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How Abraham Lincoln’s foreign policy helped win the Civil War

Why Lincoln’s “one war at a time” doctrine saved the Union.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States and arguably one of its best presidents on foreign policy.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States and arguably one of its best presidents on foreign policy.
Alexander Gardner/Getty Images

What do you think of when you think of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln? The Emancipation Proclamation? His victory in the Civil War? The passing of the 13th Amendment to eventually abolish slavery?

That’s what most Americans think of, and it makes sense: Most books and courses about Lincoln, for pretty obvious reasons, focus on those historic triumphs. But here’s some Presidents Day trivia for you: Lincoln was arguably one of the best presidents on foreign policy in American history.

Yes, seriously.

At least, that’s the argument Kevin Peraino makes in Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesmen and the Dawn of American Power. Peraino notes that Lincoln, who didn’t really travel or speak foreign languages, had an innate feel for the world.

For example, he kept major European powers — mainly Britain — from intervening during the Civil War and thwarting the Union’s plans. He didn’t engage when foreign nations started nearby wars. And he leveraged new technological advancements, like the proliferation of newspapers and faster transportation, to influence global public opinion to his cause.

I spoke with Peraino about why he thinks Lincoln’s foreign policy was so successful, what Lincoln can teach those sitting in the Oval Office now and in the future, and why — starting this Presidents Day — you should really start thinking about Lincoln as a global statesman.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.


Alex Ward

What’s the main thing you would want people to understand about Lincoln’s foreign policy?

Kevin Peraino

We don’t think of Lincoln as a foreign policy president at all. The closest thing he came to traveling overseas was going to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, and he spoke no foreign languages.

But my contention is that in the end, he turned out to be a pretty good foreign policy president — and quite an important one.

Alex Ward

What were his accomplishments, then?

Kevin Peraino

First, I should mention that he had a really accomplished secretary of state in William Henry Seward, and so Lincoln didn’t do everything himself.

But I think the biggest thing he did was keep the European powers from intervening on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. And there were a series of tests that, if he’d handled them badly, could have led to war and could’ve changed the course of American history.

Alex Ward

What’s the best example of that?

Kevin Peraino

One classic moment was the Trent Affair in 1861. It happened toward the beginning of the Civil War, which started off badly for Lincoln.

A couple of renegade Union sailors captured two Confederate diplomats traveling on a British mail ship to Europe. The sailors imprisoned the diplomats, which buoyed Lincoln and many in the Union because it was viewed as a big victory.

But the British were outraged by this, and Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, sent troops to Canada. There was a real, palpable risk of war during this crisis.

Lincoln smartly played both sides. He talked tough about the situation, but in the end he released the men — on Seward’s advice — and averted a serious crisis. However, Britain maintained its position of neutrality in the war after the fact. That was a blow to both the Union and the Confederacy, who’d each hoped to ally with London.

September 22, 1862: Abraham Lincoln at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
September 22, 1862: Abraham Lincoln at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alex Ward

So Lincoln finds a way to calm the crisis by not provoking more British anger. What else did he do?

Kevin Peraino

Another good example is when France invaded Mexico in the middle of the Civil War. There were a lot of people in the press and in Congress calling for an invasion of Mexico to oust Napoleon III’s troops.

But Lincoln resisted, mainly so that he wouldn’t antagonize Napoleon III and push him to support the Confederacy. So that was probably a good decision. That didn’t mean he didn’t weigh in on foreign issues, though.

In the 1850s, Lajos Kossuth led a revolution in Hungary to separate from Austria. Before he became president, Lincoln had spoken out in favor of the revolutionaries and celebrated Kossuth. But he felt it was a sacred principle of international law not to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries.

Alex Ward

Lincoln’s reluctance to intervene abroad or antagonize strongmen sounds similar to President Donald Trump’s worldview. The two men are certainly not comparable in most ways, but it does seem like they share that outlook, at least.

Kevin Peraino

I think Trump and Lincoln were nothing alike in one of the most important ways, which is temperamentally. Lincoln was fundamentally a humble person, and that sort of suffused his diplomacy. Trump is not, at all.

But another thing to keep in mind is that the times were very different. We’re talking about a period where Britain was the economic superpower of the time. In the mid-19th century, if the US didn’t take a bigger role internationally, the British still would. Today, if the US doesn’t stay involved in the world, no one will.

So I don’t think it’s fair to say that Lincoln wasn’t an internationalist. He was very much about cultivating the American economy in the hope that the United States would emerge as a great power in the long run.

Alex Ward

You make a point in your book that Lincoln understood the changes happening around him and understood the power of the president’s platform to persuade. Did that contribute to his foreign policy success?

Kevin Peraino

Lincoln’s time in office was a period of intense globalization in the mid-19th century: steam ships, railroads, and the telegraph were really shrinking the world. Lincoln did his best to seize those new tools of diplomacy to make his case.

Take the Emancipation Proclamation: He used his presidential megaphone to speak directly to European workers, whom he felt might have the power to sway British opinion makers to intervene in the Civil War, which Lincoln wanted to prevent.

So part of his logic in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation is that he wanted to make a dramatic gesture that would catch the attention of the newspapers and public opinion not only at home, but also abroad.

October 1862: President Abraham Lincoln visiting soldiers encamped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland. It was one of the bloodiest in the whole American Civil War.
October 1862: President Abraham Lincoln visiting soldiers encamped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland. It was one of the bloodiest in the whole American Civil War.
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Alex Ward

But Lincoln’s time was full of pretty ruthless, brutal leaders. How did he keep them at bay with what seems like just his words?

Kevin Peraino

Lincoln felt like the most important thing that he could do to keep these hard-nosed European powers from intervening in the war was to win the war at home. He felt like the United States had to win the Civil War, and it wasn’t going to win if it was embroiled in a war in Mexico or with Britain.

He felt that demonstration of strength at home would have an impact on the minds of European statesmen.

Alex Ward

So is it fair to say that while the Civil War was primarily a domestic conflict, it was fought with foreign policy somewhat in mind?

Kevin Peraino

Absolutely. It had huge global implications.

Alex Ward

It seems like Britain was the European power that cared most about America during Lincoln’s time in office. Why?

Kevin Peraino

Palmerston wanted to see the US fall to pieces. On an emotional level, he was happy to see these rebellious American colonies having problems.

But Palmerston was a realist. He wasn’t a fan of open-ended foreign adventures. And so I think he realized that it wasn’t necessarily the smartest move for Britain to get involved in the crisis.

There were some in Britain who wanted to intervene on the side of the Confederacy, because British factories needed Southern cotton. Others, some of them factory workers, supported the Union because they believed in abolishing slavery. Britain had actually abolished slavery much earlier than the US and the nation mainly felt that their sympathies about slavery were much closer to the Union.

In the end, Lincoln and Seward’s work in making a moral case for what America would stand for ended up basically persuading the British to stay out.

Alex Ward

You mentioned Seward played a big role in Lincoln’s foreign policy. What did he do?

Kevin Peraino

He did almost everything Lincoln didn’t. He had traveled quite a bit and he handled pretty much all the day-to-day diplomacy.

But Seward could also be a hothead. Just before the battle at Fort Sumter, which kicked off the Civil War, Spain sent troops to Santo Domingo and the Caribbean. Seward wanted to declare war on Spain, or at least said he wanted to. Lincoln dialed him back during that period, though, and it wasn’t the first time Lincoln had to restrain his secretary’s aggression.

Alex Ward

So where did Lincoln’s foreign policy go wrong?

Kevin Peraino

Well, he actually did send troops to the border with Mexico during Napoleon’s invasion. He didn’t invade, as I said, but he diverted troops from the war at home. So that was a major mistake.

The statue of former President Lincoln looms in the distance as tourists visit the Lincoln Memorial on December 22, 2018, in Washington, DC.
The statue of former President Lincoln looms in the distance as tourists visit the Lincoln Memorial on December 22, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Alex Ward

What’s the biggest lesson Lincoln can teach us about how to conduct foreign policy today?

Kevin Peraino

First, patience. John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary at the time and later chief diplomat, said that “the virtue of patience” is “one of the cardinal elements of [Lincoln’s] character.” Lincoln really knew when to make decisions and when not to. And I think that’s a really useful skill in foreign affairs.

Second, temperament. Lincoln was naturally diplomatic. He would tell a story or a joke and get himself out of tricky diplomatic spots. I think his humor proved very useful.

Third, prudence. Lincoln was essentially a prudent person. He wasn’t a pacifist, he wasn’t an isolationist — that term wasn’t even used at this time — but he was prudent about the decisions that he made, and I think that served him well.

That said, he never lost his idealism. Lincoln was very much an American exceptionalist in a lot of ways. He was always willing to share his ideals, to use them as a tool of soft power, to propound them in the public arena. But I think when it came to actions, he was very cautious about overextending himself, especially during a crisis so dramatic as the Civil War.

Alex Ward

I know this is almost an impossible task, but if you had to describe it, what’s the Lincoln Doctrine?

Kevin Peraino

Lincoln said it himself: “One war at a time.” And I think that’s the bumper sticker for Lincoln. He just didn’t want to do anything during the Civil War that was going to make his job at home more difficult.

That’s how he led the country, and set the stage for American power in the decades since.