As America became economically and politically stronger in the 19th century, other countries had opportunities to impede its rise. From 1861 to 1865 the United States was profoundly vulnerable to meddling from outside powers as the Union fought secession by the Southern states. The period from 1861 to 1863 was especially propitious for intervention, since Union armies were losing most engagements, and the North had not yet embraced slavery’s abolition or become the industrial juggernaut it would as a consequence of the war effort.
The British government clearly saw the possibilities of working against the United States in its time of crisis. In 1860 Britain was unquestionably the strongest state in the world, holding 68 percent of the wealthiest continent’s riches and a dominant military. Britain had not only the means but also the motive to interfere. Prime Minister Palmerston noted that “if the North and South are definitively disunited and … at the same time Mexico could be turned into a prosperous monarchy, I do not know any arrangement that would be more advantageous to us.”
In 1861 Britain’s rulers had considerable discomfort with America as a revolutionary power. This was not because America was at that time exporting its revolution, but simply because of the ideology America represented: It was the rabble of every other country empowered by the franchise. Americans broadly understood and celebrated themselves in the same terms. As The New York Times crowed in 1862, “our friends—that there could be no grander tribute paid to the genius of the republic—are the dumb masses.”
British attitudes toward America cleaved along class lines. As described by the U.S. minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams, “the great body of the aristocracy and the commercial classes are anxious to see the United States go to pieces. The middle and lower classes sympathize with us.”
Palmerston exemplified this disdain for America in all its political, economic, and cultural dimensions. He ruminated with satisfaction in 1855 that “a British force landed in the Southern part of the Union, proclaiming freedom to the blacks would shake many of the stars from their banner.”
On the eve of the American Civil War, there was in Britain a general sense of America as an emerging rival and concern about retaining Britain’s advantages over it. British reformer Richard Cobden estimated that three-fourths of the British House of Commons would vote in favor of actions by Britain to “dismember” the United States.
The confluence of British interests in favor of recognizing the Confederacy was strong: appreciation by elites of the threat a rising America posed for Britain, politically and economically; economic complementarity of cotton-producing Southern plantations with British industry; direct competition from Northern industries with British manufacturers and traders; a cultural attraction to the South on the part of British aristocrats; virulent anti-Americanism on the part of key political actors, as well as a broad cultural anti-Americanism among elites; and the savory delight of watching the United States rend itself asunder, with the Southern states making the same arguments against the North that Britain’s North American colonies used in breaking from the British Empire.