

John Bright never corresponded direct with Abraham Lincoln. Instead John’s letters to US Senator Charles Sumner were widely read across the US Senate, including by Lincoln. It was through this correspondence that John Bright persuaded Lincoln to make the abolition of slavery across the entire USA a central platform of the Civil War.

On 23rd October 2009, a statue to John Bright MP was unveiled inside Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The statue was jointly unveiled by Councillor Ernie Hendricks who campaigned for this statue to be put back on display; Bill Cash MP whose great grandfather was a first cousin of John Bright and Stephanie Hightower, President of the USA athletics and field team.

This statue was original unveiled in 1888 and an exact replica exists in the Parliament, London. After decades of being in a Council storage facility, this was restored and cleaned ready for the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Bright in 2011. It is back in its original position in the Museum at the top of the main stairs.

Lincoln described John Bright as “the friend of our country, and of freedom everywhere”. It was John Bright who also stopped Britain from supporting the Confederates in the US Civil War.
How much John Bright was considered a hero in the Unionist states is shown in the following paragraph from Harpers Weekly, a US political magazine, on 22nd March 1862:


It is not surprising that the name of John Bright, whenever it was mentioned at the great meeting at the Cooper Institute on Washington’s birthday, was hailed with a tumult of applause. Thoughout our difficulties of the last year John Bright has been one of the few men in England who has truly saw and frankly stated te scope of this rebellion. When Great Britain flamed into rage at the Trent affair, John Bright laid his finger upon the arm of John Bull, and begged that old person not to make himself ridiculous by losing his temper in advance of the occasion, but to wait and hear whether an insult was intended, or whether it was an accident.”

The Trent Affiar was a diplomatic incident between the Union states and Britain, which resulted in British forces mobilising on the Canadian border ready for an attack on the Union states. History shows that john Bright successfully calmed the hawks in London.
John Bright was not perfect. He did support giving the vote to women. Neither did he support Home Rule for Ireland, instead believing in reform in Ireland. He also believed that trade unions prevented free trade.

I believe that John Bright should be forgiven for these faults. These views were common in his time. John Bright should be remembered as the man who pushed forward the boundaries of progressive politics: giving the vote to working men; making campaigning for peace acceptable and most importantly contributing to the freeing millions of black slaves in the USA.


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