Pariah diplomacy: The slavery issue in Confederate foreign relations

Gregory Louis Mattson


During American Civil War, Confederate citizens appreciated that their struggle stood a much better chance of success if their newborn republic received diplomatic recognition from European nations. This achievement would have vindicated the cause of Southern independence, thereby invigorating the morale of both Confederate soldiers and civilians. Recognition also might have encouraged peace sentiment throughout the North, thus pressuring the Federal government into abandoning its effort to conquer the South. Moreover, Confederate agents would have been able to deal with European nations as equals and enjoy the opportunity to enter commercial and military alliances that would have provided incalculable benefits to the Southern cause. Although several issues obliged Britain, France, and other countries to refrain from recognizing the Confederacy, many Southerners were aware that slavery tainted their cause in the eyes of many Europeans. Widespread antislavery sentiment throughout Europe caused many Confederate patriots to realize that their racial order created a hindrance in their attempt to generate sympathy for their cause. Without such active and popular support for the Confederacy, European rulers had little reason to risk war with the United States by recognizing the sovereignty of the South. Thus, slavery proved to be a public-relations problem in Confederate diplomacy. Early Confederate victories on the battlefield and the initial reluctance of the Federal government to tamper with slavery enabled Southerners to depreciate the relevance of the institution in the war. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, Confederate agents and local sympathizers bombarded Europe with propaganda aimed at converting foreign observers to Southern proslavery ideology. Meanwhile, Confederates back home denounced Europeans for the hypocrisy of condemning slavery while engaging in overseas imperialism and other coercive activities. Ultimately, these efforts failed to facilitate formal relations between Europe and the Confederacy. Faced with defeat, the Davis administration turned to emancipation in order to obtain diplomatic recognition and save the South from Northern domination. Although Confederate patriots never abandoned their faith in the righteousness of slavery, they were willing to sacrifice the institution for the sake of national independence.