The First Foreign Relations of the United States Volume of 1861

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


A brief video with accompanying transcript of Dr. Aaron Marrs speaking about his research into why the first volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series was released in 1861 amidst the Civil War, the precedents for such a release of foreign relations documentation, and the reception of the first volume.

I’m Aaron Marrs, a historian at the Office of the Historian in the U.S. Department of State, and I’m here today because I’ve been working on our research project on the sesquicentennial of the Foreign Relations series.

(Why was the volume released in 1861?)

In the summer of 1861, the U.S. Congress was very concerned about the efforts the Confederacy was making to gain recognition overseas. The Confederacy believed that its cotton would be a very powerful weapon and wanted to use this economic leverage to gain recognition from other countries. And so that summer, the U.S. Senate and the House passed resolutions asking the President to inform Congress of all the documentation demonstrating the actions taken by the Department of State to prevent the Confederacy from gaining recognition. So on December 3, 1861, the Executive branch responded to those resolutions by releasing the first Foreign Relations volume.

(Was this the first time the federal government released foreign relations documentation?)

No. In fact, ad hoc releases had been taking place since the beginning of the republic from the administration of President George Washington. Usually what would happen is that when a treaty was signed, Congress would receive documentation along with a copy of the treaty. And so, this had been happening throughout the early republic and antebellum years and therefore represents an important part of the balance of power between the different branches of government. The Executive branch executes foreign policy, but the Legislative branch reserves the right to monitor that policy by requesting this type of documentation.

(What makes this volume unique?)

There are a couple of reasons. First of all, for the first time documents from all over the globe were brought under a single cover, so rather than just having a single issue be covered, this was about the entire world. Second of all, there was much more public attention given to this volume, obviously because of the ongoing Civil War. And then third, even though they didn’t know it at the time, this would serve to launch the annual regular publication of foreign relations documentation instead of the ad hoc releases that had taken place previously.

(Were Lincoln and Seward personally involved with the volume?)

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of direct information about how the first volume was put together, so we can’t say definitively that Abraham Lincoln or William Seward chose the documents. However, we do have a lot of indirect evidence about their involvement. First of all, the Department of State was very small in the 1860s—there were only three or four dozen domestic employees, period, in Washington at that time. So, given the size of the Department, and given the importance of this documentation, it is difficult to imagine that Secretary Seward wouldn’t have known about such a project, even if he didn’t select the documents himself. Second of all, we know that in 1864, Seward defended the series against complaints by some of our ministers overseas that important documentations were being released, and in a long letter that he wrote to Charles Francis Adams, our minister in London, he said that for a democracy of our type, it was important for the federal government to be transparent. So, from that we know that he felt the series was important.

(What was the domestic reaction to the volume?)

The domestic reaction was very positive. Newspapers up and down the East Coast published portions of the volume as soon as it came out, and then if you look at newspapers moving across the country, we can see how the information spread. Newspapers in the Midwest carried it later in December, and then by January 1862, the information reached California.

(Did the volumes continue throughout the Civil War?)

Yes, they did. Volumes were released every year in the Civil War, and the series continued through the present day, as we know it, so we’re celebrating 150 years.