Thinking Aloud: “The Cause of All Nations”

July 20, 2015 by Darius 

In his book The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, historian Don Doyle seeks to destroy the notion that the American Civil War was a purely domestic affair.  Instead, he argues, the nations of the world were at minimum keenly interested in the outcome of the Civil War and, at most, key players in its outcome.

During the years leading up to the Civil War, the world was a distinctly undemocratic place.  The Revolutions of 1848 had led to some changes, but by the 1860s, various ancien regimes throughout Europe had managed to stage comebacks.  In France, after King Louis-Philippe was deposed in 1848, the Second Republic was declared.  However, in 1851, the first elected French president, Louis Napoleon, staged a coup and crowned himself Emperor Napoleon III.  A virtual police state followed, with strict controls on freedom of speech, press, and assembly.  In Britain, things fared somewhat better, but the government was led by Lord Palmerston, a dyed-in-the-wool classical conservative who greatly feared unchecked democracy.  In Latin America, many small republics had thrown off Spanish rule decades before but were by 1860 beset by instability, coups, and dictators.

In a way, then, the United States was the last great republic, the last country where citizens were free to choose their own government.  When the southern states seceded in 1861, many conservatives throughout Europe heralded the event as proof that a republican form of government was unworkable.

Arrayed on the other side were the liberal forces of Europe.  Southern slavery was widely detested throughout Europe.  Perhaps the most popular man in the world, Giuseppe Garibaldi, known as the Hero of Two Worlds for his exploits in Brazil and Italy, spoke out in favor of the Union against the “slave power” of the Confederacy.  Many of the ideological cousins of the revolutionaries of 1848 remained convinced that the cause of liberty was worth fighting for.

Both the Union and the Confederacy launched aggressive efforts to rally support abroad.  Almost immediately after secession, the Confederacy dispatched negotiators to attempt to secure recognition for the Confederacy from France and Britain.  Such recognition would allow the South to form alliances with any other country, which would promise military aid and, most likely, an end to the Union naval blockade crippling the Southern cotton-based economy.  The US Secretary of State, William Seward, responded first with legal arguments against secession and then by threatening war with any European nation that recognized the South as an independent nation.  Both sides launched what Doyle termed the first major public diplomacy campaigns.  The South attempted to justify its secession in terms of protecting itself from mob rule and anarchy and explain away its dependence on slavery, while the North sought to portray itself as fighting for liberty and democracy.  Both sides attracted some European supporters who wrote at length in major newspapers in favor of their cause.  Early in the war, the Union even offered a military command to the Hero of Two Worlds, Garibaldi.  Garibaldi declined because of unfinished business with Italian unification and because he was concerned the Union was not yet serious about ending slavery.

The impact of the Civil War was not just felt in the United States and Europe.  The outbreak of fighting rendered the Monroe Doctrine, under which the US pledged to push back strongly against European incursions into the Western Hemisphere, dead in the water.  Spain reconquered its colony in the Dominican Republic in 1861.  It was in Mexico, though, where the most momentous events occurred.  In 1861, facing financial difficulties, Mexican president Benito Juarez suspended interest payments on foreign debts.  Juarez had long been a thorn in the side of European conservatives, and his suspension of payments gave Europe an excuse to intervene.  While Britain and Spain were content to send a military force to extract money from the Mexicans, France wanted to go further.  Napoleon III dreamed of establishing a conservative Catholic empire in Mexico, which could ultimately unite Latin America and serve as a bulwark against the expansion of the Anglo-Protestant United States.  In 1862, a French army invaded Mexico.  Although initially repulsed at the Battle of Puebla (which the Cinco de Mayo holiday commemorates today), the French sent the Mexican government into exile.  An Austrian prince, Maximilian, was crowned Emperor of Mexico.  US Secretary of State Seward could only gnash his teeth.

A string of early Confederate military victories looked to tip the balance of diplomacy onto their side.  Napoleon III was eager to recognize the Confederacy but was unwilling to act without British cooperation.  Britain, however, was more reluctant: Britain had no wish to get into another war with the US and feared, in particular, for the fate of Canada and its Caribbean possessions.  Adroit Union diplomacy and threats, combined with the outbreak of a crisis in Italy (thanks to Garibaldi) and Poland, kept both Britain and France out of the war.

In 1862, following the bloody Battle of Antietam, US President Abraham Lincoln took his biggest diplomatic gamble yet: he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Making the war overtly about ending slavery in the US was likely to attract public support in Europe, where most ordinary citizens thought slavery abhorrent.  However, the Emancipation Proclamation could also stir fears about racial insurrection and race war, especially among the governments of France and Britain, whose colonies had sizeable populations of former slaves.  The gamble paid off: massive pro-Union rallies soon broke out in Europe, and public opinion sharply constrained European governments’ support of the Confederacy throughout the rest of the war.

Ultimately, the South’s attachment to slavery was the deciding issue.  Slavery was simply too abhorrent for the British and most other European countries to touch, and Southern efforts to explain away slavery were nothing more than trying to put lipstick on a pig.  At the very end of the war, the South tried to offer emancipation in exchange for recognition from Europe, but it was too little, too late.  The Union had won the international diplomatic battle as well as the military one.

Dan Doyle goes much deeper into the complexities of the international aspects of the US Civil War, including the role of immigrants in fighting for the Union, specific advocacy efforts abroad, and European liberal movements.  One theme, though, pervades: the Civil War was hardly the War Between the States.  Instead, it was seen by both sides and millions of onlookers as part of a colossal struggle between the forces of liberalism and democracy against the forces of conservatism, religion, and monarchy.  In the Civil War, the Union won the battle for liberalism.  Had the Union fallen, republican government on a large scale might have fallen with it.

Abraham Lincoln, in crafting the Gettysburg Address, was acutely aware of his international audience and the importance of the struggle being waged when he summarized, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived [in Liberty] and so dedicated [to the proposition that all men are created equal], can long endure.”

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War is one of the best history books I’ve read in a long time.  It is thoughtful, well researched, and told in a voice more typical of a storyteller than a historian.  I would strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in US history or in 19th century world history.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: “The Cause of All Nations”

  1. donhdoyle says:

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments on my book. If you get a chance, my first name is Don, not Dan, a mistake that is often made for some reason.
    –Don Doyle

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