The opening narrative of Kevin Peraino’s new book, LINCOLN IN THE WORLD: THE MAKING OF A STATESMAN AND THE DAWN OF AMERICAN POWER finds the Lincolns at Ford’s theater with Mary Todd Lincoln resting her hand on her husband’s knee. The author points out that this type of “tender” behavior was not the norm as Mrs. Lincoln was prone to spells of anger where she exhibited rather obnoxious and nasty behavior toward her husband which at times belittled him verbally for not having the wealth to take her to Europe. She would, at times, further taunt him that her next husband would have the means to allow her to travel abroad. In reality, Lincoln wanted to spend time “moving and traveling” overseas once his term in office was complete. Lincoln had always wanted to visit Britain and fervently believed that the Civil War had tremendous global implications as the “Union effort was to prove to the world that popular government is not an absurdity.” Lincoln further believed that the United States was a great empire and stood “at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world.”(1-2)
When one contemplates Lincoln’s presidency we usually point to his role in leading the North to victory on the battlefield, not any expertise or having a major impact on foreign affairs. Peraino challenges that perception by arguing that despite the fact that his diplomatic team was frowned upon at best in European circles, Lincoln himself gave credence to that view by saying to a European diplomat at a state dinner that, “I don’t know anything about diplomacy….I will be very apt to make blunders.” Lincoln’s State Department was able to avoid “European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, which well have led to a Southern victory.”(5) For all that has been written about Lincoln little has been put to paper about his conduct of diplomatic affairs. Perhaps the best study appeared in 2010 with Howard Jones’ BLUE AND GRAY DIPLOMACY: A HISTORY OF UNION AND CONFEDERATE DIPLOMACY which is n in depth monograph encompassing most aspects of Civil War diplomacy. Peraino’s study focuses almost exclusively on Lincoln’s role in world affairs and despite some organizational issues and awkward attempts to connect him to a number of world events and people the book is a useful addition to any Lincoln library.
Peraino conveys a great deal of interesting and informative details concerning Lincoln’s diplomatic escapades and sprinkles his narrative with some pointed analysis. The book is thoroughly researched and posses an impressive bibliography. Further the endnotes that are provided are exceptional resources for materials and information that are not present in the main narrative. However, the author’s approach contain a number of drawbacks principally the way the chapters are sectioned. The chapters are divided by pitting Lincoln against a different subject, be it English Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, Secretary of State William Seward, Karl Marx, Louis Napoleon III, and Lincoln himself. The book makes no attempt at presenting itself as a comprehensive history of Civil War diplomacy as it focuses totally on Lincoln, but the detailed mini-biographies of each of the president’s “opponents” shifts attention away from the president and the author also has an annoying technique of trying to link each “oppositional” relationship by providing a ‘tease’ in the last paragraph of each chapter.
I agree with Peraino that the Mexican War was a turning point in Lincoln’s maturity as a diplomatic thinker and in a larger sense America’s place in the world. Nothing in Lincoln’s background prepared him for the “donnybrook” that developed over his war views. The election of 1844 was a referendum on American expansionism and a foreign policy awakening for Lincoln who would later favor the war effort when he later ran for Congress. The major changes in technology preceding this period proved to be the” facilitator of American nationalism and continental ambition” that seemed to dominate the political discourse throughout the 1840s.(35) Lincoln found himself in a quandary as he did not want to upset the sectional balance that existed between the free and slave states, but he could not ignore the war’s popularity. Upon his election Lincoln joined the congressional opposition to the war. He believed that the Mexicans had not done anything to provoke war and that President James Polk’s actions were unconstitutional as the power to declare war rested with the legislative branch. Lincoln introduced his controversial “Spot Resolution” to determine exactly where the incident that launched the war was located, strongly suggesting that the war was caused by an American provocation. For Lincoln the war resulted in a major problem, the addition of new territory that the south could claim for slavery thus undoing the balance of free and slave states, and the continued heated debate that over slavery that preceded the Civil War. By the time Lincoln left Congress after one term he had learned a series of lessons. He realized he needed a more nuanced approach to foreign affairs because territorial expansion would continue thus fostering the need to constantly rebalance the ratio of free and slave states. Further, Lincoln believed that Polk had overstepped the bounds of executive authority in going to war. It would take the Civil War for Lincoln to realize that in extraordinary circumstances the president must employ a strong hand.
When Lincoln assumed office European foreign ministers held a very low opinion of the new American president. In fact the Russian envoy to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl’s view of Lincoln was quite representative of his colleagues when he said, “Mr. Lincoln does not seem to posses the talent and energy that his party attributed to him when it named him its candidate for the presidency….Even his supporters admit that he is a man of unimpeachable integrity but of a poor capacity.”(103) Opinions of Lincoln did not change his approach to foreign affairs as he was immediately faced with the issue of foreign intervention or recognition once the Confederacy was launched. The southern cotton trade was a delicate issue since Britain was so dependent on southern cotton for its mills. Lincoln chose to blockade the southern coast and do nothing to aggravate any European power as a means of promoting their neutrality.
(Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward)
Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward agreed with this policy though Lincoln tended to have to reign in his remarks at times. Peraino’s depiction of the Lincoln-Seward relationship does not really add anything new to the history of the period. When Lincoln assumed office he needed Seward for the State Department as he viewed the office as critical for his cabinet to have legitimacy. At the outset Seward believed that he should have been elected president and he was superior to Lincoln in experience and that he would make policy through the president. With so many issues to confront almost immediately, i.e., instituting a blockade of the south, pursuing neutrality with Spain over Santo Domingo, reigning in abolitionists in order not to cause the border states to secede, the president and Secretary of State’s views began to converge and in a relatively short period of time Seward grew to respect Lincoln, and Lincoln’s trust in Seward increased markedly.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book involves Lincoln’s relationship with Lord Palmerston. Lincoln believed that swift military success would block any British attempt at interference in American affairs. However, this was not to be and Lincoln’s fallback position was to develop a strong navy and institute a firm blockade to send a message to the British Prime Minister. Peraino provides a brief biography of Palmerston and elaborates on his low opinion of Americans and Lincoln in particular. The situation was exacerbated when an American ship stopped the HMS Trent in Caribbean waters and seized two Confederate diplomats, John Slidell and James Mason. Lincoln’s approach was to calm the situation by drawing it out and letting the British let off steam. This episode is presented in detail and both sides came to the realization that a war between the two would prove disasterous to both nations. Lincoln had decided to release the two men, but took his time to prepare those in the United States who wanted to stand up to the British no matter the consequences. Peraino’s analysis is dead on in quoting Oxford scholar, Jay Sexton in that “the creditor-debtor relationship of Britain and the United States bonded the two nations together and gave them the common interest of avoiding war. Succumbing to momentary passions or old grudges would prove counterproductive.”(127)
(British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston)
Peraino correctly credits Lincoln with a number of innovations that contributed to the Union victory. With the North facing bleak finances by the second year of the war and with European banks refusing to grant credit, Lincoln and his cabinet decided to issue a national paper currency, that Congress eventually approved by passing the Legal tender Act. Further a national income tax was implemented easing monetary issues as well as the creation of a new National Bank in 1863. “These sweeping modernizations of the nation’s financial system were critical prerequisites to America’s rise to world power.”(163) The other major innovation was the building of the Monitor, the first iron clad naval vessel that the United States launched causing “the London Times [to worry] that the innovation had made Britain’s fleet of 149 ‘first class warships’ obsolete.”(165)
The chapter dealing with Karl Marx is really a stretch since the two never interacted directly. Lincoln may have read some of Marx’s articles in the New York Herald Tribune for whom he wrote opinion pieces but it was not necessary to bring in a mini-Marx biography and integrate his views on slavery and revolution into the narrative. At the outset of the war Lincoln was concerned with keeping border states neutral. This concern also helped formulate his views on free labor and American commerce. Comparing Marx’s views to Lincoln does not enhance the narrative nor do events that lead up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Marx had no influence on Lincoln’s decision making leading up to the issuing of the document. The “pseudo” Union success at Antietam as a vehicle to exhibit Northern military prowess for Britain to keep her neutral was much more important. Lincoln came to view the Emancipation Proclamation as a vehicle to gain the support of British workers who believed that they worked for slave wages. Lincoln went so far as sending funds to help organize British worker rallies in support of the northern cause. Any fears that the proclamation might provoke intervention were really offset by events in Europe as Prussia invaded the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, Austria and Italy were in the midst of a major conflict, and Polish revolutionaries were active with the support of the French against Russian rule, but this does not stop Peraino from insisting that the proclamation led Louis Napoleon III to intervene in Mexico in 1863. Linking the proclamation and the French Emperor’s actions is another connection that does not measure up to sound historical analysis.
(French Emperor, Louis Napoleon III)
Peraino’s chapter that deals with Louis Napoleon III’s unfortunate attempt to revisit French holdings in the new world by placing Austrian Arch Duke Maximlian on a Mexican throne has little if any relationship to Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The author’s discussion of Louis’s ego and delusions concerning French power is spot on though there is an over reliance on Jasper Ridley’s dual biography of Louis and his wife, Eugenie in cataloguing his life before he seized power.* Louis never believed that the North could force the South to return to the federal union so he decided to take advantage of the Mexican debt situation to rekindle his long held goal of reestablishing French colonies in the new world. What is most interesting is that Louis’ actions fostered a movement to bring the Confederacy back into the fold through a joint expedition to evict the French from Mexico. This actually led to a meeting between Lincoln, Seward, and Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice President on February 2, 1865 that came to naught. These types of details make Peraino’s narrative exciting, but overall his linkage to Lincoln’s emancipation announcement on January 1, 1863 does little to foster historical accuracy. The key for Lincoln and the Union was success on the battlefield, which Sherman’s March through Georgia provided, leading to Lincoln’s reelection which forced Louis’ to reduce his support for his Mexican venture. In fact, by this time Louis had almost totally abandoned Maximilian as he began to withdraw French troops, and ultimately the Austrian Arch Duke was captured and shot by Mexican forces.
(Lincoln and his secretary and confidante, John Hay)
Peraino’s final chapter is a misnomer, Lincoln v. Lincoln is a summary of Lincoln’s legacy through the post Civil War career of John Hay. The chapter examines John Hay’s career in some detail and concludes with Hay’s belief that the roots of American power lay in a healthy economy and a brisk trade,” an idea that was consistently held by Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and of course William McKinley’s Secretary of State. My one suggestion for Mr. Peraino would be to consult the latest biography of Hay written by John Taliaferro, ALL THE GREAT PRIZES: THE LIFE OF JOHN HAY FROM LINCOLN T0 ROOSEVELT for the latest analysis concerning Hay’s growth as a diplomat and foreign policy thinker.
Lincoln’s handling of the Mexican fiasco reflects his command of the diplomatic game. Peraino’s analysis is accurate as he points out that there was a natural tension in “Lincolnian foreign policy. On the one hand, Lincoln’s moral vision represented American idealism” as he realized that slavery diminished American prestige abroad. But at the same time he instituted a patient and cautious approach, a middle ground in his pursuit of diplomatic advantages. Lincoln was a diplomat who knew when to threaten and then soften his pronouncements. He knew when to be magnanimous, but at the same time putting his foot down and letting his opponent know what he would not continence as in his dealing with Louis Napoleon III. Lincoln was the consummate balancer, effectively controlling domestic interference in the conduct of his foreign policy by members of his own party and the copperheads who sought to make peace with the south enabling them to maintain slavery. Lincoln did an excellent job taking the measure of and preparing the American public for changes that were about to take place in administration actions, i.e., dealing with Palmerston over the Trent Affair or dealing with the French incursion into Mexico. Lincoln should be a role model for future presidents to study how to deal with domestic and foreign policy crises and to Peraino’s credit he provides a narrative that would allow our politicians to study and learn from.
*Peraino also relies heavily on Jasper Ridley’s LORD PALMERSTON for background on the English Prime Minister.