This article is excerpted from Abraham Lincoln: A Legacy of Freedom, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs. View the entire book (PDF, 5.48 MB).
By: Howard Jones
Howard Jones is University Research Professor at the University of Alabama. He is the author of Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln as diplomatist? Hardly a subject at the top of the list in examining a presidency that spanned the U.S. Civil War. His search for military leaders, his quest for victory on the battlefield, his personal trials, his difficulties with advisers who vied for influence with each other and even with the president himself — these matters draw the most interest when one studies the nation at war with itself from 1861 to 1865.
Yet when Lincoln declared that he waged the war to preserve the Union, he necessarily also accepted challenges from beyond the nation’s borders. Had the rebellious South won diplomatic recognition from England and other European nations, especially during the war’s crucial first 18 months, the Confederate States of America might have won its independence. Lincoln’s leadership on this diplomatic front proved as important as his command of the armed forces in securing the Union’s ultimate victory.
Lincoln was the very prototype of a diplomatist. Although he admitted to knowing little or nothing about foreign affairs, he possessed the characteristics common to the best statesmen: humility, integrity, wisdom combined with common sense, a calm demeanor in the hardest times, and a willingness to learn. Furthermore, he had the courage to appoint advisers of stature: His secretary of state, William H. Seward, earlier had been one of Lincoln’s most bitter political rivals, but more importantly, Seward was knowledgeable and experienced in foreign affairs. Their relationship did not start out well. Seward fancied himself a prime minister or head of government and Lincoln a mere symbolic leader, if not a buffoon. But when Seward rashly proposed to unite North and South by instigating a war with foreign powers, Lincoln quietly killed the idea, established his primacy, and soon won his secretary’s respect and admiration.
A Two-Front War Averted
The outbreak of war in April 1861 presented the new president with his first foreign affairs crisis. From the perspective of the Union (the North), the conflict was not a war between nations but rather an internal rebellion to be suppressed without interference from other nations. But to Britain and France, each of which hoped to continue trading with the Confederacy (the South), Lincoln’s decision to blockade southern ports allowed them under international law to acknowledge that a state of war existed, proclaim their neutrality, and recognize the Confederacy as a belligerent. Together these moves bestowed a legitimacy on the South that was one step short of outright recognition as a nation.
Lincoln’s diplomacy thus focused on preventing outside powers from recognizing southern independence. He continued to oppose any foreign involvement, whether by a nation’s making its good offices available to promote peace talks or by proposing a mediation, an arbitration, or an armistice. Yet Lincoln also toned down (but never renounced) Seward’s warnings that the United States would go to war with any nation that interfered. The president also moderated the secretary’s dispatches and relied on his mild-mannered yet stern minister to England, Charles Francis Adams, to resolve other problems.
The recognition issue flared up repeatedly during the course of the Civil War. The Union’s humiliation at the battle of Bull Run in July 1861 convinced some Europeans that Confederate independence was a fait accompli. How could the Union force reconciliation onto 11 states and millions of people? The following November, a U.S. naval vessel seized a British mail ship, the Trent, and illegally removed two southern commissioners, James Mason and John Slidell, who had run the Union blockade and were en route to England. Lincoln wisely freed the captives and authorized a loosely worded admission of error that salvaged American face and narrowly averted a two-front war pitting the United States against Great Britain as well as the South.
An Act of Military Necessity
One tool Lincoln employed in his quest to forestall diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy was antislavery sentiment among Europeans. Soon after the Union’s razor-thin victory at Antietam in the fall of 1862, Lincoln exercised his military powers as commander-in-chief to declare that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in states still in rebellion were free. He characterized this landmark Emancipation Proclamation as an act of “military necessity,” intended to encourage slaves to abandon the plantations and band with the advancing Union armies.
As always, Lincoln had carefully balanced competing objectives while advancing toward a greater purpose. The Emancipation Proclamation remained silent on slaves in border states such as Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware that had not joined the Confederacy (as well as parts of Tennessee already under Union occupation). Lincoln thus retained the support of those crucial states, and he avoided alienating conservative northerners and possible Union loyalists in the South. Even so, Lincoln knew that his Emancipation Proclamation was morally just. He also recognized that it would lift Union morale by elevating the war into a humanitarian crusade. And, of course, he counted on emancipation preventing the British and French, both opposed to slavery, from entering the war on the South’s side.
The president’s diplomatic instincts proved sound. A number of British and French leaders had calculated that the division of the United States into two rival nations would best serve their own nations’ objectives. The Emancipation Proclamation was a potent tool in overcoming this sentiment. At first, some British statesmen considered the document a hypocritical Union effort to snatch victory from certain defeat by inciting slave rebellions. If the war concerned slavery, why had Lincoln declared its purpose was to preserve the Union?
Indeed, in the following November, the British cabinet under Prime Minister Lord Palmerston considered an interventionist proposal to recognize the Confederacy and thus force the Union to discuss peace. The cabinet overwhelmingly voted against this, not least because it did not wish Britain to be seen on the side of slaveholders against Lincoln and emancipation. Together with the Russians, Britain then rejected the proposal by French Emperor Napoleon IIIIIIIII for an armistice demand backed by multilateral force should either American belligerent reject the demand (in reality this was a threat aimed at the North, since an armistice effectively would ratify southern independence). By the close of 1862, the Palmerston ministry came to realize that whatever blend of realpolitik and moral instinct drove Lincoln’s proclamation, however less than 100 percent pure his motives, the results would be desirable and just.
A New Birth of Freedom
And so it was. When northern victory finally came in April 1865, it was clear that the president had saved the Union, but not the Union of 1861. As the postwar amendments to the U.S. Constitution assured that Americans would never again permit slavery in their land, the true breadth of Lincoln’s vision became clear. Lincoln had midwived a new birth of freedom based on the natural rights underlying the Declaration of Independence. He had destroyed slavery and the Old South, and he emerged with a better Union. And Lincoln’s role as skillful diplomatist was an indispensable ingredient in forestalling European intervention and prevailing in one of the often-forgotten yet crucially decisive battles of the Civil War.