The Foreign Policy Of Abraham Lincoln


By Harvey Sicherman for FPRI

My remarks about Abraham Lincoln and American foreign policy cover three topics. I will begin with the relationship between Lincoln and William H. Seward, his Secretary of State, then examine several cases of foreign policy in action, particularly during 1861 and 1862, years fraught with peril for the Union cause. Finally, I will draw some conclusions about Lincoln and foreign policy relevant to us today.

American foreign policy starts with the president and his relationship to the secretary of state. Although not listed in the U.S. Constitution (it was invented by George Washington) this post became very significant in the nineteenth century. Often the man chosen as secretary was the president’s designated political successor. Thus, in Lincoln’s time, it was doubly important that the president and his appointee work well together.

In that context, Lincoln and Seward were a very odd couple. They differed dramatically in appearance, background, and manner. We know Lincoln’s biography — born in 1809, his rural upbringing, his background — such as it was — in politics. When he became President of the United States, he was the least experienced man ever to take the job. Although largely self-taught, with no connection to high society, Lincoln had married above his station and became a very successful “frontier” lawyer. Most of his contemporaries thought Lincoln a country rube, however.

Contrast that with Seward. Eight years Lincoln’s senior (a very big difference in an age of short lives), he was a native New Yorker and very well educated. He, too, married “well,” the daughter of a judge who was politically active. A veteran of public office, including Senator for New York, he also had many foreign acquaintances. He rivaled Lincoln for the nomination. Even after Lincoln’s election, Senator Seward had tried various legislative formulae to save the Union independently of the president elect.

Let me share a woodcut of the Lincoln Cabinet. If you look immediately to the right of Lincoln, that’s Mr. Seward. The reason Mr. Seward is standing is because Mr. Seward was very slight and possibly only 5’6”. Now Lincoln, as we know, was 6’4”, a very gangly man, whose very gangliness made him appear even taller than he was. So in all of these portraits of the time — the Cabinet portraits — they always show Seward standing so that his shortness wouldn’t be emphasized. Even so, I think, that the engraver has taken liberties with Seward’s height… unless he’s standing on some kind of a platform. I doubt that Seward standing up rose much above Lincoln’s head.

They also had very different mannerisms. Lincoln was jocular. He also had what they called at the time “slow intelligence,” which meant that he didn’t react sharply to things — he liked to mull things over. Seward, on the other hand, was all snap, crackle and pop. People who knew him didn’t take his outbursts too seriously, but people who did not, including diplomats, were quite often frightened, even when he was senator, by his force and vitriol.

This Cabinet has been called, by one modern historian, the “team of rivals,” as they were all opponents either of Lincoln or of each other over the course of their political careers. The so-called “team” so unnerved one of Lincoln’s confidants that he said to Lincoln, “They will eat you!” To which Lincoln replied, “No, they will eat each other.”

Well, the new president and the new secretary of state were not only political rivals and very unlike personalities, they also had very different ideas on how to deal with the crisis. Seward thought the Union could still be patched up. When it couldn’t be patched up, he argued that United States ought to pick a quarrel with one of the major European powers — say Britain — and that would bring everybody together against the common foe.

As for Lincoln, there is no evidence that he had virtually any thoughts on foreign policy at all before he became president. We know that he opposed the Mexican War. His speech, however, is a semi-legal treatise arguing that President Van Buren was either ignorant or deluded. There is no reference to foreign policy, per se. He never gave a speech on the topic and never uttered anything that anybody thought important to recall. So as far as foreign policy was concerned, Lincoln was a blank slate.

The team began badly. April 1, 1861, must rank as one of the most amazing April Fool’s Days in our history. For on that day, Seward did two things. He wrote a letter to Lincoln, saying that it was clear that despite the crisis there was no policy direction in the Cabinet. So Seward proposed that while Lincoln remain President, he should announce that, henceforth, the conduct of affairs would be controlled by the undersigned, Mr. Seward. Now on that same day, Lincoln had authorized the preparation of an expedition in New York to reinforce Fort Sumter. There was another fort, Fort Pickens in Florida, that was also in danger, but Fort Sumter was in much worse shape. Seward thought it was a very bad idea to reinforce Sumter, lest this provoke a war. Consequently, he promptly had orders written out in the name of the Secretary of War and the President of the United States indicating that the expedition should go to Fort Pickens. He slipped the papers among others that were full of appointments, and taking advantage of Lincoln’s busy schedule, insisted that all had to be signed immediately, which Lincoln did, unaware of their contents. Apprised by the secretary of the navy of the change, Lincoln later countermanded the order.

Now, just imagine all of this happening on the same day, and yet Lincoln did not fire Seward! Instead, he wrote a letter to him saying in effect that yes, it was true that there should be one person in charge of giving the lead and, as Lincoln put it, “I suppose that person is me.” He thanked Seward for his advice and signed off. Nor did he chastise Seward for the substitution of the papers. Judging that Seward’s dismissal at that point would have been catastrophic for his political situation, he did something else, defended him to the Cabinet while taking the blame because he’d been careless in examining his papers. This saved Seward’s honor and cemented their relationship. And it would not be the last time that Lincoln would defend him. Confronted with the kind of insubordination that must have boiled his blood, Lincoln subordinated his emotions to his principle of unity.

Let me move now to the second part of the discussion, the Lincoln-Seward foreign policy in action. At the time of the Civil War, highly flexible alliance systems, determined by balance of power calculations, characterized world politics, not unfamiliar to us today but with fewer participants. Britain, France, and Russia were the great powers and the Austrian and Ottoman Empires held second rank. Germany and Italy did not exist as unified states.

None of the great powers had alliances with the United States, but they all had very important commercial relations. We all know about the South’s “king cotton,” which constituted about four-fifths of the European supply (about 80 percent in France, 75 percent in Britain). These were the feedstocks of the then-existing industrial revolution in consumer products, namely, clothing. But there was also something called “king grain,” which was less remarked upon; the Midwestern states were already major sources of food for Europe. Finally, the anti-slavery movement had real political strength throughout Europe, including not only Britain and France but also Russia. In 1861, the Czar, Alexander the II, had emancipated the serfs. All the American abolitionists were terminally embarrassed. Their own democracy with its Declaration of Independence — all men are created equal — seemed unable to end slavery, but in the least free and most autocratic state in Europe, Czarist Russia, the slaves had been freed!

The Americans approached this situation from several viewpoints. Acutely aware of the French role in securing the American independence, they sympathized with that country against England but on the whole were bound to neutrality. The United States did not take sides when the European powers went to war with each other; we stayed out of it. (When we did not, as in the War of 1812, it had been disastrous, the British bombarding New York and burning Washington, something not to be repeated until September 11, 2001.)

Finally, there was the Monroe Doctrine, intended to keep European quarrels out of the Western Hemisphere. The doctrine itself had not always been enforced very well, but there it was, and everybody had been brought up on it. As you will see, Lincoln disregarded all three: neutrality, sympathy for France, and the Monroe Doctrine.

With this background, let us now examine Lincoln’s and Seward’s first foray into foreign policy. The President had endorsed the so-called “Anaconda strategy,” to defeat the rebellion, not by invasion but rather by strangulation through restriction on transportation and trade. Oddly enough, the Southerners, at the very outset, declared that they would no longer export cotton, hoping to force the European powers to come to their aid before they faced economic ruin. Thanks to three earlier years of bumper crops, however, all of the European countries had very large stocks in reserve. So for Lincoln and Seward, this was the ideal moment to close the ring by declaring a blockade immediately after the fall of Fort Sumter. (April 19th, 1861.)

Unfortunately, although Seward and Lincoln were both trained as lawyers, their knowledge of international law was defective. They were ignorant of the Treaty of London of 1857, which was designed to establish a more regulated neutrality after the Crimean War. (The United States did not sign it.) Under this Treaty, if you declared that you were neutral regarding the belligerents, you were also taking a long step towards recognizing the belligerents as states. So when Lincoln and Seward declared a blockade, they were inadvertently pushing the other powers to recognize the Confederacy, the exact opposite of their objective, which was to stigmatize the south as mere rebels. When this was pointed out, Seward tried to hold off a British declaration by suggesting the United States might sign the treaty. It did not work. On May 13th, London announced neutrality. Seward exploded (“God damn them”) and suggested to Lincoln that war with Britain might still work to recover the South. Lincoln’s rejoinder, “One war at a time,” might be called the President’s prime diplomatic directive.

The postscript to this incident came on July 4, 1861, when Lincoln, a very good lawyer, found a solution to the problem. On that day he asked the Congress for retroactive approval of all the measures he had taken since the capture of Fort Sumter. Now mind you, he had raised forces, he had declared war in effect. He had suspended the writ of habeas corpus. He had done all sorts of things which were not constitutional. Congress hadn’t approved any of them. Now he was asking them on July 4th for retroactive approval, including this line: “Among the measures is the closing of ports in the manner of a blockade.” Not a blockade but in the “manner of a blockade!” So in this way Lincoln sought to retract the original declaration and its international legal consequences.

The problem of defining the combatants, however, would not go away. (Sound familiar?) This becomes clear in my second case, the so-called “Trent Affair,” (November 8-December 26, 1861). The Confederate States of America had sent to London as their agent one James T. Bullock (the uncle of Theodore Roosevelt on his mother’s side). Bullock was a very effective arms buyer, but not much of a diplomat, so he needed help. And two commissioners, Mason and Slidell, were put aboard a British ship, H.M.S. Trent. This ship was intercepted by the Union Navy, and at point of force, Mason and Slidell were removed. The United States had gone to war in 1812 because the British were doing such things to us. Now, just as we didn’t want neutrality to be carefully defined, we were doing the very things we had always denounced the Europeans for doing. This outraged Britain and worsened the Union’s already poor reputation in London.

Here is an interesting sidelight on the war for public opinion that also rings modern. The foremost foreign correspondent of the day was one William H. Russell, who wrote for the London Times. When he arrived in Washington (March 26, 1861), Lincoln and Seward wined and dined him. Initially, this paid off. The British upper classes sympathized with the “aristocratic South,” the civilized Americans, as opposed to the money-grubbing Yankees of the North. Russell went to a dress ball at Charleston where he met the cream of the South, and related his conversations to the readers of the London Times. The “aristocrats” wanted to know why he wasn’t carrying a pistol, which apparently the better folk of the South considered to be absolutely necessary. They also instructed him that he should get one of sufficient caliber to stop a man dead in his tracks, because if you didn’t, he might get a shot off at you as he fell dying! So much for the civilized South.

Lincoln and Seward were mighty pleased until Russell reported on the first Battle of Manassas — also known as Bull Run — in July 1861, describing accurately the Union’s overconfidence and chaotic retreat. Now the President and Secretary of State were not happy about Mr. Russell, and they said so. He didn’t like that either, and for the balance of the war, the editorials of the London Times were hostile to the Union in general, and to Lincoln, in particular.

Special measures were needed to change this situation. Lincoln authorized a delegation consisting of two clergymen — one Catholic, one Episcopalian — plus Seward’s chief political backer, Thurlow Weed, to work with the U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams (of the famous Adams family) to plead the Union cause. Seward did not entirely trust Adams who thought he, not Seward, was more fitting to be secretary of state. And the Ambassador also had a deadly pen, describing his boss as having the manners and appearance of a parrot. (The photographs show that he wasn’t too far off.) Seward wasn’t the only personage to suffer from Adams. When Charles Darwin published his theory that species evolve for the better, Adams quipped: “The evolution of the American presidency from Washington to Buchanan should have given Mr. Darwin pause!”

Fortunately for the United States, the British had a very experienced team. The Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell (no relation to the reporter) had been Prime Minister, and while he was Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston had been his Foreign Secretary. By 1861, Palmerston had become the Prime Minister and Russell the Foreign Secretary. Russell, unlike Seward, was a very calm and cold character. Palmerston, unlike Lincoln, was a fairly excitable man. He also had a reputation for violent action as in the Don Pacifico affair (1850), when he threatened to bombard Athens over the mistreatment of a British citizen. Apparently discounting the American amateurs, they had until now not taken too much offense. They were not interested in conflict with the United States. On the Trent affair, however, they could not concede or temporize. So, on December 11, 1861, since the United States had made no move to release Mason or Slidell, they gave the Americans an ultimatum: release the men, or Britain would be at war with the United States.

Lincoln and Seward got a little more time when on December 16th, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, unexpectedly died. Ten days later, Mason and Slidell were returned to British custody, while Lincoln and Seward both made statements indicating that this was out of their own largess, but legally speaking, they could have still held the rebels for the duration. Once again, “one war at a time.”

For the second time in a year, Lincoln and Seward had evaded a showdown with Europe. But Lincoln’s diplomacy continued to suffer from a disabling doubt. It didn’t look like the Union would win any time soon. And as the war dragged on, how long could the European powers stay out of it?

That leads us to the third and last of the major dangers that Lincoln and Seward faced in their foreign policy, the potential for international mediation. And this took up much of 1862. It was also the year when, of all things, at the hands of our friends, the French, the Monroe Doctrine went down. There was a problem on our southern border. The Mexican government had been improvident — borrowed a lot of money and couldn’t pay it back. In the nineteenth century (and even into part of the twentieth century) if a sovereign country defaulted on its debts, you didn’t get an International Monetary Fund mission, you got an invasion to seize the assets till the money was paid off. The Mexicans were heavily in debt. The Spanish, the French, and the British were the principal creditors and they had been threatening military action for a year.

In early January 1862, Britain and Spain dropped out, and France invaded Mexico. This was as clear a violation of the Monroe Doctrine as could be imagined. Lincoln indicated to the Mexican government that the United States could offer no assistance whatsoever — one war at a time. And so the Monroe Doctrine now joined neutrality, and sympathy with the French, as principles sacrificed to the overriding priority — subduing the South.

It was also now very clear to the Europeans that the American conflict would not be brief. There were huge forces in the field in the beginning of 1862, on the Union side alone one-half million or more and growing every day. In the meantime, the blockade was proving effective in throttling southern cotton exports and the European surpluses of the previous years had disappeared.

Lincoln was very anxious, as was Seward, to turn the tide of European opinion, especially in Britain. Refusing at first to act on the slavery issue in the hope of returning the South to the Union, he began to move in 1862 toward what would become the Emancipation Proclamation. This would greatly improve the Union’s reputation in public opinion, particularly in Britain.

Lincoln’s proximate purpose was to head off a major move by the European powers to stop the war. Now, whether they could have actually done so was another matter, but their mediation would have entailed, by definition, their recognition of the Confederate States of America. The Union arguments made little headway until the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, accounted by most Europeans as a northern victory. And that was followed twelve days later by Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.” This one-two punch broke the movement toward mediation and it did not come a moment too soon.

In late summer 1862, British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell had concluded that perhaps it was in the British interest to get the war stopped. He put up a trial balloon through a parliamentary ally, the future Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstone made a speech (October 7, 1862) congratulating the southerners for their success against tremendous odds in holding off the North; they have made an army, he said, and more importantly, “they have made a nation,” which meant they were deserving of recognition. Almost simultaneously, the French, perhaps also prompted by Russell, called for mediation. Well, Palmerston was too old of a goat not to know that he was being maneuvered. He said that he was in favor of mediation but only by all the European powers, not simply the British or the French but also Russia so that no one’s motives might be questioned. The Russians and the Americans, at that time, had a love affair. The Czar lacked both the forces and the inclination to offend the Union; he declined the mediation. Thus strengthened, Palmerston secured a Cabinet vote of 15-3 against any initiative.

Afterwards, Palmerston declared, “The pugilists must fight a few more rounds before the bystanders can decide that the state should be divided between them.” That was a very significant diplomatic statement, because it said, in effect, the winner of the war would determine what everybody else did. And when he said “the state should be divided between them,” he very clearly put the Confederate States of America into the position of rebels, not an independent factor. So with that vote, the possibility of European intervention beyond the French trespass in Mexico disappeared. Very soon, changes in Europe — the stirring of the Germans and the Italians and a revolt in Poland — overtook the American drama. The moment for mediation had passed.

This incident was attended by no little irony. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine had been aimed against the Russians, then holding Alaska, not only the Spanish and French. Forty-odd years later, the Czar facilitated the restoration of the Monroe Doctrine by refusing to involve Russia in some kind of mediation that would have recognized the southern states.

Let me close by summing up these incidents and drawing some conclusions that may be relevant to us. Lincoln entered office completely innocent of foreign policy, and yet, as happened in the military field, and certainly in the political field, he turned out to be a quick learner with an innate gift for understanding the relationship of subordinate actions to an overall strategy. But he did not learn before his mistakes; he learned after his mistakes. In 1861-62, Lincoln and Seward committed their share of severe blunders that, if not for an experienced team in Britain, might indeed have brought the United States into a second war. Having learned from those blunders, they were never repeated. And I think that’s because Lincoln, by that time, had already formulated in his mind a set of simple propositions.

First, the objective was the preservation of the Union through the defeat of the South and everything else was subordinate to that. Anybody familiar with strategy knows that if you lack that clear priority at the outset, it’s very, very hard to coordinate the different tactics and indeed the tactics, sooner or later, come to dominate the strategy. That didn’t happen with Lincoln. He had that one objective, and whether it was neutrality or the Monroe Doctrine, they would be sacrificed to it.

Second, he had an overriding operational principle — one war at a time. Anything likely to lead the United States in the direction of another war, the President would prevent as best he understood it.

Third and finally — last, but not least — he developed a very effective foreign policy team through his relationship with Seward. You know the expression “the slip twixt lip and cup.” You can have the right idea, you can have the right strategy, but unless you’ve got the team that can actually pull it off, it’s going to be a tragedy. After the rockiest start of any relationship between a president and secretary of state in our history, the Lincoln-Seward team became extraordinarily proficient in doing what they had to do.

Let me give you a little postscript to this relationship. In December of 1862, because the war was going on much longer than anybody expected, there was a Cabinet revolt, as well as a revolt amongst the Republicans in Congress over the operation of the Cabinet. The Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a notoriously corrupt Pennsylvania politician, had proved to be even too corrupt for those corrupt times, and he was forced out. Secretary of the Treasury Salman Chase led the cry for Seward’s head. Lincoln agreed to change the Cabinet on condition that they all submitted their resignations first. Well, Chase wasn’t about to chance that, and so the revolt fizzled, and it never happened again. When Lincoln was asked to explain the situation by his private secretary, he told this story:

A farmer was troubled by a problem with skunks, and one day he noticed Mother Skunk escorting six of her progeny across his property. So he shot one of them. Now the man hearing this story said to the farmer, “Why didn’t you shoot all of them?” to which the farmer replied, “Well one stink was enough!”

Seward, by the end of the Civil War, was considered the second man in the government. He, along with Lincoln, was marked for assassination and suffered a severe stab wound. Recovering, he stayed on as Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson, arranging to purchase Alaska from the Russians, called at the time, “Seward’s folly.”

As for Lincoln himself, I would close by offering you this appraisal from a columnist in an Austrian newspaper. Writing in 1863, the author declared that America meant “the well-intentioned common man can succeed.” Although he considered Lincoln to be such a man he concluded by saying, “Lincoln will take his place directly next to Washington.” It was perhaps Karl Marx’s most accurate prediction.

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is President of FPRI ( and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state. This essay is based on remarks made in February before an audience of FPRI members. This article is reprinted with permission.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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