LINCOLN, LONDON, AND EMANCIPATION DIPLOMACY
Would the diplomacy of the Civil War–and possibly the trajectory of the conflict itself–have taken a different path if the federal government had declared slavery to be a fundamental war aim from the outset? The question is most likely unanswerable, but it permeates Howard Jones’ study of Lincoln’s efforts to persuade Britain and France to support his attempt to force the rebel states back into the Union. Current scholarship locates slavery firmly at the core of the Civil War’s origins and political and military outcomes; Jones extends this view by insisting that the South’s labor system was also central to the conflict’s diplomatic history.
Scholars will find much that is familiar here, not the least from Professor Jones’ own previous work, notably his Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War (1992). A considerable portion of his narrative is consumed by retelling the history of Lincoln’s evolving commitment to an emancipation strategy as the best means of achieving victory over the South. Providing that context, however, is vital to establishing the argument that slavery’s elimination was the key element in subverting foreign intervention–at least as far as Britain was concerned. France, however, proved more resistant to antislavery suasion. One of the major achievements of this study is to provide clear water between the British and French approaches to the war across the Atlantic, not unexpected if one considers the two societies and regimes involved but too often understated. As Jones notes, if anything, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation served as a spur to Napoleon III’s expansionist plans for the New World, and led to the disastrous Mexican adventure which saw the humiliation of one emperor and in 1867 the execution by firing squad of another.
London did finally respond positively to the war against slavery, although in the short term Lincoln’s edict encouraged interventionist efforts from those who remained unpersuaded that the Union could ever be repaired. The bloodbath at Antietam, in the wake of which Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation, far from knocking interventionists calls on the head, intensified the humanitarian argument for external involvement since neither American combatant seemed capable of bringing the war to a swift and satisfactory end. This view of permanent separation had taken root early in the conflict, and had led to what Jones terms Britain’s “icy neutrality” towards American events. The author is especially harsh on the British Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, labeling him “deluded” for believing that his mediation plans were compatible with neutrality. To the contrary, Jones argues, any form of intervention, even “the seemingly innocuous call for mediation” gave legitimacy to the Confederacy’s independence claims, and became–from the North’s viewpoint–a de facto preliminary declaration of war.
This is a worthwhile volume and a useful contribution to the study of the war’s international dimension. How much Lincoln himself thought deeply of matters outside of national borders remains unclear, notwithstanding his oft-quoted statements of the war’s universal significance. Somewhat inevitably, the book’s approach renders it more persuasive on the American side of the international argument than on the European. with hindsight, British and French opinion might well have understood better the conflict’s broad moral and ideological character. But, as Jones correctly observes, Lincoln’s “politically sound attempt to play down slavery as a cause of the war had the unfortunate result for the Union of permitting these European peoples to assess events in America on other grounds.” Among those “other grounds” was economic policy, which is not discussed here. For example, nothing upset British governing-class opinion more than the speed with which–in early 1861–the Republican-controlled Congress–shorn of its southern members–enacted a highly protectionist tariff bill. This was hardly an encouraging signal for an incoming administration that now demanded foreign support.
Martin Crawford is Professor of Anglo-American History at Keele University, U. K., andeditor of the journal,American Nineteenth Century History. Among his published works is The Anglo-American Crisis of the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The Times and America 1850-1862.