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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
Whether Lyons was right in thinking that the sending out of reinforcements to Canada, which he advocated, helped to restrain the Administration from declaring war on Great Britain is open to question. British liberals, like John Bright and Richard Cobden, deplored the decision. Lyons took the more modern point of view that in order to maintain peace nations must negotiate from positions of strength. The reinforcements did not amount to much, only 12,000 men, but they were enough to serve notice that Canada would be defended in case of attack. Seward tried to compensate for his diplomatic defeat over the Confederate envoys by suggesting that, since the St. Lawrence was frozen over, the British government might find it convenient to land their reinforcements in Portland. He would be delighted to extend the necessary facilities for transporting troops overland, an embarrassingly friendly offer which, on the recommendation of Lord Lyons, was gratefully declined.
After five years of intensely hard work trying, as he expressed it, “to keep things smooth,” Lyons collapsed with nervous exhaustion. The never-ending correspondence, combined with the Washington climate and the lack of exercise, produced the inevitable breakdown. By the time he left at the end of 1864, although the two countries were still bickering about neutral rights, there was no longer any danger of war between them. Both Seward and Lincoln sincerely regretted his departure. Lyons had always been on good terms with the President, who apparently enjoyed teasing him. On one occasion when Lyons called officially at the White House to communicate the news of the marriage of the Prince of Wales, Lincoln took the Queen’s letter in his hand and remarked, “Well, Lord Lyons, all I can say is ‘Go thou and do likewise.’ ”
At first, like everybody else, Lyons had doubted whether the President was capable of riding the storm. The earliest mention of Lincoln in his letters to Russell reflects the current opinion in Washington: “Mr. Lincoln has not hitherto given any proof of his possessing any natural talents to compensate for his ignorance of everything but Illinois village politics. He seems to be well-meaning and conscientious in the measure of his understanding, but not much more.”
With Seward the strained relations of the early years had given place to a feeling of real friendship. The friendliness of a neutral can always be gauged by his belief in the justice of “your” cause and, still more important, by his outspoken confidence that “your” cause will ultimately prevail. On both counts Lord Lyons was a friendly neutral. Apart from the rights and wrongs of secession, he thought “the taint of slavery will render the cause of the South loathsome to the civilized world.” He also believed that “under all difficulties and discouragement the North has resources enough to beat the Confederacy in the long run, if it choose to persevere in the combat … but it will be a work of years.”
It was unfortunate for the cause of Anglo-American relations that these opinions of Lord Lyons were not more generally shared by his countrymen. On one particular occasion, when he was in England for a few weeks in the summer of 1862, he noted with regret that everyone but himself seemed pleased by the rumor that McClellan had suffered another defeat. In applying the tests of friendly neutrality to English society, we can understand and sympathize with the note of bitterness that runs through so much of the Adams diary. In England Confederate agents appealed skillfully to the public by representing the war as a struggle to deny the South the right of self-government. By playing up certain sections in Lincoln’s First Inaugural, in which the President expressly stated that he had no intention of interfering with slavery in the South, they made it appear that there was no issue involved but the subjugation of nine million people whose only demand was that they should be left alone.
The Confederate agents argued that the fighting qualities of the South, the exploits of Jackson and Lee, must obviously be inspired by a great ideal, the ideal of independence. They pointed out also that economic conditions in the South accounted for the “peculiar institution,” but the notion that their people were fighting just in defense of slavery was fantastic. Other factors such as the Morrill Tariff, the blockade, Yankee bumptiousness in general, and Seward’s truculence in particular, contributed to the dislike of the North, and along with it to the popularity of the South, in English society. There was nothing unnatural about the sentiment for the Confederacy, nor was it merely a selfish thing aroused by the fear of democracy, as John Bright and Henry Adams liked to assume. Democracy had little to do with it. The leading “southerner” in the British Cabinet was Mr. Gladstone, who was also the leading advocate in Parliament of universal suffrage. John Mitchel, the Irish patriot, cared as little as any man about conserving the privileges of the British aristocracy, and yet he was an ardent Confederate.
Wars make strange bedfellows, and to many liberals in England the struggle of the South to establish independence was comparable to the nationalist struggles of Italy and Hungary, which they had always supported. Any people fighting for their independence can always draw on a fund of sympathy from the rest of the world, nor does that instinctive sympathy necessarily imply any awareness of the real issues involved.