University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The "Wise Macaw" and the Lion, William Seward and Britain, 1861-1863

Volume XXXI · Autumn 1978 · Number 1
The "Wise Macaw" and the Lion: William Seward and Britain, 1861-1863

Together with John Quincy Adams, William Seward continues to tower above all other Secretaries of State. In their personalities so dissimilar—unlike Adams, Seward was no "social savage" cursed with "austere, forbidding manners"; on the contrary, he was if anything too gregarious and too convivial—the two men were as one in their determination to see the United States fulfill a destiny of hemispheric political dominance and global commercial supremacy. Thus both, but especially Seward, have been interpreted as the harbingers of the "New Empire." In the words of Ernest Paolino, "He clearly anticipated the objectives, if not the means of the expansionists of 1898."lHowever valid this conclusion may be, one of Seward's abiding claims to greatness was his steering of the far from seaworthy Union through treacherous and at times tempestuous foreign seas between 1861 and 1865. Nor is it necessary to exaggerate either his difficulties or his achievements in order to marvel at his skill.2

Had the European nations intervened in the Civil War the Union's division would have been completed. This danger, so much nearer and therefore even clearer to contemporaries than it has been to posterity, fastened a heavy burden of responsibility upon Seward, for Lincoln was disarmingly candid about his own ignorance of international affairs and had the good sense to place their direction in the hands of his more knowledgeable Secretary of State. Twice a visitor to Europe, Seward had interested himself in external affairs during his Senate years, serving on the Foreign Relations Committee from 1857. And at the center of the international question in 1861 was Great Britain. It was to her, after all, that the other powers of Europe looked for guidance in responding to the American crisis, and for two years following the firing on Fort Sumter, the British government's policy was in doubt. Would it take the lead in efforts to bring the war to an end? For example: Would Britain's recognition of Confederate belligerency in May 1861 be quickly followed by recognition of the Confederacy, an act which many Southerners and some Europeans believed would so demoralize the Union as to discourage it from persevering with the struggle? Or would Britain, in association with other nations, offer her services as a mediator in a manner which could not be refused? These were a few of the problems facing Seward, and it is worthwhile to ask: How did he respond to this period of prolonged and dangerous uncertainty, and to what extent was Britain's decision not to meddle in the conflict a tribute to his conduct?

During the first few weeks following Lincoln's inauguration Seward gave little time and perhaps as little thought to his troubled nation's foreign relations. Throughout March he still entertained hopes both of dominating the administration (Lincoln was widely regarded as a political novice) and of committing it to a course which, by avoiding a collision with the Confederacy, would lead to the Union's peaceful reconstruction. Nor was this latter notion as naive as it now appears. Since the beginning of February there had been no additional secessions from the Union, and a Gulf States Confederacy possessed neither the economic nor the political strength necessary for survival. It was against this background, and to head off a confrontation over Fort Sumter, that Seward composed his "thoughts for the President's consideration," though with an eye to his reputation he might well have chosen not to date them April 1. He offered himself as "the broad-shouldered Ajax that could alone sustain the weight then threatening to rend the Union asunder."3 As such, he would eschew difficulties with the South over Sumter in favor of reviving American patriotism and Unionism through a challenging foreign policy. Firmly but kindly, Lincoln declined to transfer the responsibilities and burdens of leadership to the Secretary of State. Furthermore, the fateful decision to reprovision Sumter was, after some confusion, implemented.

As the likelihood of a fight with the Confederacy over the fort in Charleston harbor hardened into certainty during the early days of April, thus bringing ever closer the tragedy of civil war, Seward at last gave his full attention to the foreign dimension of the approaching catastrophe. Already, the European vultures appeared to be circling the weakened and distracted Union. The

Spanish had intervened in Santo Domingo; there were rumors of an Anglo-French scheme to interfere in strife-torn Mexico; there was talk of imminent French recognition of the Confederacy and mounting concern that Britain's policy would be governed by commercial considerations—her need for cotton and her expectations of a greatly enlarged market for her manufactures in the agricultural states of an independent South.

In his response to these developments and dangers, but especially in his attitude toward the crucially important British, Seward was governed by three considerations. First, as a politician, he recognized the need to retain the confidence of his countrymen. One well-traveled way was to parade an "energetic and vigorous resistance to English injustice."4 In short, and not to put too fine a point on it, he intended to appeal to that large reservoir of anglophobia in the United States. Second, he was determined to exhibit absolute confidence in the permanence of the Union. Sure of its fundamental strength, convinced that it could only be placed in serious jeopardy by the foreign intervention which was sure to come "just as soon as the American people made up their minds to submit to it," Seward scotched any thought of foreign mediation, scornfully rejecting the "arbitrament of any European monarchy."5 Finally, his European journey in 1859 had persuaded him that in London all "questions of morality, humanity, social progress are subordinated to the one policy of keeping the balance of power in Europe adjusted, that England and her colonies may be safe." For when he looked at the British Empire what he saw was an "aggregation of diverse communities" covering a large portion of the globe, but often held in their places by bonds as fragile as the obligations of the American republic. By encouraging the Union's dissolution Britain would not only be establishing a dangerous precedent for herself but also inviting retaliation. Had she no "dependency, island, or province left exposed along the whole circle of her empire?" he asked.6 The threat to Canada was unspoken but unmistakable, and Seward underlined it by dispatching an agent to the province to discuss the situation in the United States with the government there.

Here then was the foundation upon which Seward raised his celebrated and contentious policy of "decision and demonstration." For if he spoke of going to war to resist any British recognition of the Confederacy, as he certainly did during his meetings in April with the distinguished correspondent of the London Times, William Howard Russell, and later in a dispatch to the American minister in London, Charles Francis Adams, Seward did not consider war likely.7 However, by no means all his colleagues conceded the accuracy of his analysis or the wisdom of his course, and he was forced to fight off a campaign led by Charles Sumner to curtail his authority in foreign affairs. Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Massachusetts Senator was an advocate of a conciliatory policy toward Britain. Thus, a question posed then remains of interest even today:  Was Seward's threatening demeanor necessary in the spring of 1861?

There was little support in Britain for recognition of the Confederacy. Much as most Englishmen disliked the United States, sharing Prime Minister Palmerston's irritation with its "tone of insolence" and perhaps envy at its "success and prosperity," and while not a few of them had welcomed its division, the press dismissed as premature talk of acknowledging the new republic of "Slaveownia."8 Both Palmerston and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell, agreed with their cautious minister in Washington, Lord Lyons, that nothing would be more inadvisable than for Britain to meddle in the American conflict. Where the danger of a collision did loom, however, was over any attempt by the Union to blockade the disaffected states, thus severing Britain from her principal supplier of cotton.

The British made a concerted effort in London and Washington to coerce the Union into relinquishing this weapon, employing the threat of recognition. When that failed, as it did in the militant aftermath of Fort Sumter's fall, they consoled themselves with the thought that no blockade would be able to stand the traditional American and now the international test of legality—effectiveness. As the Leader of the Opposition, Lord Derby, put it in the House of Lords early in May, Englishmen knew that it was beyond the power of the United States to blockade effectively the entire Confederate coastline. Therefore, it was important that the British government make it clear to the Americans "that a mere paper blockade," or a blockade extending over a space to which it was "physically impossible" that an "effectual blockade" could be applied, would not be recognized.9 This amounted to Britain giving notice that she would consider illegal the seizures of her vessels for violating the blockade. From this dangerous situation neither nation would have been able to extricate itself easily. And the Proclamation of Neutrality on May 13 was intended not merely to regularize British relations with the Confederacy following the outbreak of war in the United States, but also to ensure that the Union blockade would indeed be subjected to the exacting test of legitimacy it seemed incapable of passing.

News of the extension of the blockade with the growth of the Confederacy (the Upper South, save Kentucky, having seceded following Lincoln's call for men after the fall of Fort Sumter), and Seward's insistence during a conversation with Lyons that the entire 3,000 miles of coastline would be "blockaded effectively,"10 appeared to be the signal that the moment had arrived for Britain to announce her refusal to recognize its legality. Indeed, the British government seems to have been edging in that direction with its instructions to Admiral Milne, the commanding officer on the North American Station, "to report fully on the question how far the blockade of the Southern Ports now undertaken by the United States Government is an effective one."11 Yet, a general challenge never materialized. From its legal adviser on such matters, Sir John Harding (a Union sympathizer whose unfortunate and untimely insanity in 1862 was to facilitate the escape from Liverpool of the notorious Alabama), the government received a report urging it to shun debate over abstract principles of international law in favor of a course marked by prudence and expediency. It was necessary to prove a blockade's ineffectiveness "beyond all doubt" before denouncing it, Harding argued. Moreover, this was a time of the year when Britain traditionally had little trade with the South So why make complaints? They would only serve to rouse the Union to greater vigilance and "excite some irritation" in the Americans' "highly sensitive temperament," but without any "sufficient, adequate or direct advantage."12

Seward's personality and behavior underscored such warnings. His carefully cultivated reputation as an anglophobe (he had often described Britain as "the greatest, the most grasping and most rapacious power in the world"; had supported, as befitted a New York politician, the national aspirations of the Irish; and had frequently spoken of the inevitable annexation of Canada) had been nurtured by his talk of war. Lyons watched him apprehensively, far from confident that he would ignore a favorable excuse to seek a reunifying national struggle against the traditional enemy of the United States. In London there was considerably more skepticism about Seward's anxiety to take issue with Britain at a time of profound domestic crisis. However, if they described the American's policy as one of "brag," "bully," and "bluster," the members of the British cabinet thought it wise to strengthen the British military garrison in Canada. Furthermore, Russell followed Harding's advice and drew back from a confrontation over the blockade's legality. Interference was to be restricted to cases where British subjects had "clearly sustained losses or actual wrongs, for which neither the Prize Courts nor any other Courts" would afford them redress.13 It remains a matter of doubt whether the policy of conciliation urged by Sumner would have coaxed the British into this position.

With the passing of the initial crisis Seward did relax. As the year wore on he surprised Lyons by toeing the "civil and moderate line." This was no mean feat for a man who wished not only to avoid unnecessary complications with Britain but to escape at the same time domestic censure for backing away from the "high position he originally took up" in his dealings with her.14 Attacked as "Sir Forcible Feeble," he occasionally resorted to cavorting before the gallery of public opinion as an opponent of "English injustice." But he returned to first principles in a more determined and dramatic fashion in the fall of 1861, when worries of European interference in the war were capped by the Confederacy's sending of two new commissioners to Europe— John Slidell and James Murray Mason. Seward issued a startling circular to the governors of seaboard and Great Lakes states, informing them it was time to take preventive measures to counter the threat of foreign intervention, and revoked the exequatur of the British consul at Charleston. Both acts amounted to a desperate attempt to warn off Britain and France from dealing with Mason and Slidell. Indeed, Seward suggested to Gideon Welles, when it was reported that the two Confederate diplomats intended to cross the Atlantic aboard a Confederate vessel, that the Navy waylay them. Instead, Captain Charles Wilkes physically removed them and their secretaries from the deck of the British mail packet on which they had taken passage from Cuba.

Wilkes' high-handed action won for him the public applause he had been seeking. Many Northerners had feared that these two experienced and crafty Southern politicians would be able to exploit the difficulties the war was causing in Europe. Now they had been rendered harmless, and this as a result of a shot across the bows of a British ship. It was an intoxicating thought for Americans, but would the mistress of the seas tamely submit to such an indignity? Clearly, the "fancy pigeons  and lame ducks of Wall Street" did not think so. 15 Tumbling stock prices were a measure of their concern. Another and an extremely serious Anglo-American crisis had begun.

Seward's response was statesmanlike. While Attorney General Bates offered the opinion that Wilkes, in stopping the neutral Trent on a voyage between two neutral ports and removing the Confederates, had acted legally, and Gideon Welles sent a letter of congratulation to the captain which was soon published, Seward ensured that the administration did not commit itself formally to the captain's action. Quietly, he instructed Charles Francis Adams in London to inform the British that Wilkes had acted "without instructions, and even without the knowledge of the Government."16 Through the New York Times he reminded the Northern public that the capture of Mason and Slidell had been "entirely spontaneous and unauthorized."17 In addition, the President's first annual message to Congress on December 3 made no mention of the incident. Thus did Seward thoughtfully and skillfully prepare the ground for the administration's surrender of the captives, if that became necessary. The news from Britain soon indicated that it would. Infuriated by what they considered a violation of international law, one which injured pride and prestige, the British government demanded a disavowal of the act and the restoration of the prisoners. These demands were backed by a display of military preparedness— the fleet on the North American Station was strengthened and the garrison in British North America increased by more than 10,000 men.

In the face of this grim resolution, and urged by friends and agents in Europe not to permit the affair to deteriorate into war, the Lincoln cabinet eventually faced up to the fact that the Confederates had to be released and handed over to the British. Neither the urgings of Charles Sumner nor the timely arrival of a French dispatch endorsing the British demands should be overlooked as important factors in bringing the administration to this painful decision, yet it was Seward's foresight that made possible a surrender without complete humiliation. His intelligent initial response to this episode had kept the escape hatch open, and his brilliant dispatch announcing the release of the Confederates truly made a virtue of necessity. Wilkes' action had been unauthorized but not improper, he argued. His one technical error had been the failure to take the British mail packet in for prize adjudication, but this oversight had been the result of prudence and generosity. However, in acknowledging this misstep the United States "was really defending and maintaining, not an exclusively British interest, but an old, honored and cherished American cause"—the defense of neutral rights. Americans were now being asked to do to the British nation "just what they had always insisted all nations ought to do to them." Therefore, in releasing Mason and Slidell, the United States remained true to itself and brought the British to the adoption of the American position.18 It was an argument which won for Seward private plaudits and public acclaim. He had shown that the Union had not been "humiliated and disgraced," that it had not been "bullied into compliance with an unjust demand."19

The Trent affair marked, in some respects, the high point of Seward's influence, popularity, and diplomatic effectiveness. Certainly, the second year of war brought fewer successes in his diplomatic dealings with the British. He could claim, not unjustly, to have initiated the discussions that led ultimately to the Anglo-American Anti-Slave Trade Treaty of 1862. But the British made most of the running on this issue and they drafted the final settlement, though matters were so arranged that the United States could pose as the author of the agreement. If the treaty, by permitting British naval vessels under certain circumstances to visit, search, and detain American slavers, helped finally extinguish the nefarious Atlantic slave trade, and fortified the Union's friends in Britain, it failed in the larger purpose of widening significantly the base of English sympathy for the North.

In the Union, meanwhile, there was no disguising of the broadening and deepening enmity for Britain. She was despised for her "one-sided and unfriendly neutrality."20 The speeches of prominent Englishmen and the leaders in the mighty Times fed a popular belief that Britain's ruling class was anxious to encourage the rebels in order to stunt the growth of a society founded upon the natural equality of men, because such a society threatened the benighted social system of inherited privilege. To this general complaint was added a number of specific grievances. Despite Seward's dispatch, many Northerners could not forget that Britain had forced their government to give up Mason and Slidell. In the words of one contemporary, the Trent affair "left the arrow with poisoned barb festering in our flesh, and irritating our nerves."21 No less irritating were the activities of Englishmen in vitiating the effects of the blockade. Unionists watched with mounting anger the growth of blockade running and the prosperity it brought to the British colonies of Bermuda and the Bahamas. Even more provoking was the knowledge that the British were constructing the Confederate navy. The escape of the Alabama from Liverpool in July 1862 and her subsequent success as a commerce raider saw Britain accused and convicted in the court of popular opinion of scheming to destroy the competitive American mercantile marine.

Although privately infuriated by the behavior of the British, Seward launched in the spring of 1862 the policy of conciliation for which Charles Sumner had been calling a year earlier. "Let it be our endeavor," the Secretary wrote to Charles Francis Adams, "to extirpate the seeds of animosity and cultivate relations of friendship with a nation, that however perversely it may seem to act for a time, can really have no interest or ambition permanently conflicting with our own."22 No hint here of the old bellicosity, no trace even of the world view which saw the United States pitted against Britain in a struggle for global commercial supremacy. As a relieved and perhaps a little surprised Lord Lyons informed Admiral Milne in June, "I have never found this Government so conciliatory as it has been quite recently."23 What explains the emergence of this new Seward?

An important clue to the answer is to be found in the fact that one reason for the public bitterness against Britain was the unshakable conviction that she had recognized Confederate belligerency in 1861 with "indecent haste." Moreover, this precipitate action, or so the Union argument went, had kept the rebellion alive by encouraging Southerners to expect recognition of their independence. Now, a year later, Seward was seeking to entice the British and the French into retracing their steps. A string of Union military victories during the spring had left many rebels demoralized, and had exposed the disenchantment with the administration of Jefferson Davis. All that sustained the South, Seward believed, was the hope of foreign recognition. If he could destroy this by persuading Britain and France to withdraw recognition of belligerency, he would deal the final, shattering blow to Confederate morale. "G.B. & France could arrest the whole thing, by rescinding those unfortunate belligerent decrees," he asserted.24 In return, he was willing to reopen the cotton ports recaptured from the rebels. But the reports from Europe, private and official, warned of a growing scarcity of cotton. France, in particular, was in desperate straits, for unlike Britain she had no colonial supplies at all to fall back upon. Thus there was a danger that she would resort to measures more likely to confirm than undermine the Confederate faith in intervention. As a result, Seward quickly abandoned his plan to use the reopening of the ports as diplomatic barter. Instead, the ports of Beaufort, Port Royal, and New Orleans were promptly proclaimed open, and Seward promised that others would soon be added to this list.

Undismayed by the failure of this ploy, Seward improvised a second argument for the Europeans. It was aimed principally at the British, whose textile industry was far larger than that of any other nation. And that industry, despite the supplies of cotton from India, had always been heavily dependent upon the American staple. Pointing to the ever-increasing number of fugitive slaves fleeing behind the advancing Union lines as evidence of the war's dislocation of the system of labor necessary for the production of cotton, Seward warned that the longer the war dragged on the greater would be the disorganization of the "industrial system of the insurrectionary States," and the more likely a servile insurrection. It was the policy of the United States, he averred, "to save the Union and rescue society from that fearful catastrophe, while it consults the ultimate peaceful relief of the nation from slavery."25 In other words, Britain's only guarantee of the survival of slave labor in the cotton states for some considerable time, and therefore the continued cultivation of this vital commodity (it was generally believed that white men could not labor in the Southern climate and that black men would not unless compelled), was in an early Union victory. This is not to suggest that Seward's long-standing opposition to slavery had weakened, although he was bitterly assailed by the "rancorous set" of "extreme Abolitionists."26 He had always looked for the institution's eventual extinction in the land of freedom and was justifiably proud of the administration's "practical measures of lasting importance"—the granting of passports "without inquiry as to caste"; the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia; the Anti-Slave Trade Treaty with Britain; recognition of Haiti and Liberia; national aid to state emancipation; and the establishment of the principle that "slave holders to be secure must be loyal."27 In the words of his biographer, he foresaw the necessity for "time and patience" in eradicating this evil.28 Equally, he was sure that a gradual solution accorded with the interests of Britain. Hence, as Adam Gurowski remarked, "immediate emancipation is held before the eyes of the English statesmen rather as a Medusa head."29 Indeed, as the tide of battle turned against the Union in June and July, and defeats inevitably heightened fears of European meddling in the war, Seward warned that "intervention will end the exportation of cotton by extinguishing the slavery which produces it."30

Yet, neither these dire warnings nor Seward's general persistence with his policy of conciliation, a courageous course which brought him into conflict with colleagues, notably Gideon Welles, and saw him subjected to abuse by opponents for his "dirt-eating diplomacy,"31 explains Britain's decision in the fall of 1862 to defer the question of intervention. After two months of maneuvering, discussion, and debate on the merits of mediation, recognition, or a simple call for the cessation of hostilities, the leading members of the British government decided that this problem should be put off until the spring of 1863. Palmerston had backed away from action as soon as it was clear that Lee's invasion of Maryland was not going to result in the decisive campaign of the war. This in turn underscores the fact that those in the government who contemplated intervention wanted to undertake it only in absolute safety. They were unable to shrug off the danger of Union retaliation. In the event of hostilities even with a truncated United States the threat to Canada was obvious. Similarly, with Britain entangled in North America, Napoleon III would have a free hand in Europe. Of course, these were the very concerns which Seward had exploited during the first months of the Lincoln administration, but in the autumn of 1862 British uneasiness was less a measure of his continuing capacity to alarm them than of a healthy respect for Americans in general. Indeed, the British had changed their minds about the Secretary of State. Thus when he survived an attempt to chase him from the Cabinet in December, following the military disaster at Fredericksburg, Lyons and Russell let out a sigh of relief. If Seward was replaced, the British minister observed, "We are much more likely to have a man less disposed to keep the peace than a man more disposed to do so."32 Ironically, Seward's resort in the spring of 1863 to a more dramatic policy, one more akin to that of two years earlier, saw his grip on the control of foreign affairs loosened.

That Seward still occupied the State Department in 1863 was a tribute to the skill and loyalty of the President in fighting off those who would have made him the scapegoat for the Union's failures. The New Yorker understood this, and a relationship which had begun with him entertaining notions of intellectual and political superiority, then flowered into the easy familiarity of equals, was now marked by a grateful Seward's recognition of Lincoln's dominance. However, he managed to strengthen his position in February, taking advantage of inept proposals of French mediation, and the following month found him ready to force the critics of his "dirt-eating diplomacy" to swallow their words. He showed himself keen to issue letters of marque (that is, license privateers) in an effort to discourage blockade running out of Bermuda and the Bahamas and dissuade the British from constructing more Confederate warships. Although this proposed action was not quite as risky as it appeared—Seward gambled that the British were too preoccupied with other problems to take umbrage—his old adversary, Charles Sumner, made out a persuasive case to the contrary. If privateers ever began to prowl the seas they would find the temptation to prey upon British commerce irresistible, he argued. The result would be an Anglo-American confrontation, perhaps war. And his public and private lobbying, together with the timely news of British action to prevent the sailing of another Confederate vessel, the Alexandra, saw the letters of marque withheld. Instead, agents and attorneys were dispatched to England to do all they could in and out of court to see that "guilty vessels" were arrested by the British authorities. As this was the course Sumner had recommended, there was some substance to his boast at the end of April that his policy had at last prevailed. Of course, the claim has been made that the true victory was Seward's, that his very willingness to license privateers compelled the British to detain the Alexandra and take measures to ensure that other vessels did not leave their ports. But this is less than half the story.

In seizing the Alexandra the British government was doing no more than it had intended to do in July 1862, when it belatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to detain theAlabama. The time had come to test the Foreign Enlistment Act, to determine whether it prohibited the sailing of vessels evidently intended for belligerent careers but unarmed when they sought to leave British waters. As the permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office explained to Palmerston, the law officers thought it "important to ascertain the true construction of the Act."33 Seizure was also a reflection of Russell's belief that the Alabama's roaming of the oceans "with English guns, and English sailors," to burn, sink, and destroy the ships of a friendly nation was "a scandal and a reproach." Already, the Foreign Secretary foresaw the necessity of eventually referring "to an impartial arbiter" American demands for compensation for the injuries inflicted by the Alabama.34 Consequently, he had every reason to prevent the escape of yet another raider.

Where anxiety about difficulties with the United States if Confederate vessels were permitted to leave British ports did come into play was in the government's subsequent behavior. The arrival in London on the very day the Alexandra was stopped, April 5, of the news that Russia had placed her forces on a war footing raised anew the prospect of a conflict between that nation and France over Poland, which had risen up in rebellion. All of Palmerston's and Russell's suspicions of Napoleon were revived, and to restrain him in Europe Britain needed both the appearance and the assurance of quiescent relations with the United States. Thus, although the seizure of theAlexandra had not been effected for this purpose, if followed by evidence of Britain's continuing vigilance to prevent the escape of other vessels, it should serve "to calm the mind" of the Americans. In short, the spring of 1863 saw the British take the steps necessary to ensure that their "one-sided and unfriendly neutrality" did not embroil them in the conflict. Simultaneously, they finally turned their backs on intervention.

Confederate expectations of British interference had been rooted in the belief that an American civil war and the consequent disruption of cotton supplies would cause such economic dislocation and social misery in England that the government would be compelled to act. Instead, Britain was prospering in 1863, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Gladstone made clear in his Budget Speech. The problems of the silent mill towns of Lancashire and Cheshire were serious but isolated, and there was optimism that their darkest days had passed. The recipients of poor relief were declining in number, and unrest had been occasional and localized. For the most part the operatives bore their suffering patiently, and the government's remedial measures did offer additional hope. There was agitation for the recognition of the Confederacy, stirred by the notion that this would somehow end the war and thereby free the cotton, but it had been neither well organized nor well exploited. The Confederacy's sympathizers bungled their attempts to hitch the operatives to their cart. No less important, while the official organs of the Conservative party did fasten upon the plight of the operatives as a stick with which to beat the government and to demand a change of American policy, the Opposition's parliamentary leadership declined to exploit the problem. The Civil War and its effects upon Britain did not become partisan issues. As a result, the government was as free from sustained political as it was from popular pressure to meddle.

When Unionists sought the reasons for the fact that the danger of British intervention was fast receding they discovered them in Lincoln's adoption of emancipation and the outbreak of the Polish rebellion. Seward could claim little credit for either of these developments. He had helped dissuade the President from issuing an Emancipation Proclamation in July 1862, and acquiesced without enthusiasm when Lincoln made it clear in September that he was determined to go ahead. For Seward, the domestic and foreign liabilities far outweighed the assets of this step. At home, he feared that emancipation would discourage white enlistments in the Army and intensify racial tensions in the Union. The Congressional elections of 1862 and the draft riots of 1863 proved that such fears were far from groundless. Abroad, immediate emancipation not only overturned his policy of using it as a shield against intervention but was likely to excite more scorn than sympathy for the Union. Nor did the initial British response prove him mistaken.

They ridiculed the Proclamation, making much of the President's own publicly expressed doubts as to its wisdom and usefulness. Indeed, Lincoln's earlier remark that such a document would have as much effect as the Pope's bull against the comet set the tone for British editorial comment. Why had he not taken the same opportunity to declare free the slaves of Africa, leader-writers asked sarcastically, perhaps those of the entire universe? 35

What Seward did not foresee was the brilliantly successful campaign of the newly formed London Emancipation Society. The meetings it and its affiliates organized across the length and breadth of Britain, a great many of them on the eve of the meeting of Parliament in February 1863, not a few ostensible gatherings of working people, fostered the belief that any policy which appeared to favor the slave states over the free would prove divisive in Britain. As the Confederacy's foremost champion there, William Gregory, confided to one Southern friend, these "agitators have had of late considerable success among the working classes in raising up the antislavery agitation." Consequently, for the government "to take part with the South would expose it to great risks and loss of support in the large towns."36 What made this achievement all the more remarkable was the shallowness of antislavery sentiment in Britain and the depth of the conviction that blacks were "hopelessly inferior."37

But the decisive factor was the political turmoil in Europe. The search for a new monarch of Greece, the complicated problem of Schleswig-Holstein, which was already looming larger on the diplomatic horizon, and the Polish revolt—all these drew the attention of the British government and public away from the United States in the spring of 1863. Preoccupied with the troubles of the Continent, even Palmerston and Russell abandoned all thought of meddling in the Civil War.

What then had been Seward's contribution to the avoidance of British intervention? Clearly, Britain was ultimately brought to her decision by factors beyond his control or upon which he exerted precious little influence. He had grasped from the very outset the importance of European affairs to the outcome of the diplomatic struggle with the Confederacy, and had acted accordingly in the spring of 1861, but the timely events of 1862-1863 were simply the Union's good fortune. Nevertheless, during the first year of conflict Seward had played a central and vital role, and for this alone he well deserved the gratitude of his countrymen.


  1.  Ernest N. Paolino, The Foundations of the American Empire: William Henry Seward and U. S. Foreign Policy (Ithaca, 1973), xi; see also Walter LeFeber, John Quincy Adams and American Continental EmpireLetters, Papers and Speeches (Chicago, 1965).
  2.  For a narrowly diplomatic and generally unsophisticated interpretation of Seward's early months as Secretary of State see Norman B. Ferris, Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward's Foreign Policy, 1861 (Knoxville, 1976).
  3.  Quoted in Patrick Sowle, "A Reappraisal of Seward's Memorandum of April 1, 1861, to Lincoln," Journal of Southern History, XXXIII (1967), pp. 234-238.
  4.  Frederick W. Seward, William H. Seward: An Autobiography from 1801 to 1834with a Memoir of His Life…,Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State, 3 vols. (New York, 1891), II, p. 556.
  5.  Ibid., II, p. 96; Lyons to Russell, April 23, 1861, Foreign Office (F0), ser., 5, vol. 763, Public Record Office, London (PRO).
  6.  lbid., II, p. 366; Seward to Adams, April 10, 1861, NA1M77176, National Archives Microfilm Publications.
  7.  William H. Russell, My Diary North and South (New York, 1863), pp. 70-71; Seward to Adams, May 21, 1861, NA1M77176.
  8.  C. P. Villiers to John Bright, January 25, 1862, British Museum Additional Manuscript (BM Add Ms.) 43386; Punch, February 9, 1861.
  9.  Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., CLXII, pp. 2078-2088.
  10. Lyons to Russell, May 21, 1861, F0 5/763.
  11. James P. Baxter 3rd, "Papers Relating to Belligerent and Neutral Rights," American Historical Review, XXXIV (1928), pp. 77-78.
  12. Harding to Russell, June 6, 1861, Law Officers Reports, F0 83/2211.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Lyons to Russell, October 14, 1861, Russell Papers, PRO 30/22/35.
  15. New York Herald, November 22, 1861.
  16. Seward to Adams, November 27, 1861, NA/M77/77.
  17. New York Times, November 30, 1861; see also December 3.
  18. Seward to Lyons, December 26, 1861, NA/M99/38.
  19. Minturn to Seward, December 28, 1861, Seward Papers, University of Rochester Library; ibid., Everett to Seward, December 30; Shipman to Welles, January 1, 1862, Gideon Welles Papers, Library of Congress; Boston Evening Transcript, December 30, 1861; New York Times, December 29, 1861; New York Tribune, December 30, 1861; Baltimore American, December 31, 1861.
  20. New York Tribune, May 20, 1862; ibid., May 22; ibid., June 25; New York Herald, July 24, 1862.
  21. Thurlow Weed Barnes, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, vol. II of Life of Thurlow Weed (reprint, New York, 1970), pp. 413-416.
  22. Seward to Adams, April 1, 1862, NA/M77/77.
  23. Lyons to Milne, June 8, 1862, Lyons Papers, West Sussex Record Office, Chichester.
  24. Seward to Weed, April 25, 1862, Weed Papers, University of Rochester Library.
  25. Seward to Adams, May 28, 1862, NA/M77/77.
  26. See Henry Adams to C. F. Adams, Jr., May 8, 1862, W. C. Ford, ed., A Cycle of Adams Letters, 2 vols. (Boston, 1920), I, pp. 138-143.
  27. Seward to Weed, April 25, 1862, Weed Papers.
  28. Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York, 1967), p. 205.
  29. Adam Gurowski, Diary, 1862 (Boston, 1863), pp. 218-219.
  30. Seward to Adams, July 18, 1862, Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs, 1862, p. 144.
  31. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 6, 1862; Brownson's Quarterly, XXIV   (1862), p. 509.
  32. Lyons to Russell, December 22, 1862, PRO 30/22/36.
  33. Hammond to Palmerston, April 5, 1863, Broadlands Mss., Historical Manuscripts Commission, London.
  34. Russell to Lyons, March 28, 1863, Lyons Papers.
  35. For a brief but useful survey of the press see Richard Allen Heckman, "British Press Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation," Lincoln Herald, LXXI (1969), pp. 150-153.
  36. Gregory to Miles, April 7, 1863, William Porcher Miles Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Chapel Hill.
  37. Moncure Daniel Conway, Autobiography, Memories and Experiences, 2 vols. (Boston, 1904), II, pp. 1-2.


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