Norman Ferris has given us a welcome corrective to the prevailing account of the Lincoln-Seward relationship in the Civil War diplomacy of early 1861. That account pictures Seward as suffering from some kind of mental "aberration," if not downright insanity. As Ferris demonstrates, Seward was, at least in part, a victim of character assassination at the hands of his ex-Democratic rivals in Lincoln's cabinet—Salmon P. Chase, Montgomery Blair, and above all, Gideon Welles. To me, Seward is a much more likable and more admirable person than any of those three. So I am especially pleased to see them exposed.

As for Seward's so-called "foreign war panacea," I could never see anything really crazy about that. It would have made perfectly good sense for Seward to propose an active and assertive foreign policy as a means of overcoming a crisis in domestic politics. This stratagem is an old and familiar one.

William Shakespeare was aware of it. In King Henry the Fourth, the king, on his deathbed, advises his son Prince Harry how to deal with their political enemies after succeeding to the throne. The dying king says:

I ... had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels....[1]
In other words, to distract the people from their discontents, lead the country off on a foreign crusade.

Lincoln himself was familiar with the principle, though he declined to apply it in 1861. In 1831 he had explained in his Lyceum speech why it was easier to maintain republican institutions during the Revolutionary period than in his own time. He said that during the Revolution "the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful Page  [End Page 43] motive of revenge, instead of being turned [by Americans] against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation." Since then, however, in the absence of a menacing external foe, the "passions of the people" could be expected to divide and weaken the republic rather than to unite and strengthen it.[2]

Here Lincoln was illustrating the sociological law that the degree of solidarity of the in-group is more or less proportional to the intensity of conflict with an out-group. As a practical proposition, this had been familiar to politicans from time immemorial, and surely Seward's critics in 1861 were aware of it. They were themselves silly if they really thought him mad for trying to put the principle into practice. Certainly the British minister in Washington, Lord Lyons, saw method in Seward's alleged madness. After talking with Seward several times during the secession winter of 1860–61, Lord Lyons concluded that, as secretary of state, he would be likely to take a threateningly anti-British stand so as "to divert the public excitement to a foreign quarrel."[3]

But Ferris dismisses Lord Lyons as himself the victim of a kind of insanity. He thinks his lordship was suffering from "near-paranoia" brought on by the "machinations" of "Senator Charles Sumner and other political opponents" of Seward. He blames historians for repeating an "untrue story" instead of "going to the documents." Well, let's take a look at some of the evidence.

There is, to begin with, the Duke of Newcastle incident. According to the Duke, Seward told him at a Washington dinner party in November 1860: If I am to be secretary of state, it will "become my duty to insult England, and I mean to do so." When the British took this as a threat, Seward denied having said it. Then, two years later, he remembered having said something like that, but insisted he had only meant that he must somehow counteract the Democratic charge that the Republicans were pro-British. His friend Thurlow Weed explained that, in saying what he did to the Duke, Seward had merely been engaging in "an attempted pleasantry."[4]

If the Duke of Newcastle were the only witness, we might dis- Page  [End Page 44] regard his testimony, but there is another and a less biased one. This is Rudolf Schleiden, the minister from Bremen, who sent home several reports in which he quoted or paraphrased Seward. Schleiden quoted Seward as saying on January 26, 1861: "If the Lord would only give the United States an excuse for a war with England, France, or Spain, that would be the best means of reestablishing internal peace." [5] Schleiden paraphrased Seward as saying early in February that "nothing would give [him] so much pleasure as to see a European Power interfere in favour of South Carolina—for ... then he should 'pitch into' the European Power, and South Carolina and the seceding states would soon join him in doing so." [6]

In a dispatch of February 18, 1861, Schleiden reported Seward as remarking "that there was no great difference between an elected president of the United States and an hereditary monarch." Neither of the two really ran the government, according to Seward. "The actual direction of public affairs belongs to the leader of the ruling party, here as well as in any hereditary principality."[7] Thus Seward intimated that he expected to be prime minister as well as secretary of state.

This brings us to the memorandum "Some Thoughts for the President's Consideration" that Seward sent to Lincoln on April 1, 1861. There is, incidentally, some evidence that Seward did not intend this memo to remain private and confidential, that he expected Lincoln to agree to his terms, and that he was ready to have the interchange immediately published in Weed's Albany Evening Journal and in Henry J. Raymond's New York Times.[8] But we are concerned with the significance of this document—both for Seward's views on foreign policy and for his anticipated role in the Lincoln administration. Just what was Seward proposing?

Ferris finds in it "no real evidence, taking the memorandum in context," that Seward meant to "provoke 'a foreign crisis'" and thereby to overcome sectionalism with nationalism. Still, it would have been rather provocative, it seems to me, to "demand explanations from Spain and France, categorically, at once," and if those Page  [End Page 45] countries did not respond quickly and compliantly enough, to declare war on both of them. We do not know whether on April 1 Seward was thinking of provoking a foreign war as a means of avoiding a civil war, but in the context (as I have outlined it) this seems like a reasonable inference.

Ferris denies that on April 1 Seward was "trying to 'take over the direction of government policy'" as a whole. He notes that in the memo there was a subheading, "For Foreign Nations," and he contends that everything below that subheading applies only to foreign and not at all to domestic policy. That's the way he reads the document, but that is not the only way to read it. We must remember that Seward dictated the memo to his son Frederick, and Frederick apparently put it down in the way that seemed appropriate to him, without necessarily bothering to make the subdivisions clear.

It is possible to view the memo as consisting of four parts. First, the topic sentence at the beginning: "We are ... yet without a policy either domestic or foreign"; second, the proposals regarding domestic policy, particularly the abandonment of Fort Sumter; third, the foreign policy recommendations; and fourth, the conclusion, which picks up the theme of the opening sentence—the lack of a policy "either foreign or domestic"— and goes on to state: "But whatever policy we adopt [that is, whatever policy foreign or domestic], there must be an energetic prosecution of it." That is, either you, Lincoln, must do it, or you must let me, Seward, do it.

Seward's concluding two sentences reinforce my point. "It is not my special province," he said. He must have been thinking of something besides foreign policy, since foreign policy was his special province. "But I neither seek to evade nor [to] assume responsibility." If he were to assume responsibility, he would have to take responsibility for something in addition to his allotted field of diplomacy.

And Lincoln seemed to think Seward had domestic as well as foreign policy in mind. Seward had said that, "whatever policy we adopt," either the president or somebody else must "pursue and direct it." Lincoln wrote in reply: "I remark that if this must be done, I must do it." Lincoln could not have been referring to foreign policy alone, for he was already on record as saying that not he but Seward was to be responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs.[9]

Already Seward was acting as if he were in charge of more than his own department, and he continued to act that way even after Page  [End Page 46] Lincoln had rejected the April 1 proposals. Seward interfered, for example, in the business of the Navy Department, as John Niven has shown in his biography of Gideon Welles. Indeed, Seward undertook to override Lincoln's domestic policy, as when he tried to sabotage the Sumter expedition. [10]

We can agree with Ferris that Seward became one of the greatest of all secretaries of state. We can agree that Jay Monaghan, in Diplomat in Carpet Slippers, exaggerated Lincoln's role in diplomacy. We can agree that Seward was by no means insane when he made the proposals that he did in 1860–61—although perhaps it is a good thing Lincoln did not accept all of them. But I think we must also agree with the judgment of James G. Randall, who wrote more than four decades ago: "In the international domain it appears that few presidents have done less—i.e., performed fewer obvious presidential acts—than Lincoln. In comparison with Woodrow Wilson, or Theodore Roosevelt, or Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln's activity in the realm of diplomacy was slight. Yet if one subtracts from American international dealings those touches that were peculiarly Lincoln's own, the difference becomes so significant that his contribution must be regarded as a sizable factor." [11] Page  [End Page 47]


  1. Act IV, scene V, lines 208–13. return to text
  2. Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 1:114–15.return to text
  3. Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 247–48. return to text
  4. Ephraim D. Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War, 2 vols. (1924, repr. New York: Longmans, Green, 1958), 1:80, 113–14; Van Deusen, Seward, 259–60.return to text
  5. Ralph H. Lutz, "Rudolf Schleiden and the Visit to Richmond, April 25, 1861," Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1915 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1917), 210.return to text
  6. David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 18. return to text
  7. Adams, Great Britain, 1:115–16. return to text
  8. Patrick Sowle, "A Reappraisal of Seward's Memorandum of April 1, 1861, to Lincoln," Journal of Southern History 33 (May 1967): 234–39.return to text
  9. For Seward's memorandum and Lincoln's reply, see the Collected Works, 4:316–18. return to text
  10. John Niven, Gideon Welles, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 331–39.return to text
  11. J. G. Randall, Lincoln the President, 4 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945–55), 2:29. return to text