To more than a few of his countrymen, the man who entered the White House in 1861 came across as little better than a frontier bumpkin: uneasy with the ceremonial dignity of high office, ungainly and awkward in manner, rumpled in appearance with unruly hair and wrinkled and ill-fitting suits, always telling folksy — and sometimes downright crude — stories.
The new president seemed all the more wanting to the European envoys in Washington, who were bemused or appalled by his painful lack of sophistication and worldliness. Abraham Lincoln had never traveled to Europe, and had no professional or personal contacts abroad. It showed. “His conversation consists of vulgar anecdotes at which he himself laughs uproariously,” sniffed the Dutch minister. “His mind is generally considered to be mediocre,” reported the French minister. “He and his wife seem like . . . western farmers, and even in this country, where one has no right to be fastidious, their common manners and their ways expose them in unfortunate fashion to ridicule.” Lincoln himself remarked to one foreign diplomat, “I don’t know anything about diplomacy. I will be very apt to make blunders.”
As Kevin Peraino observes in “Lincoln in the World,” Lincoln “is not often remembered as a great foreign-policy president.” Yet, he insists, Lincoln not only deftly and personally guided the ship of state through some extremely perilous foreign waters at the height of the Civil War, but he “should be considered one of America’s seminal foreign-policy presidents — a worthy model for students of global affairs.”
Just as historians have long shown that beneath Lincoln’s self-deprecating dismissals of his talents as a political leader or military commander in chief lay a deep skill in judging and managing people and events, so Peraino argues that we should be skeptical of the image of the “plain-talking Railsplitter” unschooled in diplomatic finesse. On the contrary, he writes, Lincoln understood realpolitik as well as any great-power leader, shrewdly exploited the new mass media to advance U.S. interests by appealing directly to foreign public opinion, and “worked assiduously to build a centralized American state — a critical prerequisite to America’s later rise to power,” particularly by strengthening the role of the presidency as the “firm hand” on the nation’s foreign policy.
Peraino makes the strongest case for his thesis in his close reading of Lincoln’s handling of the Trent crisis, precipitated in November 1861 when a U.S. Navy sloop halted a British mail packet and removed and took prisoner two Confederate envoys on their way to Europe. Amid rising calls in Britain to punish this “outrage” or even declare war on the United States, the British government demanded an immediate apology and the release of the two men. Peraino shows how Lincoln skillfully extricated himself from what might easily have been a disaster. Quickly realizing that the prisoners would have to be released and Britain appeased, Lincoln employed a combination of tactical stalling, gentle tamping down of the bellicosity of his Cabinet and careful preparation of American opinion for the concession to come. He made an artful show of holding firm against Britain at the final Cabinet meeting where the matter was deliberated, even though he had decided weeks earlier to give in; a detailed account of the meeting appeared in the New York Times — and helped the American public acquiesce in the capitulation as a bow to the inevitable.
Peraino similarly casts a revealing and fresh light on the complex diplomacy in the fall of 1862 aimed at averting British recognition of the Confederacy or a European intervention to halt the fighting. It has often been asserted that the Union victory at Antietam in September of that year, and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation that swiftly followed, effectively put an end to the threat of British interference, by transforming the North’s war into a moral crusade and by establishing the inevitability of Union victory. But in fact, Peraino recounts, the ambiguous Union victory at Antietam actually increased (albeit briefly) the inclination of Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, to press for an armistice; and as for the Emancipation Proclamation, Palmerston initially dismissed it as “trash.”
What largely changed the mood in Britain was an American campaign aimed directly at British mill workers in Manchester and other industrial cities — who, despite their dependence on imported Southern cotton for their livelihood, were vociferously anti-slavery. Lincoln wrote public letters to the workers, praising their “sublime Christian heroism” in holding large demonstrations and mass meetings in support of the Union throughout the fall of 1862 and into the spring of ’63. By then the threat of British intervention had receded.
Peraino is far less convincing in other sections, where his efforts to connect Lincoln to world events seem tenuous at best. The somewhat gimmicky organization of the book, with chapters that each pair Lincoln with a putative antagonist (“Lincoln vs. Seward,” “Lincoln vs. Napoleon,” “Lincoln vs. Marx”), works at cross-purposes with both his narrative and analysis, which he struggles throughout to reconcile: It is never quite certain whether he is trying to sound like Doris Kearns Goodwin or Henry Kissinger. At other times, he sounds like one of those TV historians who thinks the way to make history come alive is to aerate it with effervescent contemporary clichés or glib, breezy analogies: “Napoleon . . . decided to double down on Mexico”; “Marx, in some ways, operated like a modern blogger.”
But despite these infelicities — and an occasional maddening lack of organization and focus — there is much here that will interest even those steeped in the vast Lincoln literature. Peraino observes that part of Lincoln’s genius and effectiveness as the leader of an emerging world power was his grasp of the frailty of human nature. Lincoln pointedly deleted his secretary of state William Seward’s self-righteous invocation of “the guardian angel of our nation” in the draft of his first inaugural address and substituted the famous words we all remember: “the better angels of our nature.” It was to Lincoln a crucial reminder that the nation’s claim to greatness lay not in any innate virtue or predestined divine favor, but rather in a constant struggle to rise above our own all-too-human failings; it was a nod to national humility that even a great world power would do well to remember.
LINCOLN IN THE WORLD
The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power
By Kevin Peraino
Crown. 419 pp. $26