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A captivating look at how Abraham Lincoln evolved into one of our seminal foreign-policy presidents—and helped point the way to America’s rise to world power.
Abraham Lincoln is not often remembered as a great foreign-policy president. He had never traveled overseas and spoke no foreign languages. And yet, during the Civil War, Lincoln and his team skillfully managed to stare down the Continent’s great powers—deftly avoiding European intervention on the side of the Confederacy. In the process, the United States emerged as a world power in its own right.
Engaging, insightful, and highly original, Lincoln in the World is a tale set at the intersection of personal character and national power. Focusing on five distinct, intensely human conflicts that helped define Lincoln’s approach to foreign affairs—from his debate, as a young congressman, with his law partner over the conduct of the Mexican War, to his deadlock with Napoleon III over the French occupation of Mexico—and bursting with colorful characters like Lincoln’s bowie-knife-wielding minister to Russia, Cassius Marcellus Clay; the cunning French empress, Eugénie; and the hapless Mexican monarch Maximilian, Lincoln in the World draws a finely wrought portrait of a president and his team at the dawn of American power.
Anchored by meticulous research into overlooked archives, Lincoln in the World reveals the sixteenth president to be one of America’s indispensable diplomats—and a key architect of America’s emergence as a global superpower. Much has been written about how Lincoln saved the Union, but Lincoln in the World highlights the lesser-known—yet equally vital—role he played on the world stage during those tumultuous years of war and division.
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Lincoln vs. Herndon
Abraham lincoln was nervous. the floor of the u.s. house of representatives in the 1840s was not a particularly pleasant place to give a speech—especially the first major effort of a freshman congressman’s career. The chamber was designed to resemble the Roman Pantheon, framed by marble pillars and crimson drapes, but it reminded more than one visitor of an unruly schoolhouse. Members kicked their heels up on the mahogany desks, hollered at the speaker, rustled newspapers, puffed on cigars, and spat plugs of tobacco on the filthy carpet. The noise, amplified by a cavernous, sixty-foot ceiling, reminded one visitor of “a hundred swarms of bees.” One of Lincoln’s fellow Illinoisans complained that he “would prefer speaking in a pig pen with 500 hogs squealing” or talking “to a mob when a fight is going on” than trying to keep the attention of his colleagues. It was, he recalled, “the most stupid place generally I was ever in.”
Lincoln was accustomed to speaking before juries, but he could never completely suppress the butterflies. Thirty-eight years old, a “rail in broadcloth,” the gentleman from Illinois presented an arresting figure. His suits, more often than not, were rumpled, and his pants tended to hover above his ankles. His law partner at the time, William Herndon, described Lincoln as a “sinewy, grisly” character, with an unruly mop of hair that “lay floating where the fingers or the winds left it, piled up at random.” Regardless of his appearance, Lincoln knew on this day that he was likely to get the House’s attention. He had decided to pick a fight over the origins of the Mexican War, the two-year-old conflict that promised—or threatened—to remake the American West.
Lincoln had been laying the groundwork for his speech for weeks. He had voted for fellow representative George Ashmun’s resolution condemning the 1846 American invasion of Mexico as unnecessary and unconstitutional. President James K. Polk claimed that the conflict was a war of self-defense, retaliation for attacks by Mexican guerrillas. Lincoln wasn’t buying. He demanded to know “the particular spot of soil” where American blood had been shed, insisting that U.S. troops had provoked the war by aggressively pushing into contested land
In the red-and-gold House chamber, with its plaster statue of Liberty and its large portraits of Washington and Lafayette, Lincoln went on the attack. He insisted in his high-pitched tenor that his “first impulse” regarding Mexico had been to “remain silent on that point, at least till the war should be ended.” Yet he finally determined that “I can not be silent, if I would.” Lincoln compared Polk to a shifty lawyer trying to defend a hopeless case. The president “is deeply conscious of being in the wrong,” Lincoln told the chamber. He “feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.” Young Hickory, as Polk was known, had been deluded by dreams of military glory: “that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy.” The freshman congressman’s attacks quickly grew uncomfortably personal. The president, he boomed, was “a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man,” whose “mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature, on a burning surface.” Polk’s justifications were nothing more than “the half-insane mumbling of a fever dream.”
Lincoln spoke quickly as he made his case against Polk, emphasizing his points with an “abundance of gesture.” As a young legislator, Lincoln could be an uneven speaker, shifting on his feet and ranging up and down the chamber’s aisles. His colleagues back in Illinois had once joked about creating a committee to hold him in place. In later years, Lincoln would eventually learn to control his flailing arms, locking them behind his back and instead gesturing mostly with his head. Only occasionally would he shoot out “that long bony forefinger of his to dot an idea or express a thought.” Today, still green and anxious, Lincoln rushed through the address in about forty-five minutes, fearing that he would be cut off by the speaker if he went on too long.
Lincoln’s broadside attracted little attention—at least at first. Polk, who had once counseled treating political enemies with “silent contempt,” did not bother to respond. He didn’t even mention Lincoln in his otherwise lengthy diary. Lincoln seemed pleased with his effort, spending a substantial amount of his own money sending copies of the address home to constituents. A week after his appearance, he dropped a note in the mail to his old friend and law partner, Billy Herndon. “I have made a speech,” Lincoln wrote, “a copy of which I will send you by next mail.”
Lincoln’s criticism of Polk had merit. By attempting to fortify the Rio Grande, the president had acted provocatively. Friendly newspapers cheered Lincoln’s volley. “Evidently there is music in that very tall Mr. Lincoln,” the Baltimore Patriot exulted. The congressman, reported the Missouri Republican, “commanded the attention of the House, which none but a strong man can do.” Still, in the nineteenth century, periodicals usually acted as party organs. In hawkish Illinois, Democratic-controlled papers pounced. The Illinois State Register called Lincoln’s resolutions “trash,” and complained that the “littleness of the pettifogging lawyer” had “disgraced” the state. It attacked the congressman with headlines like: “Out damned SPOT!” and dubbed Lincoln the “Benedict Arnold of our district.” The nickname that ultimately stuck, coming back to haunt Lincoln in his later political career, was simply Spotty.
The congressman suffered another stroke of bad luck a little over a month later: the war ended. Polk’s envoy had secured excellent terms from the defeated Mexicans. In exchange for $15 million and the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the United States would take control of a vast tranche of territory that comprises modern-day Texas, New Mexico, California, and other western states. Americans, in general, were elated. But Lincoln’s hobbyhorse had been shot out from under him.
Far more troubling were the letters that began pouring in from an unlikely critic: Billy Herndon. Lincoln’s law partner believed that Polk had the right to deter enemy troops by sending U.S. forces “into the very heart of Mexico” if necessary. Moreover, in expansionist Illinois, Lincoln was destroying his career by challenging Polk on the war, Herndon believed. Lincoln’s partner would later boast about his “mud instinct”—his ability to read the political mood. Herndon contended that no politician could survive a vote in which he appeared to oppose his own country in wartime. Lincoln’s law partner wrote to his friend again and again to press his case.
Lincoln quickly responded to Herndon, hoping to set his partner straight. The congressman regretted the disagreement, he told the younger man—“not because of any fear we shall remain disagreed, after you shall have read this letter, but because, if you misunderstand, I fear other good friends will also.” Lincoln made a distinction between challenging the war’s origins, by voting for the Ashmun amendment, and agreeing to send supplies to the troops. “I will stake my life, that if you had been in my place, you would have voted just as I did,” he insisted. “Would you have voted what you felt you knew to be a lie? I know you would not.” Skipping the vote was not an option. “No man can be silent if he would,” the congressman wrote. “You are compelled to speak; and your only alternative is to tell the truth or tell a lie. I can not doubt which you would do.” Lincoln could not have been happy with his partner’s challenge, but he did his best to maintain the relationship. Although he addressed his Mexican War letters using the formal “William,” rather than the more familiar “Billy,” Lincoln closed them with his usual affectionate signoff.
The Mexican War did no lasting damage to Lincoln’s relationship with his law partner. It did, however, mark a turning point in Lincoln’s maturity as a foreign-policy thinker—and, in a larger sense, in Americans’ conception of their country’s place in the world. The early nineteenth century was a romantic era. It was also a period of intense religious revival. Traveling evangelists helped to infuse the country with a crusading spirit. For decades Americans had justified westward expansion with appeals to natural right. In the 1840s, however, a new dynamic emerged. Hawks, especially in the northeastern and northwestern states, began advocating the moral reform of distant societies. The Mexican War was “the best kind of conquest,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1847. “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!”
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Lincoln vs. Herndon 17
Chapter 2 Lincoln vs. Seward 60
Chapter 3 Lincoln vs. Palmerston 120
Chapter 4 Lincoln vs. Marx 170
Chapter 5 Lincoln vs. Napoleon 224
Chapter 6 Lincoln vs. Lincoln 296
Source Notes 315
Selected Bibliography 387
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book offers a look at the Lincoln presidency and the Civil War that not too many others have looked at. Though tied down to a domestic crisis at home Lincoln also had to deal with foreign issues also. Probably the biggest issue was to keep the European powers from allying themselves with the Confederacy. Peraino delves into the Lincoln foreign policy in relationship with six different individuals. He discusses Lincoln's developing foreign policy as he and his partner Herndon debate the issues of the day. Then comes Seward, a political rival for the Republican nomination in 1860 who becomes his Secretary of State, who working with Lincoln seems to develop a mutual respect for each other. The interactions with these two men strengthen Lincoln's philosophy of foreign policy. Then comes Lincoln's dealings with three men he never met in person. Palmerston of England, Marx a philosopher living in England, and Napoleon the leader of France who was interested in set up an empire in Mexico. Communications at the time were not instantaneous as they are today so it is interesting to see how each of these three saw Lincoln and his understanding of what they were trying to do. Finally Lincoln vs. Lincoln. The inner turmoil of wanting to see the end of slavery but not wanting to do it so that foreign countries would not side with the Confederacy. Also not wanting to drive a bigger wedge between the North and the South. How foreign powers would view his actions and react to them seemed to always be on his mind. So did Lincoln create the foreign policy that would enable Theodore Roosevelt to step on the world stage and take credit for making the United States a world power? Was Lincoln's presidency the "dawn of American power" because of his foreign policy stands.