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The Peaceable Ambassadors
Two adroit diplomats successfully prevented an open breach between London and Washington during the Civil War
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
No two countries have ever had more reason to he grateful to their diplomats than England and the United States at the time of the Civil War. More than once during those four years, if the American minister in London or the British minister in Washington had made a false step, or even pressed an advantage too far, the whole rickety structure of neutrality would have collapsed. Charles Francis Adams, for his part, was not unaware of the role he had played. On April 11, 1865, two days after the surrender of Appomattox, he confided to his diary his belief that he had contributed almost as much to the rescue of his country from its recent perils “as many who have made some bloody devastation in the field.” Many years later James Russell Lowell put the case far more strongly. “None of our generals in the field,” said Lowell, “nor Grant himself, did us better or more trying service than [Adams] in his forlorn outpost of London. Cavour himself did hardly more for Italy.”
Whether or not war between the two countries was as constantly imminent as he believed, it was certainly true that by his tact and good temper, as well as by his intelligence and his integrity, Charles Francis Adams outwitted the Confederates and kept relations between Great Britain and the United States on an even keel. More than that, by the time he left England he had actually endeared himself to the members of the government he had been pestering with his complaints, who for four years had been inclined to look on him as an infernal nuisance.
It is equally true, though not so generally known, that Lord Lyons, the British minister in Washington during the same critical era, proved to be no less successful in defending his country’s interests under similarly difficult circumstances. He too was congratulated for his success in liquidating the controversies that threatened to engulf the two nations in war.
Mr. Adams and Lord Lyons had much in common. They were both eminently Victorian in their high sense of duty and in their conviction that the point of view they represented was invariably right. In Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, Adams confronted an adversary whom he believed to be without moral scruple. Lord John Russell, Palmerston’s foreign secretary, he found more honest; yet even in Russell he discerned “a vein of small trickery.”
In Washington, Lord Lyons thought himself surrounded by reckless, unprincipled men who cared nothing for the rights of other nations. As a hardworking young secretary, Richard Bickerton Pemell Lyons had already served his country in Athens, Dresden, Florence, and Rome, so impressing his superiors with his abilities that in November, 1858, Lord Russell offered him the Washington legation, an offer which Lyons accepted with some misgiving. He was a shy man, a bachelor, 41 years old, who loved playing with other people’s children. Most of the so-called pleasures of the world he found irksome. Although descended on his mother’s side from John Winthrop, he came to Washington with no special interest in American affairs. An admirable though perhaps somewhat austere specimen of his kind, he prided himself when he came to leave Washington on never having taken a drink or having made a speech during his five years’ residence in the United States.
The blockade was an example of the problems whose like the legation had never had to cope with before. How was Lord Lyons to transmit orders to the British consuls in the South, since all regular communications with the South were cut off? He noted that while the Washington government bitterly opposed recognition of the Confederacy, it could not actually perform any of the duties of a government in the seceded states. On the other hand there was a de facto government in the South which exercised all its functions with perfect regularity. Unlike his French colleague M. Mercier, who was very much of a Confederate sympathizer, Lyons never urged his government to recognize the South, but the continuing difficulty of defending the interests of Great Britain in the seceded states never ceased to worry him.
A still more thorny problem was presented by the compulsory enlistment of men who claimed to be British subjects. The legation was besieged by Irish emigrants, many of whom had professed undying hatred of England and all things English, but who suddenly claimed British nationality when the draft caught up with them. These problems and countless others involved Lord Lyons in a series of controversies with Secretary of State Seward which could never be entirely settled to either party’s satisfaction. In the year 1864, when the work was already beginning to slacken, the legation received 6,490 letters and dispatches from the State Department and from the home government, and drafted 8,326 of its own, a remarkable record of industry when we remember that every dispatch had to be written out in long hand and submitted to the minister before it was issued. The flood of paper work seemed always to be mounting. Lyons insisted that all letters should be answered at once and that the answers should be courteous and well-considered, however petulant the original letter might have been.