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BOOK REVIEW: The Cause Of All Nations: An International History Of The American Civil War

Thomas S. Neuberger, Esq.
February 27, 2015

“Spanning the American Revolution to the Revolution of 1848 and beyond, the Age of Revolution witnessed the advocates of popular sovereignty, human equality, and universal emancipation locked in battle against the defenders of dynastic rule, aristocratic privilege, and inherited inequality. . . . Whatever their precise political goals, many in Europe saw the failure of the Revolution of 1848 as the end of the revolutionary challenge to the old regime of dynastic oligarchies. Conservatives welcomed the American secession crisis, seeing it as the coup de grace to the republican experiment in both hemispheres. For revolutionaries and liberals, America’s war came to be seen as the crucial trial that would decide the fate of government by the people, the ‘last best hope of earth’ in Lincoln’s unforgettable words. At stake were not only systems of labor, but also whole systems of government and society.” (85-86)

We have recently lived through the failed Arab Spring from late 2010 to mid-2012. So we have some basis from which to imagine the power of the revolutionary current that ran through Europe during the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 on that continent which failed to erect democratic governments to replace the aristocracies of European kings and queens. From 1848 to 1861, only two things then remained of democracy. One was the failed earlier French Revolution of 1789-1799, which had been replaced by another monarch in Napoleon III. The other was the 85 year old American experiment with democracy and citizen controlled institutions which now was fighting for survival in a bloody Civil War over the question of slavery. Americans today know well the history of that unprecedented conflict, how the Union survived on the battlefield, how the slaves were emancipated and then forgotten for more than 80 years after President Ulysses Grant retired, and how Southern writers appeared to win the battle in revising and romanticizing the causes of the war. They changed popular history from an undeniable separation from the Union over the preservation and spread of slavery forever into a false assertion that the war was fought to preserve states’ rights.

Civil War historian Professor Don Doyle in this exciting and revealing book has given readers an entirely new perspective from which to view the causes and conduct of the Civil War – the viewpoint of international diplomacy by the European Great Powers and the conduct of their seething populations yearning to free themselves of the rule of kings, queens and aristocrats. For example, in light of the failed revolutions of 1848 many seeking freedom emigrated to the United States. They, along with recruits from overseas during the Civil War, “formed the Union’s foreign legions, and without them the Union might never have won” for “immigrants and the sons of immigrants constituted well over 40 percent of the Union’s armed forces.” (159) So these immigrants won their delayed 1848 victory for democracy.

Most importantly, the author describes how the rulers of Britain and France intended in October 1862 to recognize the Confederacy and impose a peace on Lincoln or go to war in support of the South. (210-239) But European intellectuals and liberal politicians countered the forces of the status quo and appeared to win public opinion to their side in support of Lincoln and a war to free the slaves. As an example, Professor Edouard Laboulauye in Paris wrote –

“The world is a solidarity, and the cause of America is the cause of Liberty. So long as there shall be across the Atlantic a society of thirty millions of men, living happily and peacefully under a government of their choice, with laws made by themselves, liberty will cast her rays over Europe like an illuminating pharos. America disencumbered of slavery will be the country of all ardent spirits, of all generous hearts. But should liberty become eclipsed in the new world, it would become night in Europe, and we shall see the work of Washington, of the Franklins, of the Hamiltons, spit upon and trampled under foot by the whole school which believes only in violence and in success.” (vii)

But then on September 22, 1862 Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation after a modest success in the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. News reached Europe on October 6th. And, more decisively for public opinion, Guiseppe Garibaldi also spoke. Garibaldi is a truly remarkable historical figure. He was the military genius behind the unification of Italy into a nation-state, a military hero of two continents and his fame was world renowned. He even had been approached in 1861 to lead Union armies, but he first wanted to know if first the war was one to free the slaves in the Union and eventually throughout South America. Then, on October 3, 1862, three days before news of Lincoln’s emancipation order arrived in Europe, Garibaldi spoke, electrified the people of Europe and endorsed Lincoln’s struggle. He wrote to the press –

“Call the great American Republic. She is, after all, your daughter, risen from your bosom; and . . . is struggling today for the abolition of slavery so generously proclaimed by you. Help her to escape from the terrible strife waged against her by the traders in human flesh. Help her, and then place her by your side at the great assembly of nations – that final work of the human intellect.” (210)

Out of fear of revolution in the streets should the people think their governments were going to back the preservation of slavery in the South, the effort to come to the aid of the Confederacy and oppose Lincoln was abandoned. And so we avoided a World War with the Great Powers, in addition to one with the South.

In closing, of particular historical note is Professor Doyle’s detailed analysis of organic Confederate documents and speeches which prove unequivocally that the war was not fought over states’ rights but was a war plain and simple for the preservation and expansion of slavery. As part of its unsuccessful propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of the European masses the Confederates resorted to discredited theories of racial superiority or scientific race theory which were resurrected by the likes of the Nazis and Adolph Hitler in World War II. (191-192)

This is an important book which debunks defenders of the alleged Southern causes of the Civil War, places Lincoln’s struggle in the world wide context of the survival of the tender flower of democratic institutions, and acknowledges a debt Americans owe to the European general public and its liberal opinion makers for keeping the Great Powers from siding with the South in the war because of their economic and political interests.