Building the Nation Cover

American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863

Peter O’Connor

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2017, 280 pages

Book Review published on: January 18, 2019

American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863 examines British perceptions of regional, cultural, and political divisions within the United States before the Emancipation Proclamation. Peter O’Connor, an associate lecturer of U.S. and British history at Northumbria University, researches period travelogues, fictional accounts, newspaper reports, and personal papers to provide a rich understanding of developing British attitudes toward the United States before the U.S. Civil War. O’Connor argues that understanding British attitudes decades prior to the Civil War is critical in understanding how an abolitionist Great Britain could be sympathetic to the Confederacy.

O’Connor asserts that British observers saw slavery as more of a national issue than a regional issue. Furthermore, British visitors and travelogue writers did not see a distinction between slavery in the South and free labor in the North. British writers like Amanda Murray in Letters from the United States, Cuba, and Canada viewed slave owners as paternalistic in attempting to work within the social and labor structures that they had inherited until abolition could be achieved. They contrasted the images of happy and well-fed servants of southern slave owners with the plight of northern laborers who were beholden to factory owners for vastly underpaid jobs that involved working long hours under dangerous conditions.

O’Connor states British abolitionists grew disillusioned with the results that included economic stagnation following the ending of slavery in the British West Indies. As a result, British abolitionists favored a gradual process over immediate manumit and accused northern U.S. abolitionists of ignoring the conditions in which it could be affected. This led the way to the perception that the childlike nature of slaves required and benefited from paternalistic slave owners.

Among O’Connor’s many significant observations and reflections, three stand out. First, British visitors did not see the United States in terms of North-South but in terms of New England, Mid-Atlantic, and the South. Each region was unique in regard to economic, political, and cultural dynamics. O’Connor observes that British writers of the period were relatively consistent in their descriptions of these regions. New England and the South tended to be presented as ethnically British while the Mid-Atlantic was described as diverse with its German and Irish migrant communities. Furthermore, New England was also viewed in terms of its Puritan heritage that some commentators found as too rigid. O’Connor attributes Charles Augustus Murray’s 1839 work, Travels in North America, for creating a romanticized “Cavalier myth” view of the South that contributed significantly to British sympathies for the South.

Secondly, the Nullification Crisis in 1832–1833, in which South Carolina declared the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 void, further engendered British sympathies toward Southern states. Period commentators like James Silk Buckingham used the Nullification Crisis in illustrating the divergent policy demands of the industrializing North and agricultural South. British observers viewed the tariffs as protectionism for New England and Mid-Atlantic industry interests and as a threat to commercial interests between Britain and the South.

Third, O’Connor states the Irish presence in the Mid-Atlantic States of New York and Pennsylvania significantly influenced British perception of the region. Criticism of the Irish as an ethnic and cultural group increased considerably in Britain during the first half of the nineteenth century. “Irishness” as perceived by the British denoted Catholicism, Celtic ethnicity, and poverty. British writers attributed growing Anglophobia in the Mid-Atlantic States to Irish immigrant influence in local and regional politics.

American Sectionalism goes beyond a contemporary outsiders’ view of slavery and other American regional issues leading up to the Civil War. It also provides a rich perspective of how British commentators shaped Great Britain’s attitudes and policies toward the United States and explains how a proabolition Britain could be sympathetic to the Confederacy. American Sectionalism is a must read for both student and scholar desiring a better understanding of events leading up to our Civil War.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas