- The European Revolutions of 1848 and the Transnational Turn in Civil War History
Since the turn of the twenty-first century, historians have increasingly adopted a transnational approach to the Civil War. They situate America’s sectional conflict within a larger and exceptionally violent contemporary process: the worldwide consolidation of liberal nationalism in the nineteenth century. One recent thread in transnational histories of the Civil War connects the rise and fall of Europe’s 1848–49 democratic uprising and America’s sectional crisis and the development of liberal nationalism on both continents. This essay examines the links historians have made between the European revolutions of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War and points out research opportunities for scholars seeking new ways to examine this well-trodden period of American history.
Far more than most U.S. historians, Thomas Bender embeds his historical narratives within an expansive global framework. In his discussion of the links between 1848—the scholarly shorthand used to describe the rise and fall of the continent’s democratic revolutions—and the Civil War, Bender argues the worldwide development of liberal government and nationalist sentiment that started in Europe played a central role in shaping the next two decades of world history. The American Civil War, he concludes, “cannot be separated from these larger movements.” Framing the Civil War within the larger global processes of the time, he suggests, offers historians far greater “explanatory power” than histories framing this conflict as an exceptional nation-bound event separated from the flow of larger international developments.1
The recent antiwar turn in Civil War scholarship, for example, does not take into account the fact that violent conflict was a tragic but strikingly commonplace component of the worldwide process of liberal nation-building during the mid-nineteenth century. The “new revisionists” such as David Goldfield, Harry Stout, and Michael Fellman argue that the Civil War could have been avoided if, somehow, the polarizing influence of [End Page 431] sectional politics, fueled by evangelical Christian fervor, had been replaced by calm and rational discussion about contentious issues such as the future of American slavery.2 Goldfield, for instance, declares that the Civil War was “America’s greatest failure.”3
For transnational historians, however, the American experience of war was anything but exceptional. The years between 1840 and 1880 were, as Michael Geyer and Charles Bright have shown, a period of extraordinary international violence. They have counted 177 “war-like confrontations” during these decades.4 Among the most violent of these global conflicts, including Europe’s 1848 and America’s Civil War, were struggles for economic development, national unification and democratic government, a nineteenth-century ideology Enrico Dal Lago has termed “progressive nationalism.”5 The transnational turn in Civil War history, then, does not regard the Civil War as a unique national “failure” that could have been avoided if only cooler heads had prevailed. The concurrent rebellions occurring in China, Europe, South America, and the United States during this era were, in this view, global in their origins and consequences and must be seen as interconnected events embedded within a bloody worldwide process that existed outside the control of historical actors in any one nation.
Historians of the post-1848 transatlantic links between Europe and the United States echo an insight David M. Potter offered nearly fifty years ago. In a landmark essay published in 1968, he argued that “in both Europe and America, the forces of tradition and privilege tended to be arrayed against nationalism, while the forces of liberalism and democracy tended to support it.” Yet, as Potter noted, his insight into the connections between the political turmoil in Europe and the age of the Civil War was largely speculative. In a bibliographical discussion at the end of his article, he commented that while the number of books written on the Civil War was “enormous, the bibliography strictly applicable to this essay is composed largely of books that are yet to be written. It is in fact one point of the essay that the significance of the Civil War for world history … has been generally neglected by historians.”6 His call for a greater number of...