Today is John Bright’s 200th birthday. Largely forgotten today, he was one of Britain’s most influential statesmen of the nineteenth century – both home and abroad. Notably, in the United States, he was a dedicated opponent to slavery and champion of the North in the American Civil War.
When, on 14 April 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, his pockets were found to contain a number of items of intimate and personal value which the president clearly treasured and carried with him as mementoes of his enormous struggles over the previous year. These included not only a symbolic Confederate five-dollar bill, a news clipping on unrest within the Confederate army, a record of emancipation in Missouri and the Union election address of 1864, but notably a testimonial for the president by John Bright, calling for him to be re-elected. This had been printed by Horace Greeley, anti-slaver and peace campaigner, in the New York Tribune as well as being widely published in The Times and other newspapers. On 29 April 1865, having just learned of Lincoln’s death, Bright independently recalled having written this very letter, but without, of course, knowing that Lincoln had been carrying it on his person at that fatal moment.
There is no doubt that Lincoln admired Bright. Indeed, as early as December 1861, the president had presented Bright with two copies of a portrait of himself. The Republican senator, Charles Sumner, later wrote to Bright, ‘Your full length photograph is on the mantle in his office, where the only other portrait is one of his predecessors, Andrew Jackson.’ A month after the assassination, Mrs Lincoln gave this photograph to Sumner, describing it as ‘a likeness of Mr Bright, as having belonged to my beloved husband, and which he prized as representing a noble and good friend of our cause in this unholy rebellion’. This poignantly sums up the depth of Abraham Lincoln’s admiration and personal esteem for the man whom many believed had saved America from war with England when powerful commercial interests, MPs with constituencies involved in confederate contracts and many in the House of Commons, not to mention some pre-eminent Cabinet members, were supporting the South. Bright was also part of the influential coalition that had convinced Lincoln to issue the proclamation against slavery in the autumn of 1862.
Bright’s commitment to America stretched back well before the Civil War itself and was deeply connected with his concepts of free trade, parliamentary reform, democracy and sense of freedom. Just as Abraham Lincoln’s bust was placed in the White House by President Obama on his own inauguration, so also there is a bust of John Bright by John Wood. This was commissioned as a gift for Abraham Lincoln, but it did not reach Washington until after the president’s assassination. It was moved from the State Department to the White House in June 1866 and ‘placed in one of the alcoves of the lower Hall’. It was rediscovered by Jackie Kennedy and placed by her near the public entrance. It remains in the White House despite the recent return of the bust of Winston Churchill that was loaned by the British Government when George W. Bush was president.
In Lincoln’s inner circle, Bright’s reputation and commitment were legendary, and his letters were passed to Lincoln and read out in Cabinet meetings. In 1861,William H. Seward, then secretary of state, wrote to Charles Sumner, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with whom Bright regularly corresponded,
Many thanks my dear Sumner for the perusal of the noble letter from John Bright. How sad for the cause of humanity, yet how honourable to John Bright, that he is the only Englishman having public position or character, who has written one word of favour to or desire for the preservation of the American Union. Tell him that I appreciate his honesty, his manliness, his virtue.
Lincoln himself showed his admiration for Bright by granting a presidential pardon to one of his constituents in October 1863:
Whereas one Alfred Rubery was convicted on or about the twelfth day of October 1863 … of engaging in, and giving aid and comfort to the existing rebellion against the Government of this country and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, and to pay a fine of ten thousand dollars;
And whereas, the said Alfred Rubery is a subject of Great Britain, and his pardon is desired by John Bright of England;
Now, therefore, be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America … especially as a public mark of the esteem held by the United States of America for the high character and steady friendship of the said John Bright, do hereby grant a pardon to the said Alfred Rubery. ■
Bill Cash is the author of John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator – of which this is an extract – and is Member of Parliament for Stone.