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Vital Signs

Lincoln, Diplomacy, and War

In the tumultuous six months between his election in November 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Abraham Lincoln rejected all diplomatic efforts to resolve the deepening crisis peacefully.  In the political dispute with the newly constituted, but militarily weak, Confederate States of America, there would be no meaningful negotiations.  No compromise would be offered or accepted.  Instead, tensions between the two governments would be heightened, and the passions of the American public inflamed, by Lincoln’s provocative and deceptive rhetoric.

Lincoln’s words were a reflection of his unflagging desire to wage total war on the South.  It was to be a war that would last until the enemy agreed to unconditional surrender and U.S. public officials and private contractors had made a financial killing.  In 1878, Henry S. Olcott, special investigator for the U.S. War and Navy Departments, estimated “at least twenty, if not twenty-five, percent of the entire expenditures of the government during the Rebellion, were tainted with fraud.”  We could call this the Lincoln principle of diplomacy—a principle that was followed by the Clinton administration in Bosnia and the George W. Bush administration in Iraq.

Lincoln’s ideological view of politics equated progress and patriotism with support for a high protective tariff, internal improvements, and a...

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