The President addressed me a letter, directing additional instructions and of a more explicit character to our naval officers in relation to their conduct at neutral ports. In doing this, the President takes occasion to compliment the administration of the Navy in terms most commendatory and gratifying.
The proposed instructions are in language almost identical with certain letters which have passed between Mr. Seward and Lord Lyons, which the former submitted to me and requested me to adopt. My answer was not what the Secretary and Minister had agreed between themselves should be my policy and action. The President has therefore been privately interviewed and persuaded to write me, — an unusual course with him and which he was evidently reluctant to do. He earnestly desires to keep on terms of peace with England and, as he says to me in his letter, to sustain the present Ministry, which the Secretary of State assures him is a difficult matter, requiring all his dexterity and ability, — hence constant derogatory concessions.
In all of this Mr. Seward's subservient policy, or want of a policy, is perceptible. He has no convictions, no fixed principles, no rule of action, but is governed and moved by impulse, fancied expediency, and temporary circumstances. We injure neither ourselves nor Great Britain by an honest and firm maintenance of our rights, but Mr. Seward is in constant trepidation lest the Navy Department or some naval officer shall embroil us in a war, or make trouble with England. Lord Lyons is cool and sagacious, and is well aware of our premier's infirmities, who in his fears yields everything almost before it is asked. Hence the remark of Historicus (Sir Vernon Harcourt) that “the fear of England is not that the Americans will yield too little but that we shall take too much.” That able writer has the sagacity to see, and the frankness to say, that the time will come when England will have a war on her hands and Americans will be neutrals.
The President has a brief reply to Governor Seymour's rejoinder, which is very well. Stanton said to me he wished the President would stop letter-writing, for which he has a liking and particularly when he feels he has facts and right [on his side]. I might not disagree with Stanton as regards some correspondence, but I think the President has been more successful with Seymour than some others. His own letters and writings are generally unpretending and abound in good sense.
Seward informs me in confidence that he has, through Mr. Adams, made an energetic protest to Great Britain against permitting the ironclads to leave England, distinctly informing the Ministry that it would be considered by us as a declaration of war. The result is, he says, the ironclads will not leave England. I have uniformly insisted that such would be the case if we took decided ground and the Ministry were satisfied we were in earnest.
Spain, Seward says, had been seduced with schemes to help the Rebels, and was to have taken an active part in intervention, or acknowledging the independence of the Confederates, but on learning the course of Roebuck, and after the discussion in the British Parliament, Spain had hastened to say she should not interfere in behalf of the Rebels. But Tassara, the Spanish Minister, under positive instructions, had on the 9th inst. given our government formal notice that after sixty days Spain would insist that her jurisdiction over Cuba extended six miles instead of the marine league from low-water mark. To this Seward said he replied we should not assent; that we could not submit to a menace, especially at such a time as this; that the subject of marine jurisdiction is a question of international law in which all maritime nations have an interest, and it was not for Spain or any one or two countries to set it aside.
He says Lord Lyons has been to him with a complaint that a British vessel having Rebel property on board had been seized in violation of the admitted principle that free ships made free goods. But he advised Lord L. to get all the facts and submit them, etc.
From some cause Seward sought this interview and was unusually communicative. Whether the President's letter, which originated with him, as he must be aware I fully understand, had an influence in opening his mouth and heart I know not. His confidential communication to me should have been said in full Cabinet. In the course of our conversation, Seward said “some of the facts had leaked out through the President, who was apt to be communicative.
The condition of the country and the future of the Rebel States and of slavery are rising questions on which there are floating opinions. No clear, distinct, and well-defined line of policy has as yet been indicated by the Administration. I have no doubt there is, and will be, diversity of views in the Cabinet whenever the subject is brought up. A letter from Whiting, Solicitor of the War Department, has been recently published, quite characteristic of the man. Not unlikely Stanton may have suggested, or assented to, this document, by which some are already swearing their political faith. Mr. Whiting is in high favor at the War and State Departments, and on one occasion the President endorsed him to me. I think little of him. He is ready with expedients but not profound in his opinions; is a plausible advocate rather than a correct thinker, more of a patent lawyer than a statesman. His elaborate letter does not in my estimation add one inch to his stature.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 398-400