The American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton famine

John Bright and anti-slavery

Quaker family and social reform

John Bright was born in 1811 at Greenbank, Rochdale. His father, Jacob Bright was a Quaker and cotton manufacturer, and the families were looked upon as social reformers and 'enlightened' employers.

He was a founder member of the 'Anti-Corn Law League' who campaigned for the repeal of the hated Corn Law – a tax on imported corn that was hated by mill owners and their workers alike. The Corn Law was repealed in 1846, by which time Bright had entered politics as MP for Durham.

John Bright proved to be a powerful speaker in parliament, although in 1857 he lost his seat in Manchester through his anti-war stance during the Crimean War. As a Quaker he had very strong anti-war principles, and he is famous for his 'Angel of Death ' speech to the Commons.

Anti-slavery and the American Civil War

In 1858 however, he was elected MP for Birmingham and from then on Bright became widely known for his anti-slavery stance and his support of the northern Union states and President Lincoln during the American Civil War. He made many anti-slavery speeches including:

'I believe that in the Providence of the Supreme the slaveholder, untaught and unteachable by fact, or argument, or Christian precept, have been permitted to commit, I'll not call it the crime, but the act of suicide upon himself...he must be deaf and blind, and worse than deaf and blind, who does not perceive that through the instrumentality of this strife, that most odious and most indescribable offence against man and against Heaven, the slavery of the South – (tremendous cheers) – the bondage of four millions of our fellow-creatures, is coming to a certain and rapid end – (renewed cheering). Sir I will say of this question, that I look forward to the time when I shall stand upon this platform with my hon. Colleague, and when he will join me – for he is honest and frank enough to do that – (cheers) – when he will join with me in rejoicing that there does not breathe a slave on the North American continent – (cheers) – that the Union has been completely restored – (cheers); and no less will he 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...'

You can listen to an audio extract from one of John Bright's speeches in parliament, recorded at Touchstones Rochdale. 

Although he strongly opposed slavery many accused Bright of double standards when he seemed to lack the same passion for ending the use of child labour in Lancashire mills. He argued that many families relied for their survival on child labour and at the time it was the better of two evils. He also refused to contribute to the poor relief fund for Rochdale during the cotton famine. Instead he offered his workers loans which they could barely afford to repay.