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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
This extraordinary attention to detail was all pointed in one direction. The business of diplomacy, as Lord Lyons understood it, was to avert war. Try as he would, he could not help wondering, just as Adams was wondering in London, whether one of the smoldering fires of controversy which he was always trying to stamp out would not flare up suddenly into open flame. Washington presented an entirely different set of problems from any he had hitherto experienced. Neither the President nor anyone in his Cabinet had any notion of foreign affairs or of the ordinary conventions of diplomacy. It was not so long ago that a British minister had been dismissed by President Pierce for his overzealous activity in enlisting Americans for service in the Crimean War. This was done after the British government had disavowed any intention of violating American neutrality and had expressed sincere regret if any violation had taken place. Lord Napier, who was sent out to take the offending minister’s place, made himself more acceptable. He and his wife soon became very popular in Washington society, but unfortunately Napier’s services were needed elsewhere. Lyons himself arrived in Washington in the closing days of Buchanan’s Administration. Though he was greeted by a rather bewildered President with marked courtesy, he noted in one of his early dispatches that the leading men of both parties seemed to make a point of attacking Great Britain whenever they made speeches on foreign affairs.
Stephen A. Douglas, soon to be nominated at the Baltimore convention by the more liberal-minded Democrats, had always been particularly vehement in his remarks against Great Britain. At a public dinner for Kossuth he had gone out of his way to announce that if American institutions were to triumph, as all men hoped, “proud, haughty England must give up her monarchy, her nobility, her Establishment, the whole system of machinery by which she had been able to oppress her own people.” Even Seward, a far more responsible politician than Douglas, could not help giving a twist to the British lion’s tail whenever he needed votes. More than once he had publicly advocated the annexation of Canada, and on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales he had remarked to the Duke of Newcastle, a former Cabinet minister who had come over with the Prince, that in the event of becoming secretary of state it would become his duty to insult England, and he intended to do so. Seward never dreamed that his jocose remark would be taken seriously, but in view of his published speeches it would perhaps have been better if he had restrained himself. In any case, to a professional diplomat it did not seem a particularly humorous sally.
Lyons never became accustomed to the contrast between the friendliness with which he and his staff were always treated in Washington society, and the hatred of his country which politicians seemed to find it necessary to profess in public. In Europe it was different. There the easygoing, friendly intimacy which made Iife in America in many ways so agreeable did not exist, but the business of diplomacy was more easily conducted. The European statesman never had to woo the electorate by making inflammatory speeches he never intended to be taken seriously.
In the spring of 1861 Seward actually had advocated picking a quarrel with England and France as the only way of reuniting North and South, but this was a temporary aberration inspired by the feeling that the country was looking to him rather than to Lincoln for some master stroke to forestall the dissolution of the Union. Luckily Lincoln pigeonholed Seward’s insane proposal, and nothing more was heard about it until it was published by Nicolay and Hay thirty years later. As soon as Lincoln had tactfully impressed on Seward that he intended to be master in his own house, all talk of a foreign war was dropped. At the same time Seward was always ready to bluster if he thought it would serve his purpose, and Lord Lyons had to learn to endure these outbursts just as Adams had to learn to endure the petulance of Lord Palmerston. Diplomats have to control their feelings, whereas politicians can afford the luxury of indulging them.
Lyons faced his most difficult trial at the time of the Trent affair in November of 1861. The story of how Federal Captain Wilkes had seized the Confederate envoys, James Mason and John Slidell, from the British steamer Trent was trumpeted throughout the Union. Allowing the Trent to proceed, Wilkes brought his captives to Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Wilkes became a national hero overnight, the more so because he had snatched those arch rebels out of the jaws of the British lion. As Lord Lyons read the account of the Wilkes exploit in the New York Herald, and then a few weeks later in the London Times, he must have wondered whether all his efforts to keep the peace were now to be frustrated by the act of one irresponsible naval officer. The press in both countries delighted in whetting the national appetite for war. “The idea of war with Great Britain alarms no one but is rather spoken of with complacency than otherwise.” So spake the New York Herald on November 19, 1861. Punch’s cartoon “You do what’s right, my son, or I’ll blow you out of the water” was obviously dictated by the same spirit.