Author Interview--Evan C. Rothera (Civil Wars and Reconstructions in the Americas) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Evan C. Rothera to talk about his new book, Civil Wars and Reconstructions in the Americas: The United States, Mexico, and Argentina, 1860–1880, published by the Louisiana State University Press in September 2022.

Part 1

Before we turn to the second part of your book, let’s also chat briefly about the importance of education. How did experiences and arguments coming from France and the United States impact the need for education to stabilize republican forms of government?

ECR: One can hardly understate the importance of education during this period! Many people believed that educated citizens were the only proper foundation of a republic. I spend most of the fourth chapter discussing education and other types of reform. Many educators and reformers saw themselves engaged in Atlantic-wide conversations about the importance of education. I make Domingo F. Sarmiento the focus of this chapter. Sarmiento, who won considerable fame as an educator, was part of what people at the time called the great liberal party of the world. He saw himself as part of a community of reformers that included Horace and Mary Mann. Sarmiento first believed Europe might offer models for Latin America, but, when he toured Europe in the 1840s, he grew disillusioned. He then went to the U.S. and had a fruitful meeting with the Manns. Sarmiento also returned to the U.S. nearly twenty years later and observed educational efforts in the U.S. South during the early years of postwar Reconstruction. Sarmiento adopted and adapted practices and ideas he saw in the U.S. in order to improve Argentina’s educational system.

The larger point here is that many people posited the importance of education in republics. Republicans in the U.S. wanted to reduce illiteracy rates, particularly in the U.S. South. Missionaries and charitable and benevolent organizations opened schools and sent teachers south. In addition, it is important to remember that African Americans demanded education. They were not passive recipients of white benevolence; they demanded teachers and schools and eagerly sought education. In Mexico, Liberals wrested control of education from priests and put more power into the hands of the secular state. Sarmiento built schools in Argentina, brought teachers from the U.S. to help train teachers in Argentina, and began a dramatic reduction of the illiteracy rate. All three groups of victors – who saw themselves as kindred spirits – worked to promote and enact educational reforms as one part of their programs of internal improvement. An ignorant people, Sarmiento wrote, will always select a tyrant and many of his contemporaries throughout the Americas agreed with this assertion. Consequently, people in all three countries wanted to ensure that their republics rested on a very solid foundation – namely, an educated citizenry.

As higher-ed history teachers, we sure are passionate about the importance of education even today. I want to turn to the second half of your book where you tackle how victors and vanquished dealt with the outcomes. Recently Douglas Egerton and John Daly have suggested the concept of a Southern Civil War for Reconstruction—how useful is this concept for your particular lens of study and how applicable would this be in Argentina and Mexico?

ECR: On the one hand, calling Reconstruction a second civil war has definite merit. If nothing else, it reminds people of the rampant violence that occurred during Reconstruction. On the other hand, I am uncertain about the use of the word “Southern” and am unsure if framing it as a southern civil war is the best idea. I worry that the concept focuses on the southern states to the exclusion of other people and places. Indeed, it seems to me that we have to be careful with this type of analysis to not neglect other important groups of people, including the northerners (both Black and white) who went South during Reconstruction, but also those people who stayed in the Northern states and fought for and against Reconstruction there. Furthermore, as many scholars have shown, how Reconstruction played out in the western U.S. is absolutely worth our attention. Should these people and events all be subsumed under the label of a Southern Civil War”? As a counterargument, I have noticed that some scholars are now asking whether the word Reconstruction only fits a particular and specific context. Perhaps they might answer that yes, this concept is narrow, but it should stay narrow. In sum, I like the idea of the concept, but I wonder if we could drop southern and just think about it as a second civil war. Or, for that matter, in the case of each of the three nations I study – and others throughout the Americas as well – as a continuation of the violent conflicts that each had previously experienced. 

It is helpful for us to think about how the period of reconstruction in each nation represented a continuation or an extension of each violent conflict. Doing so reminds us that civil wars have many different dimensions. The widespread violence that Egerton, Daly, and I highlight is certainly an important component. However, as I also illustrate, civil wars frequently occurred within the ranks of the victors. For example, in Mexico, the Conservatives were largely discredited by their cooperation with the French. The main disagreements and power struggles occurred within the Liberal Party, pitting different factions against each other. This eventually resulted in the ascendancy of Porfirio Díaz in 1877. It is important to note that Díaz, who gained fame fighting the French during 1862-1867, launched a revolution in 1871-1872 when he lost the presidential election of 1871 to another hero of the War of the Reform and French Intervention – President Benito Juárez. In Argentina, the Federales mounted a strong challenge in the presidential election of 1868. However, in 1874, disaffected supporters of Bartolomé Mitre, men who numbered among the ranks of the victors in Argentina’s Wars of Unification, believed that the election had been stolen and they launched a revolution. In the U.S., Democrats lost all the presidential elections from 1860-1880, but they were very competitive in many northern states and, by 1877, had seized power through widespread violence in all the southern states. Furthermore, Republicans often tore themselves apart in internal disagreements. The notion of a second civil war is a helpful concept for thinking about this period in all three nations, both in terms of violence as well as the political context in each country.

Your chapters are extremely interesting in how the victors dealt with resistance—do you think anyone of your three cases got it right in how to deal with vanquished resistance to the new order?

ECR: It is hard to say that anyone in any of the three countries got it right 100% of the time, but there are examples of how people in each nation did things right at times. A few examples will help illustrate this point. 

In the U.S., Ulysses S. Grant secured from Congress legislation called the Enforcement Acts and subsequently used the military to break the back to the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina. In Mexico, Benito Juárez and his successor, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, usually acted decisively and intervened to support the victors in elections who faced rebellions from people who believed the elections had been stolen. In Argentina, discontented Federales assassinated Justo José de Urquiza and attempted to take over the province of Entre Ríos. Sarmiento acted decisively and forcefully and sent an army to defeat the revolutionists.

The main problem, as I outline in the second half of the book, is that people then had to figure out how to punish revolutionists and rebels. Too often, governments chose amnesty and let people escape without any sort of punishment. That, unsurprisingly, emboldened people and made them likely to rebel again, due to the lack of consequences. Lerdo de Tejada, for example, chose to issue an amnesty to settle Díaz’s 1871-1872 rebellion against the government. Problematically, this left Díaz free to plot and rebel again, which he did successfully in 1876-1877. President Nicolás Avellaneda in Argentina chose to pardon Bartolomé Mitre and other revolutionists in 1874, perhaps because Sarmiento had illustrated that the state would suppress rebellions. Avellaneda’s decision may have contributed to the outbreak of another rebellion in 1880. In the U.S., Grant grew more and more hesitant to intervene, especially after the Panic of 1873. He dragged his feet in settling Louisiana’s disputed gubernatorial election of 1872 and stayed away from Mississippi in 1875.

Taking a broad perspective, I would say that Argentina had the best record in dealing with resistance by the vanquished and discontented victors. They did not have a perfect record, but, especially under Sarmiento, the government usually moved quickly and forcefully. Mexico and the U.S. had more mixed records. In Grant’s first term, the government worked to curtail violence, but, after the Panic of 1873, Grant and Republicans grew very reluctant to intervene. Lerdo’s decision to amnesty Díaz and his rebels worked in the short term in the sense that it ended Díaz’s revolution. However, it failed in the long term because Díaz rebelled again and took power by force in 1876-1877. In the U.S., Democrats employed rampant fraud, violence, and coercion to wrest control of the southern states away from Republicans by 1877. All of which leads me to conclude that Argentina, while not perfect, did the best job dealing with violent resistance.

One of the most important aspects of doing transnational history is that we aim to challenge exceptionalist narratives—how do you see your work do that? In light of your work, how do we have to rethink our teaching about Reconstruction?

ECR: The material in my epilogue offers a good entry point into this question. I begin with the events of January 6, 2021 and focus on one specific type of reaction to what occurred. One Republican congressman decried the events of that miserable day as “banana republic crap.” He was not the only person to advance this point. I find this assertion ironic on two levels. One, this type of indictment does not consider the role U.S. corporations and the U.S. government played in creating so-called “banana republics.” Second, it suggests that other nations in the Americas have been plagued by violence, disorder, and rebellions and that what happened on January 6 was unique and had never before occurred in the U.S. It is true that an attack on the U.S. Capitol had never happened (although, we might note, plenty of people threatened to do so during the contested election of 1876-1877 and, had the rebels been more prepared in 1861, they might have taken Washington D.C. before military reinforcements arrived from the Northern states). Still, any serious student of Reconstruction cannot help but roll their eyes at the “banana republic crap” line because these types of scenes occurred all the time in the southern states during Reconstruction and elsewhere throughout U.S. history. Pretending they did not or ignoring that they occurred is shortsighted. I advise that we abandon the term “banana republic” and, instead, embed the U.S. in a long and bitter history of struggles over power throughout the Americas. January 6 is not unique, both from the perspective of U.S. history and from the perspective of the history of the Americas. Furthermore, the U.S. is not exceptional; both the country and this type of event are part of a much broader American (hemispheric) history.

Taking this point a step further, people have a very bad tendency to set the U.S. in opposition to the nations of Latin America. People assume that the relationships have always been contentious and that that the countries have little in common. However, without denying the presence of anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America and anti-Latin American sentiment in the U.S. (to say nothing of the U.S.’s questionable actions in Latin America) I argue that this should not be the only way we see these nations. By highlighting histories of cooperation and Pan-American sentiment, I reveal cooperative tendencies and people who saw the nations as intertwined and as sister republics fighting alongside each other in a much larger struggle. This analysis makes the U.S. look less exceptional and places it alongside the other nations of the Americas by highlighting cooperation rather than conflict. Furthermore, another way that I try to undermine U.S. exceptionalism is through careful use of terms. Hence, my use of U.S. Civil War rather than American Civil War. I urge scholars to be linguistically precise, whenever possible, and, especially for U.S. historians, to be more careful about their use of the word “American.”

Finally, historians need to stop teaching Reconstruction as if the rest of the world does not exist! My book highlights some of the international elements of this period and joins a small group of scholars who have pointed out the need for more discussion of the international elements of Reconstruction. What I see among many scholars of Reconstruction writing today is a desire to broaden this period. In other words, people are searching for what Elliott West famously labeled the “Greater Reconstruction.” When we approach the period in the classrooms, I strongly urge scholars to make sure that we give students a good overview of the political maneuvering and the rise and fall of Reconstruction in the southern states. Rather than stopping there, however, it would be eminently sensible to also guide students through Reconstruction in the northern and western regions of the U.S. and the international dimensions and elements of this period as well. By so doing, we will give students a more complete understanding of a very important period and devote attention to both the domestic and international elements.

You just brought this book out and we here at H-Net added a significant amount of work on your plate for the next three years—do you have any plans for a next project?

ECR: I am looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that I will encounter as President-Elect! I have several ideas for my second book project, but I have not yet decided on a specific topic. I do intend to work on some article-length projects, specifically, an essay for H-CivWar’s Cultural Encounters of the Civil War Era.