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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 wonder that the American minister in his lonely outpost longed for news of victories in the field or, failing victories, for some assurance that the President was moving definitely towards emancipation. Without evidence that the North was capable of crushing what they claimed was an insurrection, or some indication that Washington felt that slavery was at least as important an issue as the maintenance of the Union, Adams despaired of being able to prevent Great Britain from recognizing the Confederacy.
From the day he arrived in London, May 13, 1861, to find the Queen’s Proclamation of Neutrality had been issued before he had been given a chance to protest against it, Adams thought of himself as living in a hostile atmosphere. In many ways that was not true. At the beginning of the war even the Times was friendly. Later on, when Confederate propaganda was beginning to take effect, and when Society and Clubland were persuaded that the South could never be beaten, Adams could always count on certain staunch friends who never wavered in their affection or in their belief in his cause. Such men as Bright, Cobden, and W. E. Forster proved far more effective champions of the North than any of the friends the Confederates could rally to their standard. As an American historian has pointed out, “the cause of the Confederacy in Britain always seemed brighter at dinners of the Southern Independence Association than in dealings with the British Government.” Nor was it by any means true that Adams was cold-shouldered by society. Among the aristocracy the Duke of Argyll, Lord Wensleydale, Lord Houghton, Sir William Ouseley, Sir Henry Holland, and many others welcomed him into their homes and never hesitated to identify themselves with the cause he represented.
Presumably Adams was grateful to them, but he did not care for British society. “It is irksome for me,” he noted in his diary, “who have the same cold mannerisms [as the English] to attempt to make acquaintances.” [June 12, 1861.] “The English are selfish … but not dishonest, very unpleasant to deal with but generally faithful to their engagements.” [October 23, 1861.] One of the few people he liked was Lady Russell, the wife of the foreign secretary, “a quiet, sensible, educated lady with little or none of the salient and repulsive characteristics of the English aristocracy.” [September 25, 1861.] The general tone of the press excited his contempt for British “manliness” and British “honesty.” [May 27, 1863.] Nothing would induce him to stay in England an hour longer, after his duty ceased to demand it. [July 22, 1863.] If such entries sound querulous, it must be remembered that Adams needed a safety valve. After fencing warily with Russell it was a relief to let himself go in the privacy of his diary.
It was not only the British who fell under his lash. He was often intensely critical of his own countrymen, even of Seward. Not counting the rebels, there were a good many Americans in London, ostensibly loyal, but not loyal enough to please him. Some of them were inclined to wonder, as men often will in time of war, whether the price of victory might not be too high. He was particularly disappointed in one who should have known better “for his utter and total defection from the principles of his New England race in the present struggle.”
Adams’ criticism of Seward is most revealing. While admitting him to be a statesman of large and comprehensive views, Adams regretted “a certain earthy taint which comes from early training in the school of New York politics,” resulting in “a rather indiscriminate appliance of means to ends.” He also objected to Seward’s habit of sending over semi-official agents, such as Thurlow Weed and William M. Evarts, to interfere with his work. His only explanation for Seward’s bad manners was that “he had not been brought up in the school of refined delicacy of feeling.”
This emphasis on manners accounts also for Adams’ blind spot about Lincoln. His first meeting with the President had been most unfortunate. Adams had been summoned to the White House before setting out on his mission, but there had been no discussion of foreign policy during the interview. The President was interested only in the Chicago post-office appointment. Adams never got over his disillusionment. While he might speak eloquently of the President in public, he referred to him in the diary, even as late as 1864, as being “honest, but trite and commonplace, well-intentioned but not great.” In 1861 he decided that Lincoln was not equal to the emergency. [October 17.] In 1863 he agreed with Dana that the President “has no conception of his position.” [April 8, 1863.] Yet on the whole he thought the American people “were lucky not to get someone worse.” [May 18, 1864.]
On the basis of such comments, and there are many of them scattered through the diary, it would be possible to picture Adams as a cross-grained egotist, a mere scold, rather than as the great ambassador he really was. Most men present a highly favorable impression of themselves in their private journals, but not Adams. He did just the reverse. All his complaints, all his disappointments, all the injustices done to him, are faithfully recorded. It was as if he drained off all that was petty into the diary, so that what was left for the world was pure gold, hammered into the form of a New England patriot, a quiet-spoken, scholarly man, keen-witted and well informed, courteous but utterly inflexible where any moral principle was concerned.