Monday, December 15, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part VI

This is the sixth installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

This week's discussion covers the Civil War and Reconstruction, or 1861-1877 to be precise. According to Herring, there are two major themes in U.S. foreign policy during these years: diplomacy concerning the Civil War and the continued expansionist ideology of the Americans.

Herring argues that the Civil War was part of the nation-building conflicts around the world during the mid-19th century. It's an interesting idea, though I'm not sure that I agree exactly. Had the North actively tried to limit slavery during the 1840s and 1850s, I think this would be a stronger argument. But the South wasn't responding to increasingly northern pressure on their peculiar institution. Rather, the North caved on nearly every issue in the 1850s and yet the South still wasn't satisfied.

However, the result of the Civil War was a much stronger and more centralized United States. Increased control over the west, a more centralized currency system, and a much greater industrial capacity all resulted from the war, and the United States certainly left the war much stronger than it began it. The late nineteenth century is a story of amazing growth in the nation. While this is a story mostly for next week's discussion of the Gilded Age, there's no question that the Civil War spurred this amazing period.

What I really like about this chapter is the combination of knowledge I did not previously had with the correction of myths that are pass for almost common knowledge among a lot smart people. Like many others, I always thought that the Emancipation Proclamation basically ended any chance the Confederates had of British recognition, but Herring says that Europeans saw it as an act of desperation on Lincoln's part and that it actually spurred more calls for European intervention. Additionally, Herring stresses that while the British did need American cotton, they also had equal or greater investments in the Union and that they were loathe to risk those by recognizing the Confederacy.
Like Rob, Herring also dismisses many of the Confederate diplomatic efforts. The more I read about Jefferson Davis, the more I am convinced that he was a deeply ineffectual leader who made extremely poor appointments. His secretaries of state and diplomats were no different. His representative to Mexico alienated that nation immediately, while James Mason and John Slidell did far more good for the Confederacy becoming U.S. prisoners in the Trent affair than they ever did in their official diplomatic responsibilities. The fact that they were defending slavery, an increasingly loathed institution in Europe, certainly did not help their cause. Nonetheless, the Confederacy badly misunderstood their own position in the world when they assumed that Europe could not survive without Southern cotton. While Davis's cotton embargo did cause some hardship, the Europeans were very uncomfortable risking Northern wheat, not to mention their own investments in railroads, canals, and other pieces of American infrastructure. On top of all of this, the North had incredibly skilled diplomats such as Cassius Clay and Charles Francis Adams, who basically ran circles around their Confederate counterparts.

That the Confederacy would have little understanding of reality hardly surprises me. The slaveholders seem to have worn glasses that only allowed them to see the world as they wanted it to be, as opposed to how it actually was. That doesn't mean the Confederacy couldn't have won the war, but they faced significant disadvantages from the beginning and needed everything to go right.

Herring also usefully points out that 19th century American expansionism was a continuity, not the two distinct periods of Manifest Destiny and the Spanish-American War. Rather, Americans wanted to expand their power and territory through the mid 19th century as well, but were generally stopped by domestic politics and the Civil War from doing so. Nonetheless, during Reconstruction, William Seward, who Herring lauds as one of the nation's most effective Secretaries of State, managed to buy Alaska from the Russians. In addition, Hawaii and Samoa increasingly came into the American orbit. Nonetheless, the period saw more failures for American expansion than successes. Colombia consistently refused to allow the U.S. to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, the Dominican Republic resisted American ownership of a port, and instability in Cuba combined with American racism stopped us from trying to annex that long-desired island. Still, American attitudes toward power remained relatively consistent throughout the 19th century and our ambitions for new territory would find greater satisfaction at the turn of the 20th century.