A US President's visit to Manchester

The first visit to the UK of a serving US President included – of course – a stop in Manchester.

"I feel – I felt before I came here – at home in Manchester, because Manchester has so many of the characteristics of our great American cities… We are enabled to see international processes perhaps better than they can be seen by others."

Like many a visiting band, US President Woodrow Wilson flattered his audience during his speech at the Free Trade Hall in December 1918.

Wilson was in Manchester ahead of attending the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, which would lead to the formal treaties ending World War I.

Why Manchester?

The President recognised Manchester as an international trading city, and he sought the support of those with a global outlook who shared America’s ‘interest… in the peace of the world’.

"Men all over the world know that they have been embarrassed by national antagonisms and that the interest of each is the interest of all… There is a great voice of humanity abroad in the world just now which he who cannot hear is deaf."

The President also visited Carlisle, where his mother had been born, and attended a state banquet in London at which King George V spoke of the President’s role in

“building up new states amid the ruins of those the war has shattered, and in laying solid foundations of a settlement that may stand firm because it will rest upon the consent of emancipated nationalities”.

Trade - the great aimable instrument

Appropriately, the President was giving his speech at the Free Trade Hall – although apparently because the original venue of Manchester Town Hall proved too small to hold all those excited to attend*. Several earlier buildings of the same name on the site had hosted the Anti-Corn Law League under the guidance of Richard Cobden. The League was formed to overturn the Corn Laws, by which tariffs on imports of corn kept the price received by English landowners high, and so put bread out of the reach of ordinary workers.

Cobden himself believed that trade free of tariffs and taxes would break down barriers and promote peace between nations. Wilson, the following century, here in Manchester linked trade and friendship:

"You cannot trade with men who suspect you. You cannot establish commercial and industrial relations with those who do not trust you. Goodwill is the forerunner of trade, and trade is the great aimable instrument of the world on that account."

League of Nations

Wilson was promoting what would become the League of Nations, a forerunner to the United Nations, although the United States would in fact not join the former. He spoke of the need for a mechanism to settle differences and end divisions, to provide ‘a machinery of readjustment in order that we may have a machinery of goodwill and of friendship’.

"I wish we could, not only for Great Britain and the United States, but for France and Italy and the world, enter into a great league and covenant, declaring ourselves, first of all, friends of mankind and uniting ourselves together for the maintenance and triumph of right."

Manchester was suitably impressed, awarding the President the Freedom of the City.

*But footage of the visit, revealing huge crowds greeting the President, shows the ceremonial party at one point leaving Manchester Town Hall in Albert Square. YouTube: The visit of President Woodrow Wilson to England, US National Archives.

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