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Bread and freedom: essential to happiness?

24 Mar

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I really enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Lincoln’. It’s so stimulating when a director is able to present some of the detailed exchanges and manoeuvres which make up the nitty-gritty of political life, and show us how interesting and vital they are.

I was also delighted when, on January 17th of this year, Paul Mason did a piece on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme about Abraham Lincoln’s connection with the city of Manchester (where I was born). Two days later some of us were celebrating the 150th anniversary of the American President’s drafting of a letter which he addressed to ‘the working men of Manchester’ on January 19th 1863.

When the American Civil War began in 1861 the area around Manchester was far and away the world’s largest producer of manufactured cotton, with 2,400 spinning and weaving mills employing 440,000 workers. Most of the raw cotton came from the USA’s southern states: 1.1 billion pounds of the fibre were being shipped every year to Liverpool, and then transferred to Manchester via canals and railways.

When the Union side (i.e. Lincoln’s side) imposed a naval blockade on the southern states, cotton imports dried up. Hundreds of Lancashire cotton mills were closed, and thousands of workers laid off. People were starving, and many were evicted from their homes. Some mill owners, and some of the shipping magnates in Liverpool, were campaigning for British military intervention to break the blockade on the southern ports – they supported the slave owners, in other words.

But on New Year’s Eve 1862, at a mass meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall attended by cotton workers and middle class liberals, a motion was passed urging Lincoln to continue the war and to abolish slavery. The workers declared their support for the blockade of the southern ports, even though this was causing them great suffering. In the letter they sent to the President they said, “… 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.”

Lincoln’s reply to the workers on January 19th of the following year included the words, “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… 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 13th amendment to the constitution which abolished slavery in the USA was passed by the Senate in 1864 and adopted in 1865. This was the achievement which Spielberg’s film was highlighting (sadly but understandably, the Lancashire mill workers didn’t get a mention).

The statue of Lincoln shown in the picture was unveiled in Manchester’s Platt Fields in 1919. In 1986 it was moved to a new public space, Lincoln Square, on Brazenose Street in central Manchester. One interesting footnote to the story is that when the statue was relocated, Lincoln’s words, as recorded on the plinth, were altered so that the letter was addressed to the ‘working people of Manchester’ rather than the ‘working men’. The majority of people employed in the cotton industry were, after all, women.

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