Cervantez on Fry, 'Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era'

Joseph A. Fry
Sabrina Cervantez

Joseph A. Fry. Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019. 256 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-7712-0.

Reviewed by Sabrina Cervantez (Louisiana State University) Published on H-CivWar (March, 2020) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54266 

Joseph A. Fry’s Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era examines President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward’s cooperative efforts during a time of internal political turmoil and civil divergence to obstruct European interference in domestic affairs. Fry argues, “That no European power intervened on the South’s behalf to offset the North’s advantages ensured Confederate defeat” (p. 2). This book is written to engage both a general audience and college classrooms about foreign policy during the American Civil War. Interwoven throughout are discussions of Lincoln and Seward’s shared beliefs in Manifest Destiney, opposition to slavery, and a foreign policy aimed at preventing European intervention on behalf of the South to preserve the Union.

Following a predominately chronological organization, Fry opens chapter 1 with a discussion about Lincoln and Seward’s different personal and political backgrounds. Despite their different experiences, as young politicians they shared the same views regarding the practice of slavery in the Southern states, the potential imperial future of the Union, and the Union’s geopolitical position with European powers. Chapter 2 discusses Lincoln and Seward’s emphasis on the preservation of the Union rather than the abolition of slavery during the early stages of the Civil War, the blockade of the Southern ports to prevent foreign interference or supplies, and the Trent Affair as one of the first tests of these foreign policies. Chapter 3 examines the Cabinet Crisis of 1862, outlines the consequences of the Confederacy’s misconception of the profitability of cotton exports, and details Lincoln and Seward’s efforts to deter European powers from recognizing the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. In chapter 4, Fry briefly addresses the assassination of Lincoln and attempted assassination of Seward before moving on to discuss the increased strength of the US military as the Civil War progressed. These Union military victories “prompted caution in both Britain and France” because they feared the North might retaliate against them in the event of a triumphant war against the Confederacy (p. 130). Chapter 5 concludes the narrative by recounting Seward’s international travels following Lincoln’s death, his work as President Andrew Johnson's secretary of state, and his imperial vision for the United States of America. Fry also includes a detailed bibliographic essay for readers interested in learning more about specific topics covered in his book, including monographs on the American Civil War, American foreign policy, and various biographies.

Fry’s discussion of foreign policy focuses on Britain and France. British and French imperial interests in Canada and Mexico respectively made them potential antagonists during the American Civil War. While Lincoln and Seward cautioned the British and French governments not to intrude on US affairs or face a declaration of war, the two countries did intervene indirectly. The Confederacy had acquired two ships built in Britain, the Alabama and Florida, and used them as blockade runners. As Fry explains, “The bulk of this pro-Confederate commercial activity was centered in Liverpool, which has been described aptly as ‘the most pro-Confederate place in the world outside the Confederacy itself’” (p. 85). Emperor Napoleon III was also keenly interested in taking advantage of the war to further French expansion in the Western Hemisphere. Napoleon III and Henri Mercier, the French minister to the United States, were not, however, willing to act independently of Great Britain.

In a book aimed to educate a general audience unfamiliar with US foreign policy in the mid-nineteenth century, Fry occasionally simplifies for the sake of brevity. For example, he notes, “During this period, the United States was an active and enthusiastic participant in what has come to be called globalization” (p. 13). He does not, however, provide a clear definition of “globalization” or a broad view of its historical context outside the nineteenth century. Modern definitions of globalization do not fit neatly with the nineteenth century, and a general reader may find Fry’s use of the term slightly misleading.

Overall, Fry offers an illuminating overview of the cooperative efforts of Lincoln and Seward to shape US foreign policy during the Civil War. Lincoln and Seward worked diligently to prevent European powers from becoming directly involved in the war on behalf of the Confederacy. As Fry concludes, “Seward and his senior foreign policy partner, Abraham Lincoln, devised and conducted foreign policies that were indispensable to the preservation and expansion of the Union during the critical period of the 1860s” (p. 191). Their efforts kept foreign powers from gaining an unfair advantage against the United States in a time of internal upheaval. This is an important topic for any general reader or student studying the American Civil War.

Citation: Sabrina Cervantez. Review of Fry, Joseph A., Lincoln, Seward, and US Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. March, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54266

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.