Department Of State,
Washington, April 10, 1861.
Sir: Although Great Britain and the United States possess adjacent dominions of large extent, and although they divide, not very unequally, a considerable portion of the commerce of the world, yet there are at present only two questions in debate between them. One of these concerns the line of boundary running through Puget's Sound, and involves the title to the island of San Juan. The other relates to a proposition for extinguishing the interest of the Hudson's Bay and Puget's Sound agricultural companies in the Territory of Washington. The discussion of these questions has hitherto been carried on here, and there is no necessity for removing it to London. It is expected to proceed amicably and result in satisfactory conclusions. It would seem, therefore, on first thought, that you would find nothing more to do in England than to observe and report current events, and to cultivate friendly sentiments there towards the United States. Nevertheless, the peculiar condition of our country in the present juncture renders these duties a task of considerable delicacy.
You will readily understand me as alluding to the attempts which are being made by a misguided portion of our fellow citizens to detach some of the States and to combine them in a now organization under the name of the Confederate States of America. The agitators in this bad enterprise, justly estimating the influence of the European powers upon even American affairs, do not mistake in supposing that it would derive signal advantage from a recognition by any of those powers, and especially Great Britain. Your task, therefore, apparently so simple and easy, involves the responsibility of preventing the commission of an act by the government of that country which would be fraught with disaster, perhaps ruin, to our own.
It is by no means easy to give you instructions. They must be based on a survey of the condition of the country, and include a statement of the policy of the government. The insurrectionary movement, though rapid in its progress, is slow in revealing its permanent character. Only outlines of a policy can be drawn which must largely depend on uncertain events.
The presidential election took place on the 6th of November last. The canvass had been conducted in all the southern or slave States in such a manner as to prevent a perfectly candid hearing there of the issue involved, and so all the parties existing there were surprised and disappointed in the marked result. That disappointment was quickly seized for desperate purposes by a class of persons until that time powerless, who had long cherished a design to dismember the Union and build up a new confederacy around the Gulf of Mexico. Ambitious leaders hurried the people forward, in a factious course, observing conventional forms but violating altogether the deliberative spirit of their constitutions. When the new federal administration came in on the 4th of March last, it found itself confronted by an insurrectionary combination of seven States, practicing an insidious strategy to seduce eight other States into its councils.
One needs to be as conversant with our federative system as perhaps only American publicists can be to understand how effectually, in the first instance, such a revolutionary movement must demoralize the general government. We are not only a nation, but we are States also. All public officers, as well as all citizens, owe not only allegiance to the Union but allegiance also to the States in which they reside. In the more discontented States the local magistrates and other officers cast off at once their federal allegiance, and conventions were held which assumed to absolve their citizens from the same obligation. Even federal judges, marshals, clerks, and revenue officers resigned their trusts. Intimidation deterred loyal persons from accepting the offices thus rendered vacant. So the most important faculties of the federal government in those States abruptly ceased. The resigning federal agents, if the expression may be used, attorned to the revolutionary authorities and delivered up to them public funds and other property and possessions of large value. The federal government had, through a long series of years, been engaged in building strong fortifications, a navy yard, arsenals, mints, treasuries, and other public edifices, not in any case for use against those States, but chiefly for their protection and convenience. These had been unsuspectingly left either altogether or imperfectly garrisoned or guarded, and they fell, with little resistance, into the hands of the revolutionary party. A general officer of the army gave up to them a large quantity of military stores and other property, disbanded the troops under his command, and sent them out of the territory of the disaffected States.
It may be stated, perhaps without giving just offence, that the most, popular motive in these discontents was an apprehension of designs on the part of the incoming federal administration hostile to the institution of domestic slavery in the States where it is tolerated by the local constitutions and laws. That institution and the class which especially cherishes it are not confined to the States which have revolted, but they exist in the eight other so-called slave States; and these, for that reason, sympathize profoundly with the revolutionary movement. Sympathies and apprehensions of this kind have, for an indefinite period, entered into the bases of political parties throughout the whole country, and thus considerable masses of persons, whose ultimate loyalty could not be doubted, were found, even in the free States, either justifying, excusing, or palliating the movement towards disunion in the seceding States. The party which was dominant in the federal government during the period of the last administration embraced, practically, and held in unreserved communion, all disunionists and sympathizers. It held the executive administration. The Secretaries of the Treasury, War, and the Interior were disunionists. The same party held a large majority of the Senate, and nearly equally divided the House of Representatives. Disaffection lurked, if it did not openly avow itself, in every department and in every bureau, in every regiment and in every ship-of-war; in the post office and in the custom-house, and in every legation and consulate from London to Calcutta. Of four thousand four hundred and seventy officers in the public service, civil and military, two thousand one hundred and fifty-four were representatives of States where the revolutionary movement was openly advocated and urged, even if not actually organized. Our system being so completely federative and representative, no provision had ever been made, perhaps none ever could have been made, to anticipate this strange and unprecedented disturbance. The people were shocked by successive and astounding developments of what the statute book distinctly pronounced to be sedition and treason, but the magistracy was demoralized and the laws were powerless. By degrees, however, a better sentiment revealed itself. The executive administration hesitatingly, in part, reformed itself. The capital was garrisoned; the new President came in unresisted, and soon constituted a new and purely loyal administration. They found the disunionists perseveringly engaged in raising armies and laying sieges around national fortifications situate within the territory of the disaffected States. The federal marine seemed to have been scattered everywhere except where its presence was necessary, and such of the military forces as were not in the remote States and Territories were held back from activity by vague and mysterious armistices which bad been informally contracted by the late President, or under his authority, with a view to postpone conflict until impracticable concessions to disunion should be made by Congress, or at least until the waning term of his administration should reach its appointed end. Commissioners who had been sent by the new confederacy were already at the capital demanding recognition of its sovereignty and a partition of the national property and domain. The treasury, depleted by robbery and peculation, was exhausted, and the public credit was prostrate.
It would be very unjust to the American people to suppose that this singular and unhappy condition of things indicated any extreme favor or toleration of the purpose of a permanent dissolution of the Union. On the contrary, disunion at the very first took on a specious form, and it afterwards made its way by ingenious and seductive devices. It inculcated that the Union is a purely voluntary connexion, founded on the revocable assent of the several States; that secession, in the case of great popular discontent, would induce consultation and reconciliation, and so that revolution, instead of being war, is peace, and disunion, instead of being dissolution, is union. Though the ordinances of secession in the seceding States were carried through impetuously, without deliberation, and even by questionable majorities, yet it was plausibly urged that the citizens who had remained loyal to the Union might wisely acquiesce, so as ultimately to moderate and control the movement, and in any event that if war should ensue, it would become a war of sections, and not a social war, of all others, and especially in those States, the form of war most seriously to be deprecated. It being assumed that peaceful separation is in harmony with the Constitution, it was urged as a consequence that coercion would, therefore, be unlawful and tyrannical; and this principle was even pushed so far as to make the defensive retaining by the federal government of its position within the limits of the seceding States, or where it might seem to overawe or intimidate them, an act of such forbidden coercion. Thus it happened that for a long time, and in very extensive districts even, fidelity to the Union manifested itself by demanding a surrender of its powers and possessions, and compromises with or immunity towards those who were engaged in overthrowing it by armed force. Disunion under these circumstances rapidly matured. On the other hand, the country was bewildered. For the moment even loyal citizens fell naturally into the error of inquiring how the fearful state of things had come about, and who was responsible for it, thus inviting a continuance of the controversy out of which it had arisen, rather than rallying to the duty of arresting it. Disunion, sustained only by passion, made haste to attain its end. Union, on the contrary, required time, because it could only appeal to reason, and reason could not be heard until excitement should in some degree subside. Military spirit is an element always ready for revolution. It has a fuller development in the disaffected than in the loyal States. Thousands of men have already banded themselves as soldiers in the cause of disunion, while the defenders of the Union, before resorting to arms, everywhere wait to make sure that it cannot be otherwise preserved. Even this cautious and pacific, yet patriotic disposition has been misunderstood and perverted by faction to encourage disunion.
I believe that I have thus presented the disunion movement dispassionately and without misrepresenting its proportions or its character.
You will hardly be asked by responsible statesmen abroad why has not the new administration already suppressed the revolution. Thirty-five days are a short period in which to repress, chiefly by moral means, a movement which is so active while disclosing itself throughout an empire.
You will not be expected to promulgate this history, or to communicate it to the British government, but you are entitled to the President's views, which I have thus set forth in order to enable you to understand the policy which he proposes to pursue, and to conform your own action to it.
The President neither looks for nor apprehends any actual and permanent dismemberment of the American Union, especially by a line of latitude. The improvement of our many channels of intercourse, and the perfection of our scheme of internal exchanges, and the incorporation of both of them into a great system of foreign commerce, concurring with the gradual abatement of the force of the only existing cause of alienation, have carried us already beyond the danger of disunion in that form. The so-called Confederate States, therefore, in the opinion of the President, are attempting what will prove a physical impossibility. Necessarily they build the structure of their new government upon the same principle by which they seek to destroy the Union, namely, the right of each individual member of the confederacy to withdraw from it at pleasure and in peace. A government thus constituted could neither attain the consolidation necessary for stability, nor guaranty any engagements it might make with creditors or other nations. The movement, therefore, in the opinion of the President, tends directly to anarchy in the seceding States, as similar movements in similar circumstances have already resulted in Spanish America, and especially in Mexico. He believes, nevertheless, that the citizens of those States, as well as the citizens of the other States, are too intelligent, considerate, and wise to follow the leaders to that disastrous end. For these reasons he would not be disposed to reject a cardinal dogma of theirs, namely, that the federal government could not reduce the seceding States to obedience by conquest, even although he were disposed to question that proposition. But, in fact, the President willingly accepts it as true. Only an imperial or despotic government could subjugate thoroughly disaffected and insurrectionary members of the State. This federal republican system of ours is of all forms of government the very one which is most unfitted for such a labor. Happily, however, this is only an imaginary defect. The system has within itself adequate, peaceful, conservative, and recuperative forces. Firmness on the part of the government in maintaining and preserving the public institutions and property, and in executing the laws where authority can be exercised without waging war, combined with such measures of justice, moderation, and forbearance as will disarm reasoning opposition, will be sufficient to secure the public safety until returning reflection, concurring with the fearful experience of social evils, the inevitable fruits of faction, shall bring the recusant members cheerfully back into the family, which, after all, must prove their best and happiest, as it undeniably is their most natural home. The Constitution of the United States provides for that return by authorizing Congress, on application to be made by a certain majority of the States, to assemble a national convention, in which the organic law can, if it be needful, be revised so as to remove all real obstacles to a reunion, so suitable to the habits of the people, and so eminently conducive to the common safety and welfare.
Keeping that remedy steadily in view, the President, on the one hand, will not suffer the federal authority to fall into abeyance, nor will he, on the other, aggravate existing evils by attempts at coercion which must assume the form of direct war against any of the revolutionary States. If, while he is pursuing this course, commended as it is by prudence as well as patriotism, the scourge of civil war for the first time in our history must fall upon our country during the term of his administration, that calamity will then have come through the agency, not of the government, but of those who shall have chosen to be its armed, open, and irreconcilable enemies; and he will not suffer himself to doubt that when the value of the imperilled Union shall be brought in that fearful manner home to the business and the bosoms of the American people, they will, with an unanimity that shall vindicate their wisdom and their virtue, rise up and save it.
It does not, however, at all surprise the President that the confidence in the stability of the Union, which has been heretofore so universally entertained, has been violently shocked both at home and abroad. Surprise and fear invariably go together. The period of four months which intervened between the election which designated the head of the new administration and its advent, as has already been shown, assumed the character of an interregnum, in which not only were the powers of the government paralyzed, but even its resources seemed to disappear and be forgotten.
Nevertheless, all the world know what are the resources of the United States, and that they are practically unencumbered as well as inexhaustible. It would be easy, if it would not seem invidious, to show that whatever may be the full development of the disunion movement, those resources will not be seriously diminished, and that the revenues and credit of the Union, unsurpassed in any other country, are adequate to every emergency that can occur in our own. Nor will the political commotions which await us sensibly disturb the confidence of the people in the stability of the government. It has been necessary for us to learn, perhaps the instruction has not come too soon, that vicissitudes are incident to our system and our country, as they are to all others. The panic which that instruction naturally produced is nearly past. What has hitherto been most needful for the reinvigoration of authority is already occurring. The aiders, abettors, and sympathizers with disunion, partly by their own choice and partly through the exercise of the public will, are falling out from the civil departments of the government as well as from the army and the navy. The national legislature will no longer be a distracted council. Our representatives in foreign courts and ports will henceforth speak only the language of loyalty to their country, and of confidence in its institutions and its destiny.
It is much to be deplored that our representatives are to meet abroad agents of disunion, seeking foreign aid to effect what, unaided, is already seen to be desperate. You need not be informed that their success in Great Britain would probably render their success easy elsewhere. The President does not doubt that you fully appreciate the responsibility of your mission. An honored ancestor of yours was the first to represent your whole country, after its independence was established, at the same court to which you now are accredited. The President feels assured that it will happen through no want of loyalty or of diligence on your part if you are to be the last to discharge that trust. You will have this great advantage, that from the hour when that country, so dear to us all, first challenged the notice of nations, until now, it has continually grown in their sympathy and reverence.
Before considering the arguments you are to use, it is important to [indicate] those which you are not to employ in executing that mission:
First. The President has noticed, as the whole American people have, with much emotion, the expressions of good will and friendship toward the United States, and of concern for their present embarrassments, which have been made on apt occasions by her Majesty and her ministers. You will make due acknowledgment for these manifestations, but at the same time you will not rely on any mere sympathies or national kindness. You will make no admissions of weakness in our Constitution, or of apprehension on the part of the government. You will rather prove, as you easily can, by comparing the history of our country with that of other states, that its Constitution and government are really the strongest and surest which have ever been erected for the safety of any people. You will in no case listen to any suggestions of compromise by this government, under foreign auspices, with its discontented citizens. If, as the President does not at all apprehend, you shall unhappily find her Majesty's government tolerating the application of the so-called seceding States, or wavering about it, you will not leave them to suppose for a moment that they can grant that application and remain the friends of the United States. You may even assure them promptly in that case that if they determine to recognize, they may at the same time prepare to enter into alliance with the enemies of this republic. You alone will represent your country at London, and you will represent the whole of it there. When you are asked to divide that duty with others, diplomatic relations between the government of Great Britain and this government will be suspended, and will remain so until it shall be seen which of the two is most strongly entrenched in the confidence of their respective nations and of mankind.
You will not be allowed, however, even if you were disposed, as the President is sure you will not be, to rest your opposition to the application of the Confederate States on the ground of any favor this administration, or the party which chiefly called it into existence, proposes to show to Great Britain, or claims that Great Britain ought to show to them. You will not consent to draw into debate before the British government any opposing moral principles which may be supposed to lie at the foundation of the controversy between those States and the federal Union
You will indulge in no expressions of harshness or disrespect, or even impatience, concerning the seceding States, their agents, or their people. But you will, on the contrary, all the while remember that those States are now, as they always heretofore have been, and, notwithstanding their temporary self-delusion, they must always continue to be, equal and honored members of this federal Union, and that their citizens throughout all political misunderstandings and alienations still are and always must be our kindred and countrymen. In short, all your arguments must belong to one of three classes, namely: First. Arguments drawn from the principles of public law and natural justice, which regulate the intercourse of equal States. Secondly. Arguments which concern equally the honor, welfare, and happiness of the discontented States, and the honor, welfare, and happiness of the whole Union. Thirdly. Arguments which are equally conservative of the rights and interests, and even sentiments of the United States, and just in their bearing upon the rights, interests, and sentiments of Great Britain and all other nations.
We freely admit that a nation may, and even ought, to recognize a new State which has absolutely and beyond question effected its independence, and permanently established its sovereignty; and that a recognition in such a case affords no just cause of offence to the government of the country from which the new State has so detached itself. On the other hand, we insist that a nation that recognizes a revolutionary State, with a view to aid its effecting its sovereignty and independence, commits a great wrong against the nation whose integrity is thus invaded, and makes itself responsible for a just and ample redress.
I will not stop to inquire whether it may not sometimes happen that an imperial government or even a federative one may not so oppress or aggrieve its subjects in a province or in a State as to justify intervention on the plea of humanity. Her Majesty's government, however, will not make a pretence that the present is such a case. The United States have existed under their present form of government seventy and more years, and during all that time not one human life has been taken in forfeiture for resistance to their authority. It must be the verdict of history that no government so just, so equal, and so humane, has ever elsewhere existed. Even the present disunion movement is confessedly without any better cause than an apprehension of dangers which, from the very nature of the government, are impossible; and speculations of aggressions, which those who know the physical and social arrangements of this continent must see at once are fallacious and chimerical.
The disunionists will, I am sure, take no such ground. They will appeal, not to the justice, or to the magnanimity, but to the cupidity and caprice of Great Britain.
It cannot need many words to show that even in that form their appeal ought to be promptly dismissed. I am aware that the revenue law lately passed by Congress is vehemently denounced in Great Britain. It might be enough to say on that subject that as the United States and Great Britain are equals in dignity, and not unequal in astuteness in the science and practice of political economy, the former have good right to regard only their own convenience, and consult their own judgment in framing their revenue laws. But there are some points in this connexion which you may make without compromising the self-respect of this government.
In the circumstances of the present case, it is clear that a recognition of the so-called Confederate nations must be deemed equivalent to a deliberate resolution by her Majesty's government that this American Union, which has so long constituted a sovereign nation, shall be now permanently dissolved, and cease to exist forever. The excuse for this resolution, fraught, if effectual, with fearful and enduring consequences, is a change in its revenue laws — a change which, because of its very nature, as well as by reason of the ever-changing course of public sentiment, must necessarily be temporary and ephemeral. British censors tell us that the new tariff is unwise for ourselves. If so, it will speedily be repealed. They say it is illiberal and injurious to Great Britain. It cannot be so upon her principles without being also injurious to ourselves, and in that case it will be promptly repealed. Besides, there certainly are other and more friendly remedies for foreign legislation that is injurious without premeditated purpose of injury, which a magnanimous government will try before it deliberately seeks the destruction of the offended nation.
The application of the so-called Confederate States, in the aspect now under consideration, assumes that they are offering, or will offer, more liberal commercial facilities than the United States can or will be disposed to concede. Would it not be wise for Great Britain to wait until those liberal facilities shall be definitely fixed and offered by the Confederate States, and then to wait further and see whether the United States may not accord facilities not less desirable?
The union of these States seventy years ago established perfectly free trade between the several States, and this, in effect, is free trade throughout the largest inhabitable part of North America. During all, that time, with occasional and very brief intervals, not affecting the result, we have been constantly increasing in commercial liberality towards foreign nations. We have made that advance necessarily, because, with increasing liberality, we have at the same time, owing to controlling causes, continually augmented our revenues and increased our own productions. The sagacity of the British government cannot allow it to doubt that our natural course hereafter in this respect must continue to be the same as heretofore.
The same sagacity may be trusted to decide, first, whether the so-called Confederate States, on the emergency of a military revolution, and having no other sources of revenue than duties on imports and exports levied within the few ports they can command without a naval force, are likely to be able to persevere in practicing the commercial liberality they proffer as an equivalent for recognition. Manifestly, moreover, the negotiation which they propose to open with Great Britain implies that peace is to be preserved while the new commerce goes on. The sagacity of her Majesty's government may be trusted to consider whether that new government is likely to be inaugurated without war, and whether the commerce of Great Britain with this country would be likely to be improved by flagrant war between the southern and northern States.
Again, even a very limited examination of commercial statistics will be sufficient to show that while the staples of the disaffected States do, indeed, as they claim, constitute a very important portion of the exports of the United States to European countries, a very large portion of the products and fabrics of other regions consumed in those States are derived, and must continue to be derived, not from Europe, but from the northern States, while the chief consumption of European productions and fabrics imported into the United States takes place in these same States. Great Britain may, if her government think best, by modifying her navigation laws, try to change these great features of American commerce; but it will require something more than acts of the British Parliament and of the proposed revolutionary Congress to modify a commerce that takes its composite character from all the various soils and climates of a continent, as well as from the diversified institutions, customs and dispositions of the many communities which inhabit it.
Once more: All the speculations which assume that the revenue law recently passed by Congress will diminish the consumption of foreign fabrics and productions in the United States are entirely erroneous. The American people are active, industrious, inventive, and energetic, but they are not penurious or sordid. They are engaged with wonderful effect in developing the mineral, forest, agricultural and pastoral resources of a vast and, practically, new continent. Their wealth, individual as well as public, increases every day in a general sense, irrespective of the revenue laws of the United States, and every day also the habit of liberal — not to say profuse — expenditure grows upon them. There are changes in the nature and character of imported productions which they consume, but practically no decline in the quantity and value of imports.
It remains to bring out distinctly a consideration to which I have already adverted. Great Britain has within the last forty-five years changed character and purpose. She has become a power for production, rather than a power for destruction. She is committed, as it seems to us, to a policy of industry, not of ambition; a policy of peace, not of war. One has only to compare her present domestic condition with that of any former period to see that this new career on which she has entered is as wise as it is humane and beneficent. Her success in this career requires peace throughout the civilized world, and nowhere so much as on this continent. Recognition by her of the so-called Confederate States would be intervention and war in this country. Permanent dismemberment of the American Union in consequence of that intervention would be perpetual war — civil war. The new confederacy which in that case Great Britain would have aided into existence must, like any other new state, seek to expand itself northward, westward, and southward. What part of this continent or of the adjacent islands would be expected to remain in peace?
The President would regard it as inconsistent with his habitually high consideration for the government and people of Great Britain to allow me to dwell longer on the merely commercial aspects of the question under discussion. Indeed he will not for a moment believe that, upon consideration of merely financial gain, that government could be induced to lend its aid to a revolution designed to overthrow the institutions of this country, and involving ultimately the destruction of the liberties of the American people.
To recognize the independence of a new state, and so favor, possibly determine, its admission into the family of nations, is the highest possible exercise of sovereign power, because it affects in any case the welfare of two nations, and often the peace of the world. In the European system this power is now seldom attempted to be exercised without invoking a consultation or congress of nations. That system has not been extended to this continent. But there is even a greater necessity for prudence in such cases in regard to American States than in regard to the nations of Europe. A revolutionary change of dynasty or even a disorganization and recombination of one or many States, therefore, do not long or deeply affect the general interests of society, because the ways of trade and habits of society remain the same. But a radical change effected in the political combinations existing on the continent, followed, as it probably would be, by moral convulsions of incalculable magnitude, would threaten the stability of society throughout the world.
Humanity has indeed little to hope for if it shall, in this age of high improvement, be decided without a trial that the principle of international law which regards nations as moral persons, bound so to act as to do to each other the least injury and the most good, is merely an abstraction too refined to be reduced into practice by the enlightened nations of Western Europe. Seen in the light of this principle, the several nations of the earth constitute one great federal republic. When one of them casts its suffrages for the admission of a new member into that republic, it ought to act under a profound sense of moral obligation, and be governed by considerations as pure, disinterested, and elevated as the general interest of society and the advancement of human nature.
The British empire itself is an aggregation of divers communities which cover a large portion of the earth and embrace one-fifth of its entire population. Some, at least, of these communities are held to their places in that system by bonds as fragile as the obligations of our own federal Union. The strain will some time come which is to try the strength of these bonds, though it will be of a different kind from that which is trying the cords of our confederation. Would it be wise for her Majesty's government, on this occasion, to set a dangerous precedent, or provoke retaliation? If Scotland and Ireland are at last reduced to quiet contentment, has Great Britain no dependency, island, or province left exposed along the whole circle of her empire, from Gibraltar through the West Indies and Canada till it begins again on the southern extremity of Africa?
The President will not dwell on the pleasing recollection that Great Britain, not yet a year ago, manifested by marked attention to the United States her desire for a cordial reunion which, all ancient prejudices and passions being buried, should be a pledge of mutual interest and sympathy forever thereafter. The United States are not indifferent to the circumstances of common descent, language, customs, sentiments, and religion, which recommend a closer sympathy between themselves and Great Britain than either might expect in its intercourse with any other nation. The United States are one of many nations which have sprung from Great Britain herself. Other such nations are rising up in various parts of the globe. It has been thought by many who have studied the philosophy of modern history profoundly, that the success of the nations thus deriving their descent from Great Britain might, through many ages, reflect back upon that kingdom the proper glories of its own great career. The government and people of Great Britain may mistake their commercial interests, but they cannot become either unnatural or indifferent to the impulses of an undying ambition to be distinguished as the leaders of the nations in the ways of civilization and humanity.
I am, sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,
WILLIAM H. SEWARD.
SOURCE: Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1861, Message of the President of the United States and Accompanying Documents, from the Department of State, p. 71-80