Transnational History and the Civil War Era

On Monday, October 18, I was very honored to participate in a roundtable at the University of Houston on “New Directions in the Study of the Civil War Era,” sponsored by the Center for Public History and the Department of History at UH and organized by Eric Walther. The other members of the panel were John Barr (a newly minted UH history Ph.D who has written a great dissertation about anti-Lincoln sentiment in American history), Vernon Burton, Gerald Horne, James Oakes, and Frank Wetta.

Each presenter only had about 5-7 minutes to make some comments before the floor was opened for questions and discussion. And that discussion generated a lot of interesting points that I’m still thinking about and processing a week and a half later. But for now, I thought I would belatedly share my very brief prepared comments.


This afternoon I want to share some reflections, necessarily brief and over-general, on how the history of the Civil War Era is being enriched by new attempts to place the history of the United States within larger transnational and even global histories.

The idea of internationalizing the history of the Civil War is not, in itself, new. Historians have been interested in the diplomatic history of the war from the beginning (think of Henry Adams chronicling his post in London during the war). And historians of slavery and emancipation have also long adopted international comparative methods. Building on such precedents, however, the most recent crop of “transnational,” “transatlantic” or “global” histories of the Civil War era has focused not just on the comparison of different societies and nations, but on the connectedness of the United States to the larger world in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s exciting work to read and think about. By broadening our perspective on the American Civil War era, historians are revealing the mid-nineteenth century as an era of unprecedented mobility by migrants; an era of constant circulation of goods, ideas, and capital across permeable national borders; and an era in which the consolidation of modern nation-states occurred not just despite, but partly because of, transnational processes like industrialization.

One way of summing up these points is to say that the “Atlantic World” did not abruptly end in 1800; my own primary research on transatlantic abolitionism in the Civil War era provides constant reminders that postcolonial Americans still lived and moved in an “Atlantic World” in which the “mother country” remained the dominant power.

Another way of summing up what recent historians have tried to show is to look forwards instead of backwards, and to see the Civil War era not just as a moment of continuity with an older “Atlantic World” of early modern empires, but as a moment of continuity with emerging forms of imperial and economic integration on a global scale–you can consider the Civil War era, as world historians like C. A. Bayly and Jurgen Osterhammel have, as a harbinger of “globalization.”

I want to be brief, which means I’m being highly selective, but I think a few examples can show some of the payoffs that can come from taking these transnational and global perspectives on the Civil War era.

First, transnational histories of the era offer new insights into the causes and consequences of the Civil War. I’m thinking here of Edward Rugemer’s award-winning book (subtitled “the Caribbean roots of the American Civil War”) on the impact of British West Indian emancipation on the slavery debates in the United States. I’m thinking of Brian Schoen’s fascinating new book on how the world cotton market shaped secessionists’ thinking about their chances outside the Union, and of Rachel Hope Cleves’s book on how rhetoric about the French Revolution in some sense contributed to the escalation and violence of antebellum rhetoric in the United States. And there’s Matthew Clavin’s book, published this year, about how the memory of the Haitian Revolution influenced decisions in the United States both before and during the war.

All four books suggest that causal explanations of the War have to go beyond the standard recital of domestic events that heralded the “impending crisis.” And there are also new works, though they seem to be fewer at present, suggesting that a full accounting of the war’s consequences will also take us far beyond the borders of the nation. I’m thinking here especially of Sven Beckert’s exciting work on the impact of the war on the global cotton market and the attendant development of new forms of colonialism in India and elsewhere.

Second, transnational histories of the Civil War era also offer us new contexts for interpreting the era and its actors. Suggestive works by historians like Thomas Bender and the prolific coauthors Michael Geyer and Charles Bright indicate that the American Civil War is best understood, in global terms, as a moment in a long, halting history of global nation-building, even though from a narrower perspective it looks like an exceptional moment of nation-unraveling. Likewise, work by Schoen, Beckert, and others further demonstrates that Southern slaveholders were not premodern agrarians defending a civilization going with the wind; they were savvy, modern, even empire-building capitalists who often defended, for self-interested reasons, liberal “free trade,” and they were attuned to the currents of a new, industrializing global economy in which specialized regional economies enjoyed some comparative advantages.

And of course there are many other examples of the ways that transnational histories of the Civil War era revise or help confirm older interpretations. But I’ll close with one last point that has increasingly shaped my own book manuscript.

I think it is important to remember that by the time of the American Civil War the fate of “democracy,” both in national and global terms, was still decidedly unsettled. No nation with meaningful representative institutions had a larger electorate than the United States by mid-century. And even the American electorate was limited in all sorts of undemocratic ways (as Robert Wiebe puts it, “before the 1860s, slavery was no more an anomaly in the land of democracy than democracy was an anomaly in the land of slavery”).** But by 1855 economic barriers to voting that were still pervasive in other representative governments (which were themselves still rare, even after the abortive 1848 democratic revolutions in Europe) had mostly disappeared in the United States, at least for white men.

That unusual feature of course contributed to Americans’ national pride in “popular sovereignty,” which played a large role in the escalation of sectional crisis in the 1850s. But it also marked the American republic for many outside observers, from Alexis de Tocqueville on, as a laboratory for studying the effects of majority rule. If, as Seymour Drescher has put it, British West Indian emancipation came to be regarded in the 1840s and 1850s as a “mighty experiment” in the idea of free labor, American democracy after 1820 also was often regarded, inside and outside the nation, as a “mighty experiment,” an experiment that very well might fail (for better or worse depending on whom you asked at the time).

For a broad and diverse group of contemporary thinkers, the Civil War therefore initially registered as a failure, of sorts, for the democratic principle writ large; it seemed to prove that when push came to shove in a country with comparatively open representative institutions, when a powerful minority disliked the outcome of a majoritarian election, Constitutional disintegration and violence ensued. And thanks to extensive communication and print culture networks that spanned the Atlantic, key actors in the American Civil War were aware that they were being watched and discussed, and many of them also viewed the secession crisis as a referendum on democracy whose implications would affect the future of democracy elsewhere.

Certainly this was on the mind of Abraham Lincoln, and Chandra Manning suggests it was on the minds of his soldiers, too. In his first speech to Congress after the secession crisis, on July 4, 1861, Lincoln noted with understatement that “our popular government has often been called an experiment.” At stake was the ability of the Union to prove to the world that a republican form of government could be maintained. The same idea, of course, surfaced in many of Lincoln’s other famous speeches, including the Gettysburg Address, all of which suggests that Lincoln sincerely worried about whether “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” (a phrase used in different versions by many democratic reformers in the mid-century Atlantic World) would “perish from the earth.”

A more transnational perspective on the American Civil War era also reveals for us, in retrospect, that such a possibility (of popular government either perishing or making a significant retreat) was not unimaginable in the aftermath of post-1848 counterrevolutions in Europe, continued aristocratic resistance to parliamentary reform in England, and the hostility to republicanism that still prevailed in most of the world at that moment. Looking at the Civil War from the perspective of the whole “earth,” as Lincoln suggested we should, thus may allow us to see with fresh eyes the significance of Lincoln’s victory and the subsequent constitutional prohibitions on using race or previous condition of servitude as determinants of voting rights. Those events, as Leslie Butler has shown in her new book on postwar transatlantic liberalism, made the Civil War seem to many contemporaries like a watershed moment in the history of democracy worldwide, even while others viewed the carnage as a mark against popular government. The identification of the Union cause with the success of the democratic experiment also came with costs and ironic consequences, of course. And viewed in the long term of the long nineteenth century, it was the enfranchisement of black male voters in the American South during Reconstruction, and not their later disfranchisement at the turn of the twentieth century, that represented the exception to the general rule. Nonetheless, perhaps we should consider what we would see if we rediscovered the American Civil War Era as many of its contemporaries knew it: an era in which, globally and at the level of nation-states, majority rule was still the minority opinion. It’s not an entirely new direction for Civil War historians, but one still worth pursuing.

** For the Robert Wiebe quote, see Thomas Bender, ed., Rethinking American History in a Global Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 247.

One thought on “Transnational History and the Civil War Era

  1. Thanks for this! Some of these sources will be handy for this pesky dissertation I’m writing, particularly the work about slaveowners being “savvy, modern, even empire-building capitalists”. I think this argument could certainly be made about the man running the plantation I’m studying right now. Thanks!!