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Authors: Kevin Peraino

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Lincoln vs. Seward


the second floor of the state house in Springfield, surrounded by supplicants of “as many nationalities as could easily be brought together [in] the West.” Visitors filed past the “heaps and hills” of newspapers that were piled on the tables. A relaxed Lincoln, growing the beginnings of a wispy beard, pumped hands and warmly slapped backs. Outside, an icy wind howled over the prairie. The crush of uncouth visitors repulsed some witnesses. One newspaperman marveled at the “disagreeably intense” odor that filled the room. Lincoln was not complaining. After nearly thirty years climbing Illinois’s political ladder, he was finally president-elect.

The American political landscape had evolved dramatically since Lincoln’s time in Congress more than a decade earlier. He had spent the first phase of his career as a loyal Whig, focusing primarily on economic issues like improving roads and canals.
Yet in the wake of the Mexican War, and particularly the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—which reopened the possibility that slavery might be established in newly acquired territories under the doctrine of “popular sovereignty”—the old Whig Party had splintered. New battle lines
emerged around the issue of human bondage. “Conscience Whigs” embraced the reinvigorated movement to abolish slavery, while more conservative “Cotton Whigs” feared a dramatic shift in the sectional balance. Lincoln attempted to bridge the divide by helping to found the new Republican Party in the mid-1850s. The Railsplitter’s old antagonist Stephen Douglas, for his part, sought to take up the Democratic standard as the 1860 election approached.

Lincoln’s opponents, too, were badly divided along regional and ideological lines in 1860. Southern fire-eaters had nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, and another new group made up partly of disaffected southern Whigs—dubbed the Constitutional Union Party—siphoned off additional votes. Lincoln ultimately defeated Douglas and his other rivals by a huge margin in 1860. New Jersey was the only northern state he failed to win in the Electoral College.

Still, just weeks after the polls closed, the president-elect was forced to watch his prize dissolve. Angered by Lincoln’s election and the rise of the Republicans to power, South Carolina voted to secede in December, followed by an avalanche of other states—first Mississippi, then Florida, Alabama, Georgia. Advisers urged the president-elect to hurry to Washington and take charge of the government as soon as possible. Lincoln, already looking worn and pale, was in no rush. “I expect they will drive me insane after I get there,” he told reporters, “and I want to keep tolerably sane, at least until after the inauguration.”

Lincoln managed to keep his head almost until Inauguration Day, which in the midnineteenth century did not take place until well into the New Year. Yet by early March, as expected, the president-elect was losing it. His young secretary, John Hay, thought his boss was beginning to show the symptoms of a man under “a good deal of hydraulic pressure.” On top of the secession crisis, rumors poured in from abroad about the malign intentions of the European powers. John McClintock, a Methodist pastor in Paris, wrote to caution the president that the chaos across the Atlantic looked like weakness to
Europeans. “The public mind both of France and England is befogged on the American question,” McClintock warned Lincoln. It was “of the utmost importance,” the clergyman insisted, that the president should quickly fill the consular slots in Paris and London with “

Lincoln began by choosing William Henry Seward as his chief diplomat. Short and pompous, with a husky voice and small, darting blue eyes, Seward had been the president’s main competition for the Republican nomination.
The former New York governor could be irascible. His dinner-table conversation reminded one guest of “a man soliloquizing aloud.” Yet he was also well connected and well traveled. “Governor Seward, there is one part of my work that I shall have to leave largely to you,” the president told his nominee for secretary of state shortly after he arrived in the capital. “I shall have to depend upon you for taking care of these matters of foreign affairs, of which I know so little, and with which I reckon you are familiar.” Lincoln ordered Seward to make sure the American legations in England, France, Spain, and Mexico were “guarded as strongly and quickly as possible.”

Seward was never a man to underestimate his own importance. When Lincoln offered him the post, the New Yorker dashed off a terse letter to his wife: “I have advised Mr. L. that I will not decline. It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” As the secession crisis worsened, Seward reported home that he had “assumed a sort of dictatorship for defense,” in the capital. A couple of weeks later he told his wife that the whole government “would fall into consternation and despair” if he left Washington for even a few days. “I am the only
hopeful, calm, conciliatory
person here,” he boasted.

Lincoln may have been elected president, but Seward intended to carve out his own power center. There “exists no great difference between an elected president of the United States and a hereditary monarch,” Seward explained to one European diplomat in Washington. “The latter is called to the throne through the accident of birth, the former through the chances which make his election possible.
The actual direction of public affairs belongs to the leader of the ruling party here just as in a hereditary principality.” Lincoln’s allies wrote to warn him that Seward considered the president-elect his subordinate, “just as the queen or king of England is subject to the policy of the ministry.”

Indeed, at least at first, Lincoln did not seem up to the task. When he finally reached Washington, the stress physically overwhelmed him. On bad days the president threatened to storm out onto the south lawn of the Executive Mansion and hang himself from a tree. Lincoln had trouble sleeping, and he rarely found time to eat. Some afternoons he simply went to bed after lunch. “If to be the head of Hell is as hard as what I have to undergo here,” the president complained, “I could find it in my heart to pity Satan himself.” Lincoln had always been sensitive to changes in the climate. Harsh weather aggravated his “defective nerves,” he once told a friend. The unsteady Washington elements—alternating between a crisp, cool spring, and a clammy Indian summer—may have made matters worse. By late March, high winds had enveloped the entire city in a suffocating cloud of yellow dust. Mary Lincoln told friends that the president had “keeled over” with a migraine.

The Days of Principles Are Gone

A quick glance at the global chessboard in the spring of 1861 would have given any U.S. president a headache. For decades America’s core foreign-policy principle had been the maintenance of its independence from Europe. The Founding Fathers had been so obsessed with this point that they derided the art of diplomacy itself. American statesmen considered European efforts to maintain a balance of power through secret treaties and cynical compromises the epitome of corruption. In the New World, which its founders had proclaimed a virtuous “city on a hill,” there was no place for half-measures when it came to republican principles. George Washington,
in his farewell address, had warned against being drawn into European affairs. Thomas Jefferson derided Old World diplomacy as “the pest of the peace of the world.”

North American geography had guaranteed the new nation a measure of natural independence. Yet complete isolation, U.S. statesmen soon learned, was impossible. Without the massive British navy to protect shipping lanes, Jefferson himself was forced to dispatch troops to the Mediterranean to confront pirates who had been preying on American vessels. In the second decade of the nineteenth century, livid over the British practice of the impressment of U.S. sailors, Americans took up arms again—a conflict that resulted in the burning of Washington. The War of 1812 ultimately ended in a stalemate, but Americans were finally beginning to feel their oats in the international arena. They largely viewed the conflict as a triumph.

In the years that followed, American adventurers repeatedly tested the national limits. Frontiersmen skirmished with British colonists along the Canadian boundary. Merchants in search of export markets nurtured U.S. commercial ties with Latin America. With expansionist nationalism on the rise, Americans displayed little patience for the continuing encroachment by foreign powers. By the winter of 1823, president James Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, forcefully rejected European interference in the Western Hemisphere in the text of Monroe’s annual message to Congress. Monroe and Adams announced that the United States would oppose any further attempts by Europe to establish colonies in the New World.

Statesmen on the Continent—who generally considered Americans “a bumptious and absurdly self-confident folk, aggressively preaching their national faith of democracy without much regard for good manners”—were unimpressed. In succeeding decades they openly disdained and repeatedly violated the principles that Monroe and Adams had set forth. Still, the proclamation that later came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, notes one modern diplomatic
scholar, amounted to one more “ringing affirmation of America’s independence from Europe.”

Even as the young United States was reasserting its freedom from the Old World, the classic traditions of European diplomacy were themselves in flux. After Britain defeated France in the Napoleonic Wars ending in 1815, the European powers had established a surprisingly sturdy peace agreement at the Congress of Vienna. European monarchs concluded a pact to join forces to suppress revolutionary movements wherever they might spring up in Europe—a system designed to prevent the emergence of a new Napoleon. The conservative arrangement worked well for several decades. Yet by 1848, liberal revolts—fueled by the tremendous advances in communications and the economic imbalances touched off by the industrial and market revolutions—were erupting across the Continent, threatening the old regimes. Karl Marx, then a young radical in Belgium, issued his famous manifesto, declaring that a revolutionary “spectre” was “haunting” Europe.

Communism was not the only new force that threatened to challenge the diplomatic received wisdom. A cauldron of new ideas bubbled on the Continent in the midnineteenth century. Advances in science and mathematics were changing how Europeans viewed the concepts of order and progress. Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer began to propound their ideas about how the mightiest survive—a notion that had profound consequences for international relations. In the early 1850s, the Crimean War erupted between Russia on one side and Ottoman Turkey, Britain, France, and Sardinia on the other. It was a conflict that finally destroyed the once-sturdy peace of the post–Napoleonic War era. Principled agreement between the major powers became a rarity. Instead, the old order was replaced with an unforgiving competition for territory, natural resources, and raw power. As one Austrian diplomat put it as the Crimean War approached: “The days of principles are gone.”

All this—rising American nationalism on one side of the ocean and growing European realism on the other—combined to present
Lincoln with a perfect storm in the diplomatic arena in the first months of his presidency. Already Southern states had been seceding by the day, and a serious crisis loomed over how the European powers would respond to the newly proclaimed Confederate States of America. Now Lincoln was also about to be confronted by a major new challenge to America’s influence in its own hemisphere.

Lincoln’s first foreign-policy crisis as president actually came from one of Europe’s waning powers: Spain. For years the United States and Spain had been maneuvering for influence in the Caribbean. American filibusters (freebooters) hoped to establish outposts and naval bases in the former Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (in the Dominican Republic), from which they might one day launch an invasion of Cuba. Spanish authorities, for their part, sought to restore a measure of influence after the nation had declared its independence from Spanish rule in 1821. In the months before Lincoln took office, Spanish leaders had been quietly dispatching soldiers and weapons to the mountainous, sun-splashed territory of mahogany forests and sugarcane fields. Then, just weeks into Lincoln’s term, the Dominican president, faced with a plunging currency and the prospect of social unrest, officially invited Spanish forces to return to the country. A fleet of ships arrived at the Dominican port shortly after Lincoln took his oath of office. The provocative move seemed designed to take advantage of the North American chaos. For Lincoln and Seward, it also struck at what one historian has described as “the heart of our creed with regard to foreign policy.”

BOOK: Lincoln in the World
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