Had a call last evening and again to-day from Senator Sumner. Our conversation was chiefly on our foreign relations, the unfortunate condition of public affairs, the inexcusable attitude of England, and the question of letters of marque. On the latter subject he is much dissatisfied with Mr. Seward. He informs me that he was opposed to the passage of the law at the late session, and is, I am glad to see, quite sensitive on the subject. I thought the law well enough as a precautionary measure, a warning to the mischievous spirits abroad, an authorization to the President in case of necessity, and especially as a weapon to coerce England into propriety. The power granted was extraordinary and to be used with discretion, but Mr. Seward, having obtained the authority, is disposed to exercise it. The merchants having been loud and profuse in their complaints and promises, he has taken it for granted that they would at once avail themselves of the law, and make a rush in a random search for a couple of lean and hungry wolves that are abroad, which would be difficult to catch and valueless when caught. I have questioned whether he could beguile merchants into such an investment, and he begins to feel uneasy that none have come forward as he expected.
In a letter which I commenced some days since and finished Saturday night, I put upon paper some of the suggestions, views, and doubts I have from time to time expressed in our discussions. This letter I gave out to be copied, and it was on my table for signature when I returned yesterday from Cabinet council. The English news was such that I laid it aside unsigned, and it was lying on the table when Sumner came in. He stated, among other things, he had been to the State Department and that Seward had given him the substance of the last dispatches. He asked if I had seen them. I answered that I had, and was so disgusted with them that I had laid by a letter which I had prepared in opposition to the current feeling which prevailed on the subject of letters of marque. He wished to read it, and after doing so complimented the letter with emphasis, and begged I would sign and send it.
Informed Admiral Foote that the Secretary of State desired he should go to New York in the service of the State Department, on the subject of letters of marque. He expressed his readiness to obey orders, but asked the object of detailing him. I gave him an outline of proceedings and what appeared to be the purpose of Mr. Seward, which was not very clear, or could not be plainly stated. No doubt he believes it will give importance to the Secretary of State to have a naval officer of the standing of Foote attached to the State Department and acting under its orders.
The President called at my house this evening, chiefly to see the letter which I had prepared concerning letters of marque. Senator Sumner had gone directly from the Navy Department to him, and so made known his gratification at my views and the manner in which I had stated them that the curiosity of the President was excited and he desired to read the letter. I informed him that the last thing I did before leaving the Department was to sign and send it to the Secretary of State; that I perhaps should not have done it, though, as he (the President) was aware, I had differed with him and others on this subject and looked upon it as a dangerous step, but since reading the last English dispatches, I was less opposed to the measure than I had been.
The opportunity being favorable and he disposed to converse and apparently interested in my remarks, I took occasion to enlarge upon the topic more fully than I had done in our Cabinet discussions. I started out with the proposition that to issue letters of marque would in all probability involve us in a war with England. [I said] that I had so viewed this question from the beginning, though he and Mr. Seward had not; that I was not prepared to deny that it might not be best for us to move promptly with that object in view, though it had not yet been urged or stated; but that if we were to resort to letters of marque we should do it understandingly and with all the consequences before us. The idea that private parties would send out armed ships to capture the Alabama and one, possibly two, other rovers of the Rebels was too absurd to be thought of for a moment. If privateers were fitted out for any purpose it would be to capture neutral vessels intended to run the blockade or supposed to be in that service. It was not difficult for us to foresee that such a power in private hands would degenerate into an abuse for which this Government would be held responsible. The Rebels have no commerce to invite private enterprise. So far as the Rebels were concerned, therefore, I had been opposed to committing the Government to the measure. But the disclosures recently made had given a different aspect to the question. There was little doubt the British Government and British capital were encouraging the rebellion; that that Government intended to interpose no obstacle to prevent the sending out of privateers from British ports to depredate upon our commerce; that these privateers, though sailing under the Confederate flag, would be the property of British merchants; that the rich plunder would repay the lawless English adventurer, knowing he had the sanction of his Government; that this combination of British capital with Rebel malignity and desperation would despoil our commerce and drive it from the seas. Our countrymen would not quietly submit to these wrongs and outrages, and allow Englishmen to make war upon us in disguise under the Rebel flag. We ought, therefore, to have an immediate and distinct understanding with the English Government. It should be informed in terms that could not be mistaken or misunderstood that if this policy was persisted in we should in self-defense be under the necessity of resorting to reprisals. In this view the law which authorized letters of marque had appeared to me proper, and might be made useful as a menace and admonition to England; and I repeated what I had said to the Secretary of State in reply to a remark of his that we must make more extensive naval operations against the Rebels by issuing letters of marque to annoy them, — that letters of marque, instead of annoying them, destitute as they were of commerce, would aid them, for that step would involve war with England. If the Secretary of State would be less yielding and more decisive in asserting our rights with that power, it would, I thought, be better for the country.
I then opened on the subject generally. England is taking advantage of our misfortunes and would press upon us just as far as we would bear to be pressed. She rejoiced in our dissensions and desired the dismemberment of the Union. With this rebellion on our hands we were in no condition for a war with her, and it was because we were in this condition that she was arrogant and presuming. A higher and more decisive tone towards her will secure a different policy on her part. A war with England would be a serious calamity to us, but scarcely less serious to her. She cannot afford a maritime conflict with us, even in our troubles, nor will she. We can live within ourselves if worse comes to worse. Our territory is compact, facing both oceans, and in latitudes which furnish us in abundance without foreign aid all the necessaries and most of the luxuries of life; but England has a colonial system which was once her strength, but is her weakness in these days and with such a people as our countrymen to contend with. Her colonies are scattered over the globe. We could, with our public and private armed ships, interrupt and destroy her communication with her dependencies, her colonies, on which she is as dependent for prosperity as they on her.
I was therefore in favor of meeting her face to face, asking only what is right but submitting to nothing that is wrong.
If the late dispatches are to be taken as the policy she intends to pursue, it means war, and if war is to come it looks to me as of a magnitude greater than the world has ever experienced, — as if it would eventuate in the upheaval of nations, the overthrow of governments and dynasties. The sympathies of the mass of mankind would be with us rather than with the decaying dynasties and the old effete governments. Not unlikely the conflict thus commenced would kindle the torch of civil war throughout Christendom, and even nations beyond. I desired no such conflict in my day, and therefore hoped and believed the policy and tone of England might be modified, but it would require energy, resolution, and a firm determination on our part to effect it.
The President listened, for I did most of the talking, as he evidently wished, and showed much interest and accord in what I said. He assented consequently to most that I uttered and controverted nothing. It was evident I suggested some ideas that had not before occurred to him, and I am not without hope that the tone of our foreign affairs, particularly with England, may be different.
The President spoke, as he always has done with me, doubtingly of Porter's schemes on the Mississippi, or rather the side movements to the Yazoo on the east and Red River on the west. Said the long delay of Du Pont, his constant call for more ships, more ironclads, was like McClellan calling for more regiments. Thought the two men were alike, and said he was prepared for a repulse at Charleston.
[The letter referred to above was signed and sent with date of March 31.]
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 251-9