The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The Confederates Who Wanted to be Garibaldi Episode
Series 3 (Hilary term 2021)
Published 4 February 2021
NB the text below was transcribed automatically by https://otter.ai.
Adam Smith 00:04
Hello and welcome to the last best hope the podcast that looks at America from the outside in. I'm Adam Smith, the Osborn Professor of United States history and politics at Oxford. In 1776 thirteen, British colonies launched a movement to secede from the British Empire. And after five years of war against a powerful military state, they achieved their independence. Over the following decades, Americans cheered on secessionist movements in the rest of the world: in Greece, which seceded from the Ottoman Empire across South America where the new republics modelled their constitutions on that of the United States; in Hungary, Poland and Ireland; and in Italy were a long struggle for nationhood was still in train. And so in 1861, when 11 states launched a movement to secede from the American Union, they had plenty of positive examples to draw on. Yet after four years of war against a powerful military state, they failed, and were forcibly reincorporated back into the Union. The men who created the Confederacy in 1861, had extraordinary self confidence. They genuinely believed that they could create a new slave based Republic, which will be accepted by the rest of the world. How do they think they could get away with it? Well, in part it was because they thought they could hold Britain and France to ransom because of their dependence on Southern grown raw cotton. No doubt it was also because they thought they could fight off any attempt by the union to suppress their new nation. And so the rest of the world would accept their independence as a fait accompli. But it was also fundamentally because they thought that liberals in Europe would see their bid for national self determination in the same way that they saw Italy's or Hungary's. Ann Tucker, an assistant professor at the University of North Georgia has written a book called Newest born of Nations, which explores how the example of European nationalist movements inspired Confederates, and also why the parallels were so problematic. I spoke to Ann about these issues. And I began by asking her Americans responded to the European nationalist revolutions of 1848.
Ann Tucker 02:24
So Americans watch these revolutions in Europe and one of the key factors here, I think, is they want these other nations to succeed. They want what they see as the model of the American Revolution, to be successfully enacted abroad. if for no other reason, then it's going to enhance this American exceptionalism. And Americans can pat themselves on their back about how they have inspired all these other republican nations, and it's going to make them feel good about themselves. So if for no other reason, then this self serving desire to celebrate American principles spreading abroad, they want these nations to succeed. And of course, with the Italian risorgimento, there is an additional element of this idea that the birthplace of democracy and we saw this with the great nationalist movement as well. There's this fulfilment of a historical destiny that has been destroyed for millennia now, and is going to now once again, be fulfilled. And so that's an element that really plays into again, Greece, and Italy, that the glory of these ancient nations, and Republic's is once again going to be fulfilled and the modern era. So like I say, at the opening of these movements, Americans were hopeful and very enthusiastic about the possibility of these liberal nationalist ideas, reaching fulfilment in Italy, and and all these other nations, as the movements really fail, or at least, you know, in the Italian case, finally reached success and 1860. But of course, had failed for decades before that point. That's when white Americans once again resume this pattern of this circular reasoning that the people aren't capable because they didn't pull it off. So enormous enthusiasm, but also tempered by this scepticism with, you know, ready blame to be assigned when it didn't play out the way Americans had wanted it to.
Adam Smith 04:52
So American exceptionalism wins either way. So if revolutions around the world fail, that's because Americans are just kind of better at revolutions than everybody else. And if revolutions around the world succeed, that's because America is an inspiration that inspires everyone else. Either way, American exceptionalism in a different sense is validated. Ann, if Americans -- and we're talking and I'm going to break the concept of American Americans down, because we urgently need to do that in this conversation -- but if nevertheless, to keep with this generalisation for the moment, if Americans reacted with, with a, with a degree of sort of historical self knowledge to the success of the risorgimento, they could note that it was successful in the end, because of French military intervention, just as the American separatist movement was in the, in the, in the 1780s. without, you know, in both cases, it's French military intervention, which enables a, a separatist movement to succeed. But anyway, that's, that's kind of that's by the by, um, so let's let's move on then to this second great secession movement in North America. And this one in the end, of course, did not succeed. And that's the secession of, well, first of all seven, and then eventually 11, slave states to create a separate Confederate States of America. So and this is where your own work Ann has has really focused, isn't it? You've written this terrific book, which is, which looks at the the movement to create a Confederate nation, as it works through the lens of this transnational, liberal separatist thinking. And so the question really is a big question, because you've written a whole book trying to answer it, but is, is is how then did southerners in the run up to secession? 18 6061? How did they relate their own secession project to the liberal secessionist revolutionary projects that we've been talking about all the way around the world in Latin America? And in Europe? Did they see it as the same? or different? What examples were useful to them?
Ann Tucker 07:08
What well, big question indeed. So the primary strain of thought that I found amongst secessionist was really the idea that white Southerners were going to follow in the footsteps of European nationalist movements, and seeking to create, basically to fulfil national self determination to create a nation based on these ideas of freedom and self government. And the key examples that they point to and this strain of thought, really were Italy, Ireland, Hungary, Poland, it almost becomes this litany where they just unself that they just kind of repeat again and again, Italy, Ireland, Hungary, Poland. And that's going to be a problematic comparison to be sure, because, of course, if the secessionist and then Confederates are claiming that they follow in the footsteps of nation seeking freedom and self government, the Confederacy is really premised on the opposite. It's premised on slavery. And so that's going to create both ideological and pragmatic challenges for this strain of thought, which I think is part of why we also see another strain of thought emerging, where other white Southerners unsession as claim, not that the secession movement follows the footsteps of European nationalist movements, but it improves on it through its conservatism and slavery. This is the idea, of course, that the Confederate nation was going to purify nationalism, of what it claimed was the excessive liberalism that supposedly doomed the nationalist movements and Europe because of course, as of 1861, the Italian nation was the only one that had succeeded and creating an independent nation. So this more conservative interpretation says, it was the excess liberalism, the attempts to create too much social and political equality that doomed these revolutions abroad, and the Confederacy is going to correct for that. So what we really see is, secessionists are really being quite flexible, shall we say, and the ways that they're using these international models, they're really willing to do whatever it takes to find a way to claim that the Confederacy deserves a place within this international community of nations, whether as the latest example of a legitimate nation, or as an example of a nation that improves upon The model of nationalism that we saw carrying out and the European cases
Adam Smith 10:07
Does that also that strategy also have the advantage that it can plug into southerners conception of the original American secessionist movement, ie the American Revolution, as being, you know, the best kind of revolution. So, just as the so what they were doing then in 1861, was reenacting or reestablishing or re purifying the ideals and aims and strategies of the original American secession movement, which had succeeded until it had been perverted by that is an abolitionist.
Ann Tucker 10:45
That is, indeed, where we see the fascists arguing is that the Northerners had been corrupted by all the evil isms of Europe so and this view, what they're looking at is the abolitionism and the north, the moral liberalism and progressivism that was developing, and this northern reform movement had been a direct result of anarchism and socialism and all these other again, evil isms that they saw that again, they believed had determined the failure of the revolutions of 1848 had sought to pervert the social and political order by creating equality rather than hierarchy. And absolutely the secessionist directly blame the European movements on influencing the North. And therefore, they claim really kind of corrupting the north and pulling it away from the original American Revolution, the original ideas and enactment of the American Revolution. So yeah, these international comparisons are a very convenient way to demonise the north as well as to legitimise the South.
Adam Smith 12:03
So the example of European and indeed, Latin American Revolutionary separatists nationalist movements is at best an ambiguous one. It has ambivalent implications for the Confederates. What about looking at it from the point of view of the United States when confronted with secession since, after all, Northerners in the 1830s and 40s had been more enthusiastic in supporting these liberal nationalist movements than had southerners. And we should perhaps talk here for a moment by way of example of the famous tour and I think it was 1852, wasn't it of Louie kossuth 1851 52, the Hungarian nationalist leader who travelled throughout the United States generally got a better reception, I think, but correct me if I'm wrong in the north than he did in the south. But I mean, he was, you know, he was he was a big figure, right? I mean, he was. So you know, Northerners kind of love this stuff. They love the idea of national self determination when it was happening elsewhere, when it was happening on their doorstep. All of a sudden, it was treason and justify this extraordinary mobilisation of military resources in order to crush it. So how did northern us, this is where
Ann Tucker 13:26
I have to go back to the title of your podcast here, the last best hope. And this is where Lincoln and so many of kossuth broader compatriots, the 48 years who had fled the failed revolutions, and move to the United States, and now are volunteering to fight for the United States and the Civil War, they see the United States, of course, as the last best hope of republicanism. And what they recognise is, if you allow secession, then the republic cannot work. Because particularly because this is secession, especially the first seven states seed, because they don't like the results of a fair democratic election. And if every time you have a fair democratic election, the losers succeed and leave the nation, then self government cannot work. It indeed does fail. There's not going to be a nation left after many elections. And so that's really the recognition that Lincoln and the 48 years and many Northerners are fighting for is the recognition that to make this project of self government and republicanism work. You cannot allow for secession, particularly over the results of a fair democratic election. And of course, The broader context here is that as we've been talking about most of these movements for republicanism had failed in Europe. And while they had succeeded, and Latin America, as we've talked about, they did not succeed to the extent that Americans necessarily had wanted them to. And so there's this sense throughout the Atlantic world that republicanism is potentially threatened to potentially under attack on the retreat. And so conservatives, of course, are arguing that this is all proof that people cannot self govern that it is not a viable form of governance. And so the fear here is, you know, going back to the American exceptionalism, the United States was the one bold example of republicanism that had worked. And so if it fails, then there's no hope for republicanism elsewhere. Thus, the extraordinary fight to preserve the American Republic, again, as the last best hope of these ideologies for the world, not just for the United States.
Adam Smith 16:12
It's not national self determination, per se. It's only national self determination or separatism. As a movement. It's only legitimate when it's advocating liberal ends. And it's trying to separate from an illiberal autocratic regime.
Ann Tucker 16:28
Yeah, I think that a fair kind of assessment that there's something fundamentally different and separating from a republic that your state had chosen to join and participated and the creation of versus separating from a colonial empire that is holding you as a subjugated colony, or even a, you know, a European Empire, the austro Hungarian Empire, subjecting Italy to its rule, for example. So yeah, I think that would be a key difference between what's happening and the American case and what was happening and the Latin American and European cases.
Adam Smith 17:11
What about the idea that government is supposed to be based on the consent of the governed
Ann Tucker 17:15
that was flexible for many Americans in this time period, particularly for the southerners that I study? Certainly, yes, certainly, that was part of this idea as well. That the southern states had consented to this government when they joined the United States initially. So far as how that plays out in terms of why not just let the southern states secede, they've withdrawn their consent, and now want to give it to another nation. Of course, there were Northerners who advocated for just that. They argued that the best course of action yet, even throughout the war, we're arguing that the best course of action was to just let the southern states go, and they can do their own thing, be a slave nation, then and let the United States take its own path forward, instead. So these were debates. And that's something that I always try and talk about when I talk about my work, because I think that's one of the things that my work does is revealed that these ideas were not set in stone, in the 1860s. And the Civil War. On some level, the Civil War really was a fight over which of these ideas was accurate. So do the states have the right to withdraw their consent and secede? Or is this republic and you don't get to secede from a republic? That was one of the things that the Civil War was contesting? Can you have a republic in the middle of the 19th century, based on, you know, fundamentally premised upon slaveholding? Does slavery? Can it still fit within this broader project of liberal nationalism in an age of widespread abolition, where the United States was one of only three slaveholding nations left? Or has slavery now been pushed out of this project of liberal nationhood and it no longer fits? Is the South following in the footsteps of these other nationalist movements? Or is Southern secession fundamentally something different? I think it's easy for us from our perspective, you know, so far and the future to look back and kind of assume that we know the answers to those questions. Of course, slavery was incompatible with liberal nationalism. Of course, you can't secede from a republic that you had chosen to be a part of the creation of. But those are the questions that the Civil War answered.
Adam Smith 20:13
The answers to those questions aren't self evident to me. So that the second one, I mean suspension from a session from a republic that you've chosen to be a part of. I mean, there are plenty of examples around the world of where that happens. I mean, if Quebec, which is the seat from Canada, that wouldn't be a war to keep it in. When Scotland votes for independence. I'm certainly not going to volunteer to fight for the union. And I don't imagine many other people are so I don't think that is it all, self evident, and I and on the relationship between slavery and and these European liberal movements. I mean, as you know, there were plenty of European immigrants to the United States as well as those who didn't go to the United States who had been involved in nationalist liberal we could call them in quotes liberal nationalist movements, who had no problem with slavery at all. There were former Chartists from Britain and Ireland, who became arrived in the United States in the early 1850s and became staunch Democrat, pro slavery, Democrats, they just had no problem with that at all. After all, if slavery is conceptualised, as it usually was in for many people in Europe in the 19th century, a much broader terms than simply the chattel slavery, the ownership of property in man, which is what it meant in the United States context, if it was conceptualised much more broadly, to simply be the oppression of one people by another or even in the incipient in the in the labour movement, their denial of autonomy through wage slavery, then then, then slavery existed in plenty of other places and was in the minds of many of these people just as egregious as as they thought it was in the in the United States. And that's why when, you know, when someone like Harriet Beecher Stowe came over to England and had tea with the Duchess of Sutherland, the radical papers in Britain were up in arms about both of their hypocrisy because the Duchess of Sutherland was meanwhile clearing all her Highland estates just as tyrannically. So the papers claimed as any Southern slave holder was and they couldn't they refuse to accept that there was a meaningful or big enough distinction to justify the the the the moral opprobrium heaped on black slavery in the United States. Right. And not on white slavery. I'm using their terminology. In other words, I mean, that's so agree with you. I'm agreeing with you that
Ann Tucker 22:48
It's in flux. you know, really, that's what the Civil War was about trying to determine the answer to these questions. And it wasn't necessary, I think you're right to say wasn't necessarily entirely determinant, certainly separatist movements. And secession does continue to be an issue and many, many areas throughout the world today, but yeah, certainly to look back and say that, you know, the secession of the south on the basis of slavery was obviously beyond the pale of the ideas of the time, really just wasn't the case. That was what the Civil War was fought to determine it put
Adam Smith 23:29
British liberals in a right quandary, didn't it in 1861. So you, you think of the famous duo of Richard Cobden and John Bright and John Bright was absolutely convinced right from the beginning, that as a liberal, he should be on the side of the Union. And Richard Cobden, was in turmoil about the whole thing. I mean, to him, it was just brain exploding, because on the one hand, what the southerners stood for was national self determination, and also free trade. In there was no way he was comfortable supporting a war because, you know, that was the whole point of international liberalism, in part was was to was to avoid war. Obviously, on the other hand, he was anti slavery, but the whole thing was kind of Brain exploding for him. And then you have the famous example of William Gladstone when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in his speech in Newcastle in I think September was it September 1862, in which he said, we may have our own opinions about slavery. We may be for or against the South. But there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army, they are making it appears a navy, and they have made what he's more than either. They have made a nation. And you know, this is this is Gladstone. It was at least you know, only Three or four years away from being the great Tribune of Victorian liberalism. And, and, and and even for Gladstone, slavery was not at that point just before the Emancipation Proclamation was not at that point, the critical factor, that meant that he was forced to see Southern separatism in a different category from Italian nationalism, Polish nationalism, and, and so on. But then the Emancipation Proclamation happened, right. And that changed the deal than it
Ann Tucker 25:32
It did before the Emancipation Proclamation. Like you're saying, a lot of Europeans looked at the Civil War. And I think Brain exploding is a good way to put it. They weren't really sure what it was all about why people were seceding from Republic, what is going on, but the self said, self determination, they like self determination. So sure they can, you know, support it from a distance, they don't want to get to the main,
Adam Smith 26:01
Lincoln said, it's all about union. It's not about slavery,
Ann Tucker 26:04
right. And that didn't really resonate particularly well abroad. And, of course, it was, as you pointed out, the Emancipation Proclamation that changed the calculus, because suddenly Europeans were able to look at this war and go, now we know what this is about. It's about slavery. And of course, abolitionist Europeans, we're going to then support the United States, as opposed to the Confederacy. So it really was the Emancipation Proclamation that was a game changer, in terms of European perception of what this war was even all about.
Adam Smith 26:43
So in the end, then, Confederates failed completely in their attempt to situate to persuade the rest of the world, that their revolution, their movement, their separatist movements should be seen in the same category as all these others. Was that was that failure inevitable?
Ann Tucker 27:03
Oh, interesting question. On some level, absolutely not. So in part, this has to take us back to Confederate diplomacy, which was an abject failure, in part due to unforced errors. So of course, famously, the Confederate diplomats were just about the poorest choices. You could find, you know,
Adam Smith 27:29
not very diplomatic people basically,
Ann Tucker 27:30
yeah, not diplomatic people sending someone to France who doesn't speak French sending a rabid fire eating pro slavery, idealogue to largely abolitionists, Britain, the choice of strategy was, of course, King cotton, hold cotton hostage and trying to use it force recognition. Whereas, you know, and of course, I probably would think this because I focus on all these intellectual ideas. But again, I think if they had focused more on this idea of self determination and their official diplomatic programme, we have evidence showing that perhaps that would have resonated more successfully, although again, I don't think they I don't think there was ever a world in which Britain and France would have rushed to support the Confederacy because they didn't want to join a war, if nothing else. It was it was going to be a hard sell for the Confederates to prove that they were doing the same thing that these other nations were doing. It wasn't an impossible sell, again, to self determination, resonated. And as you pointed out, high level government officials, both in Britain, as well as in France, at least personally bought the self determination argument we see, you know, we've recognised Italy, the Confederacy is going to be next both being creatures of the same God, basically. So it wasn't inevitable that this failed. But it was very much an uphill battle, particularly once slavery was brought into this issue, because that's where the Confederate claims to fight for a liberal nation really just fall apart, up against the United States hiding for freedom.
Adam Smith 29:18
Really big picture question, Ann. What does this all tell us about the relationship between American political culture and the idea of revolution?
Ann Tucker 29:30
The American Revolution was an itself, this contradiction between a revolution based on freedom and equality and rights, but a revolution that still accepted slavery. This is the paradox at the heart of the founding of the American nation, a nation founded both on freedom and on slavery. And so throughout every other revolution, that was talks about here, that really is still the central paradox and how Americans, whether northern or southern, are responding to these revolutions, as well as how these revolutions relate to their own nation. They're continually reading these revolutions, through their desire, on the one hand, to see freedom, self government, national self determination, but their fear, on the other hand, that these revolutions are going to go too far and subvert the social and political hierarchy, and give too much power to the people that they saw as undeserving of this power. And so throughout American political history, then that's the central paradox, a very real desire for the really admirable ideas of the American Revolution of freedom and equality and rights, but always tempered, on the other hand, by that fear that white Americans had and white men in particular had of giving anyone but white men access to that freedom and liberty and equality.
Adam Smith 31:15
Ann Tucker, thank you very much indeed.
Ann Tucker 31:18
Adam Smith 31:20
And Tucker, whose book the Newest Born of Nations: European nationalist movements, and the making of the Confederacy, was published in 2020, by the University of Virginia Press. As Ann said there, the Confederates half hearted efforts to cast themselves as the heirs of Gary beldi or kossuth was stifled by the ideological strength of their foe, the United States, Abraham Lincoln thought that the real issue of the world was the eternal struggle between liberty and tyranny between, as he put it, the common right of humanity, and the divine right of kings. In that great struggle, the United States was on the side of good, and those like the slaveholders of the Confederacy, who opposed it represented wrong. But so many other liberals around the world outside the United States, essentially accepted Lincoln's reasoning suggests that in the end, national self determination was not so much an end in itself, in the 19th century liberal imagination as a means to the end of what they called liberty. as so often, what matters was the power of the idea that America was the last best hope of earth. And you've been listening to the last best hope podcast from the RAI, Oxford's Centre for the study of the United States and its place in the world. I'm Adam Smith. And if you've enjoyed this podcast, please listen to others. Subscribe and like us on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts. Goodbye.