Civil War Diplomacy - "some thoughts for the president's consideration"




On 1 April 1861, less than two weeks before the outbreak of hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy, Secretary of State William Henry Seward sent a memo to President Abraham Lincoln criticizing the president for not developing either a domestic or foreign policy and urging him to "change the question before the Public from one upon Slavery for a question upon Union or Disunion." The most extraordinary part of the memo dealt with foreign policy. Spain was in the process of reestablishing colonial authority in the Dominican Republic at the invitation of the Dominicans, France was rumored to be considering the recolonization of Haiti, Britain had objected to the impending interference with its trade in Southern ports, and there were rumors that Russia was about to recognize the Confederacy. Seward thus wrote Lincoln:

I would demand explanations from Spain and France categorically at once. I would seek explanations from Great Britain and Russia, and send agents into Canada, Mexico, and Central America, to rouse a vigorous continental spirit of independence on this continent against European intervention, and if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France, would convene Congress, and declare war against them.

Lincoln responded to Seward privately the same day, pointing out that his domestic policy was clear and explicit. His foreign policy, he reminded Seward, had been expressed in circulars and instructions to American ministers abroad that the two of them had framed, "all in perfect harmony." Finally, referring to Seward's proposals and offer to take over its administration, Lincoln informed Seward, "If this must be done, I must do it." So ended one of the most extraordinary proposals ever submitted by a cabinet member to a president.

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