Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Myers: "Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations"

[ Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations by Phillip E. Myers (Kent State Univ. Press, 2008). Cloth, map, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 246/332 ISBN: 978-0873389457 $55 ]

That the Civil War was an exceptionally dangerous period in U.S./British relations is a popular belief among scholars and enthusiasts alike. However, Phillip Myers seeks to dispel such notions in his book Caution and Cooperation. Through a meticulous examination of the evidence, Myers constructs a persuasive case for the idea that British intervention in the Civil War was never really close, and the relations between the two powers are instead best characterized as a continuation of a long standing and assiduously maintained rapprochement. War served the national interest of neither nation, a truth that was recognized early on by both President Lincoln and U.K. Prime Minister Palmerston (regardless of the latter's personal antipathy toward the U.S.).

Of course, a number of well documented political crises emerged during the Civil War years that would strain American foreign relations. Along with its complaints about active blockade running by British citizens, the U.S. government deplored the U.K. proclamation of neutrality, it's construction of commerce raiders, and its recognition of Confederate belligerency status. On the other side, the British protested the Union naval blockade (and initially had very reasonable doubts as to its legality), its frequent extension to neutral ports, and the seizures of neutral shipping. Each policy decision, crisis point, and resolution is painstakingly presented and analyzed by Myers; all persuasively (and repeatedly) linked to his main thesis -- that long term, mutual 'caution and cooperation' defined relations between the two countries. If Myers's characterization of the process is accurate overall -- and there is no significant indication that it isn't -- the brand of diplomacy crafted by the Lincoln/Seward and Palmerston/Russell teams was a model one, a means to effectively reinforce shared national aims while at the same time smoothly resolve both longstanding differences and unexpected crises. Negotiations were conducted through private channels and differences that were found to be unresolvable in the short term were simply shelved for later.

Internal divisions within the American and British cabinets might also have led to war. The author devotes a great deal of space detailing the efforts of Secretary Seward and President Lincoln to suppress both anti-British feeling within the cabinet and Radical Republican saber rattling in the legislature (especially Sen. Charles Sumner) and the press. Palmerston made a similar effort to quash interventionist proposals from his colleagues (most prominently William Gladstone). Myers contrasts these skillful political maneuvers with the Davis administration's disorganized and abrasive Confederate diplomacy toward Europe, from the failed cotton embargo to the poorly chosen overseas representatives.

Caution and Cooperation also deals at length with the more long-standing issues of mistrust between the U.S. and Britain. The border situation in Puget Sound is briefly touched upon, but most attention is paid to the larger issue of a potential American invasion and annexation of the Canadian provinces. Though misplaced, fears of losing Canada to U.S. imperial designs were entertained by the Palmerston government throughout the war. A lengthy chapter is also devoted to slave trade interdiction efforts off the coast of Africa. Prior to the Civil War period, Britain had serious doubts as to the sincerity of American cooperation, an issue that was addressed largely to their satisfaction by the Lincoln administration.

Complaints about this impressive book are niggling in nature. While frequent reinforcement of the author's findings as they related to his main thesis were a frequently effective argumentation tool, the degree of repetition in the text was a bit too much at times. Also, some of the temporal arrangements in the narrative were mildly confusing.

Caution and Cooperation is an original and important book. It's case against the view that Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation were decisive in preventing foreign recognition of the Confederacy is very compelling. In terms of diplomatic impact, it seems that the most that can be said for them was that they extinguished already dying embers of Confederate hopes. These were important events to be sure, but British cabinet and public support for intervention never had significant momentum. Myers also effectively demonstrates that the Civil War, far from being an exceptionally divisive event in American-British relations, fits squarely within a decades long tradition of diplomatic cooperation. Instead of damaging relations for an extended post-war period [a widely accepted interpretation], the mutually beneficial resolution process to issues raised by the Civil War actually increased the bond between the two countries. This book is highly recommended, and sure to spark debate.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

[ed. 7/23: Brett at TOCWOC has a review up as well. Check it out here]


  1. Thanks for the review Drew. My own review will be up tomorrow morning. I'll make sure I link to yours as well in there somewhere.

    I found, as you did, the repetitive nature of the phrase "caution and cooperation" to be slightly annoying at times, though it was being used in a good way to drive home the author's thesis.

    I found the comparison Myers made between Lincoln's and Palmerston's cabinets just after the two cabinet crises of late 1862 to be illuminating. It was something I had never really thought of before.


  2. Brett,
    I'll look forward to reading it, and will add a link to yours as well.


***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.