ABRAHAM LINCOLN LET GO OF A DESPERATELY NEEDED VICTORY FOR THE SAKE OF INTEGRITY.
Union victories on the battlefield early in the Civil War were nearly non-existent, so when sailors from a Union naval vessel boarded a British ship called The Trent and captured two Confederate representatives headed to Great Britain to gain its support, Americans went wild.
There were celebrations in the streets of New York City, the media printed huge headlines, and there was a smile or two cracked in the White House.
A few days later, though, the British ambassador filed a formal protest, demanded that the prisoners be released into British custody, and even did some saber-rattling toward Secretary of State William Seward.
Smiles and celebrations vanished.
While Lincoln and his staff discussed what to do, Great Britain grew impatient and sent 8,000 troops to Canada as a show of force.
In editing Seward’s response to Britain, Lincoln transferred responsibility of war onto the British (as well as the French, who had already decided to follow suit with the actions of British):
If they decided “to fraternize with our domestic enemy,” then a war between the United States and Britain “may ensue,” caused by “the action of Great Britain, not our own.”[i]
This response held off Great Britain for awhile, but eventually reached a boiling point when the British threatened to withdraw their diplomats from Washington.
After vehement debate amongst the Cabinet members about what to do with the prisoners, Seward came to the conclusion that the British were merely upset over the same concept that the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812: the boarding and confiscation of property of the other country’s ships.
As difficult and unpopular as it was, Lincoln knew that he had to give up the prisoners to the British.
Americans were not happy with the outcome, but Lincoln took solace that doing the right thing kept the U.S. out of a war it could ill afford to fight against two great powers while at the same time carrying on its own Civil War.
- With his hands full fighting the Confederacy, Lincoln made a good decision in avoiding war with two of the greatest military powers in the world at the time.
- Great Britain and France would eventually stop considering support of the South, especially after the introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Lincoln and the Union would win the public relations battle with both the British and French people.
Do the right thing even if you and your people don’t like it, and it defeats the purpose of your goals. Over time, your people will come to appreciate your integrity. Also, things tend to work out for the best anyway.