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Seward's Folly or Farsightedness?

By: Patrick J. Garrity
December 14, 2012

In the second essay of the Federalist, Publius (John Jay) observed with pleasure

that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together; while the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances, present them with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.

 

The American colonists, and the founders of the new Republic, often remarked upon these advantages of geography and climate, which pointed towards the creation of a political union that would correspond with the boundaries decreed by nature. The advantages of geography and climate might be self-evident but they were not self-assured, however: they had to be appreciated and fought for. In the Model Treaty of 1776, and in the original diplomatic instructions concerning the United States's terms for a peace settlement with England (one to be recognized by the major European powers), Congress essentially equated the preferred boundaries of the new Union with those of the former British Empire in North America. They included not only the 13 colonies and their collective claims for lands across the mountains to the Mississippi River, but also Canada, rights to the fisheries off Newfoundland, and continued fair access to commercial trade with the British West Indies. The most far-sighted Americans did not propose to stop there but sought to make the Union even more perfect, geographically speaking: they wanted full and free access to the Mississippi River and its egress into the Gulf of Mexico, possession of the Floridas and the Gulf coast, and the island of Cuba.


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Early American statesmen often spoke of Newtonian-like processes operating in the (geo)political realm. As John Quincy Adams remarked, "There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American union." Which is not to say that Cuba was destined inevitably to become part of the Union. That depended on other forces—human action or reaction—which would bring "gravity" into play, or not. Someone or something had to sever the apple.

There was a prior necessary condition for geopolitics to operate on such a large scale: the existence of a Union that had a sufficient "gravity well" (to use a term of post-Newtonian physics) to cause the apple to fall in its direction rather than another. The Union, which made compelling strategic sense, was nevertheless a political construct subject to centrifugal forces—human passion and error—which threatened to divide it from its inception.

Americans did not always see eye to eye on the proper territorial extent of the new nation or the measures that should be taken to provide for a more perfect geographic Union. The founders did not obtain Canada, by conquest or negotiation, which left the new nation vulnerable to British invasion and to the subversive effects of London's support of its native allies. For a time during the Revolutionary War, it appeared that Congress might be forced to accept major territorial compromises in order to secure formal recognition of American independence—concessions effectively imposed by its French ally. Britain stubbornly resisted granting Americans access to the West Indies. Spain did not surrender readily the Mississippi, the Floridas, or Cuba. The first and second generation of American political leaders did not agree fully upon the proper strategic orientation of the Union, whether it ought to have a maritime-commercial (Atlantic) or agricultural (continental) focus. During the 1780s Jay negotiated the outlines of a treaty with Spain, never consummated, in which the United States would "forbear" to navigate the Mississippi between Spanish banks for a period of 30 years, in exchange for commercial concessions by Madrid. The proposal angered many in the South and West as a sell-out of their interests. It was one of the factors in the political crisis that brought about the Constitutional convention (and led, among other things, to the requirement of a two-thirds majority in the Senate to ratify treaties).


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During the crisis of the 1780s, some Americans went so far as to question the viability of a geographically expansive Union. They pointed to the difficulty of governing such a massive territory without a despotic central government, and to the distinct interests that seemed to mark particular sections. Some in the West explored the idea of reaching an arrangement with Spain to separate from the United States. Others entertained the possibility of allowing three or four separate confederacies to emerge. Because each would have a republican form of government, they presumably could inhabit peacefully the same geopolitical space and trade to their mutual advantage. (It is difficult to find any important American political figure who explicitly made this case, but had efforts at constitutional reform failed, this might well have been the default outcome.)

The Constitution of 1787 offered an alternative—a large, commercial and federal republic—based on the assumption that nature and the American experiment in self-government could be aligned perfectly. Anything less would be disastrous. As Publius put it:

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.

 

The relations among these independent sovereignties, Publius insisted, would not be characterized by peace and commerce but by unceasing conflicts of interests and war. The struggle to control an unnaturally divided geopolitical space would override the republican instincts of the people. North America would be racked with wars, just as Europe had been for centuries.


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The supporters of the Constitution carried the day, but questions of what exactly that ideal geopolitical space consisted did not go away. Americans understood that too much territory, or the wrong kind of territory in the wrong place, would be as problematic to their security as too little. Thomas Jefferson's rather accidental purchase of the entire Louisiana territory in 1803 (he sought originally only New Orleans and as much of the Floridas as possible), and the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 (which asserted American sovereignty over the Floridas and over some of the Pacific Coast, but eschewed claims to the soon-to-be former Spanish province of Texas), were controversial for this reason. Many Federalists argued that the Louisiana Purchase violated the terms of the original compact and saddled the Union with millions of acres of "howling wilderness," populated by alien races, which required federal protection but which could never be governed in a republican fashion. In addition, the new territory was bound to tip the political scales decidedly in a Republican and agrarian direction, contrary especially to the commercial and maritime interests of Federalist New England. Even Republicans Jefferson and James Monroe speculated that the entire West was too big to govern; they thought that the emergence of a "sister republic" or republics, especially on the Pacific coast, might be the best result. Historians debate the extent to which the desire to acquire Canadian land motivated the so-called War Hawks in the run-up to the War of 1812, but at the very least President James Madison wanted to deny Britain the use of Canada as the strategic and logistical anchor of its empire in the New World.

The wars for independence by the Spanish-American colonies, and rumors that the European Holy Alliance might intervene to restore Spanish rule there, stimulated the United States to assert what many took to be a claim of geopolitical hegemony over the entire New World. What became known as the Monroe Doctrine inspired hopes and fears that some sort of comprehensive political hemispheric union might be the result, going beyond a North American Union. In the 1840s President James Polk wanted to secure American claims to a "greater Texas" and to obtain additional territory from Mexico, particularly California with its Pacific ports. But Polk placed limits on his ambitions. In order to fight his war with Mexico without fearing British intervention, he settled for less than the maximum American claims over the Oregon territory (54º 40' or Fight!)—a compromise which distressed many of his Democratic supporters and also some anti-slavery leaders, who wanted all of Oregon as additional free soil. Polk also did not go along with those who wanted to annex all of Mexico, which would have expanded the amount of territory open to slavery.


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The issue of slavery had always been in the background in the evolution of Americans' thinking about the geopolitical space which they ought, by right and prudence, to occupy. With the Mexican War, it entered the foreground. For many anti-slavery Northerners, the adverse political consequences of expansion defeated any possible strategic advantages of rounding out American territory—they wanted to "contain" slavery within its existing boundaries by insisting that the territories, old and new, be organized by Congress on the principle of free soil. Many Southerners deeply resented this slight upon their way of life and their traditional position of political power within the Union. They feared the security of the peculiar institution within a Union that seemed to be dominated increasingly by the growth of the North's population and its dynamic industrial capitalism. A group in the middle, geographically as well as politically, argued that nature would take care of matters quite on its own and that the Northern hot-heads should cease their political agitation. Neither the soil nor the climate of new territories was conducive to slavery and free labor would come to dominate quite on its own.

The most ambitious Southerners were not about to take that chance. They pressed to have a transcontinental railway built along a southern route, which would guarantee them preferred access to the western territories and the Pacific (despite the Compromise of 1850, they also explored the idea of introducing slavery into southern California). They also looked to expand in areas where climate and recent history unmistakably favored slavery, by acquiring Cuba and territories in the Caribbean basin, which would help balance the growing political power of the North.

As the nation debated these contentious issues in the 1850s, the notion of a unified geopolitical space, with "gravity" sufficiently compelling to overcome political differences, came under severe challenge. Militant Southerners argued that they would be better off outside of the Union; that a Southern confederacy, rich in cotton and free to expand and dominate the Caribbean without Northern opposition, would be strategically secure. Without tariffs and other restrictions imposed by the minions of Wall Street, a Southern confederacy would become the hemisphere's dominant economic power. The confederacy must have a secure northern border—the Ohio River—that corresponded with both history and the imperatives of military geography. A transcontinental railway following a southern route, if it could be built in time, would provide the South with a decisive advantage in a military contest to control the West. (In contrast, advocates of a northern route, including Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas and the writer William Gilpin, argued that a properly-sited rail line would be a major instrument in strengthening the bonds of Union. See the accompanying essay on Gilpin in the December 2012 Notes on Strategy and Statesmanship.)

In the North, some abolitionists were of the view that there should be "no Union with slaveholders." One could make the case for a viable and vibrant Northern confederacy, expanded to include Canada, based on manufacturing and maritime industries and no longer shackled to the reactionary slave power. North and South could conceivably reach a modus vivendi over the trans-Mississippi West and the Pacific coast. More likely, a western or Pacific confederacy would emerge. These new nations would have complimentary, not conflicting, economic interests, as well as a common ethnic heritage and distinct strategic spheres of interest, which would mitigate tensions among them. At worst, a rough balance of power would emerge, with any undue aggression by one confederacy being checked by the other two.


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This brings us to William H. Seward, New York governor and senator, and secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He is the subject of a major new biography by Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln's Indispensible Man. (Stahr has also authored a study of Jay, another New York governor and diplomat.) Seward was one of the outstanding members of the third generation of American political leaders and in most respects the prototypical progressive, northern Whig. Stahr summarizes Seward's vision of the qualities that would characterize the American empire of the future: it would be extensive and voluntary (additional territory in North America would be acquired gradually and with the consent of its inhabitants); interconnected (linked together by canals, railroads, and telegraphs); international (strong trade ties to both Europe and Asia); prosperous (modern factories and farms); open (immigration would be encouraged and immigrants readily assimilated—here Seward differed from many Whigs); and democratic and free (slavery would be excluded from the national territories and would disappear peacefully where it existed).

Stahr attempts to unravel one particular puzzle of Seward's political career: why would a man regarded in the 1850s as being on the radical side of the anti-slavery coalition become, as secretary of state, so conciliatory towards the South? On the major questions of the day—whether to seek a compromise during the Great Secession Winter of 1860-61, whether to surrender Fort Sumter without attempting to relieve or re-provision the garrison, whether to move the slavery question to the forefront of the Union's wartime objectives, whether to make reconstruction of the South's social and economic structure a precondition for return to full rights in the Union—Seward typically came down on the "moderate" or "conservative" side of the question. Once war broke out, Seward was certainly an advocate of its strong prosecution and he loyally supported Lincoln as the president moved to promote a "new birth of freedom." But had Seward been nominated by the Republican Party and elected president in 1860—something that was probably impossible because of his supposed radical anti-slavery views—the Civil War and the future shape of the Union, if any, would likely have turned out much differently.


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The evidence that Stahr presents, in my opinion (not necessarily Stahr's), points to Seward's plans to rely on policies that would have reinforced the geopolitics of a North American Union, rather than depend upon appeals to the "mystic chords of memory" or to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Seward believed that if the inherent strategic logic of a single Union dominating North America could be brought to the forefront, other problems, including slavery, could be resolved through statesmanship.

During the 1840s, his formative decade as a political leader, Seward spoke in language similar to that of Jay about the logic of Union: "No political ties bring it together, and no political convulsion can shake it to pieces. The union is the handiwork of Nature." Those who questioned that fact should spend a day near Niagara, where the river "gathers within its narrow banks the floods of the Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, Superior, and Woods." From there, one could view the multitude of ships in the locks, bearing the products of all the interior regions toward the Atlantic, and bearing the products from the eastern states toward all "the communities which cluster and ripen on the western lakes and rivers." Skeptics could continue their travels to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and watch the "ever-passing, ever swelling tides of inland trade." These rivers and canals were hardly "fit stations for customs houses and walls and castellated towns and frontier armies," which was the pattern in Europe. The doubtful man, Seward maintained, would soon realize that the "Union exists, because it is inevitable, and must endure, because it is indispensable." Commerce, understood in the comprehensive, progressive fashion outlined above, was the lifeblood of the Union.

Of course, human folly might try to put asunder the Union that God and nature had ordained. In Seward's mind the institution of slavery was a human-made centrifugal force that disrupted the progressive order of things. For instance, he observed that New Orleans should, by virtue of its place at the mouth of the Mississippi, be the commercial capital of the United States, but in fact it was comparatively unimportant. This was due in part to the difficulties of navigation and climate (health), but above all because power "can never permanently reside, on this continent, in a community where slavery exists."

When the slave-holding South became an actual threat to the existence of the Union, rather than merely a moral and economic drag on its full realization, Seward's preferred strategy was to try to find ways to remind, or teach, sensible Southerners of the overriding geopolitical utility of a united, republican, and federal power dominating North America, and to remove barriers that would prevent that geopolitical union from being reconstituted as quickly and easily as possible if war broke out. This strategy required persuading Northerners that the South ought to be let back in with as few conditions as possible—it was best to make the necessary adjustments, for instance over black rights, with the South fully participating in the process.

Take Seward's attitudes in early 1861, as South Carolina and the states in the deep South voted ordinances of secession. Before and shortly after Lincoln's inauguration, Seward worked assiduously to keep the border states in the Union through various means, such as (it seems) by promising Southerners privately that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. Seward feared that a Northern attempt to hold the fort would antagonize the wavering Unionist majority in key slave states, especially Virginia, and provoke their secession. Lincoln too was acutely aware of the importance of the border states—"I hope to have God on my side," Lincoln was purported to have said, "but I must have Kentucky". Lincoln himself may have explored a deal in which Virginia would vote down a resolution of secession in exchange for Sumter's evacuation, but he soon concluded that the Virginians were either playing a game of bait-and-switch or that they could not deliver.


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Seward, by Stahr's account, was more willing to devise creative political means to geographically isolate the fire-eaters. The longer that the more rational leaders of the South had to contemplate the situation, the more likely they would realize that a Southern confederacy was not geopolitically viable—it could never be a great, independent power in the international system. Certainly the seven states that initially seceded were not a viable nation and their move for independence was doomed in its own right. In a January 1861 speech to the Senate, Seward paraphrased the early numbers of The Federalist by warning that the division of the United States would not be peaceful and that "jealousies would bring on frequent and retaliatory wars." Such wars would inevitably draw in hostile European powers and the Confederacy, even if it managed to avoid splitting into additional nations, would surely become their satellite and pawn.

Seward wanted to drive this point home to extremists on both sides. In his famous memorandum to Lincoln in April 1861—before he modestly suggested that the president should delegate policy responsibility to him—Seward proposed to demand "explanations" from Spain, France, Britain, and Russia, for unspecified transgressions. If the explanations, specifically from France and Spain, were not satisfactory, he suggested that the president convene Congress and ask for a declaration of war. Whether Seward actually wanted a foreign war, or just a major foreign policy crisis, he clearly felt that one or the other would serve to rally the South behind the Union—not only by stirring patriotic feelings but also by reinforcing in the minds of Southern leaders the difficulties that they would have in maintaining true independence in a world of hostile powers.

Seward had earlier remarked publicly that if a foreign power were to "make a descent upon the City of New York tomorrow," he believed that "the hills of South Carolina would pour forth their population to the rescue of New York." Equally, if a foreign power were to attack South Carolina, "I know who would go to their rescue." He told the British Minister Lord Lyons in private that "nothing would give [him] so much pleasure as to see a European power interfere in favor of South Carolina—for that then he should ‘pitch into' the European power, and South Carolina and the seceding states would soon join him in doing so."


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Seward eventually moderated his diplomatic position once the war was fully underway. At that point, as Stahr notes, Seward realized that it was critically important to tone down American prickliness in order to prevent European intervention on the side of the South. Notably, Seward rethought the wisdom of engaging in a foreign war when the perfect opportunity (or necessity) seemed to present itself. In 1861 several European powers, led by France, intervened against the government of Mexico, ostensibly to collect debts, but eventually (under French arms) to install a monarchy under the Austrian archduke Maximilian. This seemed to beg for the Union to invoke the Monroe Doctrine against the invaders, either to encourage reunion with the South on the basis of joint opposition to a European threat, or as a means to divide the Southerners among themselves. The Confederate government, anxious to gain European diplomatic recognition, did not oppose French intervention in Mexico, but astute Southerners realized that a French presence in the region would block the establishment of a slaveholding empire in the Caribbean. The Confederacy would be hoisted on its own petard if it failed to recognize the geopolitical absurdity of a division of the Union.

Seward did not go down the path of war with France over Mexico, however. In March 1862, he warned Paris that "no monarchical government, which could be founded in Mexico, in the presence of foreign navies and armies in the waters and upon the soil of Mexico, would have any prospect of security or permanence." But he acknowledged that France had the right to make war for the purpose of forcing Mexico to pay her debts and he stopped short of threats of U.S. armed intervention. One might view this as a reasonable but temporary quid pro quo, designed to forestall French intervention in the American Civil War. (Of course it would have been difficult to muster a significant invasion of Mexico while fighting against the South was still going on—assuming that the South did not join in the campaign against Maximilian—although Lincoln did later order Union forces to secure the Mexican-Texas border). Even after Appomattox, however, Seward resisted calls to send American troops to Mexico to aid the republican forces there and to eject the French. He relied on stiff diplomatic protests but carefully avoided invoking the Monroe Doctrine, claiming that it had already been "realized." He argued that Maximilian's regime would fail on its own accord; American intervention would only stir up nationalist sentiment against the United States and thereby prolong Maximilian's rule. Even if successful, Seward warned, the United States could not easily withdraw from Mexico and American occupation would be no more popular than that of the French. America would face a long and expensive war with Mexico.


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Seward's caution about intervention in Mexico brings us to the question of what he thought about the natural and desirable boundaries of the Union. Before the Civil War, in keeping with the general Whig perspective, Seward had argued that the United States was sufficiently large and that he wanted "no enlargement of territory sooner than it would come if we were contented with a masterly inactivity." At the same time, he spoke in very general terms of reaching the tropics and the Arctic Circle and referred to Mexico City as the natural capital of the American Empire.

But we should not read too much into such rhetorical statements and look instead at what Seward did—when he went beyond masterlyinactivity and took positive steps to expand the geopolitical space and influence of the Union. Seward believed that commerce was the major centripetal force that would re-bind the Union together, as well as improve the general condition of mankind. Commerce did not exist in a vacuum—it needed an accommodative geographic framework that could only be assured by active means of policy. Given the experience of the Union navy during the Civil War, he was convinced that the United States needed to acquire offshore bases, particularly in the Caribbean. Seward's preference was the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies (which had been recommended to him by Lincoln and Admiral David Porter), and he attempted to negotiate its purchase from Denmark. He also explored the acquisition of Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and possibly Greenland, and sought to secure unilateral rights to build and control a trans-isthmian canal.

Perhaps the most famous of Seward's efforts to increase the "gravity well" of the Union was the purchase of Russian Alaska. (Stahr points out that the label "Seward's Folly" was attached well after the proposed purchase was originally announced, as part of a political campaign to block what opponents perceived as Seward's overly ambitious expansionist agenda.) Seward argued that Alaska was well worth the bargain in its own right, with a treasure trove of timber, minerals, fish, whaling grounds and fur, but he evidently envisioned it as the first step in the development of a more extensive "Pacific shield" that would eventually include British Columbia, Baja California, Hawaii, and possibly other islands in the Pacific.

It is equally interesting what territory Seward did not think it worth to pursue actively, at least so far as the record shows. He apparently did not push for immediate territorial acquisitions in British Canada, other than on the west coast (and London worked to head off any voluntary union of Canada with the United States by adopting the British North America Act in 1867). As noted above, Seward continued resolutely to resist American military intervention in Mexico and was content to allow Spain to hold Cuba, expecting that it would eventually "by means of constant gravitation...fall into the United States." He may have expected the same thing eventually for some or all of Mexico and Canada but this would be the long-term effect of, not the necessary condition for, the unity of American strategic geography.

Seward's post-war strategic expansionism, although arguably more limited than American power might allow, was largely foiled by his political opponents, particularly Democrats and Southerners. Like the New England Federalists of an earlier generation, the anti-expansionists believed that Seward's agenda would weaken their political position within the Union and that it violated the terms of the federal, republican contract, in part because it would include alien races. It would take another generation before the geopolitical Union was rounded off in much the way that Seward envisioned, although not without a new round of controversy.