Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union & Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War

By Neely, Mark E., Jr. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union & Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War


Neely, Mark E., Jr., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union & Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War. By Howard Jones. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. 277 pp., $29.95.)

If there is such a thing as a neglected field in the study of the American Civil War, it is diplomatic history. Its once sturdy presence has diminished in recent years. Thus the 1960 classic Why the North Won the Civil War included as one of its five essays Norman A. Graebner's "Northern Diplomacy and European Neutrality." By contrast, Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand, edited by James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper, Jr., and published in 1998, surveys modern Civil War historiography in twelve essays, none of which deals centrally with diplomatic history. The index does not include entries for Great Britain or France, let alone for Lord John Russell or Edouard Thouvenel, the foreign ministers of those great powers. There are several references to the War with Mexico that preceded the Civil War by fifteen years but none for the dangerous attempt to make Maximilian the emperor of Mexico during the Civil War. Diplomatic history has fallen on hard times.

When the whole literature is surveyed, of course, it would be difficult to describe as "neglected" or "on hard times" a field which includes such durable tomes as Frank L. Owsley's King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America (1959) and Lynn M. Case and Warren F. Spencer's The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy (1970). Still, diplomatic history has hardly kept pace with the prodigious output of Civil War works in the last thirty years.

Among the diplomatic historians who in recent times have been producing work on the Civil War is Howard Jones, whose most recent book is Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union & Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War. The point of the book is to emphasize the role of President Lincoln as a diplomatist and of slavery as a world issue in reevaluating the European decision not to intervene in the American conflict. Altering the focus of traditional diplomatic history proves a difficult task. Abraham Lincoln paid scant attention to foreign relations. And it is a stubborn fact, which resists Professor Jones's attempt to change focus, that Lincoln committed his greatest foreign policy gaffe in the course of writing the Emancipation Proclamation.

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, ordered "the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof" to "do no act or acts to repress" the slaves reached by the proclamation "in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." Europeans heard in that passage an infamous invitation to servile insurrection, which at once made the Union cause appear desperate and ruthless. The British charge in Washington, William Stuart, called attention to Lincoln's "direct encouragement to servile Insurrections" and warned that "we may see reenacted some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution." It confirmed Foreign Secretary Russell's fears that "acts of plunder, of incendiarism, and of revenge" would ravage the American continent.

Lincoln's cabinet recognized the mistake and made certain he revised the language in the final proclamation issued on January 1, 1863. …

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