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  • Lincoln, Cavour, and National Unification:American Republicanism and Italian Liberal Nationalism in Comparative Perspective
  • Enrico Dal Lago (bio)


In recent years, thanks especially to the work of transnational scholars, the American Civil War has acquired a place in the growing literature on nineteenth-century nation-building in the Euro-American world. Yet, in the 1960s David Potter had already claimed the war's important contributions to world history. In his view, the American Civil War "turned the tide which had been running against nationalism for forty years" and "forged a bond between nationalism and liberalism at a time when it appeared that the two might draw apart and move in opposite directions" after the defeat of the 1848 European revolutions. Potter referred specifically to the ideology of Lincoln and the Republican Party as a high tide of a type of liberal nationalism with a great deal in common with mid-nineteenth-century European movements. The most celebrated of these was the Risorgimento, which achieved Italian national unification on liberal principles with the creation of an Italian constitutional monarchy in 1861.1

With the present essay, I intend to illustrate a comparative project on the American Civil War and Italian national unification as the two foremost examples of the triumph of mid-nineteenth-century liberal principles contained in an ideology I have termed "progressive nationalism"—an ideology that related particularly to the ideas of economic development, individual liberty, and political representation. I intend to do so by focusing specifically on Abraham Lincoln and Camillo Cavour, since they were the two main ideologues behind two movements that resulted in the achievement of national unification, or reunification. In the midst of the American Civil War and the Italian Risorgimento, Lincoln and Cavour faced and helped create national crises of comparable magnitude. Moreover, their resolution of these crises refashioned their nations according to the two principles at [End Page 85] the core of progressive nationalism: inextricable connections between economic development and social and political changes that ensured equal opportunities for the nation's citizens, and between nationality and parliamentary representation as the most important guarantee of civil liberties enjoyed by both individuals and institutions. In both cases, Lincoln and Cavour succeeded in sweeping away what stood in the way of their notions of progress—slavery in the American case, and foreign oppression and political fragmentation in the Italian one—with the ultimate objective of creating what each considered a truly "progressive nation."2

The United States does not figure prominently in the justifiably influential modern scholarship on nationalism of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Terence Ranger. Only a few scholars have examined the United States as a case study of the causes and experiences of nationalism. Liah Greenfeld treated the Civil War as the crucial final stage in the construction of the American nation in comparison with nation-building in Britain, Germany, and Russia. James McPherson has interrogated the distinction between "ethnic nationalism," a common ethnic background in many European nations, and "civic nationalism," a belief in shared values, in the American Civil War. Don Doyle has applied some of the nuances from McPherson's study to a comparison of the United States and Italy, focusing on "the South" as the perceived "other" in opposition to which American and Italian national identities were constructed through civil war and national unification. Thomas Bender, taking a long-term transnational perspective, has placed the Civil War experience within the context of the liberal nationalist movements that shook the contemporary Euro-American world, as David Potter did.3

Some Italian historians, building on some of the premises of their American colleagues, have drawn comparisons between the Civil War and the Italian Risorgimento. Specifically, Raimondo Luraghi has argued that the North's victory over the South in the Civil War represented the triumph of an industrial capitalist society over an agrarian world and that the Risorgimento—together with other movements of national consolidation—witnessed a broadly similar struggle conducted on milder terms, while also hinting at possible comparative points between Lincoln and Cavour. Tiziano Bonazzi, instead, has pointed to the substantial similarity of liberal national principles in the struggles for national consolidation in the United States...


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pp. 85-113
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