SHA 2019 Report: Atlantic Crossings of Reform: Transnational Political Changes, Nationalism, and Democratic-Republicanism

Carl Creason's picture

The European History Section sponsored the 2:30 pm panel on Friday, November 8th: “Atlantic Crossings of Reform: Transnational Political Changes, Nationalism, and Democratic-Republicanism.”  Andre M. Fleche presided over the panel, with Gregory P. Downs, Duncan A. Campbell, and Niels Eichhorn serving as panelists.  As a whole, the panel situated nineteenth-century events (the Civil War and Reconstruction), individuals (Louis Kossuth), and ideas about government (electoral reform and democracy) within transnational contexts, analyzing the links (or lack thereof) between historical developments on both sides of the Atlantic.  In his remarks, Fleche proposed that the panel captured the field of transnational history “at a bit of a crossroads,” as scholars continue to “reevaluate its findings and assumptions.”  As he explained, over the last few decades, historians inspired by the “transnational turn” have primarily examined “influence” by uncovering how significant events, individuals, or ideas engendered change across divergent parts of the Atlantic hemisphere.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this approach treats the U.S. Civil War as an event that fostered liberal and democratic reforms throughout Europe and the Americas, leading to the end of slavery in Cuba and Brazil as well as inspiring the Canadian Confederation and the restoration of the Mexican republic.  However, the papers by Downs, Campbell, and Eichhorn called into question some of these conclusions, as their scholarship reconsidered the degree of influence exerted by transnational actors as well as challenged the notion of the United States as the impetus of liberalism or the model of democracy in the nineteenth-century western world.


Gregory Downs began the discussion by reflecting on the revolutionary consequences of the U.S. Civil War on an international scale.  His paper, “The Yankee Republic?,” focused on the postbellum career of Daniel Sickles, who advocated for the founding of a Spanish republic after 1865.  Downs unpacked a complicated story that involved American ambitions to spread free-labor republicanism around the globe, a conservative Spanish opposition that argued the republic would serve as a puppet state to the United States, and uncertainty regarding Cuban independence and the future of slavery in the Spanish colonies.  One of Downs’s most interesting conclusions focused on the mid-1870s, when Americans ultimately withdrew support for the Spanish republic.  This diplomatic decision paralleled domestic policy as the federal government moved to end military Reconstruction in the South.  Downs considered these events, which he referred to as “retractions of Reconstruction,” as part of a broader “backward move from democracy,” which occurred just one decade following the end of the Civil War.  Alongside the rise of Jim Crow in the South, the Cuban insurgency collapsed and the Spanish republic failed, restoring the monarchy on the Iberian Peninsula.  Given these collective outcomes, Downs found it hard to conclude that the U.S. Civil War generated much liberal change within the Atlantic hemisphere.  His work will undoubtedly encourage other scholars to think globally about the period of Reconstruction and to reevaluate the place of the U.S. in the nineteenth-century world.   


In “The Transatlantic World of Louis Kossuth,” Duncan Campbell examined the “Kossuth craze” or “Kossuth hysteria” of the early-1850s, when the Hungarian nationalist visited major cities across the U.S. and Britain.  Kossuth’s tour drew large crowds and garnered significant attention in both national presses.  Speaking to American audiences, Kossuth denounced U.S. neutrality in foreign affairs and lobbied the federal government to support Hungarian independence.  Campbell’s paper focused on the various reactions to Kossuth’s campaign.  In particular, he offered some analysis to help explain which historical groups supported or condemned Kossuth, and why.  Midwesterners, Whig and soon-to-be Republican leaders, and literary figures, such as Longfellow and Emerson, emerged as Kossuth’s foremost proponents, while Garrisonian abolitionists, southerners, Irish Americans, Roman Catholics, and Victorian politicians—Millard Fillmore, for example—were the groups most unfriendly to the Hungarian.  Campbell noted that he plans to continue working on southern reactions to Kossuth, aiming to compare antebellum and secession-era perspectives (perhaps southern opinions of Kossuth changed during the late-1850s and 1860s).  Campbell ended his presentation by proposing a theory that could account for the “Kossuth craze” in both Britain and the U.S.  He noted that widespread fear generated by economic hardships, political crises, and sectional division plagued both sides of the Atlantic during the early-1850s, creating an environment that helped popularize Kossuth and his message. 


Niels Eichhorn concluded the presentations with his paper “The American Civil War and Democratic Reform in France and Germany.”  As they contemplated issues with their own forms of government, European leaders rarely regarded the U.S. model as a system to imitate.  Rather, as Eichhorn explained, the American democratic system constituted a “problem” in the eyes of many French and German statesmen due to concerns about corruption and the potential for “mob rule.”  Although Eichhorn noted that some Europeans considered America the keystone of republican democracy, he focused largely on those who either rejected the American system or, at the very least, questioned its assumed excellence.  In doing so, Eichhorn’s work highlighted variant courses of democracy that evolved apart from the United States (as Fleche noted in his comments, Eichhorn demonstrated how “democracy could exist without” America).  A system of “imperial democracy” developed in France under Napoleon III, and, in 1871, officials of the German states turned to Britain’s constitutional monarchy for inspiration; American democracy had no, or at least a negligible degree, of influence on governance in unified Germany.


The number of questions and the level of continued discussion (and debate) following the paper presentations speak to the overall success of the panel and the important issues raised by Downs, Campbell, and Eichhorn.  Collectively, these papers give us a sense of new directions in the field of transnational history, as well as how findings in the field can broaden our understanding of the nineteenth-century U.S. and American South.


Carl C. Creason

Northwestern University (Ph.D. Candidate)

Kentucky Historical Society (Civil War Governors of Kentucky)