Queen Victoria’s Speeches to Parliament: The Role of the Civil War in British Politics

Queen Victoria’s Speeches to Parliament: The Role of the Civil War in British Politics

At the opening of each Parliamentary session, the British monarch delivers a policy statement crafted by the Prime Minister, explaining the cabinet’s plans for the forthcoming sitting of Parliament. With Parliament prorogued until October 14, 2019, when Queen Elizabeth II is supposed to read Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s agenda to Parliament, we have a modern reminder about the traditionalism and ceremonial role of the monarch in British politics. As the British political system struggles with the antics of Boris Johnson, faces the disintegration of the Conservative Party majority, and crumbles from the utter disaster Brexit has become, we may look into the past when the United States suffered from rebellion, and how Queen and Prime Minister addressed the international crisis of the early 1860s, as a reminder of the always entangled history of British foreign and domestic relations.

The Queen’s Speech historically included not only an elaboration of domestic policy plans but also dealt significantly with foreign and imperial challenges. The speech offers a glimpse at what the British cabinet assumed the most important issues would be in the coming months This post refers to this as the Queen’s Speech, and will refer to Queen Victoria as the deliverer and speaker of the speech in a metaphorical sense, crediting her even after Prince Consort Albert’s death, when the Lord Commissioners read the Queen’s Speech for her. These speeches in the early 1860s indicate how important the United States and the southern rebellion was to British policy makers. A nuanced understanding of British foreign relations during the Civil War requires an appreciation of the various British foreign policy entanglements.

“Queen Victoria at the opening of Parliament, 1866. The Lord Chancellor reading the Royal Speech in the House of Lords,” Illustrated London News, c. 1866. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

On February 5, 1861, the Queen opened the new session of Parliament. Considering news required at least two weeks to cross the Atlantic, the British were not yet aware of the secession of Louisiana or Texas, nor aware of the formation of the Confederate States of America. Noting the state of peace in Europe, the Queen’s government hoped for a continuation, despite some uncertainties. At the top of the foreign policy concerns were Italian unification, the French peacekeeping mission to prevent further atrocities against Christians in Syria, and the continuation of the Arrow War in China. The rebellion in the United States followed Indian imperial issues and insurrectionary Maori in New Zealand.[1] By August, when the Lords Commissioners delivered the closing address in the House of Lords, the conflict in the United States had risen to second place, right after Italian unification and before the lingering concerns over Syria.[2] Therefore, when it came to British political attention, the United States in the first year of the rebellion had to contend with a number of other foreign policy crises. However, the uncertainty and fear of getting dragged into a maritime conflict–either because of the lack of policy directives, or the belligerent, Anglophobic policies of Secretary of State William H. Seward–forced the British government to initially pay close attention to the events in North America.[3]

The following year, having just resolved the Trent affair with the release of the Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell and a suitable apology, the Queen opened Parliament in February 1862. She noted her gratification with the “satisfactorily settled . . . restoration of the passengers to British protection.” Even more the Queen concluded, “The friendly relations between Her Majesty and the President of The United States have therefore remained unimpaired.” However, the Queen worried about the Americas. The offenses done toward foreigners in Mexico and the country’s refusal to honor foreign debtors had forced Spain, France, and Great Britain to join for a debt collection mission.[4] As a result, both the United States and Mexico were of grave concern. However, with the danger of getting dragged into the Civil War averted, the British had to closely watch their partners, especially France, as they tried to force Mexico to honor its foreign debt. In the rapidly changing political, diplomatic, and imperial environment of the early 1860s, British policy makers had to remain flexible and ever cautious to avoid committing to unpredictable adventures overseas.

By the time of the closing of Parliament, and only two months removed from the cabinet debate about intervention in North America, the Lord Commissioner noted the growing intensity of the war in North America, “but Her Majesty, having from the outset determined to take no part in that contest, has seen no reason to depart from the neutrality to which she has steadily adhered.” Also foreshadowing other issues later in the fall, the British government worried about “disturbances” in the frontier regions of the Ottoman Empire, which could challenge the post-Crimean War equilibrium.[5] With global tensions declining, the rebellion in the United States drew attention, but the crown’s desire to maintain strict neutrality remained.

By early 1863, Queen Victoria’s speech focused on the recently vacated Greek throne. The queen refused to let her son Alfred ascend to such a dangerous, revolution-prone monarchy. The “Greek Question” was closely tied to the larger “Eastern Question’s” containment of Russia. Nevertheless, the United States lingered as a topic and the Queen included the rather ironic statement that “Her Majesty has abstained from taking any step with a view to induce a cessation of the conflict between the contending parties in the North American States,” a reference to the recent cabinet debate. In addition, the government worried about the impact of the blockade on cotton manufacturing, but the speech noted that “this suffering and this distress are rather diminishing than increasing, and that some revival of employment is beginning to take place in the manufacturing districts.”[6] When faced with the difficult decision to prioritize the “Eastern Question” or the rebellion in the United States, Great Britain always focused on the former as the greater threat.

Throughout the Civil War, the British government of Prime Minister Lord John Palmerston operated in the shadow of the Crimean War. Home Secretary Palmerston had been instrumental in drawing Great Britain into the conflict with Russia, which he oversaw and brought to an inconclusive peace as Prime Minister.[7] Throughout his political tenure, Palmerston desired to contain Russia’s autocratic political system. Even once the country suffered under what might be called a “Crimean War Syndrome,” causing a general desire to avoid another inconclusive war, Palmerston watched cautiously against any political or territorial advances by Russia into Europe or the Mediterranean. Despite his occasionally belligerent language toward the United States, Russian containment had priority.[8]

“Lord Palmerston making the Ministerial Statement on Dano-German Affairs in the House of Commons,” Illustrated London News, July 2, 1864. Courtesy of University of Southampton Special Collections.

When Queen Victoria delivered the opening speech in February 1864, North America was entirely absent and European issues took priority. The death of the Danish king and anxieties about the future of the Protocol of London of 1852, which had ended the First Schleswig-Holstein War predominated the speech, foreshadowing the Dano-German War that was about to destabilize the Jutland Peninsula. Like so many other instances, the Queen’s government desired peace. Despite the ever-increasing death toll in North America, the only other three foreign policy issues the Queen touched on were recent assaults of British subjects in Japan, the continued insurrectionary behavior of Maori in New Zealand, and the return of the Ionian Islands to Greece.[9] By the last year of the war, British attention had turned away from North America. With the Wars of German Unification destabilizing Central Europe, British political leaders worried that French and Russian ambitions could escalate the localized conflicts in Denmark (1864) and between Austria and Prussia (1866) into a general European war, prohibiting an unpredictable overseas engagement in North America.

These speeches by Queen Victoria offer a glimpse into the British political mind. Civil War historians have long argued about what British foreign policy regarding the Civil War, but these works hardly take into consideration the many British foreign entanglements, especially the adventurous French emperor and the “Eastern Question.” The Queen’s Speech, authored by her cabinet, allows readers to gain a better understanding of British foreign policy priorities. While the rebellion in the United States during the first two years ranked high on the list of British concerns, it was never alone and had to contend with other far-flung questions. During the crucial final months of 1862, when Civil War historians emphasize the British cabinet debate, the Queen and her cabinet looked east to Greece. The speeches offer a first step to reevaluating Civil War diplomatic relations within the larger British foreign policy entanglements.

 

An earlier version of this post failed to note that Queen Victoria did not personally deliver all of these speeches, due to her being in mourning for her late husband. We have edited the original to clarify this.

 

[1] Speech of the Queen, on the Opening of the British Parliament, Westminster, February 5, 1861, in British and Foreign State Papers, 1860-1861 (London: William Ridgway, 1868), 1-2 (hereafter BFSP).

[2] Speech of the Lords Commissioners, on the Closing of the British Parliament, Westminster, August 6, 1861, BFSP, 1860-1861, 3-4.

[3] For good studies on the subject see Norman B. Ferris, Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward’s Foreign Policy, 1861 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976); Howard Jones, Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); Phillip E. Myers, Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2008).

[4] Speech of the Queen, on the Opening of the British Parliament, Westminster, February 6, 1862, BFSP, 1861-1862, 1-2.

[5] Speech of the Lords Commissioners, on the Closing of the British Parliament, Westminster, August 7, 1862, BFSP, 1861-1862, 3.

[6] Speech of the Queen, on the Opening of the British Parliament, Westminster, February 5, 1863, BFSP, 1862-1863, 1-2.

[7] For works on the Crimean War see Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Picador, 2012); Paul W. Schroeder, Austria, Great Britain, and the Crimean War: The Destruction of the European Concert (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972).

[8] For more detail on how Great Britain prioritized the “Eastern Question” over North America, see Niels Eichhorn, “The Intervention Crisis of 1862: A British Diplomatic Dilemma?” American Nineteenth Century History 15 (November 2014): 287-310. The best study of Palmerston’s political identity and his views on liberalism vs. Russia is in David Brown, Palmerston: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

[9] Speech of the Queen, on the Opening of the British Parliament, Westminster, February 4, 1865, BFSP, 1863-1864, 1-2.

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

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