Thursday, 7 July 2011

Abraham Lincoln addresses the working people of Manchester A.D. 1863

There is a Victorian polemic which apparently reads something like this: 'Athens, Florence, Manchester: there is no fourth.' And at the time there probably wasn't. Here we have the three stages of Western Civilisation: Ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Whether or not we agree with it – and I'm sure there are many who wouldn't – the polemic illustrates the confidence Manchester now had in itself. Perhaps the years 1857 – 1913 can be seen as the city's golden era. It begins with the Art Treasures Exhibition and the formation of the Hallé Orchestra and ends with the peak year for the global cotton trade – just before World War I signalled the beginning of the end for the British Empire.

This confidence and prosperity is also reflected in the city's architecture of the period: The Free Trade Hall (1855), Watts Warehouse (1856), Strangeways Prison (1868), Church of the Holy Name (1871), Barton Arcade (1871), The Reform Club (1871), The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (1874), The Royal Exchange (1874), Manchester Town Hall (1877), Manchester Central Railway Station (1880), The Palace Hotel (1895), The Great Northern Warehouse (1898), John Rylands Library (1900), Whitworth Hall (1902), Victoria Station (1902) and The Midland Hotel (1903) are all built within fifty years of each other.

Many important national institutions and sports clubs date back to this period. The Manchester Mechanic's Institute hosts the first meetings of the Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS) in 1867 and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1868. When it is re-opened it 1874, the Manchester Royal Exchange is described as 'the biggest room in the world.' Newton Heath L&YR Football Club (later Manchester United) are formed in 1878. In the same year, 28,000 spectators watch Lancashire play W.G. Grace's Gloucestershire over three days at Old Trafford Cricket Ground. St. Mark's Gorton Football Club (later Manchester City) are formed in 1880, the same year Owen's College becomes Victoria University. A cheque for £1,700,000 (dated 3rd August 1887) for the purchase of the Bridgewater Navigation Company by the Manchester Ship Canal Company is the largest that has ever been presented. The Football League is formed at the Royal Hotel in Manchester on 17th April 1888 and the first Marks & Spencers store opens on Cheetham Hill Road in 1893.

The city was getting bigger and would almost treble in size in the space of fifty years. The German business community was affluent enough to help fund the Hallé Orchestra in its early years. For the Irish immigrants however, many of whom had arrived following the Great Potato Famine of 1845, the situation was desparate – as it had been for some years. There were also families of Italians living in the cellars of Ancoats and the Jewish community was about to embark on its historic migration from Cheetham Hill to Higher Broughton to Prestwich and Whitefield. A European melting pot of Germans, Jewish, Irish and Italians, even though it had no docks, late Victorian Manchester was probably the least English of cities.

If the architecture of Alfred Waterhouse was beginning to dominate the city's skyline, this was also the time when Manchester began its close association with the Pre-Raphelites, whose paintings were bought by rich industrialists and can still be seen today in the Manchester Art Gallery. The city was keen to change its image as an unpleasant, dark and smoky place dedicated solely to manufacturing. The Art Treasures Exhibition, which took place over a three-acre site at Old Trafford, was a key step towards this. Opened by Prince Albert on 5th May 1857, it ran until 17th October but was closed for one day to mark a 'day of humiliation' on account of the Indian Mutiny. There were over 16,000 works on display and is probably the largest arts exhibition ever held. High profile visitors included the King of Belgium, the Queen of the Netherlands, Louis Napolen, Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Florence Nightingale, John Ruskin, Nathaniel Hawthorne and, on 29th June, even Queen Victoria herself. Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx saying, “Everyone up here is an art lover just now and the talk is all of the pictures at the exhibition...”

Historian Tristram Hunt has said that 'Manchester that summer was the centre of the western world.' The exhibition was indeed a huge success. In the 142 days it was open it attracted over 1,300,000 visitors, many on organised rail excursions. Titus Salt commissioned three trains to transport 2,600 of his factory workers from Saltaire to visit on 19th September. Thomas Cook organised 'moonlight' excursions from Newcastle, leaving at midnight and returning late that evening. An orchestra was set up by Charles Hallé which gave daily performances. This formed the basis for the Hallé orchestra who gave their first concert on 30th January 1858 and were to be based at the Free Trade Hall for many years to come.

On 6th March 1857, just two months before the Arts Treasures Exhibition was opened in Manchester, a ruling was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, that people of African descent brought into the United States and held as slaves were not protected by the Constitution and could never be U.S. citizens. Furthermore, the Court ruled that slaves, as chattels or private property, could not be taken away from their owners without due process. On 16th June 1858, upon accepting the Republican nomination as the Illinois candidate for the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln addressed delegates with the following words:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Lincoln was to lose the Senate race but his speeches and debating skills gave him a national reputation as an opponent of the expansion of slavery. He won the Republican nomination and, on 6th November 1860, was elected the sixteenth president of the United States, winning support in the industrial north (where slavery had already been abolished). Rallying around the idea that 'Cotton is King', eleven slave states in the south seceded to found the Confederate States of America, thus beginning the American Civil War of 1861 – 1865.

The Confederates thought that their strategic importance as the UK's main Cotton supplier would allow them to survive financially as an independent country and win military support in their war with the Union. The British remained neutral in the war but there were many who argued that they should support the south and a massive diplomatic effort was launched to further this aim, with its headquarters at Rumford Place in Liverpool. The Union naval blockade of the southern ports meant that Cotton could no longer be exported, causing a huge rise in unemployment as Lancashire's millworkers went from being the most prosperous to the most impoverished in the country. Despite this, there seems to have been widespread support amongst the workers of Manchester who, on 31st December 1862, met at the Free Trade Hall and resolved to support the Union in its fight against slavery. This was expressed in a letter from 'the Working People of Manchster' to Abraham Lincoln:

... the vast progress which you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity – chattel slavery – during your presidency, will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity. We are certain that such a glorious consummation will cement Great Britain and the United States in close and enduring regards.

In his reply, dated 19th January 1863, Lincoln thanked them for their support:

... I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this Government which was built on the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of slavery, was unlikely to obtain the favour of Europe.

Through the action of disloyal citizens, the working people of Europe have been subjected to a severe trial for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt. Under the circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.

I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.

The Confederacy was defeated on 9th April 1865 ending the war and the cotton trade soon returned to its previous levels. Six days later Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. Remarkably, The Manchester Guardian which had been hostile to the Unionist cause, published an editorial on 27th April that was extremely critical of the dead president: 'Of his rule, we can never speak except as a series of acts abhorrent to every true notion of constitutional right and human liberty.' It's very difficult now to even comprehend such a position. Perhaps nearly 150 years has given us a clearer perspective on events but this ought to go down as the most shameful episode in the publication's history. Abraham Lincoln went on to become recognised as the greatest U.S. President and his links with the working people of Manchester (who were on the right side of the historical argument, even when it didn't suit them to be) are commemorated by a statue on Lincoln Square on Brazennose Street, linking the Town Hall with Deansgate.

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