The Internationalism of the American Civil War

One of the topics I’ve long been interested in is the traffic between the European right and the slaveholding South in the US. We know a fair amount, now, about the relationship between the abolitionist movement in the US and the European left, including Marx, but less about the impact that slavery and its defense had on the European right.

What first piqued my interest in this issue was reading Nietzsche. Nietzsche talks a lot about slavery in his work, and it’s long been the conventional wisdom that his references here are metaphorical and philosophical rather than contemporary and literal. I’ve had my doubts about that, as I’ve written.

One can hear in the opening passages of “The Greek State” the pounding march not only of European workers on the move but also of black slaves in revolt. Hegel was brooding on Haiti while he worked out the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Though generations of scholars have told us otherwise, perhaps Nietzsche had a similar engagement in mind when he wrote, “Even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined because they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed because we fail to keep slaves.” What theorist, after all, has ever pressed so urgently—not just in this essay but in later works as well—the claim that “slavery belongs to the essence of a culture”? What theorist ever had to? Before the eighteenth century, bonded labor was an accepted fact. Now it was the subject of a roiling debate, provoking revolutions and emancipations throughout the world. Serfdom had been eliminated in Russia only a decade before—and in some German states, only a generation before Nietzsche’s birth in 1844—while Brazil would soon become the last state in the Americas to abolish slavery. An edifice of the ages had been brought down by a mere century’s vibrations; is it so implausible that Nietzsche, attuned to the vectors and velocity of decay as he was, would pause to record the earthquake and insist on taking the full measure of its effects?

There’s also Nietzsche’s tantalizing reference in his notebooks to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the inheritor, along with Rousseau and the French Revolution, of Christianity:

The French Revolution as the continuation of Christianity. Rousseau is the seducer: he again unfetters woman who is henceforth represented in an even more interesting manner—as suffering. Then the slaves and Mrs. Beecher-Stowe. Then the poor and the workers.

According to my friend Harrison Fluss, Domenico Losurdo’s long anticipated biography of Nietzsche, which came out in Italian years ago and is about to appear, finally, in English, discusses this and related passages (which don’t get much treatment in the literature), suggesting that Nietzsche may have been more aware of the question of slavery on this side of the Atlantic than we think.

In any event, I got a book in the mail a few weeks ago that begins to deal with the larger issue of the slaveholding South and the European right: Don Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. It’s about a much larger topic, as the title suggests, and I haven’t really dived into it yet, but I’ve read one chapter and the intro and have already learned some fascinating things.

First, slaveholder and race theorist Josiah Nott, whose writing I discuss in The Reactionary Mind, commissioned an English translation (for the US) of Gobineau‘s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, one of the main texts in Europe’s developing racial ideology. (Gobineau also had an extensive correspondence with Tocqueville, who appointed the younger man to a position in the Foreign Ministry while he was serving as Foreign Minister). Nott is one of the more fascinating writers among the slaveholding South, for the way he treats African Americans versus other groups in his Instincts of Races makes clear that he believes only African Americans are creatures of their physical estate, that only they cannot rise above their biological destiny, which is what he defines a race to be in the first place. In other words, read carefully, Instincts of Races suggests that, properly speaking, there is only one race in America: African Americans. If we keep in mind the dictum that there are in fact no races, only racism, Nott’s theory demonstrates quite well how the idea of race in the US was meant to serve the cause of racialized slavery.

Second, Doyle opens with a fascinating discussion of the efforts of the North and South to convince the world that their cause was the one that ought to be supported. What’s especially interesting about Doyle’s argument is how much these efforts look like what will later be called the “cultural Cold War,” that is, the conscription of writers, artists, and intellectuals throughout the world on behalf of the cause of the United States against international communism and the Soviet Union. As Doyle points out, both sides, but especially the North, quickly learned that outright propaganda was not particularly effective at generating international support. While neither side was above hiring journalists and editors to plant stories or circulate rumors, the North especially understood that “the most effective” agents for their cause “were not hired pens but volunteers who wrote and spoke with conviction and appealed to the fundamental values, ideals, prejudices, and fears of their people in their own idiom.” It’s an inexact analogy—we’re not talking about showcasing modernist art as an emblem of the Free World—but it anticipates some of the principles that underlay the CIA’s secret funding of magazines like Encounter.

Third, it’s clear that early on the North faced a major legitimation problem. The South had framed its appeal to the world in liberal terms: they stood for free trade and national self-determination, while the North was an imperial conqueror, set on protecting its markets from Europe and preventing the southern (white) people from governing themselves. The North, by contrast, had initially framed its position, at least internationally, in excessively legalistic terms. The promise of Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, not to interfere with slavery wherever it existed in the South, harmed the Northern position. Though crafted by Lincoln and Seward as a sop, in part, to international opinion, Doyle writes,

…it cost them dearly, and over the next four years, the Union’s greatest challenge overseas would be to retrieve the valuable moral capital that had been sacrificed to this early argument for a causeless rebellion.

But republicans, radicals, and revolutionaries in Europe pushed the argument, publicly, that the future of liberty everywhere hinged on the success of the northern cause. These radicals helped to make the cause of the North the “last best hope of earth,” not just in the US but throughout the world. While the slaves themselves as well as radicals and Republicans in the US obviously were critical to that shift, Doyle claims that the international left played an important role as well.

Learning from the transatlantic dialogue on the American question, Union advocates put aside their legalistic arguments against secession and fashioned an appeal to ideals of human equality and liberty against those of aristocracy.

While it’s too early for me to say anything about this definitively, Doyle’s introduction immediately made me think of Mary Dudziak’s argument in Cold War Civil Rights. There, Dudziak shows that a critical factor in moving American jurisprudence and policy in the 1950s was the Cold War, specifically the competition with the Soviet Union over the hearts and minds of the decolonizing world. While anticommunism often helped suppress activism on civil rights, it also proved to be an ironic ally to the movement. Forces in the State Department and the Eisenhower administration understood that the persistence of Jim Crow made it awfully difficult, particularly in Africa and Asia, for the United States to claim for itself the banner of democracy.

One of the things that is most fascinating, and usefully disorienting, about the African American struggle in the US is the way it reverses a trope of American exceptionalism and American imperialism. Where America’s hagiographers like to see the US as a City on the Hill, as a light unto the nations, African Americans have often upended that formulation, claiming that the United States is a laggard compared to the rest of the world. As Frederick Douglass claimed in his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech:

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Or, as Martin Luther King drily observed in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

The ongoing freedom struggle of African Americans demonstrates that when it comes to democracy, the United States often needs teachers, rather than students, from abroad.


  1. Daniel Buk January 11, 2015 at 6:20 pm | #

    Corey, there are two books you might be interested in: Lincoln In The World, by Kevin Peraino, and An Unfinished Revolution: Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx, by Robin Blackburn. The latter is a compilation of correspondences between Lincoln and his administration and Karl Marx.

    • Snarki, child of Loki January 13, 2015 at 12:04 pm | #

      If the modern GOP discovers that Lincoln and Marx were pen-pals, they’ll perform a posthumous excommunication.

      Why, you might as well claim that Reagan and Brezhnev were gay lovers!

  2. gstally January 11, 2015 at 10:14 pm | #

    “During all the storm, Madison stood firmly at the helm,–his keen eye fixed upon the binnacle. He was not indifferent to the dreadful hurricane; yet he met it with the equanimity of an old sailor. He was silent but not agitated. The first words he uttered after the storm had slightly subsided, were characteristic of the man. ‘Mr. mate, you cannot write the bloody laws of slavery on those restless billows. The ocean, if not the land, is free.’ I confess, gentlemen, I felt myself in the presence of a SUPERIOR MAN; one who, had he been a white man, I would have followed willingly and gladly in any honorable enterprise. Our difference of color was the only ground for difference of action. It was not that his principles were wrong in the abstract; for they are the principles of 1776. But I could not bring myself to recognize their application to one whom I deemed my inferior.” – The Heroic Slave ~ Frederick Douglass — 1852

    • gstally January 11, 2015 at 10:15 pm | #

      “According to my friend Harrison Fluss, Domenico Losurdo’s long anticipated biography of Nietzsche, which came out in Italian years ago and is about to appear, finally, in English, discusses this and related passages (which don’t get much treatment in the literature), suggesting that Nietzsche may have been more aware of the question of slavery on this side of the Atlantic than we think.”

      I have thought this for a while. I am glad I am not alone.

      • gstally January 11, 2015 at 10:21 pm | #

        Compare to Plato’s Republic Book VI. Douglass ranks as one of the most underrated thinkers in western philosophy IMHO. Oh and don’t be forgettin’ ’bout ol’ Sandy’s root ya hear? 😀

      • Glenn January 12, 2015 at 10:15 pm | #

        The story of Frederick Douglas is the story of a heroic life in America, as I see it.

      • Glenn January 13, 2015 at 10:37 am | #

        Sorry. I meant the story of THE heroic life in America.

  3. xenon2 January 11, 2015 at 10:16 pm | #

    1.In most of the US, there is still apartheid.Blacks and whites live separately, go to separate schools, shop separately, have separate unemployment rates, worship separately, etc.

    Most of black schools are inferior to white schools, b/c the schools have to deal with poverty and all that it involves.A few manage this, but it isn’t enough.I have been in some awful white schools, too.There is a higher turn-over rate, in predominately black schools, meaning those black schools have the least-experienced teachers.I’ve seen some great teachers in black schools.We need to cut the class-size down for all schools and increase the pay for all teachers.Fewer drones, better pay for teachers.Teachers, in a few countries, are equivalent to engineers or doctors.Elementary and High School teachers, that is.

    2.The French Revolution produced the first black republic in 1804, in Haiti.Haitians repaid this debt, that of lost property, aka ‘slaves’, in 1947.Haiti paid a total, in today’s market, of $40Bn.It is ironic that Bill Clinton and George Bush should lead the EQ Team.My book is
    An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President by Randall Robinson.I have listened to it yet, and I don’t even know if it’s available in digital audio, the Library of Congress is having trouble with their system.I think this a very simple, short book.

    • michael caplan January 12, 2015 at 8:42 pm | #

      I don’t think the french revolution produced the first republic in Haiti – the French, despite egalitarian statements at home, had no desire to give up valuable slaveholdings on Haiti until, bowing to the inevitable, the French armies were rigorously defeated by the ex-slaves. The French wanted the valuable crop production and strategic geographic location for their own and were willing to enslave African slaves and import them while annihilating the existing (and successfully revolting) Haitian slaves. A very inconvenient French revolution story.

      • Andrew Miller January 13, 2015 at 5:43 am | #

        It’s a little more complicated than that, but you’ve got the essentials. It’s important to remember that the French revolution had several stages and these were very different. Sonthonax under the Republic (reluctantly) freed the slaves, partially out of political necessity(he needed support against royalist whites.) It was after Napoleon took power that France attempted to reinstate slavery. But the French Revolution did have a profound effect on the Haitian Revolution. For one thing, it helped set off the conflict between the whites and the gens de couleur(the mixed race class which controlled most of the island’s economy but were not granted full rights) and it was in the background of this civil war that the slave armies were able to impose themselves(after both sides had attempted to use the slaves against the other.) The revolutionary wars against Britain and Spain also created conflict in the Caribbean that Toussaint was able to exploit to his benefit.

        For another, the ideals of liberty and equality and the discourse of the French Revolution/Enlightenment had a huge effect on the revolting slaves such as Louverture or Dessalines(Dessalines is far from a French admirer, but he is clearly marked by French thought, if in a negative sense; cf. his tearing the white out of the French tri-couleur and declaring it the national flag of Haiti.) Of course, many of the Republicans who loved speechifying about republican values and the rights of man also realized that France’s power and prosperity(and thus, in a sense, France’s ability to hold such ideals) depended on the violent exploitation of black labor in the Caribbean and thus excluded them from the legal sphere, the domain of man. In a sense, the Haitian revolution can be understood as a foil of the French one, pointing to the limits of liberal emancipation.

  4. lazycat1984 January 11, 2015 at 11:51 pm | #

    There’s a lot I love about Nietschze, but all too often his thinking was “human, all too human”

  5. louisproyect January 12, 2015 at 7:54 am | #

    Third, it’s clear that early on the North faced a major legitimation problem. The South had framed its appeal to the world in liberal terms: they stood for free trade and national self-determination, while the North was an imperial conqueror, set on protecting its markets from Europe and preventing the southern (white) people from governing themselves.

    This is a reminder of how the Civil War defies facile attempts at representing it as a confirmation of the Brenner thesis. Don’t ever forget that John Locke, the philosopher that Ellen Meiksins Wood described as the “origins of capitalism” philosopher par excellence, wrote the constitution for the Carolina colonies that defended slavery in terms of property rights.

    • Thomas Leo Dumm January 12, 2015 at 10:13 am | #

      Some of the complexity of Nietzsche’s view of slavery can also be traced to his admiration of Emerson, as Stanley Cavell has repeatedly noted.

      The strange quality of popular culture in Europe also plays into this hall of mirrors feeling, I think. If you want to see an example of the propagation of a romantic view of the Confederacy from the perspective of European sympathizers to the “cause,” read the very peculiar novel by Jules Verne, “The Blockade Runners,” which heroized the privateers who tried to smuggle cotton to England.

  6. BillR January 12, 2015 at 10:17 am | #

    One major difference between those who subscribed to a hierarchical view of society on both sides of the pond was that in Europe at least it wasn’t based on racial differences. Nietzsche held all non-cultured classes in equal opportunity contempt (read his horror at Parisians who endangered high-art housed in palaces in 1870-1).

    • neffer January 13, 2015 at 11:12 am | #

      I am not so sure you are really correct about this, BillR. That certainly was not the case in Spain, most especially the embrace of the limpieza de sangre ideology that poisoned the country for centuries. I suspect it was not the case in other parts of Europe either.

  7. Andy January 12, 2015 at 1:38 pm | #

    You should check out the current research of historian Andrew Zimmerman at GWU. He’s been researching radical German immigrants that fought for the North, and saw the Civil War as an extension of their own failed 1848 revolution.

  8. Andrew Daily (@amichaeldaily) January 12, 2015 at 1:39 pm | #

    You should check out the current research of historian Andrew Zimmerman at GWU. He’s been researching radical German immigrants that fought for the North, and saw the Civil War as an extension of their own failed 1848 revolution.

  9. neffer January 13, 2015 at 11:29 am | #

    I question Prof. Robin’s reliance on Nietzsche’s notebooks. Nietzsche was famous for writing down thoughts, not always thought thoroughly through, that may have been on his mind at any given moment.

    Be that as it may, if one reads Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality or many of his other works, the notion of slavery certainly plays an important role, most particularly as to how it impacts on thinking about good and evil – sometimes juxtaposed in his works to the more noble idea of good and bad and sometimes in contrast to examining the world without reference to moral interpretations at all. In any event, the world, on Nietzsche’s telling, became rather more interesting with the beginning of the slave revolt, something he speaks to quite a bit.

    He was skeptical about endeavors to dismantle societal institutions – not including religion, but even there, he also did not seek to intervene on behalf of an institution he saw as dying. Note the beginning of his encounter with the hermit in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

    I am, in any event, rather skeptical about reading too much into Nietzsche’s views of America derived from snippets in his writings. That strikes me as seeing scholars seeing things they want to see. And, as is the normal requirement for interpreting Nietzsche, isolating his comments from their context and from the inevitable counter-comments and their context leads to hasty, sometimes doubtful, conclusions.

  10. Ronald Pires February 16, 2015 at 2:58 pm | #

Leave a Reply