Abraham Lincoln, John Bright and Today's Slavery

By Rob Schwarzwalder | April 2, 2015 | 5:17pm EDT

Migrant workers unload frozen fish from a boat at a fish market in Samut Sakhon Province, west of Bangkok, Friday, June 20, 2014. The United States has blacklisted Thailand and Malaysia for failing to meet its minimum standards in fighting human trafficking, a move that could strain relations with two important U.S. partners in Asia. Thailand had mounted a determined campaign to prevent a downgrade that could exact a reputational cost on its lucrative seafood and shrimp industries for which America is a key market. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Abraham Lincoln had two portraits displayed in his study: One was of Andrew Jackson, who as president had preserved the Union by preventing South Carolina from leaving it, and the other was of the British statesman John Bright.

Most Americans at least have heard of Jackson; few know anything about John Bright.

Bright was America’s greatest friend in the British Parliament, and the staunchest opponent of slavery of his time.  During our Civil War, he maintained a stout advocacy for both Lincoln and the Constitution the 16th President fought to preserve, in significant degree because of his undying hatred of human bondage.  As he said during one parliamentary debate:

“… he must be deaf and blind, and worse than deaf and blind, who does not perceive that through the instrumentality of this (American) strife, that most odious and most indescribable offence against man and against Heaven, the slavery of the South, the bondage of four millions of our fellow-creatures, is coming to a certain and rapid end … I look forward to the time when I shall stand upon this platform (and) … rejoice that England did not in the remotest manner, by a word or breath, or the raising of a finger, or the setting of a type, do one single thing to promote the atrocious object of the leaders of this accursed insurrection.”

Bright was instrumental in preventing Britain from coming-in on the side of the rebels.  As current Tory MP and Bright biographer Bill Cash writes,

“In 1863, Bright defeated a resolution in the House of Commons for an alliance between Britain, the Emperor Napoleon II of France, and the southern Confederate states against the North, as well as ditching the £16 million support raised in England to support the South – the equivalent today of $1.7 billion (estimated by reference to the UK retail price index) – with the British Navy ruling the waves, this undoubtedly would have tipped the balance against the North, particularly given the support of Prime Minister Palmerston, Gladstone and Russell for the South at that time.”

Lincoln was deeply moved by Bright’s allegiance, of whom he said, “I believe he is the only British statesman who has been unfaltering in his confidence in our ultimate success.”  In fact, as noted by historian Thomas Hahn, “Though Lincoln did not write directly to Bright, he showed his admiration for the Englishman by granting a Presidential pardon to one of his constituents: ‘… whereas … this pardon is desired by John Bright of England; Now therefore, be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, these and divers other considerations me thereunto moving, and especially as a public mark of the esteem held by the United States for the character and steady friendship of the said John Bright, do hereby grant a pardon to the said [conspirator]… .’”

After his assassination, Lincoln’s wallet was found to have a clipping of a letter Bright sent New York editor Horace Greeley about Lincoln’s reelection.  The Library of Congress now displays this clipping online; Bright’s comments read, in part:

“I believe that the effect of Mr. Lincoln’s reelection in England, and in Europe, and, indeed throughout the world, will be this: It will convince all men that the integrity of your great country will be preserved, and it will show that Republican institutions, with an instructed and patriotic people, can bear a nation safely and steadily through the most desperate perils.”

In the same letter, Bright showed great insight into the character of the Illinois rail-splitter, insight few of American politicians of Lincoln’s day seemed to possess.  Bright wrote that Lincoln was not seen as

“… wiser or better than all other men on your continent, but … in his career (can be seen) a grand simplicity of purpose, and a patriotism which knows no change and which does not falter … To us, looking on from this distance, and unmoved by the passions from which many of your people can hardly be expected to be free – regarding his Presidential path with the calm judgment which belongs rather to history that to present time … we see in it an honest endeavor faithfully to do the work of his great office, and, in the doing of it, a brightness of personal honor on which no adversary has yet been able to fix a stain.”

Bright long out-lived Lincoln, but their joint dream of a world where slavery was no more connected them in an intercontinental alliance of mind and heart that is rare in public life.

Were they alive today, both men would be appalled by the slavery of our time – the more than 25 million men, women, and children trafficked around the world, including the thousands in our own country.

FRC has taken a strong stance against human trafficking, and provides resources as you prayerfully consider what you and your church might do to stop this moral plague.  Here are a few:

Human Trafficking: Modern Slavery – FRC Webcast with Shared Hope International president Linda Smith and Mark Blackwell, founder and president of Justice Ministries

Modern Slavery: How to Fight Human Trafficking in Your Community – booklet by former senior federal anti-trafficking official J. Robert Flores

How Do We Eradicate Sex Trafficking? – op-ed by the director of FRC’s Center for Human Trafficking, Arina Grossu, published in The Christian Post

Lincoln and Bright were among the few in their generation who were willing to fight, at great personal and political cost, one of the greatest evils of their day.  Will we join them, in spirit if not in fact, in opposing and fighting against one of ours?

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Family Research Council.

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