Three months after South Carolina’s secession, newly minted Secretary of State William H. Seward hatched a strategy that, he believed, would avert the looming civil war. On the morning of March 31, 1861, Seward learned that Spanish forces had occupied Santo Domingo, while a French fleet was sailing towards Haiti. Seward seized the opportunity, penning a long and rambling missive to Abraham Lincoln. “I would demand explanations from Spain and France, categorically, at once . . .” Seward wrote, “and if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France, would convene Congress and declare war against them.”
Seward’s believed his plan would divert public attention from the issue of slavery, tempt southern slaveholders with new acquisitions in the Caribbean and provide the patriotic glue to reseal the divided nation. And, Seward added, he would happily lift the burden of implementing this strategy from Lincoln’s shoulders. Calculating that his secretary of state was still smarting over being spurned for the presidency, Lincoln let him down easy. The country could only fight “one war at a time,” he said, and a war against either France or Spain would be one too many. And on the issue of war and peace, Lincoln added, he was capable of making that decision on his own. Chagrined, Seward pocketed his proposal and never mentioned it again.