Read Lincoln in the World Online
Authors: Kevin Peraino
And yet somehow Lincoln and his team managed to pull off one of the most breathtaking feats in the annals of American foreign policy: they avoided European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, which could well have led to a Southern victory. European opinion about the conflict was diverse and nuanced, but plenty of aristocrats were content to watch the young republic founder. Even cold-eyed observers like the
’s Walter Bagehot, who ultimately expected the North to win, crowed that the war would leave the United States “less aggressive, less insolent, and less irritable.” Amid such tension, even a small indignity could have sparked a devastating transatlantic conflict. “A single major mistake,” notes one modern diplomatic scholar, “could have changed the course of the Civil War.”
The iconoclast H. L. Mencken once described Lincoln as “the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality … a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost.” This “plaster saint,” Mencken insisted, was suited only “for adoration in the chautauquas and the Y.M.C.A.s.” Many Americans share that view. All we really need to know about Lincoln, the thinking goes, we learned in kindergarten. “There can be no new ‘Lincoln stories,’ ” one of the president’s former secretaries wrote 115 years ago. “The stories are all told.”
And yet for all that has been written, Lincoln’s life is only rarely examined against the backdrop of his own world. “We all need a course in Lincoln,” observed former secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes. In the age of Lincoln, we see shadows of our modern global
arena. The midnineteenth century was an era of brutal realism, the world stage dominated by powerful, self-interested warriors. Britain’s foreign policy was directed by Lord Palmerston, its shrewd, ruthless prime minister. Dubbed Lord Pumicestone by the British press, Palmerston was perhaps best known for declaring that Britain had no eternal friends—only national interests. The continent’s other leaders were no more charming. In Prussia, Otto von Bismarck saw Europe’s future emerging from the interplay of “blood and iron.” Foreign policy, he said, was “the art of the possible, the science of the relative.” France’s Napoleon III was less competent, but certainly not warm and fuzzy. Victor Hugo described the emperor as “a man of middle height, cold, pale, slow, who looks as if he were not quite awake … esteemed by women who want to become prostitutes and by men who want to become prefects.”
Lincoln, too, could be cold and ruthless. He was better suited to the age of great-power politics than might be assumed. A skilled chess player, he was steeped in the rational philosophy and political economy of Enlightenment thinkers, and as a young politician, he glorified “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” as the only road to peace. Lincoln, said his former law partner, Billy Herndon, was “a realist as opposed to an idealist.” He was temperamentally suited to view the world without illusion. The future president’s mind “crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham,” Herndon recalled. “Everything came to him in its precise shape and color.” Lincoln’s whole life, said another old colleague, “was a calculation of the law of forces.”
Modern realists see strong similarities to our own times in the nineteenth-century age of the great powers. They argue that the post–Cold War notion that America is now the world’s sole superpower is fundamentally flawed. Even before the recent credit crunch and stock market crash, Third World nations like China and India had been slowly eroding the relative power of the United States. In reality we will soon be, if we are not already, living in a multipolar world of competing nations with vastly divergent interests.
Such a world demands reasoned calculation, not self-righteous crusades. “For most of its history, the United States was in fact a nation among others, not a preponderant superpower,” notes Henry Kissinger, a dean of the realist school. The era before the “American Century,” he has argued, may well be a more accurate predictor of what is to come.
And yet, like ours, the nineteenth century was also an information age, an era of rapid liberalization and globalization.
Steamships had cut the Atlantic passage to a little over a week, and telegraph workers feverishly strung copper lines across the continent and below the oceans. Fueled by the popularity of the recently invented steam press, the number of American periodicals exploded from 850 in 1828 to more than 4,000 by the eve of the Civil War. “There has never been an age so completely enthralled by newspapers as this,” observed John Hay in the fall of 1861. Karl Marx, himself a journalist and contemporary of Lincoln’s, marveled at “the sheet lightning of the daily press” and the other “immensely facilitated means of communication.” National differences, Marx believed, were “daily more and more vanishing.”
The new technologies revolutionized the practice of foreign affairs. “Diplomacy has so few secrets nowadays,” lamented the French empress, Eugénie, as she tried to stay ahead of events. The advances in nineteenth-century communications, historian Daniel Walker Howe notes, “certainly rivaled, and probably exceeded in importance, those of the revolutionary ‘information highway’ of our own lifetimes.” The same proliferating media empowered all types of preachers and reformers, filling the globe with a cacophony of moral (and too often self-righteous) appeals.
In the changing world, Lincoln lifted a global megaphone. By exploiting the newspaper culture and innovations like the daguerreotype, the president anticipated Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit by a generation.
Secretary of State Seward also seized the new tools of diplomacy, publishing his official dispatches for their public-relations
value. The Lincoln administration, the president’s man in Paris explained in 1864, “is the first that has deliberately conducted its diplomacy
and with direct and constant accountability to the public.… How differently would the last fifty years of European history read if every minister of foreign affairs had thus gone to the public confessional at the commencement of every year!”
Lincolnian diplomacy was not quite so artless as that. The president, while “not a trickster,” as his law partner once put it, could be “thoroughly and deeply secretive.” Lincoln, like many a successor in the White House, was aggravated by the invasions of the chirping classes. When a visitor showed Lincoln a newly designed weapon, the president shot back: “Now have any of you heard of any machine, or invention, for preventing the escape of gas from newspaper offices?” Still, Lincoln understood intuitively how any glut of information makes power “less tangible and less coercive.” Public opinion, Lincoln declared in 1858, was “everything in this country.” In the realm of international affairs, it could also prove to be a flighty mistress.
Foreign affairs has long been considered treacherous ground in the field of Lincoln studies. It occupies one of the few sparsely stocked corners of an otherwise massive library. Part of the reason is that books that try to place Lincoln at the center of his own foreign policy tend to end up as hagiographies, because the president often delegated day-to-day policy to his secretary of state. At the other extreme, in comprehensive diplomatic histories and specialized monographs, Lincoln the man gets lost amid a flurry of detail and bit players. This book makes no attempt to serve as a complete history of Union and Confederate foreign relations.
I have ignored, or mentioned only in passing, many important diplomatic events and topics in which Lincoln did not play a central role—the Confederate shipbuilding programs in Europe, for example, or the minutiae of the debates in Paris and London about whether to intervene.
Instead, I have included only those episodes in which Lincoln was deeply involved or which tell us something important about the
character of a Lincolnian foreign policy. “In comparison with Woodrow Wilson, or Theodore Roosevelt, or Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln’s activity in the realm of diplomacy was slight,” writes James Randall, the distinguished Lincoln biographer. “Yet if one subtracts from American international dealings those touches that were peculiarly Lincoln’s own, the difference becomes so significant that his contribution must be regarded as a sizeable factor.”
A successful study of Lincoln’s role in U.S. foreign relations, therefore, demands a fresh approach that is impressionistic and selective—while at the same time remaining a holistic human story.
To that end, I have tightly focused my narrative around six distinct episodes that helped to define the character of a Lincolnian foreign policy: his debate, as a young congressman, with law partner Billy Herndon over the conduct of the Mexican War; his conflict with Secretary of State William Seward over the control of foreign policy; his standoff with Britain’s Lord Palmerston during the
crisis of 1861; his race with Karl Marx to master the new art of molding public opinion; and his deadlock with Napoleon III over the French occupation of Mexico. An epilogue examines John Hay’s postassassination battle to define the soul and legacy of a Lincolnian foreign policy. True character, it is said, is revealed when a human being makes choices under pressure. Watching Lincoln choose, under the tremendous pressure of a war, is the best way to closely examine that character.
Studying foreign policy through the eyes of the personalities who practice it is not a particularly modern approach. Actual power, realists insist, is the function of impersonal factors like access to capital, levels of industrialization, tons of steel produced. “To understand the course of world politics,” argues historian Paul Kennedy, author of
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
, “it is necessary to focus attention upon the material and long-term elements rather than the vagaries of personality.” Kennedy’s observation has much merit. Lincoln lived through—and ultimately helped to manage—a process of seismic economic change. By the start of the Civil War the United
States had become an economic colossus, with a greater relative share of manufacturing output than Russia, Germany, or the Hapsburg Empire.
The commercial surge left a deep imprint on midcentury diplomacy. Scholars now view this period as the seed bed for America’s later imperial growth. Seward, a man of his times, loudly and repeatedly evangelized commercial expansion. Lincoln more often preferred to stress the moral perils of human bondage in his public remarks; he relentlessly defied expansionists when they aimed to spread the peculiar institution. Still, these were largely differences of rhetorical emphasis. Lincoln’s and Seward’s core views on expansion were actually not all that different. As long as it would not strengthen the position of slaveholders, Lincoln insisted that he was “not generally opposed to honest acquisition of territory.” In the White House he steadfastly backed expansionist measures like the Pacific Railroad and the Homestead Act.
Like many in the Whig party, Lincoln viewed westward expansion as a safety valve to relieve urban poverty. “In the filling up of countries, it turns out after a while that we get so thick that we have not quite room enough … and we desire to go somewhere else,” Lincoln told a Cincinnati audience in the fall of 1859. “Where shall you go to escape from over-population and competition? To those new territories which belong to us, which are God-given for that purpose.” He considered it a short leap between promoting commerce at home and protecting it with gunboats on the high seas: “The driving [of] a pirate from the track of commerce on the broad ocean, and the removing [of] a snag from its more narrow path in the Mississippi river, can not, I think, be distinguished in principle. Each is done to save life and property, and for nothing else.”
In the corridors of the White House, the rise to power could be dizzying. As the Civil War ground on, John Hay had come to see Lincoln as a kind of “backwoods Jupiter,” wielding the “bolts of war and the machinery of government” with a firm and steady hand.
He referred to the president in his diary and letters by the nickname Tycoon, after the shoguns that effectively ruled Japan. And yet, even as Lincoln’s power grew, he had become “in mind, body and nerves a very different man” by the start of his second term, his secretary noted. “The boisterous laughter became less frequent year by year; the eye grew veiled.… He aged with great rapidity.”
Lincoln’s guilt seemed to grow with his power. As the war neared its climax, the president would sometimes read aloud to Hay late at night from Shakespeare’s tragedies, as his young secretary drifted off to sleep. Lincoln’s favorite soliloquy in
was King Claudius’s failed attempt at prayer: “O my offense is rank! It smells to heaven.” The president was fascinated, Hay recalled, by Richard II’s third-act speech about the “sad stories of the death of kings.” In
, Lincoln was struck by “how true a description of the murderer that one was; when, the dark deed achieved, its tortured perpetrator came to envy the sleep of his victim.”
Lincoln lived in a romantic era, an age obsessed by guilt and sin. Throughout his life he admired Lord Byron’s poetry, with its melancholy, remorseful protagonists. He would read it aloud to anyone who would listen, kicking his feet up onto his office table. He particularly liked the poet’s
, with their tales of crusading knights who come to ugly ends abroad. Another favorite was Byron’s
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
, the story of a young man with a “thirst for travel” who sets out across Europe looking for adventure and redemption.
There is no greater drama, Lincoln and his team intuitively recognized, than the intersection of power and personality.
“Power is poison,” Henry Adams, the son of Lincoln’s minister in London, observed in the years following the Civil War. Its effect, Adams concluded, “is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” Adams, like modern realists, believed that foreign affairs had become “a struggle not of men but of forces.” And yet the young diplomat was also fascinated by the human element—“the whole unutterable fury of human nature beating itself against
the walls of its prison-house,” desperately seeking a “door of escape.” At the least, Adams believed, the intersection of power and character are worth studying in presidents like Lincoln, because the effects are the same on society at large.