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82CIVIL WAR HISTORY Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward's Foreign Policy, 1861. By Norman B. Ferris. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1976. Pp. ix, 265. $12.95.) William H. Seward was one of the most enigmatic figures in American diplomatic history. Portrayed by some writers as an ardent expansionist who even during the Civil War sought to fulfill his ambitions, his place in history has rocked back and forth until today it is difficult to determine what it should be. In this account of Secretary of State Seward's "desperate diplomacy" of 1861, Norman B. Ferris has reconstructed an astute, statesmanlike leader who had a single goal: to save the Union by warding off British diplomatic recognition of an independent Southern Confederacy. To accomplish what at times seemed a near impossible task, Seward took advantage of Great Britain's preoccupation with European matters, as well as its interest in economic connections with the North, to warn London's leaders—the British minister in Washington, Lord Lyons in particular—that their involvement in the conflagration between North and South meant certain war between the Union and England. When Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts criticized such seemingly reckless policy, and British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell in the Foreign Office were aghast at this disregard for international law, Seward declared that laws of war had no relevance to what was purely an American concern. Slowly but surely the risk paid off. Great Britain did not extend formal diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy, the North won the war, and Seward emerged as an indispensable man during the most dangerous international stage of the war. The irony of Seward's successful diplomacy, Ferris relates, is that contemporaries of the 1860's, as well as many modern-day writers, have attributed an almost demented quality to the Secretary 's actions. Instead of seeing that Seward designed his policies to shake a divided North into realizing that Southern separatism meant dissolution of the republic, most observers had the shallow notion that Seward's actions were rash and misguided. Luckily, they say, President Abraham Lincoln exerted a strong hand, turned Seward around, and thereby helped him onto a path which ultimately led to the Secretary's growth in office. Even the usually perceptive Lord Lyons failed to see that Seward really wanted no Anglo-American war, and that the Secretary used a hard-line public stance to maintain his credibility at home. Almost incredibly, Lyons, Palmerston, and Russell assumed that Seward had written off the South, and now wanted Canada, and perhaps even the West Indies and Central America, as compensatory beginnings of a new North American empire. In short, Seward's real aim, the accusers BOOK REVIEWS83 have trumpeted to the present day, was expansionist in nature— partly caused by the embarrassment of having lost the South. With these charges Ferris staunchly disagrees. Seward, according to the author, had not admitted permanent division of the Union, and he did not want Canada so badly as to foist a transAtlantic war onto Americans. Indeed, as Ferris adroitly observes, "if it was true that a Northern failure to subdue the slaveholders would automatically pose a threat to Canada, then why should Englishmen not support the Union cause, in order to ensure the conquest of the South, the reconstruction of which would fully engage all the remaining aggressive energies of the North?" (p 202) Again, the Secretary of State desperately resorted to threatening war with England to keep her from recognizing the South and ensuring disunion. Ferris' account skillfully demonstrates the complex effects of a purported "civil war" on international diplomacy. The British, continually referring to the Declaration of Paris of 1856 (to which the United States was not a party), reminded Seward that the "belligerent " South was free to negotiate with European nations. Seward, however, stoutly maintained that the entire disturbance was internal , and that Southern insurrectionists deserved no international status. Realizing that London's spokesmen were worried about Southern cotton supplies drying up by March 1862, Seward nonetheless gambled that they would turn to other markets for the product. Besides, he understood the importance of Northern wheat to the United Kingdom. Consequently, Seward...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 82-84
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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