This articles draws from a lecture given by Jeremy Black at the Union League of Philadelphia in 2017 on the occasion of its annual Lincoln Day festivities.
All countries have reassuring myths, a deep history of assumptions that help provide identity and meaning. A strong American one in the early decades of last century was that of the opt-in and the opt-out. It reflected the idea that America, protected by its position and the distance offered by the oceans, could choose whether to engage in international affairs. This concept was to be exploded by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but it was already one for which the early decades of American history scarcely allowed. Indeed, a key element of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was that it brought to fruition not only the interlinked crises of identity and governance focused on slavery and states’ rights/claims, but also that it marked the culmination and end of the pressures of international intervention and the threat of such intervention that had been an issue from the birth of the Republic. The key question was that of possible foreign intervention in the Civil War. It reflected both broader issues and the more specific point that the United States was not alone in North America. Indeed, victory in the War of Independence had not settled the “North American Question.” It was not to be settled until the Treaty of Washington of 1871, when Britain demonstrated a willingness to accept America’s predominant position on the Continent. Before then, Britain, the leading imperial power in the world, had a presence in Canada and the Caribbean, while, in the early 1860s, France intervened in force in Mexico; Spain extended its presence in the Caribbean, and Russia continued to control Alaska.
The possible relationship between international aspirations and the crisis within the U.S. was a key question for American policymakers. Such a relationship had been triggered for Mexico when Napoleon III of France intervened against the Liberals. The usual pattern of civil wars included such covert or overt interventions, as when France sent an army into Spain in 1823 and Russia another into Hungary in 1849. The U.S. had been subject to the possibility of such interactions in its early years, notably in Vermont, with the Burr conspiracy in Louisiana, and with the Hartford Convention in 1814-15. Thereafter, that had not been the case.
However, the situation changed radically in 1861. Civil War offered the Confederacy multiple political options. It had little chance of conquering the North, but there was a realistic possibility that early military success would bring Britain and France into the war, and thus ensure that the Union had to change policy. There was considerable weight in both ideas, and if the course of the war was eventually to show that neither was viable, that was not readily apparent to contemporaries in America and abroad until well into the conflict.
In 1861 and 1862, major crises threatened war between the Union and foreign forces. The most dangerous figure was a chancer, Napoleon III, who had gained control of France through a coup and was eager to win success elsewhere. His policy toward the Civil War was part of a very active French stance in the New World. Fortunately for the Union, this centred on Mexico, not America, just as the British government was focused on Europe, not America. Mexico displayed the possibility of foreign intervention in the American Civil War, and also indicated the contrast between British and French policy.
Foreign intervention in the Civil War would have been more likely had France been stronger than Britain, which shows the close relationship between American developments and wider international events. Just as American independence owed much to the configuration of politics in 1754-83, so the Union’s success in the Civil War rested in part on the earlier failure of Napoleon I to defeat Britain.
Napoleon III pressed Britain to repeat in America the military cooperation seen in 1854-60 against Russia and China. Although the British were not inclined to take up the offer, segments of British leadership did display a preference for a negotiated settlement that would allow the Confederacy to become independent. In October 1862, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston observed:
If the acknowledgement [of the Confederacy] were made at one and the same time by England, France and some other powers, the Yankee would probably not seek a quarrel with us alone and would not like one against a European Confederation. Such a quarrel would render certain and permanent that Southern independence, the acknowledgement of which would have caused it.
Napoleon III proposed to Britain and Russia that they recommend an armistice, a measure also urged by Belgium. Different scenarios were sketched out, including the North rejecting the Allies’ good offices, which would have entitled the latter to recognize the Confederacy. William Gladstone, a key minister, argued at a public dinner on October 7, 1862 that the South “had so made a nation,” a speech criticised by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell. Two months later, Gladstone responded to Fredericksburg by writing “surely this will end the madness,” by showing the North that it could not win.
In the event Britain proved unwilling to support France, and, although the Alabama affair brought close the prospect of war, the British government again showed caution. Moreover, in 1863, a rebellion in Russian-ruled Poland diverted international attention, led to the end of the Franco-Russian alliance, and weakened relations between France and Britain. As in 1778, with France’s decision not to intervene in the War of the Bavarian Succession, and 1812, with Napoleon I’s total defeat in Russia, American developments in part were greatly affected by events American politicians could neither predict nor affect.
British caution certainly reflected a long-term trend in policy seen for decades, but it was crucially assisted by a comparable degree of caution and restraint on the part of Lincoln’s government. Lincoln’s government backed down in the Trent crisis with Britain in the winter of 1861-2. The Confederate envoys seized by an American warship from a British mail steamer were released and Captain Charles Wilkes, who had earlier received the thanks of Congress, was disavowed. This was a crucial move, signalling a willingness to be bound by the rules of the international situation. As Russell noted, “The President’s message is prudent.”
Lincoln benefited from his ability to understand how best to respond to the challenges and possibilities of the international system. Britain was the great power, America its challenger in the New World and Pacific, and the Civil War took place against a background in which British hegemony adjusted to American power. Lincoln’s rejection of the temptation to act like Napoleon III was important to American success and to avoiding a far more destructive conflict than the Civil War.
For long, it was understood in America that there was a close relationship between its party politics and the international situation. If this was particularly the case with the Confederates, it was far from limited to them either during the Civil War or on other occasions.
The interrelationship between domestic politics and international challenges is a longstanding issue for all states, and notably for democracies with their more active public sphere. In the United States, the essential consensus behind the Cold War had led to a difficulty in confronting the more complex international situation that has succeeded it. This complexity relates to prioritization between goals and also a clear assessment of the means to be followed. It is very possible that a serious crisis would lead to a shelving of differences, but there is little basis for such confidence, and the situation in 1940 was not an encouraging example.
Differences today can profitably be considered in the light of past rivalries. The latter provides much evidence of the difficulty of establishing unity, let alone conventions and practices of disunity that do not destabilize the political system. In practice, the latter came to a height with the Confederacy, although the policies of the Democrats within the Union were also problematic. However, once the practice existed of wartime elections, then adversarial politics focused on the war were well-nigh inevitable. Lincoln set an important pattern in ensuring that the embattled republic responded very differently in its treatment of dissidence to that seen with other embattled republics, such as England in 1649-60 and, even more, France in 1792-99. At the same time, Lincoln’s legacy was that of a work in progress, which is one reason why it is important today to consider the ongoing relevance of this legacy.