Don H. Doyle. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War
New York: Basic Books 2014. 382 pages.
Review by John McKee Barr
In August 1858, during his first debate with Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, attacked Douglas’s central idea of popular sovereignty. Douglas’s amoral stance toward inhuman bondage, Lincoln believed, made its extension more likely. This was dangerous, because for Lincoln, “public sentiment is every thing. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions. He makes possible the inforcement [sic] of these, else impossible.” It is hardly surprising, then, that after ascending to the presidency a few years later, Lincoln’s administration became obsessed with shaping public sentiment across the world in order to help stave off the successful secession of the Confederate States of America from the United States.
Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy were likewise preoccupied with molding public opinion overseas, as Don H. Doyle, the “McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina” shows in his wonderfully informative and entertaining book, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War. Doyle’s volume is a finely wrought narrative, with a strong underpinning of intellectual history, about the meaning of the American Civil War for “all nations.” His key argument is that the Civil War had enormous international implications for the expansion of liberty and equality; that both the United States and the Confederate States invested serious time and resources in making their case to others; and that it was somewhat surprising that the Union won – with the help of some key figures outside America’s borders – the argument over the Confederacy.
Doyle shows that from its inception the Confederacy’s leaders were keenly attuned to the reality that if their cause was understood as one of preserving slavery then that would harm them with countries such as Britain and France (both of whom influenced other European nations). Therefore they offered themselves as people with a justifiable “desire for national self-determination and free trade – not slavery- as the motive for secession” (29). It was this obfuscation of their real aims that made Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech,” with its emphasis on slaveholding as the central idea of the Confederacy, such an embarrassment to the Confederacy’s euphemistic self-presentation as liberty’s champions. In addition to Stephens’s early faux pas, Doyle characterizes Confederate representatives Ambrose Dudley Mann, Pierre Rost, and William Lowndes Yancey as terrible selections for making the Confederacy’s case to other countries. Regarding the fire-eating Yancey, in this particular instance Doyle unfortunately relies on the outdated work of historian Frank Owsley as his source. Yancey’s modern biographer Eric H. Walther makes it clear that the Alabama secessionist surprised nearly everyone with his diplomatic skills. So why did the Confederates fail to win recognition from Europe? In part because of the ineptitude of Confederacy’s ambassadors, to be sure, but also because of skillful diplomacy on the part of President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward in combination with the indispensable efforts of other Union sympathizers abroad.
Doyle does a superb job of describing in entertaining prose the various factions of radical Europeans (and Americans) that supported the Union cause: the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose support for the Union may have allowed the United States to prevail over the Confederacy; the German-American Carl Schurz, who served as an American diplomat to Spain and told Seward early in the conflict that “as soon as the war becomes one distinctly one for and against slavery, public opinion will be so strongly, so overwhelmingly in our favor, that in spite of commercial interests or secret spites no European Government will dare to place itself” against the United States (70); the German writer Karl Marx, who stood with Lincoln and the cause of Union; the “red republicans,” refugees from the European revolutions of 1848, “tens of thousands of whom made their way to America” (91-92); the Mexican leader Benito Juárez, who fiercely resisted the French attempt to reestablish a portion of their empire on the North American continent and who Doyle compares to Lincoln in their “rise from abject poverty,” in their devotion to the “rule of law,” and in their fight against “conservative forces” (115); the American writer Mary Louise Booth, who over one week in 1861 spent twenty hours a day translating the Frenchmen Count Agénor de Gasparin’s The Uprising of a Great People, a book the abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner said was “worth a whole phalanx in the cause of human freedom” (136).
Despite such radical support, Doyle emphasizes that Lincoln and Seward were quick to tell European states that the war was not one for “abolition” and that “any nation recognizing or aiding the rebellion would risk war with the United States” (65). This was a serious problem for American diplomacy, according to Doyle, because “if the conflict was viewed only as an American quarrel over secession and territory, the world would just as soon see the Union dismembered” (69). This is an excellent point, although I think Doyle could have used James Oakes’s recent books, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (2013) and The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (2014) in order to add a little nuance to this particular argument. Although preservation of the Union was first and foremost on the mind of the Republican Party, it was in the end a Union that would call slavery morally wrong, one that would surround slaveholding states by a “cordon of freedom,” all leading to what Lincoln called the peaceful yet “ultimate extinction” of the institution. Thus to say that the preserving the Union was the goal is, as Oakes has indicated elsewhere, accurate but inadequate. Oakes showed in The Scorpion’s Sting that Harriet Beecher Stowe said as much in 1862 when she published a reply to anti-slavery English women stating precisely this point:
It is a Union which has abolished slavery in the District
of Columbia, and interdicted slavery in the Territories, –
which vigorously represses the slave-trade, and hangs the
convicted slaver as a pirate, – which necessitates emanci-
pation by denying expansion to slavery, and facilitates it
by an offer of compensation. . . . The President’s Procla-
mation simply means this: – Come in, and emancipate
peaceably with compensation; stay out, and I emancipate,
nor will I protect you from the consequences.
Of course, Stowe’s letter illustrates the difficulty that Lincoln and Seward faced in getting such ideas across to Europeans, which Doyle is terrific at relating to his readers. It is here that The Cause of All Nations may be most interesting in that, when discussing the implications of the Emancipation Proclamation overseas, Doyle argues that “initially the proclamation made intervention more likely. Because of emancipation, which many leaders feared would ignite racial mayhem and throw the world cotton economy into chaos, some wanted to move quickly to mediate an end to the war” (210-11; emphasis in the original). But this did not occur because Garibaldi, in a widely-read and influential public letter, labeled the Union as “struggling today for the abolition of slavery” (231). This, before “Lincoln’s emancipation decree reached London” (231).
In his 1876 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” Frederick Douglass noted that “Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.” True enough. But, it is Doyle’s great achievement in The Cause of All Nations to remind us that the movement to end slavery in the United States was international in both scope and effect, dependent upon the efforts of innumerable people all over the world who agreed with Lincoln that “public sentiment is every thing” and who worked in tandem with the United States to ensure that slavery was seen as morally wrong and thus ought to be permanently extinguished across the globe.
John McKee Barr is a professor of history at Lone Star College–Kingwood. He is the author of Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present (Louisiana State University Press, 2014), the winner of the Jules and Frances Landry Award for 2014.