Publicizing Foreign Relations in Time of War: The Foundation of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series

Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State


After the start of the Civil War, the Union faced a series of challenges related to foreign relations. One immediate challenge was to prevent the fledgling Confederate government from gaining recognition from foreign powers. In the summer of 1861, the Lincoln government received calls from Congress to demonstrate and explain the steps being taken to prevent such recognition from taking place. Thus, in addition to the challenge overseas, the administration had to respond to domestic demands for information about foreign policy. The administration responded to these demands by releasing several hundred pages of foreign affairs-related documentation with the President’s annual message in December 1861. Although the documents were released in direct response to a Congressional demand, they also served a public relations function. This paper will explore the creation of the first volume of the Foreign Relations series and suggest some general conclusions about the significance of this volume.

Unfortunately, many of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the first volume are shrouded in mystery. There are few relevant Department records from the era, and Lincoln’s and Seward’s personal papers contain nothing pertinent to the topic. Early histories of FRUS also shed precious little light on the history of the series.1

Although it is difficult to know with any certainty how deeply Lincoln and Seward were involved in the decision to publish this volume, it is equally difficult to imagine documents of this importance being released without Seward’s concurrence. What we can learn from existing evidence is the degree to which Congress was responsible for the publication. The impetus for the volume came from a request from Congress. Thus, FRUS represents an example of the checks and balances of federal government: the executive branch carried out foreign policy, but the legislative branch demanded the right to monitor that policy via these requests for documentation. In the summer of 1861, resolutions in Congress included the following: “Resolved, That the President be requested, if not, in his opinion, incompatible with the public interest, to submit to this House all correspondence between this Government and foreign Powers on the subject of the existing insurrection in the United States.”2 The House resolutions came from Democrats and the Senate resolution from a Republican, suggesting bipartisan interest in this issue.

Congress had to wait until December for satisfaction. When the volume was released, it displayed for the public the administration’s actions in the first months of the war. Staving off Confederate agents was key. To the minister to Spain, Carl Schurz, Seward wrote that preventing the Confederacy from gaining recognition was “your chief duty, and no more important one was ever devolved by the United States upon any representative whom they have sent abroad.”3 Even in countries of lesser import, ministers were urged to be on the watch. Although Seward did not believe that the Confederates would attempt to gain recognition immediately from Denmark, he wrote to our representative there that “political action even of the more commanding or more active States is influenced by a general opinion that is formed imperceptibly in all parts of the Eastern continent. Every representative of the United States in Europe has, therefore, a responsibility to see that no effort on his part is wanting to make that opinion just, so far as the true position of affairs is in his own country is concerned.”4 Likewise to the minister to Switzerland: “You are in a region where men of inquiring mind and active habit seek a temporary respite from severe studies and exhausting labors. The world’s affairs are discussed freely, and the sentiments and opinions which influence the conduct and affect the prospects of nations are very often formed in the mountains and dells of Switzerland.”5

The letters encouraged ministers to not let discouraging news from America cloud foreigners’ perceptions of the war effort. “You will hear of a reverse of our arms in Virginia,” Seward wrote to Charles Francis Adams in London after the Battle of Bull Run. He encouraged the minister to think little of it: “The vigor of the government will be increased, and the ultimate result will be a triumph of the Constitution. Do not be misled by panic reports of danger apprehended for the capital.”6 He likewise wrote to William Lewis Dayton in France: “Treason was emboldened by its partial success at Manassas, but the Union now grows manifestly stronger every day.”7 Foreigners could get their news from any number of sources, and ministers had to stand ready to put a positive spin on events.

The volume also printed letters from ministers abroad. Some shared good news of the response from foreign governments. From Belgium, Henry Shelton Sanford reported that the Confederate government would “receive no sanction by any act of Belgium” because it would violate the Belgian policy of “strict neutrality.”8 From Great Britain, George Mifflin Dallas reported that “there was not the slightest disposition in the British government to grasp at any advantage which might be supposed to arise from unpleasant domestic differences in the United States.”9 From Austria, Jehu Glancy Jones noted that the country “hoped to see us re-united” and “was not inclined to recognize de facto governments anywhere.”10 In Turkey, the minister of foreign affairs assured the American representative of “the most friendly sentiments towards the government of the United States, and expressions of warm sympathy” for the country.11 Some of the initial reports, then, were positive.

Other countries had to hedge. Mexico occupied a unique position since the nascent Confederacy was a potential neighbor. Thomas Corwin reported that the government was “well affected towards us in our present difficulties” but would be “unwilling to enter into any engagement which might produce war with the south, unless protected by promise of aid from the United States.”12 From France, Dayton reported that while the French government was “not in the habit of acting hastily upon such questions” as recognizing de facto governments such as the Confederacy claimed to be, the French representative was “equally bound to say that the practice and usage of the present century had fully established the right of de facto governments to recognition when a proper case was made out for the decision of foreign powers.”13 In Venezuela, Edward A. Turpin was only able to convince the President that Confederate ships should not be allowed in Venezuela in any case other than distress; “I could not obtain from him their complete denunciation as pirates,” he wrote.14

Other ministers shared news from the foreign public or other statesmen. In Berlin, Joseph Albert White reported that he was “in the receipt of hundreds of letters and personal calls seeking positions in the American army, and asking for means of conveyance to our shores. So numerous, indeed, are the applications, that I have been compelled to place on the doors of the legation a notice to the purport that ‘This is the legation of the United States, and not a recruiting office.’ ”15 Dallas forwarded newspaper clippings from the London press featuring debates on the war.16 From Sweden, Benjamin Franklin Angel noted that “so far as my reading and observations extend, the better informed European statesmen express the opinion that those charged with the administration of public affairs have acted with the greatest moderation” and that the Union “will have the sympathy and best wishes of all conservatives on this side the Atlantic.”17 One month later, James Samils Haldeman noted that “quite a change is visible in diplomatic circles,” and that diplomats in Sweden “speak out openly that the government of the United States should act vigorously and efficiently” and that the “rebellion should be annihilated by force and not by compromise.”18

The volume also outlined to the frustration the Union felt over Britain’s willingness to treat the Confederates as belligerent powers (and thus with the attendant rights, even if it fell short of full recognition).19 Such documents exposed British actions to American citizens. Adams reported to the British that the Americans were “irritated” by the Queen’s proclamation which was seen as “designed to aid the insurgents by raising them to the rank of a belligerent state.” Although Adams demurred that he himself did not feel that this was British intent, he went on to point out that the presence of “pseudo commissioners” from the Confederates was a continued aggravation. The British responded that “it had been the custom both in France and here to receive such persons unofficially for a long time back. Poles, Hungarians, Italians, &c., &c., had been allowed interviews, to hear what they had to say. But this did not imply recognition in their case any more than in ours.”20 Publishing this exchange demonstrated to Americans the dangerous position Great Britain was taking.

As the above quotations demonstrate, there was a great deal in the volume for a domestic audience. The volume serves as a good representative of what the Lincoln administration wanted the public to know about its foreign relations efforts during the first months of the war. In that effect, the volume tells some clear stories. Seward immediately wrote to representatives abroad and instructed them on no uncertain terms to resist the efforts of Confederate agents to secure recognition and demand that countries refuse Confederate ships succor at their ports. Readers of the correspondence were treated to a range of responses from around the globe: some declared their support for the Union, others pledged a neutrality which partially legitimized the Confederates. The documentation from the ministers illustrated the arguments used to sway foreign governments.

The Department clearly felt that the volumes had some value for telling the government’s story, because they ordered two thousand copies for their own use. The Department ordered 1,000 copies on November 29, and then an additional 1,000 copies on December 12. This is far in excess of the number of foreign posts maintained by the United States, so it is unclear what use was made of these volumes.21 Perhaps copies were distributed to Congressmen, since they requested the documents. But we know for certain that copies found their way into the hands of journalists. It was surely through wide distribution through newspapers that most Americans learned about the documentation and the work the Department was doing to shore up U.S. interests abroad.

Prior to the publication of the annual message, newspapers speculated about the coverage of foreign affairs to be included in the message; both the New York Herald and the New York Times anticipated that the message would include material on the Trent affair.22 In this hope they would be disappointed, but newspapers along the Eastern seaboard published accounts of the correspondence just a few days after the message and documents were released to the public. On December 6, three New York newspapers (the Times, Commercial Advertiser, and Herald Tribune), three Philadelphia newspapers (the Public Ledger, North American, and Inquirer) and the Baltimore Sun published essentially similar accounts, each reporting on the number pages of documentation released and highlighting some of the documentation. The next day, the Albany Evening Journal and Boston Daily Advertiser printed long synopses of the papers. In Connecticut, the Norwich Morning Bulletin printed a much shorter item, and praised the publication: “The diplomatic correspondence submitted to Congress by President Lincoln, reveals as favorable a condition of our relations with foreign Powers as could have been anticipated. This is doubtless owing in a great degree to the firm and decided position maintained by Secretary Seward in his official intercourse with these Governments.”23 The publication continued to make the news in the following weeks.24 Newspapers began to publish additional documents, particularly those relative to relations with France.25

If it was intended as a public relations measure, the publication of the volume was a success in Northern newspapers. The Baltimore Sun reported on December 9 that the correspondence was “receiving that close attention from persons skilled in diplomacy and public law which belongs to its distinguished source and the magnitude of the subject in question.” Papers praised the publication of the correspondence and the contents of the documents. The Keene New Hampshire Sentinel reported that “in the whole of this correspondence, the Secretary of State exhibits marked ability as a statesman and diplomatist.”26 Others took heart from the correspondence that Seward would continue to act appropriately in the future. “The masterly ability which Gov. SEWARD has shown in his instructions to our Foreign Ministers,” opined the Albany Evening Journal, “induce strong confidence that he will conduct the correspondence likely to grow out of the MASON and SLIDELL affair, to a successful and satisfactory issue.”27 By January 1862, the correspondence had reached the West Coast; the San Francisco Bulletin reported that the diplomatic correspondence was “quite voluminous” and “highly interesting.” Seward again came in for praise, his “high-toned” and “courteous” messages were “as nearly perfect models of diplomatic correspondence as are to be found on the pages of modern history.” The correspondence with Adams and Dayton “have swept to the winds all the aspersions of those who have accused him of favoring a timid and wavering policy in dealing with the rebels.”28

Other newspapers hoped that the publication of the correspondence would improve the standing of the United States abroad. The New York Herald-Tribune hoped that British newspapers which had shown Seward in an unfavorable light “would be surprised if the contents of this volume could be fairly laid before them. In vain would they turn page after page in eager quest of the passages whereon the criminations of their favorite journals were based; they do not appear because they do not exist.” The paper praised Seward for his “assured and firm” tone and his faith that the country, “reunited, will be stronger and more prosperous than ever before.”29 Among these newspapers, at least, Seward acquitted himself well.30

The publication of the correspondence even attracted notice in the Confederacy.31 The Columbus [Georgia] Daily Enquirer discussed the correspondence with France, under the headline “Whom the Gods Wish to Destroy, They First Make Mad.” Naturally, the paper put a different spin on the correspondence; rather than noting Seward standing strong in the face of an unfavorable British and French response, the paper focused on the response itself: “It will thus be seen that the relations between the United States and Great Britain and France were far from being securely amicable before the arrest of Mason and Slidell, that there were issues between them of great irritation and danger, and that Great Britain and France are united in the policy to be pursued in reference to political troubles on this continent.”32 Likewise, the New Orleans Times-Picayune sneered at the correspondence with France from June 1861, noting that it came from a time when “arrogant confidence” about a speedy end to the war was “universally felt at the North,” before “the fervor of the Southern passion for independence” and the subsequent “holy war” had been fully experienced.33 In these documents, Southerner saw hope that their cause was not lost in Europe, and that Union leaders were grasping at straws.

The extent of newspaper response illustrates the important domestic function that FRUS served. Newspapers across the country—including the West Coast—printed the correspondence directly (or analysis of it), and many papers praised Seward, the decision to publish the correspondence, and the contents of the publication. The volume was created in response to a request from Congress, and it retained its domestic character upon release by being widely debated and discussed in the country. While we cannot know exactly how many of the complete volumes were distributed across the country or precisely how it happened, the newspaper distribution serves as a good proxy for studying how Americans reacted to the publication of this correspondence.

This brief investigation of the first volume suggests a few general conclusions. First, the project was not conceived in the executive branch. Rather, the process of sharing information represents the checks and balances of the branches of government: the executive executes foreign policy, and the legislative ensures that the policy is being honestly carried out.

The second broad conclusion is that FRUS had a significant domestic audience. It is clear from the correspondence written by the Secretary of State in 1861 and subsequent debates in Congress over the cost of printing that the Department intended the volume as a public relations tool in foreign lands. And yet, there was a definitive domestic audience for the volumes as well. We know that Congress wanted thousands of copies for its own distribution. And newspapers across the country also watched with interest when the volumes came out.

This conclusion suggests the third broad conclusion: that even if these volumes may not tell us everything that we might wish to know about foreign relations during the Civil War era, they do give us a good picture of what the federal governmentwanted its citizens to know. The early volumes are not “scholarly” in the way that today’s FRUS volumes are. We do not know anything about the clerks who compiled them, whereas today’s volumes are produced by trained historians. Of course, it is anachronistic to castigate the early volumes for not being scholarly when the historians in America had yet to professionalize.34 Yet the volumes remain valuable for what they tell us about what the government wanted citizens to know. The picture emerges from the first volume of Seward firing off long letters around the world, instructing our ministers abroad to fend off Confederate advances in other lands. The documents exposed the willingness of England and France to treat the Confederates as legitimate belligerents. There was a public relations value to exposing this type of information.

Waging war against the Confederacy required not only fighting Confederates on the battlefields but also combating their envoys in foreign lands. The first volume of FRUS was not the first publication of diplomatic correspondence. Yet it marked an important stage in the evolution of publishing diplomatic correspondence. The anonymous clerks who created the first volume probably could not have envisioned the massive undertaking that FRUS has become, but hopefully they would be sympathetic to its shared mission: to create a record of U.S. foreign policy, laid out for citizens to freely assess the work of their government.

  1. See, for example, Clarence E. Carter, “The United States and Documentary Historical Publication,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 25 (June 1938): 3-24; E. R. Perkins, “ ‘Foreign Relations of the United States’: 91 Years of American Foreign Policy,” Department of State Bulletin (December 22, 1952): 1002-1006; Robert Wilson, “A Hundred Years of ‘Foreign Relations,’ ” American Journal of International Law 55 (October 1961): 947-950; Richard W. Leopold, “The Foreign Relations Series: A Centennial Estimate,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 49 (March 1963): 595-612; William M. Franklin, “The Future of the ‘Foreign Relations’ Series,” Department of State Bulletin (September 15, 1969): 247-251. One exception to this trend is Rick Moss’s useful, “Public Diplomacy and the First FRUS: The Origins of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series,” fall 2001, unpublished paper in author’s possession. Moss uncovered the resolutions in the House of Representatives which sparked the 1861 volume and also developed the idea of FRUS representing checks and balances.
  2. Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 1st Session, 129.
  3. Letter from Seward to Schurz, April 27, 1861, Message of the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress at the Commencement of the Second Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1861) [hereafter Message], 257.
  4. Letter from Seward to Wood, May 1, 1861, Message, 311.
  5. Letter from Seward to Fogg, May 15, 1861, Message, 329.
  6. Letter from Seward to Adams, July 29, 1861, Message, 124.
  7. Letter from Seward to Dayton, August 17, 1861, Message, 240.
  8. Letter from Sanford to Seward, May 26, 1861, Message, 55-56.
  9. Letter from Dallas to Seward, April 9, 1861, Message, 81. Seward found the British response inadequate, see letter from Seward to Adams, April 27, 1861, Message, 83.
  10. Letter from Jones to Seward, April 15, 1861, Message, 188.
  11. Letter from Brown to Seward, June 11, 1861, Message, 389.
  12. Letter from Corwin to Seward, May 29, 1861, Message, 70.
  13. Letter from Faulkner to Seward, April 15, 1861, Message, 205.
  14. Letter from Turpin to Seward, July 27, 1861, Message, 427.
  15. Letter from Wright to Seward, May 26, 1861, Message, 40.
  16. Letter from Dallas to Seward, May 2, 1861, Message, 83-85.
  17. Letter from Angel to Seward, June 10, 1861, Message, 396.
  18. Letter from Haldeman to Seward, July 28, 1861, Message, 399.
  19. According to Howard Jones, the British “adhered to international law in equating a civil war with a war between nations and then assuming a position of neutrality.” Through belligerent status, the Confederates gained “credibility,” their raids on Union ships were not considered piracy by the British, and Confederates could do business with British merchants. Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 51-52.
  20. Letter from Adams to Seward, June 14, 1861, Message, 104.
  21. Letter from William Seward to John D. Defrees, November 29, 1861, page 520, volume 55, reel 52, microfilm publication M40 (Domestic Letters, 1784-1906), RG 59, National Archives; letter from Frederic Seward to John D. Defrees, December 12, 1861, page 22, volume 56, reel 53, microfilm publication M40 (Domestic Letters, 1784-1906), RG 59, National Archives.
  22. New York Herald, December 2, 1861; New York Times, December 4, 1861. On November 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto seized Confederate ministers James Mason and John Slidell from the British ship HMS Trent, violating British neutrality (Jones, Blue and Gray, chap. 3).
  23. Albany Evening Journal, Boston Daily Advertiser, Norwich Morning Bulletin, all December 7, 1861. On December 9, the Hartford Daily Courant published a similar synopsis to the lengthy ones published on December 6 and 7 by other papers.
  24. The District of Columbia Daily National Intelligencer published a range of documentation over several days in the end of December, for example.
  25. Correspondence with France was published or summarized by the New York Times (December 9, 1861), the New York Herald, Hartford Daily Courant, Pennsylvania Public Ledger, Boston Daily Advertiser (all December 11), Boston Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia North American, Keene New Hampshire Sentinel (all December 12), and the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (December 14).
  26. New Hampshire Sentinel, December 12, 1861.
  27. Albany Evening Journal, December 18, 1861.
  28. San Francisco Bulletin, January 9, 1862. The paper published additional items on January 10, 13, 14, and 31.
  29. New York Herald-Tribune, December 18, 1861.
  30. For more praise, see the Trenton State Gazette, December 20, 1861.
  31. See, for example, Macon Telegraph, January 7, 1862.
  32. Columbus Daily Enquirer, December 23, 1861.
  33. New Orleans Times-Picayune, December 25, 1861.
  34. For example, the American Historical Association was not founded until 1884, 23 years after publication of the first volume.