Timothy Roberts, Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge of American Exceptionalism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009)
Andre Fleche, The Revolutions of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014)
Brian Schoen, The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009)
Sven Beckert, “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War.” American Historical Review. 109 (December, 2004):1405-1438.
Matthew Pratt Guterl, American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2008)
Edward Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2008)
This blog focuses on historians who have written about American slavery and the Civil War in a global context. Over the last several years, historians have explored the transnational political, economic, and social dialogues, which coursed throughout the Atlantic World during the nineteenth century.
Timothy Roberts’ Distant Revolutions provides an impressive look into how Americans interpreted and reacted to the European Revolutions of 1848. This work holds weight for my own dissertation, which explores how Americans reacted to various developments (war, abolition, political change) in both Latin America and the Indian Ocean. Roberts delves deeply into newspaper coverage of the Revolutions of 1848 (Hungary, France, northern Italy, Papal States), and shows how Americans initially applauded these efforts. Many believed that the American Revolution was an example to be followed by these democratic revolutionaries (“American exemplarism”). Once these revolutions failed, however, they started to argue that America was exceptional (“American exceptionalism”). Roberts adds, that American exceptionalism was also shorted lived, at least among American abolitionists groups. The violence in Kansas during the mid-1850s, in fact, proved to many abolitionists that the United States was not free from reactionary “European style-violence” (174). Roberts’ main idea suggests that the Revolutions of 1848 did not change political, social, or religious ideas in the United States, but instead, these events were used to support various arguments over domestic issues and the future of the United States.
Andre Fleche’s The Revolutions of 1861 also examines the influences of the European Revolutions of 1848, but this time on the American Civil War. During the Civil War, the Union and the Confederacy constructed their image of the Revolutions of 1848 to fit their own goals. Unionists suggested their actions against the South paralleled revolutionaries in Austria, France, and the German states. Slaveholders held extra-economic and extra-political power similar to European feudal lords, and like the European revolutionaries, they were attempting to overthrow nobility and unify under the principles of democracy. Confederates, on the other hand, seceded from the North under the premise of national self-determination, which was the calling cad for the European Revolutions of 1848. These Americans were fighting against “red republicanism” (European communism and socialism) of the North, which threatened individual property rights. These views help support Fleche’s main argument that global events such as the Revolutions of 1848, helped shape the ideological discourse of the American Civil War.
Brian Schoen’s The Fragile Fabric of the Union provides an interesting narrative on the expansion of cotton and slavery in the US South by tracing the development and arguments over the political economy, espoused by southern planters. He shows how economic realities interacted with ideological beliefs to shape federal and state political decisions and actions, which all built towards the South’s secession from the Union. To show this, Schoen explores economic policies (i.e. tariffs), which he argues, has often been pushed to the margins when examining the development of American slavery from the early American republic to the Civil War. He also illustrates how events such as revolutions in Europe, European and American industrialization, the transportation revolution, the rise of free trade, and the replacement of Empire with modern nation-states were influential and influenced by elite white southern planters. His narrative, in short, “is a tragedy, on in which greed and an integrated world’s insatiable desire for cotton provided the incentive and the means for entrepreneurial planters to continue enslaving millions of souls and eventually to help inaugurate the bloodiest war in U.S. history” (4).
Sven Beckert’s “Emancipation and Empire” approaches cotton in a similar light as Schoen. Beckert’s article explores “how the U.S. Civil War recast the worldwide web of cotton production, its prevailing forms of labor and, with them, global capitalism itself” (1407). Although Beckert does not attempt to explore the era of the American Civil War from a global perspective, but instead examines how the American Civil War was one important event in history of global capitalism. Beckert carefully crafts an argument that shows how “free” cotton replaced American slave cotton during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the attempt to reproduce “free” cotton in places such as Egypt, Brazil, and India created major debt and poverty, placing million into debt-bondage. This was on answer to the pressing question of how the world market could continue to produce cotton without slaves. In short, these various attempts to produce free cotton were “a gigantic experiment of how a world of cotton without slaves could be shaped” (1420).
Similar to the other historians under review, Matthew Pratt Guterl’s American Mediterranean attempts to examine American slaveholders in an international context. A casual perusal of his footnotes shows that he continuously criticizes American historians such as Eugene Genovese for comparing the American Slave South exclusively to the American North. Guterl situates American slaveholders in a transnational context, where he shows how the “master class” was connected to other slaveholders “by ship, by overland travel, by print culture, by a sense of singular space, and by the prospect of future conquest” (1). Following the Missouri Compromise, southern slaveholders thought about expanding their empire into other parts of Latin America, especially Cuba and Brazil. America saw itself as the most civilized and leaders of the American Mediterranean. Following the Civil War, however, American slaveholders were lost their leadership roles, and a few even left for other regions such as Cuba, Brazil, and Mexico. Often we consider American slaveholders to be part of the United States, but Guterl’s work also shows how they were also a part of the larger developing society of slaveholders that stretched across the Caribbean and Latin America.
Edward Rugemer’s The Problem of Emancipation provides another work, which examines the Caribbean roots of the American Civil War. Rugemer’s landmark study offers insight into understanding how the United States’ boundaries were permeable. Ideas, information, people, and most importantly abolitionist rhetoric traveled along the same commercial lines connecting the British West Indies to the United States. For Rugemer, “Britain’s abolition of slavery should be understood as a seminal event in the history of the United States” (6). The problem of slavery and emancipation in the United States, Rugemer reminds us, was directly linked to West Indian emancipation and postemancipation society. Rugemer is at his best when he follows how emancipation and slave rebellion in the West Indies influenced the discussion of slavery in the United States. In short, we must look to the Caribbean to understand the coming of the Civil War. It was in the Caribbean, especially after the British government declared free blacks legally equal to whites in St. Lucria and Trinidad, where the foundations of the Civil War battle lines were drawn. This “new geography freedom” in the West Indies, Rugemer suggest, established the foundations for the American Civil War, because the British Caribbean and the United States shared a history, one wrapped up in discussions over the future of slavery and emancipation.
Each historian reviewed in this post has stressed the importance of understanding the transnational or Atlantic contexts from which American slavery, abolition, and the Civil War developed. These historians have transnationalized events such as the Civil War, which influenced by a number of different factors: slave rebellions; British abolition; the transforming global cotton market; European revolutions; and so on. Although I hate placing value judgments on things, I have to believe that some “events” were more important to the development of American slavery than others. Do we give the same weight to American slaveholders’ desire to expand their Empire of Slavery into Latin America as to their reactions to the failures of the European Revolutions of 1848? Did British emancipation really set the “battle lines” for the American Civil as Rugemer suggests, or was it the debates over economic policies and tariffs in the 1820s as Schoen argues?