“Four score and seven years ago…” So began one of the most iconic speeches in modern history, spoken by the President who led the USA through the horrors of the Civil War and ended the legal practice of slavery. You can’t deny it, Abraham Lincoln is everywhere in the USA from the colossal Lincoln Memorial, to dollar bills, bridges, street names and car commercials. You just can’t escape his distinctive form, but strangely enough, he also has a statue right in the heart of Manchester.
Sculpted by George Grey Bernard after the First World War, the statue is situated on Brasenose Street, in Lincoln Square. Its location is not really befitting for one of the most iconic figures in American history; the square is terminally quiet, and is surrounded by dull office blocks. This aside, the statue tells a compelling story about the historical link between the US Civil War and Victorian Manchester.
The regional economy of the 1800s relied upon an ample supply of cotton, which the Southern States had prosperously supplied for decades. Much like Liverpool and Bristol, a great deal of the industrial wealth which existed in Manchester at the time had been created as a direct consequence of slavery. In 1860, President Lincoln was elected and the Southern States famously seceded from the Union. The North quickly enacted an economic blockade, and resultantly Manchester found itself directly embroiled in the massive political, moral and economic struggle that was the US Civil War.
The city faced a difficult choice; not everyone cared about or supported the North. In the end it was controversially decided that Manchester would boycott Southern cotton. In the process Manchester took an important moral and political alignment. As the war dragged on, it was a gesture that the President himself even acknowledged. In his letter to the working men of Lancashire in 1863, Lincoln empathetically made clear that “I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working men of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis” and furthermore told of his desire to make the “peace and friendship” that existed between Britain and the US, which in those times he deemed “perpetual”.
The words of the letter appear on the statue’s base. Although the council changed the word “men” to “people”, as Lincoln’s gendered contemporary language was understood to be too sexist, it was one of the earliest examples of the “special relationship” in action. Thus the statue serves as a potent symbol of Ango-American relations.
Obscure historical links such as this are often fascinating to read about and this is just one of many cases in Manchester where these links can be drawn. In my view it is a great shame that Lincoln doesn’t have a more prominent spot to watch over Manchester. Whatever his true motivations at the time were, he deserves to have pride of place.