- Historic Sites
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.
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.
While the press on both sides of the Atlantic was making it as difficult as possible for Seward to extricate himself from the difficulties in which Wilkes had landed him, Lord Lyons kept resolutely silent. He was probably the only man in America who expressed no opinion on the legal aspect of the incident or on the course he believed his government would follow. A dispatch from Russell, redrafted by the Cabinet and amended by the Prince Consort, reached Washington late at night on December 18, 1861, requesting courteously but firmly that the prisoners should be handed over to the British government. Thanks largely to the Prince Consort, the request was couched in language which Seward himself admitted afterwards to be friendly and conciliatory. Lord Lyons called on Seward the next morning, discussed the British demands informally, and left a copy of the dispatch in his hands. Another interview took place on the twenty-first, and on December 27 Seward delivered his reply.
During those eight days the question of peace or war was hanging in the balance. Few people were as cool as Lincoln, who remarked to a caller in reply to a question about the Trent case, “Oh, that will be got along with.” It was—to the great relief of everyone concerned except Mason and Slidell, who had hoped to become the means of forcing Great Britain into the war on their side.
Seward wrote a long legalistic reply to the British dispatch in which he claimed that Wilkes was justified in seizing the envoys, but admitted that Wilkes had made an unfortunate mistake in releasing the Trent instead of bringing her into port under the “contraband” doctrine for adjudication in a prize court. He went on to explain that if the safety of the Union had required the detention of the captured persons, it would have been the duty of his government to keep them. “But the effectual check and waning proportions of the existing insurrection, as well as the comparative unimportance of the captured persons themselves, when dispassionately weighed, happily forbid me from resorting to that defence.” On those grounds the prisoners were “cheerfully liberated.”
The last two words were the only ones that mattered. Seward confided to Lyons privately that he had been through the fires of Tophet to get the prisoners released. He and Montgomery Blair, the postmaster general, were at first the only two members of the Cabinet in favor of their liberation. Ten months in office had cured him of the delusion that the South would return to the arms of the North in the event of a foreign war. Those ten months had also convinced him that Lord Lyons, however strongly he might stand up for British rights, was no friend of the Confederacy. Unlike M. Mercier, who was always busying himself with schemes of intervention and who even visited Richmond and returned more than ever convinced that the South could not be subdued, Lyons never deviated from the course of absolute neutrality.
It was all very well for American papers to tell their readers that “the British Minister is a plethoric, red-faced, large-stomached man in top-boots, knee breeches, yellow waistcoat, blue cut-away, brass buttons and broad-brimmed white hat, who is continually walking to the State Department in company with a large bulldog, hurling defiance at Mr. Seward at one moment, and the next rushing home to receive dispatches from Mr. Jefferson Davis, or to give secret instructions to the British Consuls to run cargoes of quinine and gunpowder through the Federal blockade.” Only Secretary Seward could have fully realized the grossness of the travesty. However much of a stickler Lord Lyons might be for the rights of British subjects, he never hurled defiance at anybody. On the contrary, whenever he found that the British consuls in the South were giving aid to the Confederacy, as they occasionally did, by carrying Confederate gold through the blockade, he anticipated complaints by dismissing them at once. No diplomat under threat of war ever conducted himself more correctly. By September, 1863, the Confederate government became so disgusted by his carefully correct deportment that they expelled all British consuls from their cities.
The position of Lyons in Washington was, if anything, more difficult than that of Adams in London. While Adams faced an occasionally unfriendly but still cautious government, determined to keep out of the war if it possibly could, Lyons had to deal with a reckless and no less unfriendly adversary who threatened to wrap the whole world in flames rather than allow the South to secede. The skillful handling of the Trent incident in which, contrary to instructions, Lyons gave Seward an extra two days to wrestle with the Cabinet, formed the basis of a more friendly relationship with the State Department. Although the endless interchange of diplomatic notes did not slacken until the end of the war, the truculence formerly so noticeable in Seward’s correspondence gradually faded away.
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.
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.
Adams was still walking the streets of London, hunting for a place to live, when the stream of Seward’s notes began pouring in on him. All these had to be carefully considered before their substance could be passed on to Russell. Seward was inclined to issue ultimatums which Adams had to translate into requests. Throughout the war and for many years afterwards protests and counterprotests about the Neutrality Proclamation, the blockade, the Trent affair, the Alabama, and the iron rams followed one another in endless succession. While Seward and Russell drafted indignant notes, the harassed ministers who came to dread the bulky packets arriving by every mail were exercising all their ingenuity to soften the impassioned remonstrances of the home governments without whittling away the hard core of their arguments.
Lyons broke down under the strain but Adams, who was perhaps less nervous by temperament and to whom life in London offered more opportunities for relaxation, carried his heavy load of responsibility more easily. Busy as he was, he still found time to explore the English countryside—the beaches on the south coast, he decided, did not compare with Nahant and Nantucket—to visit all the Wren churches in London, and to frequent picture galleries and auction rooms. He was a collector of old coins, and in the diary he records his numismatic adventures with evident relish. Altogether, life in the lonely outpost was not without its compensations. If society functions bored him, he enjoyed small informal dinners with the Forsters, or with Browning and Sir Charles Lyell, the geologist, or with Monckton Milnes, all of them firm friends who could be relied upon to fight his battles in Mayfair or in the House of Commons.
Adams was enough of a fighter himself to get a certain savage satisfaction out of his controversies with the British government. One unexpected incident, which might have proved fatal to a less wary diplomat, arose out of General Benjamin Butler’s memorable “woman order,” authorizing Federal soldiers in New Orleans to treat as women of the town any female who insulted them. The General defended his order on the grounds that one woman spat in an officer’s face and that another emptied a bucket of dirty water on Admiral Farragut on his way to church. The most charitable view of “Beast Butler,” as he came to be known, was that he had committed a serious blunder. Confederate sympathizers in England represented the order as having been directed from Washington, and as being typical of northern depravity.
Palmerston seized the occasion to dash off a note to Adams which the Minister interpreted as a gratuitous insult. “No example can be found in the history of civilized nations,” said Palmerston, “till the publication of this order, of a general guilty in cold blood of so infamous an act as deliberately to hand over the female inhabitants of a conquered city to the unbridled license of an unrestrained soldiery.”
Adams was puzzled by this unprovoked attack. As usual, he confided the bitterness of his feelings to his diary while replying to Palmerston in a vein of studied politeness. Was he to consider Lord Palmerston’s note “purely as a private expression of sentiment between gentlemen,” or was it addressed to him in any way officially? If it was official, he must refuse to accept it.
What really worried Adams more than the tone of the letter was the fear that Palmerston might be contemplating intervention. His extraordinary communication might well be the first step in a far-reaching policy already decided on. New Orleans had been occupied in May, 1862, and during that summer the British Cabinet seriously considered offering mediation, but the battle of Antietam convinced them that the time was not ripe. From Palmerston’s point of view the time never was ripe. His outburst, as it turned out, did not foreshadow any change in British policy. It was inspired by nothing more subtle than a boyish instinct of chivalry. Palmerston hated cruelty. It may be that in this particular instance, like Edmund Burke in his fury over the execution of Marie Antoinette, he pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird, but the instinct to protest against what seemed to him an act of wanton brutality was not an unworthy one. The fact that Butler was quietly removed from his command, at Seward’s instigation, proves that there must have been some people in Washington who shared Palmerston’s feelings, however much they may have resented his method of expressing them.
The only result of the incident was that it confirmed Adams in his belief that Palmerston was a Confederate at heart, and that he was determined to break up the Union if he possibly could, a belief that subsequently found its way into American history books. In Adams’ mind the case against the Confederacy was crystal clear. It was “an evil thing which began in perjury, treachery and fraud, and ended in assassination.” Anybody who did not subscribe to that belief was a Confederate sympathizer. Few people in England did subscribe to it, and the Prime Minister was certainly not among them.
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.