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Today is Presidents’ Day, a National Holiday celebrating the birthdays of our two greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (No, it is not just an excuse for some really good sales!).

I decided to look into how Washington and Lincoln might “intersect” with our England, if not just the Regency and to tell you things I learned that I didn’t know (or remember) from my American History school textbooks.

Washington, as we all know, was Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, leading the American victory over Britain in the Revolutionary War. The pivotal battle in the American War of Independence was the Battle of Yorktown, when Washington’s army defeated Cornwallis’s British Army. Cornwallis died in 1805, but certainly his life affected the Regency.

Things I didn’t know:

  • Cornwallis wasn’t just a bad guy, as I thought in elementary school. In fact, he took leave from the Revolutionary War to be at the side of his dying wife.
  • Cornwallis wasn’t perfect, though. He did not exactly approach the defeat of Yorktown as a gentleman. Instead, he feigned illness and sent his second in command to formally surrender his sword to Washington.
  • He did redeem himself in the eyes of Britain, though, going on to become civil military governor in India and Ireland and bringing about significant changes. In Ireland he helped to bring about the Act of Union, and in India, Permanent Settlement.
  • Half of Washington’s army at Yorktown were French soldiers under the command of Rochambeau.
  • Washington, who could not tell a lie, sent fake dispatches to Cornwallis’s superior in New York, convincing him that the American attack would be on New York and not Yorktown.

Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, a year before “our” Regency time period and his leadership during the American Civil War made him one of our greatest presidents, but, in looking into how his life might have intersected with Britain, I discovered things I did not know.

Things I didn’t know:

  • Lincoln was almost involved in a war with Britain.
Confederate president Jefferson Davis sent two special commissioners to Great Britain, James M. Mason and John Slidell, to England and France as part of a plan to involve Great Britain into a war with America. As they were crossing the Atlantic, an American Captain, Charles Wilkes (who turned out to be a Confederate spy, which shows how convoluted this period of US history was), stopped the British ship on which they were passengers and, with no authority from anybody, had the two commissioners taken into his custody. Known as the Trent Affair, all of Great Britain rose up in outrage at this illegal act. War fever was at high pitch and British men were enlisting in the army in great numbers to sail to America and right this wrong.

  • Queen Victoria’s Prince Albert was instrumental in averting this war.

The Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, wrote a harsh ultimatum to President Lincoln, basically threatening war. When this letter reached Queen Victoria for approval, she sought her husband’s advice. Prince Albert, ill with the fever that would take his life soon after, rose from his bed to draft a less volatile missive, one that would not provoke war. It was his last political act.

  • Lincoln was almost involved in a world war.
During the time of the Trent Affair, Russia was the enemy of England and France. The Czar of Russia sent a fleet of warships to New York and his admirals had instructions to report to President Lincoln if Great Britain did indeed declare war on the US. Who knows what the outcome of that war would have been for the world? Russia and the US on one side; the Confederacy, Great Britain, and France on the other.

Thank goodness Queen Victoria listened to her husband.

Ain’t history grand? What historical facts have surprised you recently? What are you doing this Presidents’ Day?

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Unless you’ve been living in an obscure cave you’ll know that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Lincoln. I wanted to tell you about a touching memorial to him in Manchester, UK.

This statue bears the inscription:

This statue commemorates the support that the working people of Manchester gave in the fight for the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War. By supporting the Union under President Lincoln at a time when there was an economic blockade of the southern states the Lancashire cotton workers were denied access to raw cotton which caused considerable unemployment throughout the cotton industry…

Technically, Britain was neutral during the Civil War, but Liverpool, the port where the south’s cotton was unloaded, was a wholehearted supporter of the confederacy. The confederacy headquarters were in Rumford Place, where a US flag still flies.

In an 1863 letter to the “working men of Manchester,” Lincoln termed this action “an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age.”

The other big birthday today is that of Charles Darwin, born in the same year. His mother was a member of the Wedgwood family and the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell was an obscure cousin. Her last book, and one my favorites, Wives and Daughters, was published around the same time as The Origin of Species.

It’s possible that her portrayal of Roger Hamley, the nature-loving hero of the book, is based on her memories of Darwin as a young man:

He had gone about twenty yards on the small wood-path at right angles to the terrace, when, looking among the grass and wild plants under the trees, he spied out one which was rare, one which he had been long wishing to find in flower, and saw it at last, with those bright keen eyes of his. Down went his net, skilfully twisted so as to retain its contents, while it lay amid the herbage, and he himself went with light and well-planted footsteps in search of the treasure. He was so great a lover of nature that, without any thought, but habitually, he always avoided treading unnecessarily on any plant; who knew what long-sought growth or insect might develop itself in what now appeared but insignificant?

For Darwin Day celebrations, check out this site.

There are many Lincoln celebrations taking place across the US. Here’s the link to the Library of Congress’s With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition.

What are you doing today?

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