The Right of Nation to Defend Its Existence

William H. Seward, Secretary of State

Letter to Adams

Instructions to Great Britain MSS

August 18, 1862

. . . Reviewing the whole course of the existing administration, I may safely claim that it shows that, even if the government had been left at liberty to conduct its foreign relations, altogether irrespectively of the civil war, it would yet have chosen and maintained a policy of peace, harmony, and friendship towards all nations. It is certainly our especial care, under existing circumstances, to do no injustice, to give no offence, and to offer and receive explanations in a liberal spirit whenever they are possible, and thus to make sure that if, at any time, either accidentally or through the intriques of the insurgents, we shall incur the misfortune of collision with foreign states, our position will then be one of pure and reproachless self-defence.

The nation has a right, and it is its duty, to live. Those who favor and give aid to the insurrection, upon whatever pretext, assail the nation in an hour of danger, and therefore they cannot be held or regarded as its friends. In taking this ground, the United States claim only what they concede to all other nations. No state can be really independent in any other position.

Willing, however, to avert difficulties by conciliatory explanations, we frankly confess to the conviction that either the insurrection must be subdued and sup-pressed or the nation must perish. The case admits of no composition. If we have no fear of failure, it is because we know that no other government than this could stand in this country, and that permanent dismemberment of it is impossible. The principal masses of the population are content with the present system, and cannot be brought to oppose or to surrender it. The faction which is attempting to destroy it, although infatuated and energetic, is, relatively to the whole people, an inconsiderable one…

… It may be that the storm may continue one or more years longer, and that there may be a dissolution of society in that unhappy region. But after such a convulsion every state requires repose and again seeks peace, safety, and freedom; and it will have them, if possible, under the political system which is best adapted to those ends. Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, each in his time cast down established states and substituted new ones in their places. Yet the hand that made the violent change had hardly been withdrawn when the subverted states reappeared, standing more firmly than before on their ancient foundations.

It is freely admitted that the salvation of the Union depends on the will and the choice of the American people, and that they are now engaged in a fierce conflict upon that very question. But sooner or later there must come a truce, because civil war cannot be indefinitely endured. Will there then be a reconciliation? It cannot happen otherwise. When such a time arrives, any society will prefer the attainable to the unattainable object, the greater to the lesser advantage, and will bury every domestic difference to save itself from the worst of all political evils-foreign conquest and domination. The object of the insurgents is the fortifying and extending of African slavery. Is the object, under existing circumstances really attainable? Is it not becoming more manifestly impossible every day that the war is prolonged? Is even the continuance of slavery itself worth the sacrifices which the war has brought? It is assumed that the insurgents, however erroneously, are determined upon that point. I reply, that it is always a class, or a sect, or a party, and not the whole country, that provokes or makes civil war, but it is not the same class or sect or party, but the whole country that ultimately makes the peace; and hence it has happened that hardly one out of a hundred attempted revolutions has ever been successful. Is not this the instruction of the civil wars of England, France, and San Domingo?

The consideration that this is a republican state has been heretofore impressed upon the correspondence of this Department, and it cannot be too steadily kept in view by our representatives in Europe. Precisely because it is both a Federal and a republican state, with its cohesion resulting from the choice of the people in two distinct processes, the nation must cease to exist when a foreign authority is admitted to any control over its counsels. It must continue to be jealous of foreign interventions and alliances, as it always heretofore has been.

The nation, moreover, is an American one. It has maintained pleasant and even profitable intercourse with the states of the eastern continent; but it nevertheless is situated in a hemisphere where interests and customs and habits widely differing from those of Europe prevail. Among these differences this one at least is manifest: We neither have sought, nor can we ever wisely seek, con-quests, colonies, or allies in the Old World. We have no voice in the congresses of Europe, and we cannot allow them a representation in our popular assemblies. All of the American states once were dependencies of European powers. The fact that it is necessary to discuss the subject of this letter sufficiently proves that even if those powers have relinquished all expectation of recovering a sway here that was so long ago cast off, yet the American nations have nevertheless not realized their safety against European ambition. For this reason, also, we must be left by foreign nations alone, to settle our own controversies and regulate our own affairs in our own American way. If the forbearance we claim is not our right, those who seek to prevent our enjoyment of it can show the grounds upon which foreign intervention or mediation is justified. Will they claim that European powers are so much more enlightened, more just, and more humane than we are, that they can regulate not only their own affairs but ours also, more wisely and more beneficially than we have done? How and where have they proved this superiority?
I cannot avoid thinking that the ideas of intervention and mediation have their source in an imperfect conception in Europe of the independence of the American nation. Although actual foreign authority has so long passed away, yet the memory of it, and the sentiment of dictation, still linger in the parental European states. Perhaps some of the American nations have by their willingness to accept of favors, lent some sanction to the pretension. But certainly this will not be urged against the United States. We have too many proofs that our independence is by no means pleasing to portions of European society. They would, however, find it difficult to justify their dislike. That independence was lawfully won, and it has been universally acknowledged. . .

What plea for intervention or mediation remains? Only this, that our civil war is inconvenient to foreign states. But the inconvenience they suffer is only incidental, and must be brief; while their intervention or mediation might be fatal to the United States. Are not all civil wars necessarily inconvenient to foreign nations? Must every state, when it has the misfortune to fall into civil war, forego its independence and compromise its sovereignty because the war affects its foreign commerce? Would not the practice upon that principle result in the dissolution of all political society? But it is urged that the war is protracted. What if it were so? Do our national rights depend on the time that an insurrection may maintain itself? It has been a war of fifteen months. The battlefield is as large as Europe. The dynamical question involved is as important as any that was ever committed to the issue of civil war. The principles at issue are as grave as any that ever were intrusted to the arbitration of arms. The resources opened by the government, the expenditures incurred, the armies brought into the field, and the vigor and diligence with which they are manoeuvred, have never been surpassed; nor has greater success, having due regard to the circumstances of the case, ever been attained. Notwithstanding these facts, Europeans tell us that the task of subduing the insurrection is too great, that the conclusion is already foregone, and the Union must be lost. They fail, however, to satisfy us of either their right or their ability to advise upon it, while they no longer affect to conceal the prejudices or the interests which disqualify them for any judgment in the case.

Finally, the advocates of intervention are shocked by the calamities we are enduring, and concerned by the debts we are incurring, yet they have not one word of remonstrance or discouragement for the insurgents, and are busy agents in supplying them with materials of war. We deplore the sufferings which the war has brought, and are ready and anxious to end the contest. We offer the simple terms of restoration to the Union, and oblivion of the crimes committed against it so soon as may be compatible with the public safety. I have expressed these views of the President to our representatives at this time, when I think there is no immediate danger of foreign intervention, or attempt at mediation, to the end that they may have their due weight whenever, in any chances of the war, apprehensions of foreign interference may recur.

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