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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
At the outbreak of the Civil War Lord Palmerston was 77 years old. He had been in and out of office since the Napoleonic wars, long enough to shed whatever illusions about morality he may once have possessed. If anyone had spoken to him about American idealism he would have laughed, the “mechanical, wooden laugh” commemorated by Henry Adams in the Education. He could discern no moral issue in the conflict between North and South, nor could Palmerston forget that the slave trade, which had been his lifelong abomination, had always been carried on under the shelter of the American flag. It was not true that the southerners were mainly responsible for it. Most of the slavers were fitted out not from southern ports but from Boston and New York. He may even have remembered that the American minister’s father, John Quincy Adams, although reputed to be a strong anti-slavery man, had always stubbornly opposed the right of search without which the infamous trade could never be suppressed.
As long as America refused to co-operate with Great Britain, even to the extent of allowing American and British ships commissioned for the suppression of the trade to cruise in pairs, and as long as Lincoln had asserted that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed, Palmerston was hardly to blame for not proclaiming himself an enthusiastic “northerner.” In his mind the abolition of the slave trade was the crux of the whole matter. Seward unconsciously endorsed this opinion when he declared in signing the treaty of 1862, which finally did put an end to the slave trade: “Had such a treaty been made in 1808, there would have been no sedition here, and no disagreement between the United States and foreign nations.”
Adams’ belief that Palmerston sided with the Confederacy, understandable as it was, proved to be incorrect. Cynical about the war Palmerston certainly was, but he took no step to break the blockade or to encourage the South to think that England sympathized with her. He did not want war over the Trent affair, and he had nothing to do with the escape of the Alabama. In the House of Commons not one of the various attempts made during the first three years of the war to win recognition for the Confederacy received any support from Palmerston or from any of his henchmen. He probably believed that North and South could never be reunited, and at one moment in 1862 he thought that perhaps the time had come to offer mediation, but he soon abandoned the idea without ever having pressed it. Only an attack on Canada would have induced him to form an alliance with the South; with his feelings about slavery he could never have championed their cause with any satisfaction.
Why then did Adams persist in thinking that Palmerston and the Cabinet in general were enemies? James D. Bulloch, the Confederate agent, who looked at the situation from a different angle, thought that only two, possibly three, of the fifteen members of the Cabinet were favorable to the South. The others showed no sympathy with his cause. This difference in outlook may be due to the fact that Adams, being an intensely patriotic man, resented the whole concept of neutrality. The cause he represented was so pre-eminently just in his eyes, so obviously worthy of the support of mankind, that the very least other nations could do was to strain the laws of neutrality in its favor. If this is a fair statement of what Adams felt, we must respect him all the more for so bottling up his feelings that he never gave the impression of being ruffled. In every controversy he defended his country’s cause so ably and so imperturbably that he came to be regarded in England as the great architect of Anglo-American understanding.
Neither Adams nor Lyons was infallible. Adams overestimated the hostility of the British Cabinet just as Lyons had misinterpreted Seward’s braggadocio, but in spite of their fears they both won the entire confidence of the governments to which they were accredited. They were great ambassadors because, while never losing sight of their own country’s interests, they honestly believed and they made others believe too that those interests corresponded with the aspirations of all mankind.