Book review

One War at a Time: The International Dimension of the American Civil War

By: Dean B Mahin, pp 343 Available from Brasseys, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Dulles, Va.20166, and most U.K. bookshops. Dollar Price: $27.95

 

Review by: Alan Milne

 

What role did Lincoln play in foreign policy? A long-prevalent view has him wisely leaving it to the superior wisdom and experience of Seward. Lincoln's main role is to contribute a few specimens of folksy metaphor to explain or justify the administration's actions.

 

Dean B Mahin challenges this view with cogent argument. For him, Lincoln is the prime mover, the master and commander of Union foreign policy. His Lincoln works hand-in-glove with Seward, but takes the decisive role in determining the Union's foreign policy towards Britain and France.


He follows Seward's advice when he thinks it good - witness his decision to delay the Emancipation Proclamation - but he, rather than Seward, makes the crucial decisions. He my become more closely involved in foreign affairs in moments of high diplomatic tension such as the Trent incident or the intervention crisis of 1862, but this is not to say that he simply leaves the field to Seward at other times. He remains on diplomatic alert throughout.

 

It is not hard to see how the original error arose. Lincoln's self-effacing style made him seem remote and hesitant even to Americans at tines. Seward, the cosmopolitan New Yorker was part of the American political elite in away that Lincoln was not, much more knowledgeable about foreign countries, and much more used to interacting with foreigners. During his 1859 tour of Europe, he had met Queen Victoria, Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone, to say nothing of Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX. Lincoln had never been out of the country.

 

Yet foreign diplomats should have known better, above all the foreign diplomat who mattered most, Lord Lyons, the British ambassador. Mahin's verdict on Lyons is fairly scathing. He certainly knew little about Lincoln, describing him in 1860 as a "rough Westerner of the lowest origins". Worse, he made little effort to find out more, or to cultivate Lincoln's acquaintance. Seward, he thought, was the driving force behind the North's foreign policy, and Seward, he thought, was prone to a dangerous and unstable anglophobia.

 

Mahin attributes Lyons' misjudgements to his failure to grasp the difference between the British cabinet system in which policy is collectively decided on and the American presidential system, which gives the president "sole responsibility for determining American foreign policy". It was unfortunate, he thinks, that Lyons took up his post during the Presidency of the dithering James Buchanan, who virtually allowed his cabinet - or rather the Southern members of it - to dictate policy.

 

In reality, Seward's position was nothing like that of Lord John Russell. Hence Lyons presented the British government with a dangerously misleading view of American foreign policy and the American decision - making process, even to the extent of warning, quite wrongly, that Seward planned to unleash war on Great Britain once the Confederates had been dealt with. Later historians have too often followed in Lyons' footsteps.

 

But Mahin's book does more than restore Lincoln to his rightful place at the centre of events. It is a shrewd and penetrating analysis of the Union's diplomacy, not merely towards Britain, but towards other powers, especially Napoleon III's France. It charts Lincoln's subtle, not to say downright devious, handling of French intervention in Mexico with admirable clarity. Moreover no work I have read better conveys a sense of the diplomatic environment in which Lincoln, Seward, Lyons, Palmerston, Russell and Napoleon interacted.

 

And last but not least, we in the ACWRT (UK) can preen ourselves just a little for our contribution - gratefully acknowledged in the preface - to this important reappraisal. Strongly recommended.