We welcome a guest post today from Andre M. Fleche, author of The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict. Grounding the causes and philosophies of the Civil War in an international context, The Revolution of 1861 examines how questions of national self-determination, race, class, and labor the world over influenced American interpretations of the strains on the Union and the growing differences between North and South. Setting familiar events in an international context, Fleche enlarges our understanding of nationalism in the nineteenth century, with startling implications for our understanding of the Civil War. In the following guest post, Fleche discusses some of the global context of the American Civil War.
[This article is crossposted at uncpresscivilwar150.com.]
In 1927 renowned historians Charles and Mary Beard famously referred to the Civil War as “the Second American Revolution.” The Beards hypothesized that the United States had not experienced one revolution, but two—once in the war for independence from Britain in the 1770s and 1780s, and again in the 1860s when the federal government defeated secession by destroying the power of the plantation system based on slavery. Many subsequent scholars have traced the parallels between the American Revolution and the Civil War. But in today’s global age, it is time we recognize that the first American Revolution was not the only revolution to influence America’s sectional conflict.
Throughout the 1700s and the 1800s, Americans were interested observers of the world around them. They picked sides and chose allegiances when the French Revolutionaries of 1789 deposed their king, established a republic, and marched armies into Europe in the name of human liberty and freedom. They supported the wars of independence in Latin America during the eighteen-teens and twenties, and in 1830 and 1848 they applauded a series of revolutions that swept Europe. On the eve of the Civil War, they eagerly followed the drama of Italian unification.
This fascination with revolution has always been present in American culture. This past year Americans eagerly watched the Arab Spring unfold even as they debated its meaning. Though opinions were divided on the movement’s aims and goals, few could bring themselves to denounce a people’s yearning for representative government and self-determination.
This complicated relationship with revolution began with the American colonies’ declaration of independence from Great Britain in 1776. As the modern world’s first colonial war for independence, the American Revolution powerfully affirmed principles of representation and self-government. Perhaps most radically, it established the people’s “right of revolution” against oppressive government. Any time rulers became destructive of liberty, the argument went, the mass of the people were justified in taking up arms and violently removing them. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to welcome violence, declaring that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
As the nineteenth century progressed, Americans continued to celebrate the worldwide importance of their revolution, though few were prepared to go quite so far as Jefferson. This reluctance proved especially true as revolutions in Europe and America added new approaches and goals to the legacy of 1776. The French Revolution of 1789 proved especially problematic. When the revolution began, most Americans were supportive of French efforts to establish representative government. The French Revolution quickly took a much more radical turn than the American Revolution had, however. The French people executed their king, destroyed the nobility, and debated racial equality. Even more frightening to many Americans, in the French colony of St. Domingue, slaves revolted, declared their own freedom, and established a new nation, Haiti.
Most Americans were more comfortable with the wars of independence in Spanish America. Though they worried that the conflicts there might empower mixed-race peoples, in general, wealthy and mostly white leaders like Simón Bolívar of Venezuela and José de San Martín of Argentina maintained control of the movements. National independence without social change, it would seem, proved most acceptable to most white citizens of the United States. Americans especially applauded the Greek war for independence from Turkey in the 1820s, the Polish rebellion against Russian rule in 1830, and the declaration of France’s constitutional monarchy that same year.
The year 1848 reintroduced complications to America’s relationship with revolution. That year, the French founded a second republic, Ireland challenged British rule, Hungary fought for independence from the Austrian Empire, and Italy and Germany both fought for unity—all laudable goals in American eyes. The French revolutionary government, however, abolished slavery in its colonies and French laborers demanded the state create national workshops to provide jobs for the unemployed. Socialism and communism were discussed as potential solutions to the world’s problems. The revolutions of 1848 seemed to suggest that revolutions in the name of liberty and equality might now challenge the rights of property holders as well as the rights of kings.
Americans would have to work out many of the same questions during their own Civil War. Did secessionists have the right to fight for national self-determination as many southerners proclaimed? Could federal authorities attack private property rights in the fight for national existence by seizing plantations and freeing slaves? Should the government ensure equality of opportunity by providing the freedmen with land? As Americans struggled to answer these questions, the Civil War truly became a “Second American Revolution” in the most global sense of the term.
Andre M. Fleche is assistant professor of history at Castleton State College and author of The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict.