London 30 Nov. 1861
My dear Boy
If I thought the state of things bad last week you may imagine what I think of them now. In fact I consider that we are dished, and that our position is hopeless. If the Administration ordered the capture of those men, I am satisfied that our present authorities are very unsuitable persons to conduct a war like this or to remain in the direction of our affairs. It is our ruin. Do not deceive yourself about the position of England. We might have preserved our dignity in many ways without going to war with her, and our party in the Cabinet was always strong enough to maintain peace here and keep down the anti-blockaders….
What part it is reserved to us to play in this very tragical comedy I am utterly unable to tell. The Government has left us in the most awkward and unfair position. They have given no warning that such an act was thought of, and seem almost to have purposely encouraged us to waste our strength in trying to maintain the relations which it was itself intending to destroy. I am half-mad with vexation and despair….
Our position here is of course very unpleasant just now. We were to have gone to Lord Hatherton’s on Monday, but now our visit is put off, and I am not without expectations that a very few weeks may see us either on our way home or on the continent. I think that the New Year will see the end.
This nation means to make war. Do not doubt it. What Seward means is more than I can guess. But if he means war also, or to run as close as he can without touching, then I say that Mr Seward is the greatest criminal we’ve had yet….
…Our cry now must be emancipation and arming the slaves.
Ever Yrs. HB.A.
Henry Adams to Charles Francis Adams Jr. (his brother), November 30, 1861
The Trent Affair
November 8, 1861 – the British mail ship Trent was stopped in the Atlantic by the USS San Jacinto. American officers forcibly removed to civilian, Confederate diplomats – James M. Mason and John Slidell – taking them prisoners. Mason and Slidell were on their way to Europe to present the Southern cause and argue for cotton diplomacy.
The incident spiraled into a diplomatic nightmare and public opinion frenzy. Britain claimed neutrality and was outraged that diplomats had been removed from their ship. Coldness, debates, and flurry of letters crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic. Ambassadors were caught in an uncomfortable position. The trouble almost sparked a conflict between the U.S. and Britain – people caught in the situation thought an international war was imminent. Eventually, the diplomatic nightmare ended, and England decided to remain neutral.
Ambassadors vs. Mr. Seward
Henry Adams and Charles Francis Adams, Jr. were brothers. Charles was in Boston in November 1861 while Henry was with dad – Charles Francis Adams, Sr. – in London. Mr. Adams, Sr. was the grandson of America’s second president (John Adams); in 1861, he was serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Britain.
Henry echoes the difficult and dangerous diplomatic situation for his father in the letter. Mr. Adams felt abandoned and surprised by the situation. If Lincoln and the administration had intended to intercept and arrest the Confederate diplomats, why hadn’t the ambassador been warned and instructed? Was it planned or “knee-jerk reactions”? What was the policy? What was Adams supposed to say to the understandably upset English government officials?
“Across the pond” from Mr. Adams was Mr. Seward. Seward – secretary of state in Lincoln’s administration – had a lot on his mind. Adams and many Englishmen were convinced Seward was trying to ruin relations with England at the end of 1861
The concluding sentence of Henry Adam’s letter is fascinating. He suggests that freeing and arming the slaves would have influence on Britain’s opinion on the American conflict.
It also suggests the age-long debate. What would’ve happened if the Confederacy had issued some form of emancipation prior to Lincoln’s 1863 promise?
P.S. There’s a lot more to the history of Civil War diplomacy (and the Trent Affair) than we can cover in our limited word blog post. You can find more details on the State Department’s Office of the Historian Website.