Lincoln’s Foreign Policy

By Norman Berdichevsky

A great deal of heated discussion and debate has followed in the wake of the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan with much criticism directed toward the preponderance of American military power coming from erstwhile “friends” and “allies” of the United States on the LEFT but they do not differ significantly from the views of the social elites and ruling classes ‘on the RIGHT” in Europe of more than 150 years ago when the United States had absolutely no overseas possessions or imperialist ambitions.

“No one with his qualifications would ever become prime minister of England let alone a county court judge.”

“The President is a rough Westerner of the lowest origins and little education”.

“He has not shown any talents to compensate for his ignorance of everything but the village politics of his home state…you would never say that he is a gentleman.

“Neither the president nor anyone in the cabinet has a knowledge of foreign affairs.”

Sound familiar?

Most friends I know who opposed the two invasions of Iraq nod approvingly that the answer must be  the Bushes or Ronald Reagan.

The actual answer is none of the above. All of these remarks were spoken in the heat of political debate against Abraham Lincoln.

They appeared in the editorial comments of the Times of London, most of the so called establishment press of European countries, and in the private notes of many diplomats, foremost among them, Lord Lyons, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, the Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston, as well as Foreign Minister Lord John Russell during our Civil War. They were for the most part as ill-founded then as more recent comments in the same vein against strong American leaders and policies.

Nevertheless, both Lincoln’s conduct of managing the Civil War and related domestic issues as well as his foreign policy provoked considerable opposition abroad from many conservative quarters that considered him in terms we would use today both a radical (of the Left) and a tyrant (of the Right)’

Lincoln has long been a hero of the Left lionized primarily as the author of the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery and preserver of the Union. He is also the only president to have ‘temporarily’ suspended habeus corpus and freedom of the press, steps taken in order to preserve the Union but criticized widely by those who believed he had violated his oath of office.

This right grants relief from unlawful imprisonment from unlawful imprisonment without showing just cause in court. Article One, Section 9, clause 2 of the United States Constitution demands that “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

Clearly, Lincoln and those in his cabinet believed that they had this expressed right to suspend this time honored right.

Foreign Policy

French views of Abraham Lincoln and the ability of the Union to survive the Civil War were even more aggressive than the British. La Patrie, the French newspaper on the same level as The Times of London editorialized with glee that …”The Union is completely dissolved and in our opinion can never be restored.”

Most Americans rightly find European criticism today particularly unjust and misplaced. They regard the role of their country as a 20th century power as something which was forced upon the United States by the circumstances of European imperialist rivalries. The popular view currently enjoying a considerable degree of hypothetical speculation holds that the ‘world’ would be a safer or better place with less American military power.

This view would certainly have amused both the German Kaiser and Hitler as well as the Japanese warlords who launched world wars on the assumption that basic isolationist sentiment and anti-militarism then prevailing in the United States would help ensure American neutrality.

The historical lesson of our country’s turmoil and weakness on the international stage between 1861 and 1865 demonstrates how nations would likely behave in a world in which the United States withdraws into isolationism, is disarmed, or is faced with a grave internal crisis. It is quite illuminating in spite of the passage of time and a much changed world.

In the run-up to the Civil War, anti-slavery opinions were popular with the more democratic political forces in much of Europe but were not regarded primarily as a moral issue except in Great Britain among the broad mass of the people.

The upper class British view was colored by a pronounced sympathy for the South and its aristocratic traditions of great landed estates. Moreover the political realists of that day regarded American cotton in the same terms as Middle Eastern oil today.

The French and Spanish governments were involved in expansion abroad, either attempting to recover lost colonies or acquiring new ones. They were pleased that the American government was weakened and its reach by naval power drastically reduced making enforcement of the anti-imperialist ‘Monroe Doctrine’ impossible.

In Mexico, the French put their puppet, the ultra-conservative Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the throne and recognized Spain’s maneuver to reestablish full control over Santo Domingo (the present Dominican Republic), an even more blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Even the normally reticent British were enlisted in a European colonial adventure in Mexico due to that country’s defaulting on debts.

The British, French and Spaniards were allied for several months against the democratic forces of Benito Juarez, a full-blooded Indian, Mexico’s legal President, and a great friend of President Abraham Lincoln. None of these maneuvers would have been conceivable if the United States had not been torn asunder by the Civil War.

Napoleon III was aware that a Union victory would doom his project of French prestige in Mexico and was eager to recognize the Confederacy, support its navy by having French shipyards supply it with warships, and float loans on its behalf with cotton as collateral. Smaller loans were also raised in Britain by private means.

The French pressed the British unsuccessfully to send a joint fleet to break the Union blockade of the Confederacy, a step that would have created an international war on a grand scale.

It was clear to Lincoln and Seward that the British and the French hoped that an independent and strong Confederacy would aid both European powers in their attempt to achieve a world-wide balance of power.

Relations between Great Britain and the United States over Canada became very problematic. Ambitious Canadian politicians schemed with Confederate agents to embroil the U.S. and Britain in conflict.

Although public opinion in Canada had been predominantly against slavery, anti-American sentiment was whipped up by Confederate agents and refugees who played on old Canadian fears of being absorbed by the United States.

A Confederate raid launched against St. Albans, Vermont in October, 1864 almost brought about a hot pursuit policy and led to much stricter British supervision of Confederate agents and their Canadian sympathizers. It was made abundantly clear to Her Majesty’s government that using Canada as a Confederate base would result in war with the United States.

Lincoln, backed by Secretary of State Seward, played an active role in foreign affairs, something which is almost entirely obscured today. He was no “dove” but realized that the survival of the union depended on the readiness to use military might as a last resort in order to prevent European aid and or recognition of the confederacy.

The systematic violation of the Monroe Doctrine by the European powers was not simply an act that damaged American interests. It was violently opposed by the native peoples of Latin America who had previously won their independence and honestly looked only to the United States for protection from the voracious appetite of European imperialism.

With a Union victory and growing local resentment against the French and Spanish adventures, the reestablishment of American military power, able to project its strength abroad, resulted in the collapse of the European interventionists like a pack of cards.

Lincoln and Seward deserve the full credit of a strong foreign policy of facing up to European imperialism and making sure that foreign powers realize that support for the attempt to destroy the union would ultimately result in war. This meant carrying a very big stick long before the phrase was popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt.


Norman Berdichevsky is a native New Yorker who lives in Orlando, Florida. He holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1974) and is the author of The Danish-German Border Dispute (Academica Press, 2002), Nations, Language and Citizenship (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004), Spanish Vignettes; An Offbeat Look into Spain’s Culture, Society & History (Santana Books, Malaga, Spain. 2004), An Introduction to Danish Culture (MacFarland, 2011) and The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011). He is the author of more than 200 articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals such as World Affairs, Journal of Cultural Geography, Ecumene, Ariel, Ethnicity, The World & I, Contemporary Review, German Life, Israel Affairs, and Midstream. He is also a professional translator from Hebrew and Danish to English and his website is here.


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