What Union Meant Abroad

I arrived home today to find a review copy of Don H. Doyle’s new book, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, waiting for me. As I was perusing the introduction I came across this passage, which I thought was appropriate for sharing given the last post and the conversation in the comments section.

“America is not only America, one place or one race more on the map, it is yet and especially the model school of liberty. If against all possibility it had perished, with it would fall a great experiment.” — Eugene Pelletan


Some readers may feel such unqualified admiration of America was undeserved. the Union, everyone knows, had been painfully slow to embrace emancipation, and America’s deeply ingrained racial prejudice would long outlast slavery. These were only some of the egregious flaws in the nation foreign admirers hailed as the Great Republic.

Yet we miss something vitally important if we view Pelletan and other foreigners who saw America as the vanguard of hope as naive or misguided. Foreign admirers typically regarded the United States not as some exceptional city upon a hill, but as exactly the opposite: an imperfect but viable model of society based on universal principles of natural rights and theories of government that originated in Europe but had thus far failed to succeed there. In the 1860s they were horrified to see government of the people seriously imperiled in the one place it had achieved its most enduring success. Abraham Lincoln was hardly boasting when he referred to America as the “last best hope of earth.” His was a forlorn plea to defend America’s–and the world’s–experiment in popular government. (pp. 10-11)

This looks to be a good one.

6 comments… add one
  • You see that theme quite often in immigrant letters and editorials in ethnic papers. Many saw the US as the hope of their non-democratic homelands and felt that if they let it dissolve democratic ideals would die in Europe.

    • Doyle’s opening chapter on Garibaldi is quite interesting. I didn’t know that he was offered a commission in the U.S. army in the summer of 1861. He turned it down, not because of the rank that was offered, but because he wanted to hear that the war was going to abolish slavery, which as you know was not on the table at this point.

  • Speaking of Garibaldi, there is a private restaurant and eating club he helped found in Greenwich Village (to which I have been several times) called Tiro a Segna. From the club’s website.

    “Tiro A Segno of New York is the oldest and most admired club of Italian heritage in the United States. “The Tiro,” as our members often refer fondly to their club, is also the nation’s first chartered Italian organization. “Tiro A Segno” means, literally, “Shoot at the Target,” and the name appropriately reflects the interests of the small group of Italian sportsmen who founded the club in the United States on August 14, 1888, hoping to maintain the tradition of the sporting clubs that existed throughout Italy.

    That tradition dates back to eighth century Ravenna, Italy, when local bow-and-arrow marksmen’s groups organized tournaments throughout the country. Touring during his crusade for a unified Italy in the 19th century, Giuseppe Garibaldi promoted the revival of those clubs (Società del Tiro a Segno) as a means of inspiring patriotism. Because Garibaldi played such an active role in Tiro A Segno in Italy, he was instrumental in forming the original Tiro A Segno Nazionale Italiano during his stay in New York, in 1888. Our club started with twenty-three Italian sportsmen – most of them immigrants – all of whom were highly regarded professionals, including artists, architects, doctors, writers and industrialists. (Since then, members have included the incomparable tenor, Enrico Caruso, and New York’s most beloved mayor, Fiorello H. LaGuardia – whose desk still graces our Club Manager’s office – among a variety of notables in every walk of life.) During those early days, Tiro members gathered for card games and camaraderie in Greenwich Village, and for pheasant hunting and sport shooting across the harbor on Staten Island.”

  • This one DOES look really interesting and I’ll have to get a copy. Thanks for pointing it out, Kevin!


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