Last Best Hope of What?

Most Civil War enthusiasts, including yours truly, know much too little about the international context of our civil war. It is with this in mind that I dove right into Don Doyle’s new book, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. It’s an absolutely fascinating story that includes a cast of characters that is largely unknown to me.

There are any number of reasons why you should read this book, but for now I want to point out one aspect of the story that relates to how we remember. All of us have a personal investment in the events that constitute the Civil War, including its outcome. That connection can be informed by a host of factors including ancestral ties, personal politics, and race.

I’ve said before that I believe the right side won the war. An imperfect nation that I call home was able to enforce its constitution, preserve a republican form of government and in the process end the enslavement of 4 million people.

Doyle’s book reinforces just what was at stake in our war for observers in places like England, France, Spain and Italy. For European reformers, who had experienced recent setbacks, the outcome here might determine any future hopes of political reforms in their own nations. A smaller number looked forward to the end of slavery.

It’s hard not to admit that it is somewhat comforting to have such people on your side of history.

On the other hand, those sympathetic with the Confederacy hoped that it would strengthen their attachment to monarchy and aristocracy. An independent Confederate nation would go far to proving that democracy and republican government was an unrealistic and even dangerous system of government. For the governments of France and Spain it rekindled plans to reconquer parts of the western hemisphere.

It’s interesting how history creates strange bedfellows.

12 thoughts on “Last Best Hope of What?

  1. Matt McKeon

    Sounds very interesting. I enjoyed “A World on Fire” which concentrated on England and its relationship with the Union and Confederates.

    Reply
  2. Andy Hall

    On another forum, I posted this excerpt from an 1860 speech by Governor Sam Houston of Texas, who was adamantly opposed to the “Black Republicans” (a term he used), but saw secession as a yet greater threat to slaveholding:

    [The seceded states] will soon whip themselves, and will not be worth whipping back [into the Union]. Deprived of the protection of the Union, of the aegis of the Constitution, they would soon dwindle into petty States, to be again rent in twain by dissensions or through the ambition of selfish chieftains, and would become a prey to foreign powers. They gravely talk of holding treaties with Great Britain and other foreign powers, and the great advantages which would arise to the South from separation are discussed. Treaties with Great Britain! Alliance with foreign powers! Have these men forgotten history? Look at Spanish America! Look at the condition of every petty State, which by alliance with Great Britain is subject to continual aggression!

    [edit]

    When [the Union is] rent in twain, British Abolition, which in fanaticism and sacrificial spirit, far exceeds that of the North (for it has been willing to pay for its fanaticism, a thing the North never will do), will have none of the impediments in its path, now to be found. England will no longer fear the power of the mighty nation which twice has humbled her, and whose giant arm would, so long as we are united, be stretched forth to protect the weakest State, or the most obscure citizen. The State that secedes, when pressed by insidious arts of abolition emissaries, supported by foreign powers, when cursed by internal disorders and insurrections, can lay no claim to that national flag, which when now unfurled, ensures the respect of all nations and strikes terror to the hearts of those who would invade our rights.

    It’s interesting to see a prominent figure as that arguing against secession for the protection of the peculiar institution against the abolitionist tendencies of the British. But then, that’s Big Sam for you.

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    1. London John

      Houston seems to have understood the “comprador” ruling classes of Latin America pretty well; and his opponents in the Republic of Texas who opposed US annexation were backed by British interests that believed an independent agrarian republic would be more profitable for them. However, why did he think that British abolitionists would be a threat to slavery in an independent CSA when slavery was not threatened in the Latin American countries he describes?
      Texans seem to have been a bit paranoid about British abolitionism. When Britain sold a warship to Mexico in the 1840s, the Texas Minister to the UK attributed this to the influence of something called the “British and Foreign Ant-Slavery Society”. Doesn’t seem plausible.

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      1. Andy Hall

        Texans seem to have been a bit paranoid about British abolitionism. When Britain sold a warship to Mexico in the 1840s, the Texas Minister to the UK attributed this to the influence of something called the “British and Foreign Ant-Slavery Society”. Doesn’t seem plausible.

        Paranoia about creeping abolitionism was pandemic in the South, by which I include the Republic of Texas.

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  3. Ben Allen

    “Most Civil War enthusiasts, including yours truly, know much too little about the international context of our civil war.” This characteristic is one of the most deplorable. What makes Allen Guelzo, for all his flawed and hyperbolic arguments, a superlative historian is his understanding of this context, not to mention his incorporation of it into his works. For example, unlike other historians (Wittenberg, Trudeau, Sears, Rhea among them), he paints the Battle of Gettysburg in the overall context of nineteenth century warfare, something that should be emulated in the historiography of the entire war. The excessive emphasis on U.S. exceptionalism in the historical narrative might have something to do with this ignorance…

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  4. Randy Shifflett

    I agree with Kevin Levin’s post on the potential of this excellent book to set America’s civil war into a global context. I hope I am not being too optimistic that the resulting dialogue might also enliven the internal dialogue and especially arouse more interest in hypertraditional partisans to consider how significant it was that the North won the war. When, as Southerners, we can celebrate the Northern victory, then we can truly say the war is over.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Randy. Thanks for the comment.

      When, as Southerners, we can celebrate the Northern victory, then we can truly say the war is over.

      I wonder if at this point (apart from a select few) we ought to be able to view it as our victory.

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  5. Chris Lese

    Thank you for sharing Doyle’s book. I look forward to reading it. Teaching World History has helped provide this global context for me when I teach the Civil War. One WH Chapter Section titled “National Unification and Nationalism” discusses Europe’s move towards and resistance to liberal ideals during the 19th century. The section concludes with a description of the American Civil War as an example of nationalism & liberalism challenged but preserved. That global context provides a glimpse of how important it was that the Union be preserved. Perhaps that section from WH would be an easy way to introduce the global context in a US History high school course. One book I have found helpful (although dated) is “Lincoln and the Emperors” by A.R. Tyrner. Did Doyle’s book touch on how Europe viewed Reconstruction?

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Chris. I am definitely going to emphasize the international context next semester in my Civil War course and may even pull a few pages from the book. It’s definitely accessible for a high school classroom.

      Did Doyle’s book touch on how Europe viewed Reconstruction?

      Haven’t finished, but it’s a good question.

      Reply
  6. Jack

    I am done entertaining your comments on this blog. You offer little more than distractions from the relevant issues and insist on insulting me. You may take all the screen shots you want, but your comments will no longer appear on this site.

    KML/Civil War Memory

    Reply
  7. London John

    The ACW had a “science front” on which there was quite a bit of activity in Britain. Supporters of slavery maintained that the Races of Man all had separate origins (polygenism). The Anthropological Society of London was founded in 1863 by British racists in close touch with their American counterparts such as Josiah Nott, and they put the Confederate agent in Britain Henry Hotze on the council of the Society. Hotze found time to act as agent, propagandist and bagman for the Confederacy and also developed racist ideology.
    This is one of several connections to the ACW described in “Darwin’s Sacred Cause” by Arian Desmond and James Moore.

    Reply

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