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

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

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]

John Lothrop Motley by John Sartain, engraver, and Trow and Co Leavitt, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dismissing the Articles of Confederation period where the country was a “league of petty sovereigns,” Motley noted that the Constitution “was ordained and established” by a power superior to the states: the people. He ridiculed the idea of state sovereignty as a constitutional right. Continuing to deride state power, Motley stressed that “the name of no state is mentioned in the” Constitution; rather, the states “receive commands.” He reinvigorated his point later in the letter by stressing that the president “knows nothing of states;” rather “he deals with individuals.” The power of states did not exceed those of the federal government and secession was not a state’s right. While British readers were familiar with states’ rights arguments, they likely had a mixed reaction to majority rule and democracy.

At the same time, complicating his impact in Great Britain, Motley upheld the right to revolution and the people’s obligation to rebel against oppression. He referenced Daniel Webster, who granted the right to secession as a revolutionary act but denounced the right to secede under the Constitution. According to Motley, Webster called it “an absurdity, for it supposes resistance to government under the authority of government itself; it supposes dismemberment without violating the principles of Union; . . . it supposes the total overthrow of government without revolution.” Unfortunately, Motley presented a confused response to secession. He ridiculed Southern states’ claims to a right of secession as revolution, but simultaneously called it revolution. British readers, including those concerned with recent events in 1848, might not look as favorably on the right to revolution as the New England patrician.[2]

Aware of his British audience, Motley expanded on Clay’s Scotland-England analogy. He too argued that Scotland could not secede from England. Nevertheless, he hypothesized that if Scotland seceded, seized British property and public treasure, organized an army, requested foreign recognition, and preyed on British commerce with pirates protected by the Scottish flag, would Great Britain not protect its nation’s honor? While this appeal provided a more elaborate set of similarities to the secession crisis in the United States, Motley likely fared little better than Clay.[3]

In contrast to Clay and DeLeon, Motley paid close attention to the Morrill Tariff, which significantly angered British free traders. The Morrill Tariff, passed by Congress in February 1861, doubled import duties. British politicians, especially those who stood for free trade, looked with concern at this change. John Bright and Richard Cobden, who were two of the most loyal supporters of the Union, were outraged by the new tariff.[4] Motley called the Morrill Tariff “absurd” and noted that secession had nothing to do with the tariff since the South had seceded under “the moderate tariff of 1857.” He believed that protective tariffs were unnecessary since U.S. manufacturers could prevail in the domestic market over European products. He assured British readers that modifications would soon lower the Morrill Tariff, maybe as soon as the emergency Congressional session in July, but he did not indicate how, since Republicans had solidified their majority in Congress.[5] Motley understood potential negative impacts of the Morrill Tariff, but his attempt to minimize its implications provided little solace for British free-trade thinkers.

Title page of the pamphlet version of Motley’s letters.

To convince British readers about the benefits of supporting the United States, Motley needed an appealing subject, such as British fears of Southern slavery’s expansion. He argued that a united Confederacy would turn into a “new and expensive military empire.” To raise revenue and protect an infant industry, the Southern Confederacy would charge high tariffs. Building on British fears, Motley asserted that the Confederacy might create a cotton-based Gulf empire and reestablish the African slave trade, a reminder of the many southern-sponsored filibusters. Unfortunately, Motley did not fully develop this idea, failing to strike a moral chord with the British without defying Lincoln’s domestic policy.[6]

Like Lincoln, Motley largely avoided slavery, but he argued that Southerners had seceded to prevent an attack on their lifestyle and their human property. Aware of British assumptions that slaveholders represented an aristocracy, Motley called them “a privileged oligarchy.”. Motley noted that the federal government had enacted a fugitive slave law and land purchases in the last two decades added slave territory. After insisting that the small number of abolitionists rendered the debate harmless, Motley clarified that the Republican Party’s platform only opposed slavery’s expansion into new territories, not slavery itself. For Motley, there was no compromise if slavery was extended; “compromise will no longer be offered by peace conventions, in which slavery is to be made national.”[7] Trade and slavery appealed to the British but were only a side note in Motley’s letter.

Like Clay and DeLeon, Motley explained to his British audience the causes behind secession and the war. Being well acquainted with member of the British upper strata, Motley should have been well aware of their assumption and views about the United States. However, overall, his argument was geared just as much toward a U.S. audience as a British audience. Avoiding the issue of slavery, just like the Lincoln administration, only helped to confuse British political leaders and increase their desire to await events, even turning some toward the Confederacy. Motley’s contribution during the early stages of the struggle illustrates, just as Clay and DeLeon’s did, the importance of public diplomacy. It also urges historians to be cautious since the well-connected Motley did not have the desired impact, forcing us to carefully consider both the impact of U.S. opinion makers and British attitudes about the United States.



[1] John L. Motley, The Causes of the American Civil War: A Letter to the London Times (London: Cox and Wyman, 1861), 5-7.

[2] Ibid., 13-14.

[3] Ibid., 17-19.

[4] Richard J. M. Blackett, Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 21; Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century 1815-1915: A Study of Empire and Expansion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 21, 30-31, 109-110.

[5] Motley, Causes of the American Civil War, 20-21.

[6] Ibid., 27-28.

[7] Ibid., 29.

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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