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.

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.

What Union Meant

I’ve said it before that I often find it difficult to teach my students the concept of Union as it was understood during the Civil War era by the vast majority of Americans. We have some sense of why white Southerners took up arms for the Confederacy. It’s a tangible explanation that each of us can easily empathize with, but Union often seems abstract. Arguably this difficulty tells us much more about our own views of the federal government and the level of trust we place in our elected leaders since the 1970s. Continue reading “What Union Meant”