“One War at a Time”: Abraham Lincoln’s Latin American Foreign Policy

“One War at a Time”: Abraham Lincoln’s Latin American Foreign Policy

by Jason H. Silverman

“Mexican affairs have suddenly come to be very interesting to the Black Administration,” was the confidential comment John Forsyth, former U.S. minister to Mexico, sent to his Confederate colleagues about the Lincoln administration from the last gasp Washington Peace Conference in late March of 1861. Earlier that month President Lincoln, while considering diplomatic appointments for England, France, Mexico, and Spain, had written, “We need to have these points guarded as strongly and quickly as possible.” Indeed, Mexico might become the most important foreign post, editorialized the New York Tribune, since it would counteract “the filibustering projects of the Southern Confederacy.” For the significant Mexican appointment Lincoln chose Thomas Corwin, a rabid anti-expansionist, after being informed by Secretary of State William Seward that the post was “perhaps the most interesting and important one within the whole circle of our international relations.” With that, the new president launched his foreign policy toward Latin America.

The Mexican diplomatic assignment was the climax to Corwin’s long, distinguished career. Formerly a member of Congress, Governor of Ohio, United States Senator, and Secretary of the Treasury in Millard Fillmore’s cabinet, Corwin’s oratory was so influential that it often shaped public sentiment. So powerful was his opposition to the United States’ war against Mexico that he declared in the U.S. Senate his hope that the Mexicans would receive the invading armies “with bloody hands and hospitable graves.” For this statement he was hanged in effigy even by members of his own party.

Thomas Corwin, U.S. Minister to Mexico

Lincoln instructed the new minister to do all that he could to combat the Confederate influence in Mexico. He was to block Confederate attempts to gain diplomatic recognition from Mexico, warning against any aggressive plans of the Confederacy, especially attacks from California and Texas. This he accomplished within a few months and with little difficulty. His second assignment was to initiate Lincoln’s new Latin American policy which was intended primarily to mitigate the previous administrations’ overzealous demands in regard to the American acquisition of Mexican land and the claims of loss of lives and property of United States citizens. In view of the threatened intervention of European monarchies, Corwin was to give assurances to Mexican President Benito Juarez that the United States desired Mexico to “retain its complete integrity and independence,” and form of republican government. At the Mexican capital, he readily made friends with Mexican officials for whose problems he had both understanding and sympathy. “In the last forty years Mexico has passed through thirty-six different forms of government, has had…seventy-three Presidents,” Corwin wrote Secretary of State Seward. “Still I do not despair of the final triumph of free government…The signs of regeneration, though few, are still visible. Had the present liberal party enough money at its command to pay an army of 10,000 men, I am satisfied it could suppress the present opposition; restore order and preserve internal peace…I am persuaded the pecuniary resources to effect these objects at this time must come from abroad. This country is exhausted…by forty years of almost uninterrupted civil war.”

By July 1861, Corwin received “positive assurance…that…the [Juarez government] will not entertain any proposition” leading to recognition of the Confederacy. Rumors rapidly spread that the Confederates were already referring to the Gulf of Mexico as “Confederate Lake.” And Corwin added that “well-informed Mexicans in and out of the Government seem to be well aware that the independence of a Southern Confederacy would be the signal for a war of conquest with a view to establishing slavery in each of the twenty-two states of this Republic.” Corwin had been at his post for little more than a month when John T. Pickett, the Confederacy’s diplomatic agent, landed at Veracruz.

Pickett’s mission had originated in March of 1861 while he was serving as secretary to the Confederate Peace Commissioners at the last-ditch Washington Peace Conference. One of the commissioners, John Forsyth, recommended Pickett as one possessing a “thorough knowledge of Mexican character,” who knew the leaders and was “eminently suitable for a position so delicate and important.” This endorsement, however, was premature and misplaced. Indeed, Pickett was tactless and far from exemplary in his conduct, alternating between threatening language and unauthorized hints of bestowing patronage.

Pickett soon reported to the Confederate government that, in his opinion, there would be no stability in the Mexican government as long as the country was governed by Mexicans; only foreign intervention would bring about peace. The Confederacy demanded that Mexico observe the strictest neutrality in the American Civil War and Pickett was instructed to use all means at his disposal “to match the proceedings of…and to counteract” the Lincoln administration.

Map of Mexico, 1861

Pickett informed his superiors that Mexico supported the Confederacy because slavery was similar to Mexican peonage, and the South was sincere in comparison with Northern hypocrisy. Such was the sympathy between Southerners and Mexicans that, if secession did not result in the independence of the South, “hundreds of thousands” of her sons would emigrate “with their goods and chattels (as did the children of Israel) to some convenient and attractive [Mexican] Promised Land.”

The situation changed dramatically when Pickett learned that the Juarez government had given the Union permission to march troops from Guaymas, on the Gulf of California, to Arizona, in order to protect Arizona from a suspected Confederate advance. In a shrewd move to undercut the Lincoln administration, Pickett promised the Mexican government “proposals for the retrocession to Mexico of a large portion of the territory hitherto acquired from her by the United States,” i.e. California, New Mexico territory, Arizona territory, and all other land obtained in the Mexican American War.

Nevertheless, by the early fall of 1861, Mexico regarded the Confederacy with unmitigated suspicion. Pickett blamed Corwin and the Lincoln administration for creating this distrust. President Lincoln knew that Mexico’s immediate dangers were not from the Confederacy; rather, it was her empty treasury, her continued internal unrest, and the demands of European powers. Money was the lifeline of the Juarez government, and Lincoln was Mexico’s only prospect of getting it. As a South Carolinian wrote from Mexico to the Confederate government in Richmond, the Mexicans believed that men, money, and arms would be “lavishly supplied” by the United States in support of the national integrity of Mexico and of the Monroe Doctrine.

It was not long before Pickett reluctantly conceded that the Confederacy had “few or no friends” in Mexico. He had been arrested for disorderly conduct in a bar and his “confidential” reports to Richmond with many unflattering remarks about Mexico had been intercepted in New Orleans and shared with the Juarez government. His mission to Mexico relegated to utter failure.

As danger from the Confederacy declined, the Lincoln administration turned its attention to the larger problem of European intervention in Mexico. Lincoln could not spare any military assistance to Mexico as his own domestic war clouds were getting darker and more ominous. Thus the only recourse for Lincoln to assist Mexico was money from loans, which would be effective only if England, France, and Spain agreed to settle peacefully their claims on Mexico.

Benito Juarez, President of Mexico

With this in mind Corwin recommended to Lincoln that the United States lend Mexico an amount not exceeding $10,000,000 to $12,000,000, payable in installments. In return the United States might receive Baja California, thought to be in danger of seizure by the Confederates, or, alternatively, a tariff reduction on imports. Such an arrangement would be unpopular in both countries, Lincoln realized, remembering vividly his own opposition to the acquisition of Mexican territory during his one term in Congress. Corwin also made a second suggestion to Secretary Seward and Lincoln. Corwin anticipated that England and France intended to intimidate Mexico or, worse yet, intervene militarily. “Europe is quite willing to see us humbled,” Corwin wrote, “and will not fail to take advantage of our embarrassment to execute purposes of which she would not have dreamed had we remained at peace.” Corwin concluded that President Juarez and his republican government, if given financial aid, could withstand any foreign intervention in their country. Only from the United States could such aid come. At the same time that Lincoln was seeking to assist Mexico, the Mexican Congress suspended interest payments on debts and claims owed England, France, and Spain. Corwin quickly proposed that the United States pay Mexico’s suspended interest obligations, taking as security the mining rights of the northern states of Mexico. The American loan, then, would be specifically designed to assist the Mexican debt settlement. For the United States to pay debts other than her own was an unprecedented move and it was highly unlikely that England and France would permit the Unites States to pay Mexican debts and thereby gain further influence in that country.

To Lincoln, and to his own Mexican countrymen, the youthful Mexican diplomat Matias Romero argued futilely in behalf of a general loan to his country. But Mexican Foreign Minister, Manuel María Eutimio de Zamacona refused to consider the price: “It is inconceivable,” he declared, “that this government would make agreement about the sale of territory . . . or mortgage the wealth of undeveloped lands . . . which would foreshadow any danger to our nationality.” Both Lincoln and Seward convinced Romero that, the Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding, a loan to Mexico would never be approved by either the Department of State or the Senate if the money were used to make war on other powers, especially in the midst of an American Civil War. That would risk an international crisis and, as Lincoln said repeatedly, “one war at a time” was enough.

If a general loan to Mexico was not feasible, then perhaps one earmarked to meet the interest payments on the Mexican debts might work, Lincoln was advised. Thus on August 24, 1861, Lincoln and Seward gave Corwin permission to pursue such negotiations. Corwin was authorized to frame a treaty by which the United States would pay, “over a period of five years, the interest of 3 percent on Mexico’s funded foreign debt. Repayment would bear 6 percent interest and the loan would be secured by public lands and mineral rights in the northern states of Mexico.” The treaty was not to be signed until and unless Britain, France, and Spain agreed not to make reprisals. By the following month, the proposed American treaty with Mexico became well known in London and Paris. Charles Francis Adams, U.S. Minister to London brought the question to the attention of British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell and informed Russell that the United States was disturbed by rumors of interference in Mexico and the possibility of the creation of a new Mexican government by foreign intervention. Adams insisted that it would be much better if the threatened use of force by the European powers were prevented by an agreement whereby the United States guaranteed, for a specified period, interest payments on Mexican debts.

Despite their initial reluctance, Lincoln and Seward recognized the veracity in the proposal to pay Mexican interest payments. But, much to Lincoln’s chagrin, when the resolution endorsing the project of a loan was brought to the floor of the U.S. Senate it was decisively rejected, and instead an opposing resolution was adopted declaring that it was not advisable to negotiate a treaty that would require the United States to assume any portion of the principal or interest of the debt of Mexico, or that would require the concurrence of foreign powers. Despite Lincoln’s lobbying, the Senate would not approve any loan that would drain money from Civil War expenditures.

Lincoln regarded European intervention in Mexico as only slightly less ominous than the rebellion at home. An aggressive Britain, France, and Spain might start a war which could result in the complete subjugation of Mexico. If that took place and the Confederacy prevailed, the outcome could once again be a return “of the American continent under European domination.” As 1861 faded, Abraham Lincoln watched with grim uncertainty the unfolding situation in Mexico.

Mexico was rapidly becoming one of the most compelling elements of the Lincoln Latin American foreign policy. The foreign policy toward Latin American established in Mexico by Lincoln, continued by his successor, President Andrew Johnson, and administered throughout both administrations by Secretary of State Seward, was gradually applied to the other Latin American republics.

As was the situation in Mexico, advocates of monarchy in most of the Latin American countries were from conservative and clerical groups. These groups came from deeply rooted positions of power and wealth which had “suffered disastrously . . . under the under the republican form of government.” In dire terms, Friedrich Hassaurek, American minister to Ecuador, reported such to President Lincoln. “We must either…be swallowed up in the end by the Anglo-Saxon race or follow the example of the French in Mexico…Bad…as foreign intervention may be, it is our last and our only hope.” Prior to the Lincoln administration, the American State Department had so relentlessly persisted in pro-annexationist claims as to alienate and anger the Latin American nations. As Manifest Destiny spawned aggressive expansionists who professed that Anglo-American dominance was a heaven-sent process ordained by God, Latin American resentment, fear, and hatred were intensified.

Matias Romero

Despite being consumed by his own war, Lincoln realized that the American relationship with Latin America must be repaired and improved. That attitude was shared by the Mexican diplomat Matias Romero. “Before the [U.S.] Civil War commenced,” Romero wrote, “it appeared that…[the United States] was the only enemy …because [its] usurping policy had deprived us of half our territory and [was] a constant menace…Nothing, therefore, was more natural than to see with pleasure…a division which…would render [America] almost impotent against us… [However] We [now] find ourselves [facing] the hard alternative of sacrificing our territory and our nationality at the hands of…[the United States] or our liberty and our independence before the despotic thrones of Europe. The second danger is immediate and more imminent…”

Lincoln’s plans were intended to rectify the mistakes of the past and to eschew the traditional American expansionist pressure on Latin America and create a new foundation of mutual understanding and self-respect. Toward that end, Lincoln’s instructions to American diplomats in Spanish America constituted “an emotionally earnest crusade for the survival of free institutions.” This included the condemnation of slavery, long abolished in free Spanish America, and the vigorous defense of human and natural rights. Lincoln drew sharp distinctions between his own government and the Confederacy, which he described as composed of filibusterers and expansionists, intent on the spread of slavery into Latin America with its ultimate intention of overthrowing legally constituted governments. Ever the successful and compelling trial lawyer, Lincoln also indicted Confederate policies by linking it closely with the aggressive foreign policies of French and Spanish imperialism directed toward the Latin American nations. This vastly departed from Lincoln’s predecessors, and along with Secretary of State Seward, he assured the Latin American republics that the “United States was the one powerful defender of republicanism against monarchy and Old World interference and, therefore, the protector of all sovereignty in the Western Hemisphere.”

Although lost in the myriad of his domestic woes and his concerns that European nations would interfere in the American Civil War, Lincoln was a quiet, yet staunch, defender of the Monroe Doctrine. And, while his foreign policy initiatives were obviously designed to preserve the Union, Lincoln never took his eye off European encroachments elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere and sought to stop it wherever it existed. He was truly, as one historian wrote many years ago, a perceptive, compassionate, and unpretentious “diplomat in carpet slippers.”

Jason H. Silverman is the Ellison Capers Palmer Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University and author, most recently, of Lincoln and the Immigrant. He is the Chairman of the President Lincoln’s Cottage Scholarly Advisory Group.

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