Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review - "Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era" by Joseph Fry

[Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era by Joseph A. Fry (University Press of Kentucky, 2019), Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes, biblio essay, index. Pages main/total:191/241. ISBN:978-0-8131-7712-0. $60]

Though scholars studying the international context of the American Civil War have recently branched out to address connections with other nations and regions beyond the Atlantic world, there's no denying that European support and cooperation (particularly from Britain and France) were foremost in the hopes and minds of both U.S. and Confederate diplomats. While there's no great shortage of satisfactory books and articles recounting the Civil War history of French and British relations with both sections, there is always room for a new work that pauses to reflect upon and assess the current state of the diplomatic historiography. Tracing the unlikely close bond that developed between President Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Henry Seward while also exploring how that working relationship made diplomatic power a significant factor in Union victory, Joseph Fry's Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era is such a work. The author is certainly in agreement with the scholarly consensus that both men overcame their initial Republican Party rivalry to forge a highly effective partnership that successfully navigated the country through a host of domestic and foreign crises.

The book begins with a pair of biographical sketches that serve mainly to highlight the contrast between Lincoln and Seward when it came to upbringing, education, pre-election national prominence, personality, and overall disposition. The relationship got off to a rocky start after Seward presumed for himself status as the power behind the throne, and the Sumter crisis demonstrated how badly coordinated government message and policy were during the early period of the new administration. However, as Fry relates, Lincoln quickly asserted his leadership and a properly chastised Seward seemingly just as swiftly accepted his subordinate role.

In Fry's view, it was the complementary strengths of both men that made their stewardship of the State Department so effective. Lincoln combined decisive leadership with artful articulation of the justness of the Union cause while Seward, with the president acting as a moderating force, balanced outward belligerence with private conciliation in a manner that eventually won over many of his foreign critics who initially viewed him as a dangerous loose cannon. In the end, the threat of war attached to any outsider intervention beyond according the Confederacy belligerency status proved to be a highly effective deterrent to foreign recognition. That said, the author readily concedes that British and French diplomats always saw greater national interest served by cooperating with the U.S. and were far more concerned with European affairs than American ones.

In the book, Fry offers readers a sound overview of the many well-known crisis moments, both large and small, that challenged the political and diplomatic skills of the Lincoln-Seward team during the war. While not exhaustive, the following list offers potential readers a general sense of how comprehensive the coverage is. In addition to discussing U.S. objections to Britain and France granting the Confederacy belligerency status, being less than cooperative with the blockade, and lacking the will to block ship sales to the Confederate Navy, the book addresses the Trent and Peterhoff affairs, French imperial designs on Mexico, and the most worrisome foreign intervention threats that materialized in 1862 and 1863. Internal political troubles such as the 1862 "Cabinet Crisis" and sustained Radical Republican opposition to the administration (which the book thematically centers around Senator Charles Sumner) are also topics of note. Emancipation as a domestic war measure also aimed at making foreign intervention less palatable is also fully integrated into the discussion. In nearly every case, emphasis is placed on the crisis's successful (or at least damage-limiting) resolution due in great measure to the effectiveness of the Lincoln-Seward partnership's complementary strengths.

Complaints are few in number and fairly minor in significance. Fry is obviously a great admirer of both men and his broadly celebratory narrative could probably have incorporated more balancing critical voices beyond Sumner's rather unsympathetic one. It's not all gushing, though, as some failures of federal Indian policy and Lincoln's initial support for black colonization come under scrutiny. Though most of the military background material presented in the text is only mildly essential to the interpretation of the book's primary subject matter, some questionable assessments are worthy of mention. For example, Fry repeatedly extols without any dissenting commentary Lincoln's alleged "mastery" of military strategy to go along with his sound diplomatic instincts. With military matters perhaps outside the author's area of expertise, the text also betrays a dated understanding of certain generals while expressing a conceptual and contextual misunderstanding of the meaning and transitional timing of "hard war" (ex. Fry writes on page 82 that Grant and Buell "implemented the hard war strategy in spades while defeating the Confederates at Shiloh").

After Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Seward was left with four more years at the head of the State Department. Though Lincoln and Seward throughout their careers opposed territorial expansion that they felt mostly served "Slave Power" interests, both were themselves committed nationalists and westward expansionists. Fry's concluding section interestingly recounts Seward's most significant achievement as Andrew Johnson's Secretary of State, the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The difficult approval process once again proved that the aging Seward still possessed formidable skills in the areas of diplomacy and political lobbying, and Fry credits Seward with being instrumental in persuading the Senate to approve the transfer and the House of Representatives to fund the purchase. Though the decisive 37-2 Senate approval vote seems suggestive of a high degree of existing support within that body, details of the much more contested House debates more convincingly supports that notion. However, Seward's greatest foreign policy triumph of his postwar career at the State Department was also tainted by scandal. While Fry does acknowledge that Seward lied to a congressional investigative committee about his knowledge of Russian cash bribes to voting House members, criticism of that ethical and legal lapse is overshadowed by the book's overarching appreciation of Seward's prowess as top-rank Washington political operator.

Acquiring Alaska was a major success but Seward's other Pacific and Caribbean territorial ambitions beyond formal annexation of Midway Island were thwarted by his traditional enemies in both parties as well as his inescapable connection to the much-despised President Johnson. Because Seward's Alaska purchase was consciously intended to be a vital early link to a dominant U.S. presence in the Pacific and stepping stone to lucrative future trade relationships with Asia, Fry and others see Seward as both sage predictor and instrumental early facilitator of the United States's unrivaled economic growth and rise to the top of the world's great powers.

Fry admits straight away that his book is not the product of original research but rather a considered reappraisal of the current literature (the breadth of which one can examine by reading the author's helpful bibliographical essay). A successful venture when viewed on those terms, Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era is an exceptionally well-articulated synthesis of that existing scholarship. Already seen by most historians as a key element in achieving Union victory while avoiding dangerous foreign conflicts, the Lincoln-Seward diplomatic partnership is also convincingly framed by Fry's narrative as being an important foundational element in the future growth and prosperity of the nation.

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