In his workmanlike debut, veteran journalist Peraino examines Abraham Lincoln’s role in American foreign policy, “one of the few sparsely stocked corners of an otherwise massive library.”
As is well-known, Lincoln was occupied with pressing domestic matters for his entire administration and largely left the conduct of foreign policy to Secretary of State William Seward. As president, Lincoln had only two overriding foreign policy goals: to keep the nation out of wars with foreign powers and to keep other nations from recognizing the Confederacy. Even the first of these was difficult, as there was a widely held notion that a foreign war might help resolve the Civil War, and public opinion was inflamed by several international crises during this period. These included a clash with Great Britain over the Trent Affair and the French invasion of Mexico in support of the puppet emperor Maximilian. Peraino treats both at length, crediting Lincoln with encouraging journalists to prepare the public for a necessary but embarrassing climb-down over Trent. Discouraging foreign intervention in our own war, particularly by Britain, where thousands of textile workers were idled by a cotton shortage, required further subtle skill. The author argues that it was accomplished in large part by Lincoln’s gradual transition to emancipation as a war goal, which had a greater moral appeal to the European public than preserving a union that tolerated slavery. This was an approach advanced by, among others, Karl Marx, London correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Finally, however, it detracts nothing from Lincoln’s glory to observe that the author’s view of him as “one of America’s seminal foreign-policy presidents” is something of a stretch. Peraino never fully brings into focus the contours of a distinctly Lincolnian foreign policy.
Though well-researched and engagingly presented, Peraino’s materials include too little new information about Lincoln to add much to readers’ understanding of the 16th president.