The nineteenth century was called by contemporaries the “age of nationalities.” New nation-states emerged around the world during this period. Many of these new nations were formed by and through warfare, so in that respect the United States’ experience of violent national consolidation during its civil war was not unique. Just to the south, violence, ideological confrontation, and foreign intervention marked Mexico's process of national consolidation. To the north, the peaceful creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 transformed the internal organization of Canada and changed its place in the British Commonwealth. Across the Atlantic Ocean, national unification and modernization took place, most notably in Italy and Germany. The 1860s also witnessed the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and the Paraguayan War accelerated processes that were transforming Brazil and Argentina. All of those events produced new, more robust forms of nation-states. Around the world, new nation-states replaced older structures of political organization—but why?
The levée en masse of the French revolutionary wars, America's Civil War, and the German wars of unification all exemplified the nationalist impulses involved in the development of the modern nation-state and modern nationalism. This online interchange examines the ideological and material underpinnings of such conflicts to connect the nationalist impulses in the Atlantic world, Europe, and more broadly in this period. While a generation of historians worked to make American colonial history fit into a wider international frame of Atlantic history, and twentieth-century U.S. history is now routinely seen in a global context, the nineteenth century has traditionally been seen as a period of blissful isolation in which the United States was preoccupied with internal issues to the exclusion of connections with the wider world. The goal of this interchange is to explore the extent to which the American Civil War was—and was understood to be at the time—a central event in global history and to examine how the construction of the American nation was related to the global processes of national formation in the mid-nineteenth century.
This online discussion took place during the first two months of 2011. The JAH is indebted to all of the participants for their willingness to contribute to this “Interchange”:
DAVID ARMITAGE is Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, where he teaches courses on intellectual and international history. He is the author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007), The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (2000), and coeditor of The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760–1840 (2010). He is currently working on a history of ideas of civil war from Rome to Iraq. Readers may contact Armitage at email@example.com.
THOMAS BENDER is University Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at New York University. His work has focused on U.S. cultural and intellectual history and the comparative study of cities. He has edited Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002) and authored A Nation among Nations: America's Place in World History (2006). Readers may contact Bender at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LESLIE BUTLER is associate professor of history at Dartmouth College, where she teaches courses on American intellectual and cultural history and U.S. women's and gender history. Her research focuses on the transatlantic flow of ideas, particularly about nineteenth-century abolitionism, liberalism, democracy, and feminism. She is the author of Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Reform (2007). Her current project traces ideas about suffrage and democratic citizenship that circulated around or extended outward from John Stuart Mill in the 1850s–1870s. Readers may contact Butler at email@example.com.
DON H. DOYLE is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and currently a fellow at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He is the author of Nations Divided: America, Italy, and the Southern Question (2002), served as editor of Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America's Civil War to Contemporary Secessionist Movements (2010), and coedited Nationalism in the New World (2006). He is currently writing a book on the international context of the Civil War. Readers may contact Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUSAN-MARY GRANT is professor of American history at Newcastle University, with a particular focus on American nationalism and the Civil War. She is the author of North over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era (2000) and coeditor of several books on the Civil War, including Legacy of Disunion: The Enduring Significance of the American Civil War (2003). Her current research explores the experiences of Civil War soldiers and veterans between 1861 and World War I. Readers may contact Grant at email@example.com.
CHARLES S. MAIER is the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University, where his research focuses on comparative international history, European-American relations, and twentieth-century European political, economic, and social history. He is the author of Among Empires: American Ascendency and Its Predecessors (2006). Readers may contact Maier at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JöRG NAGLER is professor of North American history at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena. He has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. history, with a particular focus on war and society. Nagler is also interested in comparative and transnational history and the relationship between Germany and the United States. He has authored and edited a number of books (in both German and English), including On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861–1871 (1997) and Abraham Lincoln, Amerikas grosser Präsident: Eine Biographie (Abraham Lincoln, America's greatest president: A biography) (2009). He is currently writing a history of the global significance of the American Civil War. Together with Marcus Gräser he has organized an international conference on that topic to be held at Friedrich Schiller University in September 2011. Readers may contact Nagler at email@example.com.
PAUL QUIGLEY is lecturer in American history at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches courses on slavery and the American Civil War. His first book, Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848–1865, will be published in fall 2011 by Oxford University Press. His current research explores the American Civil War and the transformation of citizenship. Readers may contact Quigley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JAY SEXTON is University Lecturer in American History at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. He is the author of The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (2011) and Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era, 1837–1873 (2005), as well as coeditor with Richard Carwardine of The Global Lincoln (2011). Readers may contact Sexton at email@example.com.
JAH: What opportunities and challenges do transnational and global approaches present to the study of the American Civil War?
JöRG NAGLER: One of the great opportunities made available by studying the American Civil War from a transnational and/or global perspective is the chance to de-provincialize one of the central events in American history, put it into new contexts and see connections we have neglected. Antebellum America was already embedded in global market processes and movements of people. Two transnational/global dimensions should be mentioned here: first, the economic international entanglement—specifically through cotton exportation—and, second, the transatlantic mass migration in the antebellum period of mainly Irish and German immigrants who later joined the Union army in great numbers. The multiethnic character of this army clearly indicates the international dimension of the war. While early studies of the “ethnic element” in the Union army had a strongly contributionalist or filiopietist flavor, we now can better contextualize this phenomenon by applying a transnational approach.1 A transnational focus also provides the opportunity to explore ideological connections to the United States before the war (such as the European revolutions of 1848–1849) and the impact of the American Civil War on, for example, liberal or progressive reform movements.
When we address the transnational significance of the American Civil War, we also need to ask about the contemporaneous awareness and perception of this conflict. The communication channels of the mid-nineteenth century were already quite developed. With specific political intentions, newspapers supplied information and basic themes of the Civil War to their readership. The Western world observed this conflict with great interest since its themes—the definition of nationhood, the future of unfree labor, warfare for an industrial age, the possibilities and means of a democratic society to endure such a horrendous conflict, majorities versus minorities in a democratic process, and the power of the central state—were also pertinent to other industrializing societies.
A transnational approach could also better explain the relationship between war and nation building, as well as examine the context of the dialectics between the globalization of violence and national wars from 1850–1871, from the Taiping Rebellion to the Franco-Prussian War. The American Civil War appears then as one part of those processes, albeit the one with the greatest impact. Abraham Lincoln's “last best hope” envisioned an interconnection between the American national conflict and world history. A further challenge is one of terminology and definitions. The term “transnational history” is in danger of becoming a mere buzzword used by historians in an almost inflationary way. There is a need for more precision in methodology and reflections on what we expect to gain when we apply transnationalism in our research. To help, there is a good literature on the theory of transnationalism.2 To place the American Civil War and its meaning in an international/global context we need a holistic approach, getting away from an artificial methodological division between comparative, transnational, and entangled history. We can compare, for example, the development of nationalism in the nineteenth century in different regions of the world and then realize that in certain cases these developments were interconnected by transnational networks of politicians, intellectuals, and other multipliers. We should also be aware of the dialectical relationship between outside-in and inside-out movements: global influences shaped the United States at the same time that the nation was shaping the world.
TOM BENDER: Jörg Nagler has made a number of extremely important points. We need precision in discussions about global, transnational, or comparative history. They are different conceptually, asking different questions. Global implies that there is a general history within which a local history is embedded; and that local history can, in turn, change global history. There are causal connections crossing borders and common to large parts of (if not the entire) world. This is not a new idea. In the 1890s Frederick Jackson Turner observed: “In history there are only artificial divisions … not only is it true that no country can be understood without taking account of all the past; it is also true that we cannot select a stretch of land and say we will limit our study to this land; for local history can only be understood in the light of the history of the world.” One can find similar observations in the writings of Turner's contemporaries and successors until the 1940s, when a resurgent and distinctive phase of American exceptionalism powerfully affected historical writing.3
So what is the history in which the Civil War is embedded? Certainly it is part of the history of liberalism—the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, the invention (to use Lynn Hunt's phrase) of human rights, British abolitionism and the general rejection of unfree labor in many nations. The Civil War is also related to a particularly important moment in the history of liberalism—1848. Here nation and freedom were linked. The nation would be the instrument of freedom. That new conception of nation presages the modern nation-state. The Civil War and freedom (of various kinds) were entangled with that development. The modern nation-state also made an implicit promise to enable economic development, which was both a global and a U.S. phenomenon. The biggest challenge for historians is to uncover the engine driving this international history. Ernest Gellner, and to some degree Eric Hobsbawm, linked the making of the modern state with industrialism, which they saw as producer or product of a national economy. Certainly there is some association, but to determine if industrialism (and, for Gellner, high culture) was a key element of this emergence, we need to find the common, global historical developments and patterns of causation behind the conjuncture of emancipation and nation making that occurred in roughly a single generation in different parts of the world.4
LESLIE BUTLER: Are the “methodological divisions” between comparative, transnational, and entangled history really so artificial? I’m attracted to the idea of a “holistic approach” and can see how a full understanding of an event such as the American Civil War depends on a variety of approaches, but I also see those kinds of history as quite different in aim, orientation, and method. Tom says “they are different conceptually, asking different questions,” and I agree, but I might also go further and say they require different tools from the historian's tool box. It seems to me that historians seeking to understand how American emancipation was like or unlike other New World emancipations will be engaged in a rather different sort of work than historians tracing the response of European labor groups to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. All may be contributing to the same big picture, but do they employ different brushes or paints to make their contributions? Are there good examples of works that operate on all registers? For a different, earlier period, maybe David Brion Davis's work is a good example of comparative, transnational, and entangled history all at once.5
JAY SEXTON: One could employ a transnational approach to complement the traditional narratives that we already have of the Civil War period. We could simply slot new research on transnational networks or ideas into existing frameworks. Yet one could also use transnational or global perspectives to reframe the Civil War in more fundamental ways. Leslie Butler is right that this requires different tools. The way I’d put it is that we need more focus on underlying structures. Some of the best works that situate the Civil War in its global context take such an approach.6
Tom Bender asks a big question: what underlying structures explain the emergence of the nation in this period? Do we need to distinguish between different kinds of processes in different places? The case of the United States is often compared to Europe at the same time, especially Germany. Another angle would be to view the U.S. example through a hemispheric lens and in relation to Latin American nation building. It seems to me that American historians tend to overlook the fact that nineteenth-century America was a “postcolonial” entity; deep into the nineteenth century, Americans struggled to consolidate their independence.7 Indeed, one could view the Civil War as the climax of the American Revolution.
PAUL QUIGLEY: As Leslie has said, different historical problems require different approaches, and so the approaches or frameworks we choose—global, transnational, comparative, whatever—should fit our subject rather than vice versa. Turner may have been right that “no country can be understood without taking account of all the past”—but the implications of this must terrify any historian striving to finish a book within a reasonable amount of time! If we are thinking about writing an overview of the Civil War and its global significance (as Jörg indeed is) then a “holistic” or “total” approach is apposite. But comparative or “entangled” approaches may better suit other projects. Selecting parameters becomes one of the major challenges once you discard (or rethink) the idea that the nation-state is the supreme unit of modern history.
DAVID ARMITAGE: A major challenge for transnational and global approaches to any historical problem is where to set the boundaries, both chronological and geographical. Let me propose four possible contexts for the U.S. Civil War in this regard:
(1) Continental. If we take seriously the thrust of much recent work on the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, “the” Civil War of the mid-nineteenth century was not the first, or even the second, “civil” war fought in anglophone North America, but the third.8 Viewing the United States as postcolonial and the Civil War as a long-term consequence of the Revolution is vital. What would happen if we reperiodized the arcs of American history as two century-long movements, from the Stamp Act to Appomattox (1765–1865) and then again from 1865–1964?
(2) Hemispheric. The sequence of imperial reconstruction, independence, and civil war—often leading to the breakup of states and the creation of new ones—is familiar from the history of Spanish America after 1808, though usually in a tight period of twenty years at most, rather than ninety years (ca. 1775–1865). Can we examine the dynamics of sovereignty, state formation, and territoriality in North America with similar—perhaps at times intersecting—dynamics in Central and South America and the Caribbean in the nineteenth century?
(3) Atlantic. This might be the most traditional, well-tried, and immediately pursuable path for comparison and connection. Comparisons between nation-state formation in North America, Germany, and Italy have been common for decades but—pace the title of our interchange—is nationalism the right optic for comparison?9
(4) Global. One criterion for using a global frame might be large-scale militarized violence. Make that the metric and, following what Jörg suggested, we can place the U.S. Civil War in the context of what we might call the world crisis of the nineteenth century, spanning 1850–1871, and including the world's first industrial war (the Crimean War [1853–1856]), its bloodiest war by far (the Taiping Rebellion [1850–1864]), the Indian Rebellion (1857), the Boshin War in Japan (1868–1869), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). If we characterize this period as a world crisis, at least for heuristic purposes, we can compare it to other periods and processes, such as the mid-seventeenth-century “general crisis” proposed by Eric Hobsbawm or the “world crisis” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries described by Christopher Bayly. The thesis of a general crisis of the seventeenth century has taken a battering of late and that of a world crisis of the Age of Revolutions is under active debate, but the period 1850–1871 seems a uniquely tight, unusually destructive, and possibly interconnected moment of global violence that deserves analysis as a temporal unit on a worldwide scale.10
A final thought: Should we follow the transnational/global connections we discern in hindsight or only those evident to contemporaries? Are we to be “electricians, connecting circuits by acts of imaginative reconstitution” or to reconstruct “connections [that] did exist and were known to past actors, but have for some reason been forgotten or laid aside”? Global connections were quite evident to actors in the period we are examining: “Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference… . The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe… . Space is comparatively annihilated.” Those words are not from the modern-day scholars David Harvey or Tony Giddens, but from Frederick Douglass in 1852! How widespread was such a consciousness of globality or transnationality? And what causal force did it have for actors at the time?11
SUSAN-MARY GRANT: Fundamentally, the nineteenth century is the period when citizen armies come into their own. But to get a clearer sense of the nationalist implications of that fact we first need to pull the Civil War more tightly into the orbit of other nineteenth-century conflicts and then consider the life-span of those involved, beyond 1865, beyond 1877, and view the generation longitudinally across time and geographical space, as Tom Bender suggests. On individuals specifically, some of the questions asked of European veterans have not yet been asked of their Civil War counterparts: questions about the relationship between the veteran and postwar society, between those who had fought and those who constructed the memory of the fighting, between the veteran and the nation, the living and the dead.12 There are also additional issues—I’m thinking particularly of gender—that could benefit from a more transnational treatment, because as things stand for the Civil War, I believe we still struggle to see past the crinoline of the Confederacy.
Isolating discrete strands—the economic, nation building (the state), nationalism, and cultural, and the political bases of all of these elements—may achieve a more “entangled” history of the Civil War. To David's very useful contexts, I would add “generational,” positioned within hemispheric. I think we are asking questions here that take us beyond “Atlantic,” since the implication of “Atlantic” is that there was an investment in an “Atlantic world” in ideas, ideologies, trade, and transport, but we are trying to see what lies beyond that. To make the metric, as David suggests, “large-scale militarized violence” may be productive. As Michael Geyer and Charles Bright argue, the Civil War was, after all, only one small part of “a universe of endemic, world-wide, violence played out within global patterns of conflict in which warfare was dispersed, decentered, and mostly of low-intensity yet capable of threatening the survival of whole ethnes.” An “integral part of the nationalizing outcome of the American Civil War,” they pointed out, were the Indian wars of the 1870s, “the truly ‘destructive wars’ of the North American continent” in this era, but not the only destructive (or constructive, nationally speaking) wars of the nineteenth century.13
NAGLER: I still believe that these approaches and methodologies are inherently interconnected with fluid transitions. U.S. historians might look to recent European historiography for examples. When Stig Förster and I conceptualized our project on total war in America and Germany, we started with a strictly comparative approach. Our basic question concerned the genesis of total warfare that, in the twentieth century, led to the two horrific world wars. How was warfare in the nineteenth-century age of industrial capitalism connected to the rise of nationalism? The phenomenon of “people's war” was evident: mobilization and self-mobilization of civilians—including women—and the close interconnection between the home fronts and battle fronts became instrumental for conducting this kind of warfare. The federal state needed to expand to efficiently organize warfare, and it closely cooperated with private industry. Propaganda also became a tool to mold public opinion for the national war effort.14
Our comparative approach, however, also became a transnational one when we realized that there was a direct transatlantic exchange of people, information, and ideas that mutually influenced each other. For example, the American notion of total war was, ironically, brought to Germany in 1870 by Gen. Philip Sheridan himself. As a military observer, Sheridan watched the German troops and later urged Otto von Bismarck to handle the French guerrillas with the methods he had applied during his Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864.15
GRANT: The differences between a civil war and a war between separate nation-states have become blurred over the decades, and the extent to which those differences pertain to any given aspect of the American civil conflict has become dependent not on contemporary events but on subsequent interpretations. This latter phenomenon is especially acute when the topic is the thorny question of nationalism; the dominance of the Confederate variant has, if anything, increased apace in the last few years, making it almost impossible to discuss the Civil War without distinguishing clearly between Union and Confederate. This may seem blindingly obvious, but my point is that many historians’ default approach is to treat the Civil War as a war between separate nation-states anyway. Civil War–era historians frequently divide themselves, or are divided by their peers, into either “northern” or “southern” experts as soon as they stray off the battlefield; only military historians, it seems, are acknowledged as having an overview of the conflict in its entirety.
DON H. DOYLE: Susan-Mary's and David's questions about the global consciousness of the actors involved in the Civil War highlight the role of historians in recovering a global view of the American war that was common not only among sophisticated observers—including politicians and intellectuals—but also soldiers and the broad public. That international framework of understanding the war became obscured later by the dominant mode of writing history within a narrowly national context, often with a nationalistic purpose. What came to be seen as a purely domestic, sectional conflict—a stand-alone American story about secession, Union, and slavery—was at the time understood by many as an epic battle in a prolonged struggle between liberal republican ideas and the “monarchic principle.”
Many in the British upper class took delight in the American crisis and saw in it not only the fragmentation of a commercial rival but proof of the failure of the whole “republican experiment.” When Lord Ramsden's comment that the “great republican bubble has burst” was announced in Parliament there were loud cheers. Many were the predictions that all the American republics would soon return to some form of monarchy. In Mexico, Napoleon III set about to create a model of monarchical government that he and others hoped would provide a counterforce to the ills of democracy throughout the Americas and elsewhere. There was considerable affinity for this kind of antidemocratic sentiment within the Confederacy, as Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning argues. We’re familiar with the aristocratic pretensions of the Southern planters, but observers at the time, such as the London Times war correspondent William H. Russell, noted considerable enthusiasm for reintroducing monarchy in the South.16
Likewise, American supporters, such as the abolitionist republican John Bright, attached their aspirations for reform at home to the Union cause abroad.17 Many politicians and reformers throughout the Atlantic world saw in the American contest not only a proxy for their own cause at home but also a war whose outcome would have an impact on the course of world history.
Then there were the hundreds of thousands of foreign-born soldiers to whom Jörg Nagler refers, young men who had enlisted abroad or were refugees from the failed revolutions of 1848 or were immigrants who had for one reason or another reassigned their national allegiance and taken up arms in the United States or, less often, in the Confederate States of America (CSA). How could they not think about the war they were fighting in a transnational context?
All of which is to say that historians do not need to impose our own cosmopolitan ideas on the American Civil War so much as we must try to recover the contemporary understanding of this conflict as part of a larger global history.
CHARLES S. MAIER: I have doubts about the whole transnational history program, which has too often meant just doing national history while paying attention to developments that impinge from abroad or just spillover offshore. All countries have a fuzzy membrane when it comes to their development in time. My own approach to single countries is to see them as examples of more encompassing tendencies and developments. I would have applied the term “transnational history” to refer precisely to this method of embedding national histories within a larger, sometimes global context, but the term has been already appropriated for what I think of as the fuzzy-membrane approach to national histories. In any case, to study embeddedness often leads implicitly to comparative history as soon as one considers more than one national history; for it requires tracing varieties of response to an overarching context and field of action. I also think that entangled histories, or histoires croisées, offer a fine object of study, though not particularly challenging in terms of theory. In effect, all histories are entangled with many other histories, so of course we must follow the entanglements or the mutual influences.
I would argue that there are at least two major global contexts in which historians can embed the American Civil War. One is to envisage it as a link in the chain of liberal-democratic revolutions from the 1770s on, as Tom Bender implies by his idea of an ongoing history of liberalism or in his emphasis on the renewed themes of republicanism. But the other, which I have found more compelling or suggestive, is to place it as one of the key episodes of transformed nationalism after 1848. This perspective is closer to the notion of an era of midcentury violence that David Armitage cited, although I would propose a particular type of violence, the widespread wars of national reconstitution. I have made a case for this schema in my forthcoming study, “Leviathan 2.0: Inventing the Modern State.”
Why transformed nationalism? Before the disappointments of 1848, I would describe the nationalism in play as a Romantic and emancipatory nationalism—expressed in such movements as Young Italy, Philhellenism, and associated with Giuseppe Mazzini's vision of democratic fraternity or George Bancroft's celebration of American democracy. One can trace this current of enthusiasm from its roots in the 1770s with such thinkers as Johann Gottfried von Herder, then into the Napoleonic period, and thereafter into the years after 1815 with Risorgimento liberalism. Giving it traction was the half-century crisis of the “old regimes,” social and political systems characterized by differing degrees of agrarian dependency and estatist governance. The mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century was marked by the worldwide intrusion of market relationships into agrarian production and control of land and the consequent crises of precapitalist elites or their need to adapt to market relations by the 1830s and 1840s. What remained of the old regime fell into crisis between the 1830s and 1850s, whether in the Mediterranean monarchies and empires, the Mexican Republic, the U.S. South, the Qing Empire assailed by the British without and the immense rebellions within (the earlier White Lotus uprising and the immensely destructive Taiping Revolution of the 1840s and 1850s), the besieged Tokugawa regime in Japan, or the recurring conflicts within the German states. Despite the crises, the ambitions of “romantic” nationalism failed in Central Europe and Italy in 1848—but not nationalism per se, which a series of new developments reconfigured: the rise of long-distance railways, the advent of vulgarized Darwinian ideas, the strategic alliance of agrarian magnates with the newer elites of commerce, industry, and ambitious bureaucrats. The “romantic” nationalists of 1848 became the sober national liberals of the 1850s and 1860s, rallying to Bismarck as he unified Germany around the Prussian monarchy, supporting Camillo di Cavour vis-à-vis Giuseppe Garibaldi, evicting the French from Mexico and seeking to end communal and church lands in Mexico, carrying through the so-called Meiji Restoration, and eventually abandoning Reconstruction in the South. As C. Vann Woodward argued, the post–Civil War ruling groups in the South were interested in railroads and commercial development as well as cotton. The new nationalism—which emerged vigorously within a decade after the setbacks to the older varieties in 1848—was based on a more “realistic” ideology, whose adherents had less patience for vox populi and more enthusiasm for technology, armies, and the positivism summarized by Auguste Comte's slogan Order and Progress.18
JAH: How did contemporary actors conceive of the Civil War as an event that transcended the borders of the American state? Were there significant transnational/global processes at work of which contemporaries were either unaware or, alternatively, acutely conscious?
NAGLER: We could use the rich historiography and research on (mutual) national perceptions in our endeavor to learn more about the “consciousness of globality” in the nineteenth century. As Harold Hyman wrote in 1969, “probably makeweights of the Civil War generation would have found amusing, or, worse, irrelevant, today's continuing campus concern over interconnections. For the age of Lincoln required no proofs that the affairs of men and nations were a tangle of internal goads and external wants, economic pressures and selfless passions, inextricably involving societies with each other.” I think one of the keenest analysts of globality was Karl Marx. He perceived the American Civil War as one integral part of a global crisis, and in his famous 1864 letter to Lincoln he points out the transnational/global significance of this war several times.19
BUTLER: The metaphor (quoted by David Armitage) of the historian as electrician is a brilliant one. Just like master electricians, who must know how to rewire old systems as well as employ new technologies to connect the previously unconnected or even previously unconnectable, historians must attend to transnational connections that historical actors perceived as well as those that can be seen fully only in hindsight. This is especially true in comparative histories, which include comparisons across time as well as space.
There are, of course, numerous good, important reasons to think about the American Civil War in transnational, global, and comparative terms, but the most obvious one for me—as someone interested in thought, ideas, and arguments—is the fact that the historical figures themselves thought about the conflict in that way. So I will see Jörg's Karl Marx and raise him one John Stuart Mill. Mill's February 1862 article “The Contest in America” is famous mostly for raising the specter of a grasping proslavery Confederacy “professing the principles of Attila and Genghis Khan as the foundation of its Constitution.” A victory by this outlaw regime threatened, he said, to “propagate their national faith at the rifle's mouth through Mexico and Central America,” to perpetuate slavery in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and to reimpose bondage in Haiti and Liberia. “We should be at war with the new Confederacy within five years about the African slave-trade,” Mill predicted. Yet such proslavery expansionism was not the only international menace posed by Confederate victory. In the same paragraph, Mill also highlighted the matter of Jefferson Davis's willingness, as Mississippi governor, to repudiate public debt, an issue that resonated with those who had just witnessed the force required “to redress the wrongs of private British subjects” when the Mexican government repudiated its foreign debt.20 Mill was more archetypal than exceptional in perceiving the conflict—or, more accurately, one alarming possible result of it—in transnational/global, entangled, and even comparative terms.
BENDER: I agree with Jörg and Leslie that among intellectual elites (conservatives as well as radicals and liberals) the democratic or republican or liberal (and it varied) implications of the Civil War were on their minds. Leslie's point that Mill publicly addressed the implications of a Confederate victory is important, as he was acting on his belief about the implications. But I would add that he was writing the last chapter of his autobiography (1873) during the Civil War, and the meaning of the war keeps intruding into his narrative. James McPherson quotes ordinary soldiers who in letters home frame the battle as one of liberalism against monarchism or aristocracy. For these soldiers the fate of Atlantic liberalism hung on the outcome of the war.21
That said, however, I want to suggest that the transnational or global turn need not depend upon subjective meaning. There are always two kinds of historical analysis. The type that recovers the issues and causes understood by the actors is a kind that as an intellectual historian I particularly value. But there are historian-defined questions and answers perhaps unimaginable by the historical actors, and they are also legitimate.
Jörg's mention of Marx prompts another, more historiographical point. Marx and Marxism indeed offered a global framing of modern history and especially of capitalism. One of the great losses suffered by the marginalization of Marxism in the American academy after World War II was the loss of Marxism's global framing of history and the subsequent narrowing of the geography of history read by increasingly specialized historians of the United States. Were the Marxist tradition a bit more present then, non-Marxists as well as Marxists would have had to maintain a broader terrain of knowledge and framing, and transnational approaches might have emerged much sooner.
SEXTON: A couple of points spring to mind on this issue of what contemporaries thought was at stake in the American Civil War. First, the issues were not always clear-cut to participants or observers, particularly in the early years of the conflict when political considerations led Lincoln to move slowly on emancipation. Liberals in Britain and Europe who admired the United States could have found aspects of the Southern cause appealing, such as its commercial policy or advocacy of self-determination. The obvious example here is William Gladstone, a towering figure in Victorian liberalism who declared in 1862 that Jefferson Davis had made a nation (a statement he would later call “an undoubted error, the most singular and palpable, I may add the least excusable of them all”). Second, and related, is that foreign observers viewed the American conflict through the prism of their own local and national contexts. I think there is much to be said, for instance, for the old interpretation that many British observers misunderstood the fundamentals of the conflict, viewing it as an adjunct of their own class/political conflict at home (which, perhaps in some regards it was, but not across the board). Local and national contexts also shaped the way foreign observers conceived of and remembered the war after its conclusion. One of the most surprising findings from the Global Lincoln project, a collaborative enterprise that charted Lincoln's legacy outside of the United States, was how infrequently foreign images of Lincoln have focused on his role in emancipation. The images of Lincoln that traveled most widely—even in Africa and a former slaveholding society such as Cuba—were those of the self-made man, the wartime leader, or the statesmen who outlined how to consolidate and modernize a nation.22
The ways historical actors perceived the world around them should also be kept in mind when interpreting how Americans viewed the Civil War and its relationship to the wider world. When nineteenth-century Americans looked beyond their union, they tended to do so through a particular lens that led them to see reenactments of their Revolution wherever they looked! It isn’t surprising that both North and South viewed the conflict as one in which the principles of 1776 were at stake. The lens of their own imagined Revolution also colored their view of contemporary events such as the French intervention in Mexico beginning in 1862, which many Republican statesmen saw as an attempt to roll back the Declaration of Independence.23
QUIGLEY: As Jay says, foreigners had their own visions of the Civil War, often distinct from Americans’ and often structured by local conditions. (The same had been true, in reverse, with the events of 1848 in Europe, which Americans had interpreted in terms of their own circumstances and revolutionary history.) This raises an interesting question: If Americans and non-Americans had different conceptions of the Civil War's broader significance, did Northerners and Southerners?
Yes, but not completely. It's tempting to contrast Lincoln's position (embedding the Union war effort within the global ascendancy of liberty and democracy) with the well-known March 1861 “cornerstone” speech by Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, which laid out a racialized vision of the Confederacy's world historical significance. (“Our new Government is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth,” Stephens declared, referring to the fundamental inequality of racial slavery.24) But in positioning the Confederacy on the cutting edge of mankind's sociopolitical development, Stephens was actually thinking in a similar mode as Lincoln. Although they disagreed on the specific meaning of democracy (or “self-government”), both men drew on a nationwide antebellum faith that America's historic mission was to model self-government for the rest of the world.
This reminds us that white southerners had been Americans for much longer than they were Confederates. They shared with northerners a very American sense of their exemplary role in world history, even presenting secession in those terms. Thus Southern diplomats made the argument that they, like the Italians and others, were fighting for self-government. Small wonder that, as Jay points out, Europeans were sometimes uncertain about what was at stake and which side they should support.
DOYLE: Tom Bender mentioned the soldiers’ letters that depicted the war as a battle between democratic and aristocratic forces, which I think offers an excellent chance to emphasize how such international understandings of the war could take hold on a popular level. One also finds recruitment posters, broadsides, and speeches that play on these themes of European struggles going back to 1848 and further, to the French Revolution. Regiments such as the Garibaldi Guard from New York (and another from New Orleans), the Irish Brigade, and the many German immigrant units often inspired men to conflate Old World causes with the American conflict.25
The idea that the “American question” was part of a historic struggle between liberal republicanism and its enemies seemed to resonate on both a popular and elite level, particularly among immigrant soldiers in the Union army. The foreign born made up some one in four of those who fought for the Union (as opposed to approximately 5 percent of the Confederate army), and it is hard to imagine the Union sustaining its military let alone winning without these immigrant soldiers.26 Instead of becoming Americanized through military service, I wonder if it might be more the case that these European soldiers brought their own ideas to bear on the international meaning of the American Civil War.
GRANT: Both Paul's and Don's points raise the issue, which Jörg and Tom emphasized earlier, of the ways the Civil War is embedded in the histories of liberalism, human rights, and the creation of the modern nation-state. Can we try to identify the “engine driving this international history,” as Tom put it, and how far the links extend between those histories and America's domestic history?
The historiographical take on freedom (whether economic or individual) and America's development after Appomattox seems rather more multidimensional than for other nations in some respects—for example, the argument by George Fredrickson (and others) about elites and the growth of state bureaucracies, which merges into works that challenge cultural histories related to soldiers, bodies, death, and memorialization. In other ways, this historiography can be much narrower, such as the nearly total dominance of the emancipationist impulse. The centrality of emancipation and freedom to the Civil War and America's national “story” can take us in ever-decreasing circles of hopes raised and dashed regarding both liberalism and liberty within America.27
SEXTON: Let me expand on the surprisingly small role that emancipation has played in foreign images of Lincoln, particularly at the height of his global celebrity, circa 1865–1925. To be sure, one can find the Great Emancipator trope, but it was often subsumed into a larger narrative that heralded Lincoln's exemplary role in national consolidation and economic development. I think this is where Susan-Mary was headed, and I’m echoing what Tom Bender wrote earlier, but I wonder if this might suggest that emancipation was understood in the nineteenth-century world not so much as a singular achievement (as it often is today) but as a part of larger processes of national formation, reform, and modernization? I imagine, for example, that this was how observers on either side of the Atlantic viewed the emancipation of Russian serfs.
Don raises some interesting points about the persistence of the old republican versus monarchy bifurcation. I’m keen to learn more about this, particularly the way that this language crisscrossed the Atlantic in the revolutionary and nation-making eras, as well as how it fit into the Confederate experience.
BENDER: I think Jay's point about the Civil War as both nation-preserving and nation-making, which builds on a sequence of preceding observations, is fundamental. Certain “liberal” nationalist ideas of the nation were circulating around the Atlantic world at this time. The clearest point, I suspect, was the opposite of monarchy/aristocracy. (But compare Germany and Japan, who knew those ideas but took to a different framing of nationalisms and nation-state.) Such ideas, as Fredrickson pointed out long ago, were perfectly compatible with herrenvolk democracy (and would be the partial outcome of the war, according to David Blight).28
Economic development is consistently a part of the making of nation-states; it is one of the justifications for the power centralized governments claim over people who possess formal sovereignty, including raising citizen armies by a draft. And economic development was a significant part of the Republican agenda. All of the Morrill Acts except the one regarding polygamy, were intended to advance development. This brings me to the main point: Republicans were nation-state makers with very few guidelines. No one really knew what the nation-state looked like in 1861. They had only a vague outline, which made grasping it so difficult. But that does not lessen the importance of this global theme.
If the middle third or so of the nineteenth century was the seedbed of nation making, it was also an age of emancipations. About 44 million unfree laborers were freed to various degrees worldwide, including 4 million enslaved people in the United States. For some opponents of slavery there was the argument that free labor was more economical. Slavery, Adam Smith said, is inefficient, and so did Frederick Law Olmsted in his great books on the South in the 1850s.29 For others, antislavery was a moral question. And for still others it was a bit of both. So if we cannot quite lock together the key themes of the formation of the modern “liberal” nation-state, it is because the people making it had not yet fully grasped it—in the United States or elsewhere.
JAH: To what extent do the nationalisms of the Union and Confederacy fit with global patterns of nation making in the mid-nineteenth century?
QUIGLEY: The answer depends on whether you look backward from 1865 (or 1877 or 1900) or forward from 1861. If you look through the lens of Union victory, the most persuasive answer is the one superbly advanced by Tom Bender in A Nation among Nations: the Union war effort fits into a broad trajectory of nation-state formation in which liberal ideas of individual freedom and state-stimulated economic development were central.30
If you approach the question from the perspective of 1861, problems arise. How does including the Confederacy as an aspiring nation-state (rather than a dissenting minority doomed to defeat) change the American Civil War's place in these global developments? What do we do with the fact that state formation proceeded even more rapidly in the confederacy than in the United States? Or that nationalism in Europe was a varied phenomenon in the nineteenth century? Alongside the triumphant unification movements in Italy and Germany, for example, were less successful ethnocultural separatist movements—in Ireland, and Hungary, for example—whose rhetoric (if not substance) echoed in the secessionist South.31 Everywhere, nationalism arose from contingent political developments more than sentiment alone. As well as looking for an underlying economic/social driver of nation-state formation in the nineteenth century, we can also compare the messy, unpredictable political processes through which different claims of nationhood rose to the surface in America as well as Europe.
DOYLE: If we consider the South's rebellion within the larger history of what historians have sometimes called the age of nationalism, it is no wonder the Confederates thought history was on their side and that they would join a legion of new nations that had successfully claimed the right to self-government. The Confederacy wrapped its cause in the popular language of liberal nationalism and situated itself among the many aspiring nations that had taken their place in the sun in recent decades. Confederate emissaries in Europe were instructed to cite the many precedents for diplomatic recognition of de facto governments such as their own. These included the United States itself, the Spanish American republics, the Republic of Texas, and the Kingdom of Italy. Many of these governments were still in the throes of rebellion against their erstwhile rulers when recognition was bestowed.32
At the beginning of the war, it was the Confederacy that invoked the language and logic of liberal nationalism to justify its bid for independence. The Union found itself defending an argument all too familiar among European empires: the right of sovereign rulers to suppress dissident rebels within their realm. The Confederate appeal to liberal world opinion might have succeeded were it not for the ability of its opponents in the United States and abroad to characterize the illiberal ends of Southern nationhood—the perpetuation of human slavery and antidemocratic, even aristocratic designs.
GRANT: The relationship we may be trying to comprehend is not just that between nationalism and liberalism, but between nationalism, liberalism, and the state. As Paul (and Tom) have argued, from a Union perspective the war effort “fits into a broad trajectory of nation-state formation in which liberal ideas of individual freedom and state-stimulated economic development were central.” Yet definitions of the state, as the sociologist Michael Mann points out, “contain two different levels of analysis, the ‘institutional’ and the ‘functional’ … the state can be defined in terms of what it looks like, institutionally, or what it does, its functions.”33 Definitions of nationalism involve multiple layers of analysis: the political, relating to the state, and the cultural and ideological, or what the state stands for. Within those parameters we might include the specific components of class, identity, localism, gender, and ethnicity. Nationalism can, therefore, also be described institutionally and functionally. Yet we as historians still seem to know more about—and seem more exercised by—how the Confederacy conceived itself ideologically.
I think Paul's point about looking through the lens of 1861 may be a pertinent one to pursue. The Confederate perspective appears fixed, whether one's vantage point is 1861 or 1865, while the Union's position evolved. Without that evolution, Confederate echoes of the American Revolution may have reverberated to greater effect not just in America, but globally.
BUTLER: While the Confederacy employed the rhetoric of liberal nationalism, such an effort faced serious challenges even before the Union seized on the “illiberal,” proslavery end of Confederate nationhood to discredit it. Cavalier/Yankee rhetoric to the contrary, Confederates were not an ethnically distinct people striving to achieve their independence, as was the case for Hungarian, Irish, or Polish nationalisms. Rather than being a subject people, Southerners had played a crucial role in founding and leading the government from which they sought to secede in 1861.
Further, just as the Confederacy was presenting itself as a liberal nationalist movement, its threat to an extant liberal nationalist project could be interpreted as an assault on democracy more generally. In Lincoln's famous words, secession was “the essence of anarchy”—an antidemocratic rejection of the rules of democratic governance. From that point came Lincoln's central claim on behalf of the Union cause: liberal, democratic, republican government was in danger of perishing from the earth. The Confederacy endangered the liberal nationalist project by threatening the demise of a “Federal Union” conceived in and dedicated not simply to liberty (a capacious notion to be sure) but also to popular sovereignty, as expressed through an agreed-upon constitutional method of transferring power. So even before the conflict became a war over illiberal slavery, Confederate appeals to “the language and logic of liberal nationalism,” as Don put it, struck some as hollow rhetoric.34
As Paul suggests, we might think also about how nationalism is born of war, rather than the other way around. As in Germany and Italy, the United States would achieve unity in political, economic, and constitutional terms. But the events of the state-making war helped consolidate nationalism in cultural terms as well, especially through the two crucial forces of print and bloodshed. The war effort on both sides gave rise to active print publicists who sought to unite the states and rally widespread public support. The startling casualties on both sides made the war a crucible in which a shared sense of national suffering and purpose was forged. The nationalist/nationalizing power of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered adjacent to fields that had only recently ceased to reek of rotting corpses, cannot be adequately understood apart from that “last full measure of devotion” paid in blood for a “nation so conceived and so dedicated.”35
SEXTON: I think we need to consider the economic foundation of national movements in the mid-nineteenth century—the other side of the coin of the liberal ideas about which others have commented. In part what we are talking about is the story of economic and infrastructure development that linked peoples together—the market revolution in America, technological innovation, and increasingly sophisticated networks of finance and inland trade all worked in similar ways and were part of the print culture to which Leslie refers. The Republican legislation of the war years brought coherence to this emerging system of political economy and in doing so helped unite the diverse peoples and sections of the union (in a way not unlike, I’d venture to guess, the German Zollverein system). The paradox is that nations formed in this era amid a process of economic integration, including the booming flows of transatlantic trade, migration, and investment, that transcended the hardening national borders.
The Southern story, here as elsewhere, looks ambiguous to me. On the one hand, Southerners began to develop a concept of the national market that shared features of the one created by Northern Republicans—for example, the South's surprising embrace of moderate protectionism and state-supported economic development. On the other hand, liberal concepts of free trade, rooted in the cotton-export economy, remained powerful in the South.36 In this regard, the Confederacy shared traits of staple exporting economies, such as Britain's settler colonies and certain Latin American states embedded in Britain's global commercial system.
Beginning shortly after the New Year in 1848, Europe exploded into revolution. From Paris to Frankfurt to Budapest to Naples, liberal protesters rose up against the conservative establishment. To those living through the cataclysmic year, it seemed rather sudden; however, hindsight offers valuable warning signs.
The year 1846 witnessed a severe famine--Europe's last serious food crisis. Lack of grain drove up food and other prices while wages remained stagnant, thus reducing consumer demand. With consumers buying less and less, profits plummeted, forcing thousands of industrial workers out of their jobs. High unemployment combined with high prices sparked the liberal revolt. The subsequent events in February 1848 in France made Austria's Prince Clemens von Metternich's saying seem true: "When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold."
Moderate liberals--lawyers, doctors, merchants, bourgeoisie--began pushing actively for extension of suffrage through their "banquet campaign," named thus because its leaders attempted to raise money by giving rousing speeches at subscribed dinners in France's major urban areas. When on February 22, 1848, Paris officials canceled the scheduled banquet, fearing organized protest by the middle and working classes, Parisian citizens demonstrated against the repression. Skilled workers, factory laborers, and middle class liberals poured into the streets. The National Guard, a citizen militia of bourgeois Parisians, defected from King Louis-Philippe, and the army garrison stationed in Paris joined the revolutionary protesters as well. Louis-Philippe attempted reform, but the workers rejected the halfhearted changes. The king fled and the demonstrators proclaimed the Second Republic on February 24th.
The overthrow of the monarchy set off a wave of protest throughout east and central Europe, led by radical liberals and workers who demanded constitutional reform or complete government change. In March, protests in the German provinces brought swift reform from local princes while Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia yielded to revolts in Berlin by promising to create a Prussian assembly. The collapse of autocracy in Prussia encouraged liberals in the divided Germany provinces to join together at the Frankfurt Assembly to frame a constitution and unite the German nation. Meeting in May 1848, the convention was populated by middle class civil servants, lawyers, and intellectuals dedicated to liberal reform. However, after drawing the boundaries for a German state and offering the crown to Friedrich Wilhelm, the Kaiser refused in March 1849, dooming hopes for a united, liberal Germany.
In Austria, students, workers, and middle class liberals revolted in Vienna, setting up a constituent assembly. In Budapest, the Magyars led a movement of national autonomy, led by patriot Lajos Kossuth. Similarly, in Prague, the Czechs revolted in the name of self-government. In Italy, new constitutions were declared in Tuscany and Piedmont, with the goal of overthrowing their Austrian masters. Here, middle class liberals pushed the concept of Italian unification alongside the defeat of the Austrians with the help of the Young Italy movement, founded in 1831 by nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian patriot who favored a democratic revolution to unify the country. In February 1849, Mazzini led a democratic revolt against the Pope in Rome, becoming head of the Republic of Rome later that month. By attacking the Pope, the democrats went too far. The self-proclaimed protectors of the Pope, the French, moved in and defeated Mazzini's Roman legion. The Pope was restored and a democratic Italy collapsed, for now.
Meanwhile, from August 1848, the Austrian army soundly defeated every revolt in its empire. In Vienna, in Budapest, in Prague, the Austrians legions crushed the liberal and democratic movements, returning the empire to the conservative establishment that ruled at the beginning of 1848. Nothing had come of the revolutions of 1848.