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The Thornton Papers - sheet 1

The Thornton Papers - sheet 1

Medium: Ink on paper

Shelfmark: add_ms_81081_f015v

Scale: Millimetres

Genre: Letter


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The Library holds a sizable collection of diplomatic papers sent to and from Sir Edward Thornton, who became Minister to the United States in 1867. During his time in America, Thornton was heavily involved in arbitrating the U.S. government’s claims for damages against Britain, particularly the ‘Alabama Claims’ which revolved around the issue of whether Britain had given aid to the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The CSS Alabama, a Confederate ship that harried Union navy and commercial vessels for much of the conflict, had been built in Britain. In the eyes of the federal government, this went against Britain’s neutral stance towards the conflict. Further accusations were made about helping build and supply Confederate ships inside British ports. The claims were eventually settled in 1872 when Britain paid America $15.5 million in damages. Thornton’s papers cover the diplomatic wrangling between Britain and America, with many letters specifically referring to the Alabama Claims.

The selected images provide a snapshot of the British diplomatic standpoint towards America after the Civil War. The  image above is a part of a letter sent to Lord Stanley in February 1868 by Lord Lyons, who had been the British envoy in America during the Civil War. This letter is a copy of the correspondence that was sent to Thornton. Lyons starts by writing that he had read Thornton’s account of a meeting with the American Secretary of State, William H. Seward. In this part of the letter, Lyons comments that when he knew him ‘Seward did not…get drunk’. This apparently is a reference to the fact that Thornton’s meeting with Seward was not a pleasant one.

Lyons notes that ‘it is a habit with him to try a bullying tone with those he talks to’, an observation he refers to later in the letter by saying that by being ‘naturally inclined to bully’ Seward would try ‘to gain his point by rudeness’. This comment about Seward’s potential drunkenness not only gives a great insight into British views of their American counterparts, but also shows the British relying on former diplomats’ experienced opinions in order to help with negotiations.

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