The story of Abraham Lincoln’s self-education is a well-known one. A voracious reader from a very young age, Lincoln devoured whatever books he could get his hands on. Indeed, he once told his friend, Leonard Swett, that as a boy “he borrowed and read every book he could hear of for fifty miles.”
We know that Lincoln read the Bible, classics, histories, poetry, drama, and patriotic works. But, little has been written about one work in particular that had great influence upon Lincoln’s later life and diplomacy. Over eighty years ago, the eminent Lincoln scholar, R. Gerald McMurtry, wrote a short article about the influence that Captain James Riley’s Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce (1817) had upon Abraham Lincoln. According to McMurtry, “the book is said to have a striking and permanent impression on the minds of early American youths who read it,” and Lincoln certainly fell into that category. Besides being an exciting adventure of capture, release, and cultural immersion, Riley’s story left “an indelible impression on Lincoln’s mind in regard to race superiority and the moral wrongs of slavery,” not to mention keen and critical observations of the Arab world. As McMurtry perceptively noted the complete title of Riley’s Narrative not only summarizes the contents of the book, but also indicates how Lincoln could have become enthralled with it and remembered it many years later as President of the United States:
An Authentic Narrative Of The Loss Of The American Brig Commerce Wrecked On The Western Coast Of Africa in the Month Of August 1815 With An Account Of The Sufferings Of Her Surviving Officers and Crew Who Were Enslaved By The Wandering Arabs, On The Great African Desart, Or Zahahrah; and Observations, Historical, Geographical, &c., Made During The Travels Of The Author, While A Slave To The Arabs, And In The Empire Of Morocco
For Lincoln, who would barely leave the United States in his lifetime, this was his first exposure to the Arab world and one that would have profound influence upon him. While it is doubtless that the antislavery sentiment of the book left a lasting impression upon the young Lincoln, so too did the descriptions of the nomadic Berber tribe and their customs, who sold Riley and his crew as slaves to Arab merchants. “After some time bartering about me,” Riley wrote, “I was given to an old man whose features showed every sign of the deepest-rooted malignity in his disposition. And this is my master? Thought I; Great God defend me from this cruelty.” Later, as president, Lincoln would list Riley’s Narrative, along with the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, as one of the books that most shaped his life and thinking.
Though he had celebrated his inauguration in a banquet hall called the Muslim Palace of Aladdin, Abraham Lincoln was not given to Middle Eastern fantasies. Immediately upon assuming office, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward cautioned the new president that Middle Eastern rulers, “accustomed as they were to wait upon power with respect, and visit weakness with disdain,” would exploit the division in the United States to their benefit. Indeed, James Buchanan’s Minister to the Ottoman Empire, Alabaman James Williams, urged the government there to ignore the Union and recognize the Confederacy.
Lincoln quickly removed the Buchanan appointee to the Ottoman Empire and replaced him with Edward Joy Morris, a Pennsylvanian, who suggested that a naval force be stationed outside Constantinople to demonstrate American resolve in the region. Lincoln demurred on the stationing of a naval squadron and assured Sultan Abdul Aziz of his desire to “continue to cultivate the friendly relations which have always so happily existed” between America and the Ottomans. Having long battled secessionist movements in his empire, the Sultan needed little persuading and assured Lincoln of his “friendly sympathies” for the North and his hope that its differences with the South “may soon be settled in such a manner as will preserve the Union intact.” The Sultan also took the extraordinary step on February 25, 1862, of renewing the 1830 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between the United States and the Ottoman Empire with an addendum forbidding Confederate privateers from operating in Ottoman waters. This was a very impressive feat for the Lincoln administration consumed in its first year by war and the President proudly announced in his annual message to Congress that “the new commercial treaty between the United States and the Sultan of Turkey has been carried into execution.”
Despite the success of the treaty, Lincoln and his administration faced several diplomatic standoffs in the Middle East. The first such example concerned a Christian missionary in Egypt. There were approximately 150 documented missionaries in the Ottoman Empire at the outbreak of Civil War, and Ambassador Morris observed that not one sympathized with the Confederacy. (In fact, some were even abolitionists.) As such, Morris, Seward, and Lincoln regarded the missionaries as a de facto diplomatic corps for the State Department. Missionaries in the Middle East reported Morris, “enjoyed a liberty of conscience that is not accorded to dissenters from the established faith in some of the most enlightened kingdoms of Europe.” His boss, Secretary of State Seward stated that the missionaries enjoyed not only the support of the President, but also the support of a “very considerable and intelligent portion of the people of the United States.”
Lincoln soon found his administration embroiled in a controversy over one missionary in particular, who was stationed in Egypt. To reach a wide to reach a wide audience abroad, Lincoln chose to publish the official correspondence concerning the controversy over this missionary, an unusual response for diplomatic issues. The publication appeared in the form of a white paper entitled Religious Toleration in Egypt: Official Correspondence Relating to the Indemnity Obtained for the Maltreatment of Faris-El-Hakim, An Agent of the American Missionaries in Egypt which was intended to apply diplomatic pressure to the Egyptian government to exact punishment on those responsible for the abuse of Faris-el-Hakim. The published correspondence covered a period of twelve months and few Americans, consumed by the strife at home, realized, until they read it, that Lincoln had issued an ultimatum to Egypt and Turkey.
In the midst of his myriad of domestic woes, Lincoln had received a letter from his Egyptian ambassador, William S. Thayer, stating that a Christian and Syrian bookseller Faris-el-Hakim employed by American missionaries had been abused by a mob of Muslims on the Upper Nile. Thirteen wealthy and respected citizens of the area were guilty of the violence. Thayer said that an example must be made of them to preserve American prestige. A year’s imprisonment and a fine of $5,000 for each of them was what Thayer recommended because “that would renew respect for America.”
To support Faris, Lincoln published in his white paper Thayer’s letter along with an affidavit and the reply of the local Turkish officials. The depositions of the two principals agreed in all the essential facts, yet the two accounts contradicted one another significantly. Ever the lawyer, Lincoln had seen many similar incidents while riding the circuit back in Illinois. Faris claimed that the Muslims in Upper Egypt disliked him because he sold Christian books cheaper than the native merchants could sell books in their own faith. In addition, he stated he had been persecuted because he acted as an attorney for a woman who wished to become a Christian. The Muslims condemned him as a dangerous infidel and urged the population to stone him.
The local Muslim officials, however, claimed that the trouble began over a woman, Fatima, whose attorney, Faris, lured her away from her husband and four-year-old child. Ordered to appear in court, Fatima arrived with her Christian lawyer. Confronted by her husband who insisted she was married to him by Muslim law, Faris maintained that this did not bind Fatima because she had become a Coptic Christian. Violence ensued and Faris ended up in jail. Faris was charged with “reviling our religion which includes all courts and government and for his persistence in having the woman violate the law.”
Lincoln’s correspondence with Egyptian and Turkish officials resulted in the Muslim officials being reprimanded for not confining their jurisdiction to the ruling on the marital status of the woman and for incarcerating Faris. But, when that didn’t satisfy the Lincoln administration, Turkey shortly thereafter closed their ports to Confederate vessels. “I pray your Highness to be assured that these proceedings at once so prompt and so just,” Lincoln wrote to the Viceroy of Egypt, “will be regarded as a new and unmistakable proof of your Highness’ friendship for the United States, and of the firmness, integrity, and wisdom with which the government of Your Highness is conducted.”
But Lincoln’s problems with the Middle East did not end with the case of Faris. Several months later, in February 1862, Americans Henry Myers and Thomas Tunstall traveled to Morocco. Myers, a Georgian, was the paymaster of the Confederate cruiser, Sumter, which managed to seize eighteen federal ships before putting into port in Gibraltar. Seeking supplies, Myers and Tunstall, an Alabaman who had formerly served as a U.S. diplomat in Spain, boarded a French ship for Cadiz, but stopped en route for a sightseeing tour of Tangiers. The allure of the Middle East proved costly for the pair, however, when their presence in the city attracted the attention of the U.S. Consul there, James De Long, a former judge from Ohio and a fierce Unionist. Flying over one of the buildings in Tangiers was an American flag and both Confederates paused to make loud, angry, disparaging remarks about it. “American citizens may talk and plot treason at home,” De Long vowed, “but they shall not do so where I am, if I have the power to prevent it.” Appealing to the local authorities, De Long had Myers and Tunstall arrested and placed in irons in the consulate’s top floor. The Confederates vehemently pleaded their rights as belligerents on neutral soil. De Long, however, replied that they were traitors and, sensing that his action might place the Lincoln administration in a controversial position, requested a “Federal Man of War in this bay.”
The arrest of Myers and Tunstall was indeed controversial. French nationalists in the Moroccan city denounced what it considered a flouting of its neutrality, insisting that Myers and Tunstall sailed to Tangiers under the protection of the French flag. Surely this must have caused Lincoln to remember the Trent Affair of several months prior which caused an international crisis. (In that case, the British claimed the Union violated its neutrality by removing two Confederates from a ship flying under the British flag.)
An angry anti-American mob formed in the Tangiers marketplace protesting the arrest and detainment of Myers and Tunstall. Enraged Frenchmen marched down to the American consulate, flourishing knives and threatening vengeance. To protect American interests in the Middle East, Lincoln dispatched the USS Ino to Tangiers. In short order thirty bayonet wielding Marines charged ashore, the first to land in that area since the Barbary Wars of the early nineteenth century and managed to press through the mob. In response, the Moroccan Emperor, Muhammad IV, closed the port. With the Lincoln administration’s support, De Long then issued an ultimatum to him: reopen the port and permit the captives to be evacuated or the United States would close its consulate. Given the choice of placating the French or the Americans, the Emperor sided with Washington. Less than an hour later, guarded by a detachment of Moroccan troops and watched by “at least three thousand spectators,” De Long and the Marines marched Myers and Tunstall up the Ino’s gangplank.
But whatever triumph De Long experienced was short lived. Fearing a very ill-timed break in diplomatic relations with the French, Lincoln again relented as he had in the Trent episode, and released both Tunstall and Myers from prison in Boston. And like the captain of the American ship which intercepted the HMS Trent, Lincoln removed De Long from his position. The embittered former consul questioned whether Lincoln’s leniency would backfire and cause Middle Eastern leaders to question America’s strength and resolve.
To an extent De Long’s speculation was not misguided. Lincoln had not placated the French and soon they were again testing Lincoln. This time the French used Egypt as its pawn and created an international dilemma for Lincoln in Mexico where Napoleon III had hoped to create a puppet state under his brother Maximilian.
Egypt’s interest in Mexico had, for the most part, been overlooked because the number of her troops in that country was small and because they tended to be absorbed in the French army. Nevertheless, having faced diplomatic problems in Turkey and Tangiers, Lincoln now faced a confrontation with Egypt at a time when the war at home was not going well for the Union.
In 1862, before France had engineered the creation of a Mexican monarchy, it had quietly negotiated a treaty with Egypt. The Egyptian government was to deliver 1,500 soldiers to France for service in Mexico. The understanding was kept strictly secret for fear that Turkey who had gained controversial control of Egypt, or Great Britain, the protector of Turkish integrity, would block this independent policy by the Cairo government.
On January 6, 1863, the French frigate La Seine, anchored in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, began some very provocative preparations to set sail. First the local police seized fifty young black men, a few of whom had been born in America, and impressed them into service onboard the French ship. Then 450 regular Egyptian Army men arrived. The police were instructed to prevent anyone unauthorized from reaching the ship. The families of the irregular conscripts, desperate at the sudden loss of their family members, crowded the wharves seeking some assistance from, among others, the American diplomatic delegation.
One week after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in America, the frigate made a hasty departure and William Thayer, the U.S. Consul-General in Alexandria, who had earlier and successfully intervened on the behalf of Syrian bookseller Faris-el-Hakim, immediately launched a formal protest. Thayer was falsely told that the ship contained 500 regular Egyptian soldiers destined to Morocco to suppress a revolt there. Incredulous, Thayer questioned why Egypt should have any interest in Morocco, or why a French warship should have been used when Egyptian ships were available. When his questions went unanswered, Thayer, a perceptive and knowledgeable diplomat, concluded that Mexico was involved, threatening the Monroe Doctrine that European countries could not intervene in the Western Hemisphere.
While the United States and Egypt enjoyed a healthy economic relationship, diplomatic relations became strained at this point. The French sought out Egyptian troops because they believed that Arab fighters would be better accustomed to the heat and resilient to yellow fever in Mexico. Because of the war at home, neither President Lincoln nor Secretary Seward had the diplomatic leverage to expel Napoleon III from Mexico. Much like the U.S. foreign affairs with the Barbary States, the Lincoln administration could not engage Egypt without being concerned about British and French interests as well.
After some relentless diplomatic pressure from Thayer, the Egyptian Viceroy Zoulfikar Pasha, in a rare moment of candor, came clean and admitted that his troops had gone to Mexico. He minimized the significance of the expedition, however, by stating that only 500 troops had been sent, though Napoleon had requested 1,500. The Egyptian characterized the entire proceeding as merely “a friendly service to France.” This was unacceptable to Thayer who under Lincoln’s direction explained to Zoulfikar Pasha what would happen if Egypt insisted on violating the Monroe Doctrine. Thayer was also explicit in his assertion that the impressment of 50 black soldiers was inhumane and a complete repudiation of all that the Lincoln administration represented.
While Thayer wanted to purse this matter further, Lincoln and Seward gave him little encouragement. Preoccupied with the domestic war, Lincoln did not want to become involved in any foreign venture. With a threat right on their doorstep, Seward and Lincoln took the view that it was best to avoid involvement in Mexico by adopting a seemingly neutral position. Their official opinion was that the United States had no objection to French troops in Mexico, but to their heavy-handed commandeering of the Mexican government. America would recognize Maximilian, they stated, if his regime received the popular support of the Mexican people which, of course, was highly unlikely.
On behalf of the President, Seward wrote U.S. Ambassador to France John Bigelow that Napoleon’s monarchical experiment in Mexico could not survive. Only the Mexican people, he added, could decide whether they wanted monarchical rule over a republican form of government. Upon Lincoln’s directive, Seward informed Bigelow that the United States would not intervene in Mexico against France, but expected that the French would follow suit and stay out of the American Civil War. Complicating matters further, the death of Thayer in 1864 deprived the United States of his diplomatic skills at a very crucial time.
In his last annual message to Congress in December 1864, Lincoln informed Congress “Our very popular and estimable representative in Egypt [William Thayer] died in April last. An unpleasant altercation which arose between the temporary incumbent of the office and the Government of the Pasha resulted in a suspension of intercourse. The evil was promptly corrected on the arrival of the successor in the consulate [Charles Hale] and our relations with Egypt, as well as our relations with the Barbary Powers, are entirely satisfactory.”
The Egyptians made no further attempt to assist the French in Mexico until shortly after Lincoln’s assassination. A new Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sherif Pasha, believing that the death of Lincoln would weaken American foreign policy considerably, informed Hale that Egypt intended to send 900 new troops to Mexico. Lacking instructions and somewhat taken aback by the new development, Hale threatened the Egyptians with retaliation if they followed through on this plan. Hale warned Sherif Pasha that if Egypt once again sent involuntary black soldiers to Mexico at the behest of an ally, the United States at some point would consider sending a black army to invade Egypt at the request of a friendly power.
With Lincoln gone and Andrew Johnson a poor successor, this crisis fell squarely on Seward’s shoulders. Seward issued a strong protest to Alexandria, Constantinople, and Paris while overlooking Hale’s threatened invasion. Nevertheless, Seward did in his official dispatches make clear reference to the involuntary servitude of the black soldiers and that the President and Congress have watched with consternation the events unfolding in Mexico “which I need not say form a subject of serious apprehension with regard to the safety of free Republican institutions on this continent, an object of which we are accustomed to connect the desired ultimate consequence of the abolition of every form of compulsory civil or military servitude in this hemisphere.”
For over a year, Seward faced diplomatic resistance from the French and the Egyptians. The diplomatic impasse came to an end when Sherif Pasha was replaced as Egyptian Foreign Minister with an Armenian Christian, Nubar Pasha. The new minister wasted no time in informing Ambassador Hale of his opposition to any further intervention in Mexico. He informed Hale that the United States could count upon Egypt to stay out of Mexico. And so Lincoln never lived to see the resolution of an incident that all too frequently consumed him as he sought to bring peace to his own homeland.
Ever since the youthful Lincoln read Riley’s Narrative, his interest in the Middle East was genuine and sincere. Had the Civil Wat not monopolized both his administration and his life, it is likely that Lincoln would have cultivated a deeper and more intense relationship with the region. In a meeting with Lincoln in 1863, the leading Canadian clergyman, Henry Wentworth Monk, protested the fact that Jews, unlike black Americans, had yet to be emancipated. “There can be no permanent peace in the world,” the reverend prophetically maintained, “until the civilized nations . . . atone . . . for their two thousand years of persecution [of the Jews] by restoring them to their national home in Palestine.” Lincoln readily agreed. “Restoring the Jews to their national home in Palestine . . . is a noble dream and one shared by many American,” Lincoln replied, adding that once the war was won, Americans would again be able to “see visions and dreams” and lead the world in realizing them.
Like those Americans, Lincoln himself had “visions and dreams” about the Middle East. On that fateful day at Ford’s Theatre, even as Lincoln enjoyed Our American Cousin, he couldn’t keep his mind from straying to other thoughts. Likely, he found himself day dreaming about the future and his life after the presidency. Earlier that day he told Mary that he would very much like to visit “the Holy Land” and that “there was no city on earth he so much desired to see as Jerusalem.” Such was never to be.
But Lincoln’s relationship with the Middle East was like his relationship with everyone else, whether they were individuals or nations; honest, principled, governed by integrity, and buttressed by the Declaration of Independence. Historian Gary Wills once wrote that Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence as a universal document for all humankind was essential in understanding the president’s wartime foreign policy. “The Declaration gave liberty not alone to the people of this country,” Wills wrote, “but hope to all the world, for all future time. It was that which promised that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men and that all should have an equal chance as Mr. Lincoln said.”
Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” still does not exist in many parts of the fractured and violent Middle East today. Nevertheless there still stands in that region several monuments to the man who dreamed that someday he would be able to visit the Holy Land in that corner of the world.
Dr. Jason H. Silverman is the chair of the Scholarly Advisory Group for President Lincoln’s Cottage, and is the Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History Emeritus, Winthrop University.
This piece has been edited for publication.