ALFRED RUBERY was 20 years old when he took up arms against the United States. A British subject traveling in California, Rubery joined a group of Southern sympathizers planning raids along the Pacific coastline to divert Union resources during the Civil War.
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered several ships, including the USS Wyoming, named for a river valley in Pennsylvania, to patrol on watch for such attacks. The Confederate plot eventually was uncovered and the conspirators transported to a Union military fortification on "The Island of Pelicans" — Alcatraz.
Rubery was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His relatives, constituents of John Bright, a member of British Parliament, were stunned by the news of his offense and imprisonment.
In the mid-19th century John Bright was one of Parliament's brightest stars. A radical defender of liberty, Bright was an outspoken supporter of emancipation and the Union cause throughout the Civil War.
Many British officials were hoping the Southern states would prevail. Bright opposed them at every turn. Bright is often credited with preventing England from entering the conflict on the side of the Confederacy.
Said one biographer, "During the most fateful years, when no one knew from month to month whether England would not lend her aid to the secession of the South, the scales were turned in favour of peace … by the efforts of individual men … among whom John Bright was the first and foremost."
President Abraham Lincoln admired Bright for his staunch support from across the sea. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts wrote to inform Bright, "Your full-length photograph is on the mantle in his (Lincoln's) office, where the only other portrait is of Andrew Jackson."
President Lincoln was to receive a bust of John Bright as a gift commissioned in his honor. It arrived too late. Our first president born outside the original 13 Colonies, whose birthday we commemorate today, died on April 15, 1865.
The contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night of the assassination were not made known until 1976. That fateful night the president of the United States carried a linen handkerchief "slightly used" with "A. Lincoln" embroidered in red, two pairs of spectacles, a pocketknife, watch fob, a wallet containing a five-dollar bill (Confederate) and a New York Tribune clipping from October 1864 advocating his re-election …
All who have deplored the calamities which the leaders of secession have brought upon your country, who believe that slavery weakens your power and tarnishes your good name throughout the world, and who regard the restoration of your Union as a thing to be desired and prayed for by all good men, are heartily longing for the re-election of Mr. Lincoln. They are hoping with an intense anxiety that Mr. Lincoln may be placed at the head of your Executive for another term. Looking on from this distance …we see in it an honest endeavor faithfully to do the work of his great office and a brightness of personal honor on which no adversary has yet been able to fix a stain.
— John Bright, MP
In December 1863, at the behest of Bright and in recognition of the indispensable role Bright played in keeping England "officially" on the sidelines, Lincoln issued: "Now therefore, be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America … and especially as a public mark of the esteem held by the United States for the high character and steady friendship of John Bright, do hereby grant a pardon to the said Alfred Rubery."
The bust of John Bright meant for Lincoln, "rediscovered" by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, today occupies a place of honor in the White House. Happy birthday, Mr. President.