William H. Seward’s Foreign War Panacea Reconsidered

William H. Seward’s Foreign War Panacea Reconsidered

As William H. Seward allegedly stated in 1861, “if the Lord would only give the United States an excuse for a war with England, France, or Spain, that would be the best means of reestablishing internal peace.” This is probably one of the most famous and most widely quoted sentences in Civil War diplomatic history.[1] The quote often serves to illustrate Seward’s attempt to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War by instigating a foreign war. The quote, along with Seward’s infamous April Fools Day Memoranda to President Abraham Lincoln, has provided the basis of what has become known as Seward’s “Foreign War Panacea.” Seward’s plan was to provoke a conflict with a European colonial power over an outstanding issue in the Americas as a way to remind Southerners of their duty to defend the United States, thus ending the secession crisis short of war and restoring the Union.[2]

Portrait of Secretary of State William H. Seward, Brady National Photographic Art Gallery. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

However this quotation, often credited to Seward and recorded by the representative of the Hanseatic City of Bremen, Rudolph Schleiden, has never been properly verified in the Schleiden Papers. While the quote is Schleiden’s words, the sentiment captures Seward’s attitudes in the first months of 1861 rather well. Properly attributing this famous sentence serves as a reminder of how important consulting the original sources is, especially non-English source material. Furthermore, with the recent scholarly debate surrounding the secession crisis, revisiting the Foreign War Panacea illustrates the complexity of Seward’s character and his political designs during secession winter.

Following Abraham Lincoln’s election victory, seven southern states seceded from the Union by early February, plunging the country into crisis, and the president-elect made his first cabinet appointment: New York Senator William H. Seward as Secretary of State. As Daniel Croft has eloquently shown, Washington was abuzz trying to find a compromise solution until hours before Lincoln’s inaugural, including an amendment protecting slavery.[3] For most of the first few months of 1861, Seward operated under the assumption that there was a substantial Unionist population in the South, which needed time to regain political influence. A foreign war as a means to unify the country could help Southern Unionists overcome secessionist opposition and end the crisis short of domestic conflict. Seward closely connected domestic and foreign politics.

Seward had a long-standing interest in foreign relations and had used anti-British sentiments for his own political advancement. As Senator, he had frequently met with diplomatic representatives in Washington and developed friendships with, for example, Rudolph M. Schleiden, who was one of three German diplomats in Washington. Born in the Duchy of Holstein, Schleiden had participated in the 1848 uprising of his home region, after which he successfully lobbied for Bremen’s new Minister Residency in Washington. His two German colleagues were the Prussian minister, Friedrich Freiherr von Gerolt, and the Austrian minister, Georg Ritter von Hülsemann. Recent Civil War diplomatic history has relegated Schleiden to the undeserved status of “a foreign emissary,” without his name ever appearing.[4] Even German scholars have deemphasized Schleiden in favor of Freiherr von Gerolt who, Enno Eimers for example claimed, occupied a more influential position in Washington. These scholars read German Unification back into the Civil War era, prematurely granting the Prussian minister a role he would occupy later in the decade.[5] Despite this fall from favor, Schleiden remains an important diplomat; he was much better connected than von Gerolt and rivaled only by the British Minister, Richard Bickerton Pemell, Lord Lyons, when it came to trade and maritime law questions.

Rudolph Schleiden, c.1835. Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesbibliothek, Kiel, Germany.

Since coming to the United States in 1853, Schleiden had befriended many influential politicians, among them Seward and his political nemesis, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Schleiden was well aware of Seward’s political-motivated animosity towards Great Britain, which was no secret in Washington’s diplomatic corps. Already in December, well before South Carolina seceded, the British minister had reported to Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell, “My own view of the matter is that it is extremely important that no pretext should be afforded to either one side or the other for asserting that Great Britain has any disposition to interfere in the domestic quarrel. There are no wanting grave statesmen in this country who hold that a Foreign War is the only remedy for the internal dissensions of the Confederation. A contest with England, dangerous and unprovoked as it might be, would be the only means, in the opinion of many, of producing an adequate excitement.” [6] Lyons’s fear soon materialized in many off-handed statements by Seward at Washington dinner parties.

On January 29, Schleiden included the aforementioned sentence in his report to the government in Bremen. At the start of the paragraph, Schleiden explained that Seward still assumed that preservation of the Union was a distinct possibility. Schleiden editorialized that such an outcome was unlikely. Seward supposedly saw secession just as another form of party conflict that had become more violent than normal, but that a foreign war would bring the country back together after inaugural day. Following this summary of the conversation with the senator, Schleiden mentions the infamous sentence. There are no quotation marks, which indicates that not Seward but Schleiden is speaking, and that the words placed in Seward’s mouth are actually those of Bremen’s minister resident.[7] When it came to official correspondence, Schleiden was a meticulous reporter; he would not have forgotten quotation marks if the words were directly from Seward, which he shows on a number of occasions in other letters. The statement is likely Schleiden’s, but this does not negate Seward’s interest in starting a foreign war to bring the two sections together again. Seward made further comments of that nature to Schleiden in mid-February.[8]

Image of part of Schleiden’s January 29 letter. The fateful sentence is at the end of the paragraph.

Seward’s desire to end the secession crisis and prevent war by precipitating a foreign war continued even after Lincoln’s inaugural. On April 1, almost a month after assuming office, Seward sent a brief missive to Lincoln with policy suggestions, commonly known as his April Fools Day Memoranda. Prominent among the suggestions was to demand explanations from France and Spain, seek support from Great Britain, Russia, Mexico, and other Latin American countries, and potentially declare war against France or Spain. Seward hoped such a conflict could unify the country, even as the country was less than two weeks from the first shots of war.[9] Seward was still under the illusion that Unionist sentiments were strong throughout the South and Southern Unionists could still preserve the Union.

Even though it is clear that the central quote supporting the existence of Seward’s Foreign War Panacea actually originated with Schleiden, this knowledge does not detract from Seward’s thinking about a foreign war. The Foreign War Panacea was an outgrowth of Seward’s desire to prevent a civil war and it reflects his overestimation of Southern Unionist support. However, even after the first shot on Fort Sumter, Seward remained interested in a peaceful reunification of the Union, and Schleiden offered him a tool to do so again in April. If nothing else, the above elaboration should remind historians about the importance of consulting the original archival material, instead of relying on the summaries of others.


[1] Howard Jones, Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 41.

[2] Norman B. Ferris, Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward’s Foreign Policy, 1861 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 9-12; Howard Jones, Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1997), 11-16; Ralph H. Lutz, “Rudolph Schleiden and the Visit to Richmond, April 25, 1861,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association (1917), 207-16.

[3] Daniel W. Crofts, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[4] Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 21.

[5] Enno Eimers, Preussen und die USA, 1850 bis 1867: Transatlantische Wechselwirkungen (Berlin, Germany: Duncker und Humblot, 2004).

[6] Lyons to Russell, December 4, 1860, James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes, The American Civil War through British Eyes: Dispatches from British Diplomats (Kent, OH: Kent University Press, 2005), 1:5-8.

[7] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, January 29, 1861, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Staatsarchiv, Bremen.

[8] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, February 12, 1861, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Staatsarchiv, Bremen.

[9] William H. Seward to Abraham Lincoln, April 1, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers: Series 1, General Correspondence, 1833 to 1916, Library of Congress.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

4 Replies to “William H. Seward’s Foreign War Panacea Reconsidered”

  1. This is why universal, compulsory public education is a MUST in a free republic — the kind we do not live in. Whenever I tell someone that this war-footing manipulation is not new and that the ruling class has known this for centuries if not millenia … all I get is a glazed and amazed look; like, “really?!?”

    1. Seward had aired his idea that a foreign war would reunite the country much earlier, in a speech before the New England Society in NYC on Dec. 21, 1860, as SC was preparing to declare secession. Alluding to some imagined attack on NYC by some European Power, he predicted that if any “were to make a descent upon the city of New York to-mor row, I believe all the hills of South Carolina would pour forth their population to the rescue of New York.” (Works of William Seward, 4:648-49) The idea that foreign wars would unite a divided nation, forcing the opposition to fall behind the existing leader, remained an article of faith with Seward in 1865 when Grant proposed invading Mexico to oust French forces protecting Maximilian. It is not such a crazy idea. Nor was Seward’s April 1 memorandum, which protested Spain’s aggression in Santo Domingo. The takeover of SD proved to be the thin edge of a European imperialist wedge that soon drove deeper into Mexico in the allied invasion by France, Spain, and Britain in 1861.

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