Secession and Slavery in Great Britain: Cassius Clay and Edwin DeLeon debate in The Times of London

Secession and Slavery in Great Britain: Cassius Clay and Edwin DeLeon debate in The Times of London

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria announced Great Britain’s neutrality in the Civil War, which raised Southern hopes of recognition and Northern fears of the same. The Queen’s proclamation and public reaction to the outbreak of hostilities were the result of long-standing assumptions about the sectional division in the United States.[1] Aware of British attitudes about the political system, slavery and abolition, and the geographic differences in the United States, private individuals determined to explain to British readers the causes of the rebellion, attract British sympathy and support, and hopefully alter the course of the war in their section’s favor.

One week after the announcement of British neutrality, in London’s newspaper The Times, northern and southern writers debated the reasons for secession and war and laid out arguments for why Great Britain should support their section. On Monday, May 20, 1861, The Times published a letter by the anti-slavery Kentuckian and new U.S. Minister to the Russian court, Cassius M. Clay, and on Saturday, May 25, 1861, Edwin DeLeon, a secessionist and former U.S. minister to Egypt, provided a southern counterargument. Clay and DeLeon eloquently defended their respective sections with arguments designed for a British audience and to solicit British support. They utilized arguments to fit their audience’s expectations and perceptions. These two installments of the debate in The Times (a future post will deal with the third one by John L. Motley) illustrate how public diplomacy played out in the British newspapers as individuals from the two belligerents tried to win European support.

Cassius Clay. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the first letter, Clay addressed the causes of secession, explaining that the Union fought for its national integrity and the principle of liberty. He wrote that “the so-called ‘Confederate States of America’ rebel against us—against our nationality and against all the principles of its structure.”[2] According to Clay, secession violently split the nation into separate independent entities and was treason. Based on the Constitution, Clay dismissed the Southern claim to state sovereignty. He reminded his readers that the Constitution had taken independence away from the states and bestowed sovereignty in the people. He directly tackled states’ rights in order to undermine secessionist arguments and address British assumptions about the United States.

Aware of British perceptions of the sectional tensions in the United States, Clay contended that the Southern states could “no more ‘secede’ from the Union than Scotland or Ireland can secede from England.” Despite potential shortfalls, Clay’s analogy was a well-intended device to illustrate the conflict’s dilemma to the British public. Even more, Clay felt the need to remind the British public about the southern slaveholding aristocracy.

Shifting to slavery as an issue, Clay accused slaveholder of a “despotic rule” aimed at subjugating the “white races of all nations.” Slaveholders favored restricting the freedom of speech and press to protect their own interests and used the “terrorism of ‘Lynch law’” to accomplish their goals. In addition, Clay argued that slaveholders saw only one solution to the conflict between capital and labor, and that was for capital to own labor, an implicit appeal to the British working classes.

However, Clay was not only interested in explaining causation; he wanted to obtain British support and asked “Where should British honour place her in this contest?” He reminded his readers that the North was Great Britain’s honest friend as the two protected democracy, Great Britain in Europe and the Union in North America. Furthermore, he wondered whether Confederate independence would indicate that Great Britain was wrong about abolishing slavery, getting to the very heart of Britain’s moral foreign policy. Finally, Clay reminded readers that the United States was Great Britain best customer, downplaying the impact of the highly controversial, recently passed Morrill Tariff.

In his effort to gain British support, Clay not only appealed to public sentiment, but he also unnecessarily threatened the possibility of a future war if Great Britain did not support the Union. Clay explained that the Union would easily subdue but not subjugate the revolting states. With 20 million “homogeneous people” against the South’s 8,907,894 whites and about 4 million slaves, Clay assumed the war would be over after one year. He warned at the end of his letter, pointing to the rapid growth in population, correctly estimating that it would reach 100 million in the next fifty years, “Is England so secure in the future against home revolt or foreign ambition as to venture, now in our need, to plant the seeds of revenge in all our future!” He concluded that Great Britain would be wise to join forces with its natural ally, the North. Clay presented an argument based on his personal experiences and commonly held opinions; however, he geared his arguments toward a British audience to appeal to their understanding of the United States in order to gain support.

Edwin DeLeon in Thomas Cooper DeLeon, Belles, Beaux, and Brains of the 60’s (New York G. W. Dillingham Company, 1909), 411.

Countering the Kentuckian’s argument, DeLeon laid out his own case using his understanding of British opinions. First, DeLeon accused Clay of drawing “upon his imagination for his facts and figures,”[3] claiming that another three states (the border states) would soon join the eleven seceded states. In contrast to Clay, De Leon claimed that the seceded states contain a homogeneous population without a large Unionist element. Even more, the firing on Fort Sumter had increased southern resilience. He played directly into British assumptions that ethnic cohesion existed in the southern section of the country.

Aware of Clay’s England-Scotland analogy, DeLeon dismissively called it “absurd.” In contrast to the hypothetical departure of Scotland, sovereign states had seceded from a federal union. DeLeon corrected that the people in the Southern states “through States’ Conventions specially called for the purpose, have initiated and adopted the ordinances of secession” just like states had ratified the constitution originally. DeLeon’s legal defense of secession illustrated a nuanced understanding of U.S. history and appeal to British audiences.

Angry with Clay turning against his native home, DeLeon wrote, “Mr. Clay should know that we regard as ‘doubly traitors’ those who, born and bred on Southern soil, not only desert but defame their Southern brethren, in arms against a worse than Austrian despotism.” With that, the Southern internal debate had crossed the Atlantic and was verbally continued in The Times.

DeLeon probably knew that such accusations would not help him convince his European audience; therefore, he needed to remind the British about their hatred for U.S. expansionism. Using Clay’s language, DeLeon argued that such words would fit “the taste of North-western stump speakers.” However, it would not do with people in Great Britain as it would cause them “to smile at such a specimen of ‘Spread Eagle-ism,’” which was a direct reference to expansionism. By stressing both Clay’s vulgarity and expansionism, DeLeon raised concerns about the future of British imperial and commercial interests.

After dismissing slavery as a cause of secession and denying the North’s right to subdue the South, DeLeon arose long-standing British fears of popular revolution, especially the French Revolution. Reminding the British of the French Revolution and the upheaval and despotism it caused, DeLeon drew a parallel to the events in the United States:

The old watchword of the Jacobins in France’s darkest day of blood and tears, ‘Fraternité, ou la mort’ (‘Be my brother, or I will kill you!’), is now the rallying cry of the ‘free North,’ not of the South, who stands with drawn sword beside her own altars, is that a watchword to enlist the sympathies or stir the pulses of free-born Englishmen when a new reign of terror is sought to be inaugurated, once more under the desecrated name of liberty, over the smiling and happy homes of the sunny South?

Playing on the fear of a reign of terror may have helped DeLeon scare British readers who preferred stability over chaos. Having dismissed all of Clay’s arguments, DeLeon contended that the British government should extend recognition to the Confederate States.

The discussion between Clay and DeLeon in The Times in May 1861 provided British readers an insight into the emerging conflict in the United States. However, the two authors geared their arguments to address British assumptions about the United States, including sectional division, slavery, and politics. Besides explaining the reasons for the conflict in a way understandable to their British audience, Clay and DeLeon used their letters to also ask for support. Both authors engaged in public diplomacy, but made an effort to understand British assumptions and shroud their appeal in understandable language. They failed to recognize Britain’s uncertainty about the causes of the conflict based on the official statements coming from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. The two letters offer a glimpse into the importance of understanding both the unofficial diplomatic efforts by private individuals and the need to understand British public opinions about the United States, to understand why Britain remained neutral throughout the conflict.

Part II of this post has now been published here.


[1] Peter Connor, American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

[2] Cassius M. Clay, “To the Editor of the Times,” Times (London), May 20, 1861.

[3] Edwin De Leon, “The Civil War in America,” Times (London), May 25, 1861.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at

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