Workers against slavery


The US Civil War, the First International and the British working class

Pamphlet Cover "Workers Against Slavery: The American Civil War, the First International and the British Working Class" Above an illustration of a weaver at her loom.
Sacha Ismail
26 pages

Slavery was abolished in the USA in 1865 after a four year Civil War. Workers in Britain had organised mass protests against slavery and against ruling-class military support of slave-owners. This struggle revived the labour movement and its fight for votes, and aided the birth of Marx’s “First International”.


The American Civil War of 1861-5 was the most important event in US history, and one of the most important in world history. The victory of the North liberated four million human beings, black slaves, and abolished slavery, although the movement it unleashed did not defeat racism. Yet when the war began, both sides, North and South, said they would preserve slavery. What changed?

One thing was mass action by the slaves themselves, forcing their way into the conflict and helping to transform it into a battle against slavery. Another was the growing strength of anti-slavery and anti-racist movements in the North. The third, little known, factor is is the inspiring solidarity of the British working class.

Faced with a government that wanted to intervene militarily in favour of the slave-owners, thousands of British workers across the country mobilised in mass protests against slavery and against British ruling-class plans for military intervention in support of the slave-owners. Their action helped the struggle in America win, revived the British labour movement and had enormous consequences for politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Timeline of the US Civil War

1850s — US politics convulsed by issue of slavery; breakdown of old party political system, rise of Republicans; armed clashes over whether Kansas will be slave or free state

1859 — Abolitionist John Brown attempts to lead slave uprising at Harpers Ferry, Virginia

1860, November — Republican Abraham Lincoln elected President
December — South Carolina secedes from US

1861 — Six other Southern slave states secede, Confederate States of America formed, soon grows to eleven states
April — Civil War begins, slaves start to flee to US army
August — US Congress passes first anti-slavery war measures
November-December — Trent crisis seems to threaten US-British war December: British workers’ meetings in support of US begin

1862, Summer — Congress, led by Radical Republicans, pushes US policy in more radical anti-slavery direction
Second half of year — Wave of workers’ meetings in Lancashire
22 September — Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation promising to free slaves in Confederate states
November — Recruitment of black soldiers begins tentatively
31 December — Great meeting at Free Trade Hall in Manchester, meetings in London

1863, 1 January — Emancipation Proclamation comes into effect, recruitment of black soldiers massively accelerates
26 March — “Monster” workers’ meeting at St James’ Hall, London

1864, September — Foundation of International Working Men’s Association
November — Lincoln re-elected

1865, April-June — Confederacy surrenders
14 April — Lincoln assassinated by Confederate sympathiser
December — Thirteenth Amendment to US Constitution ratified, slavery abolished throughout US

1867 — “Radical Reconstruction” begins in US, enfranchising ex-slaves; Reform Act enfranchises over a million British workers

Table of Contents
  • Timeline
  • Introduction
  • Britain and the American Civil War
  • Workers Against Slavery
  • The Voice of Lancashire
  • The Voice of London
  • Renewing the Labour Movement
  • The Birth of the First International
  • Enfranchising Labour, Black and White
  • Solidarity
  • What to Read
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