If you face a big problem, avoid making it bigger. President Abraham Lincoln understood the wisdom of this advice during the Trent affair, a diplomatic crisis between the United States and Great Britain that began one hundred sixty years ago today and nearly led to war.
When the Civil War began, Great Britain, France, and other European nations quickly declared neutrality. They granted the Confederacy the status of a “belligerent power” but stopped short of full diplomatic recognition. This annoyed both the Confederacy—which was sure the South’s monopoly on cotton would bring European countries to its side—and the Union—which had warned foreign powers the conflict was strictly an internal affair.
Confident after the defeat of the Union at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis dispatched James Mason and John Slidell to Britain and France to petition both countries for formal recognition. Mason and Slidell evaded the Union blockade at Charleston in October and transferred in Havana to the British mail ship, the RMS Trent, to travel to London under a neutral flag.
Charles Wilkes, captain of the USS San Jacinto, heard that Mason and Slidell were traveling aboard the Trent. On November 8, without authorization from Washington, he intercepted the British steamer at sea, captured the envoys, and then allowed the Trent to continue its journey. Wilkes justified the seizure of Mason and Slidell to the Trent’s furious captain by defining them as “contraband”—a legal interpretation without precedent—and thus fair game. But Wilkes did not bring the Trent itself into port, as required by international law, to have a court adjudicate his decision to remove the envoys.
When the news of Mason and Slidell’s capture reached the North, Congress and the public hailed Wilkes as a hero. The New York Times even suggested the United States “consecrate another Fourth of July” in his honor. Some Union officials privately doubted the legality of Wilkes’s action. But Northerners were looking for a reason to celebrate after the Union had suffered a string of defeats on the battlefield. It didn’t hurt that many Union supporters suspected that Britain’s proclamation of neutrality was a ploy to help the South.
The reaction in Britain was the exact opposite. The public and government expressed outrage at Wilkes’s intrusion on a neutral ship travelling between neutral ports. British ministers demanded Mason and Slidell’s release and a formal apology from the Lincoln administration for the Union’s insult to their flag, or they would break relations. Britain also put the Royal Navy on alert, sent 11,000 additional troops to Canada, and began preparing strategies to attack the Union blockade. France announced that it would support Britain if war began.
War seemed certain. Neither the United States nor Britain wanted to back down and lose face. So what defused the tension? First, news crossed the Atlantic slowly. By the time Britain had learned of the affair, sent its demands, and received a response, public fervor on both sides had cooled. Second, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, edited the British ultimatum before it was sent to the United States, softening London’s demands and giving the Lincoln administration greater leeway to respond. (The national mourning that followed Prince Albert’s death in December 1861 also quieted calls for war.) Third, and most important, policymakers in the United States and Britain realized the price of starting a new conflict would just be too high.
Lincoln reportedly summed up his view of the Trent affair with a simple maxim: “One war at a time.” He recognized that yielding to some British demands, despite pressure from Union supporters to stand firm, would avoid a fight that could cost him victory in the Civil War. On December 26, Lincoln’s cabinet unanimously agreed to release Mason and Slidell.
In a note to the British, Secretary of State William Seward didn’t admit Wilkes erred in boarding the Trent or in taking the Confederate envoys prisoner. He conceded, however, that Wilkes’s failure to take the Trent into court obliged their release. In order to portray the affair as a diplomatic victory for the United States, Seward also commended Britain for accepting the maritime rights of neutral nations that Americans had long fought for, including in the War of 1812. This, Northerners seemed to agree, was more important than two Southern envoys.
As the Civil War continued, Lincoln faced other foreign policy crises, including further disputes with Britain and a joint European military expedition in Mexico. But he kept to his maxim and focused the Union effort on quelling the rebellion in the south. Meanwhile, the Confederacy failed to secure diplomatic recognition or substantial support from any other nation.
Lincoln’s restraint and commitment to his top priorities offers a valuable lesson: Often the conflicts you don’t engage in can be just as important as the ones you do.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.