Author Interview--Tom Sancton (Sweet Land of Liberty) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Tom Sancton to talk about his new book Sweet Land of Liberty: America in the Mind of the French Left, 1848–1871, published by Louisiana State University Press in April 2021.

Tom Sancton holds a doctorate in history from Oxford University. He is the former Paris bureau chief for Time magazine and is currently a research professor at Tulane University. Among his publications are Song for My Fathers, The Armageddon Project, and The Bettencourt Affair: The World’s Richest Woman and the Scandal that Rocked Paris.

To start the interview, Tom, could you give us an idea of how you became interested in the political left in Napoleon III’s France?

TS: This book grew out of research I originally did for my history doctorate (D.Phil) at Oxford University in the 1970s. I was particularly interested in the Civil War, so my initial idea was to look at European reactions to the American conflict. 
I was struck by the extent to which the French left—liberals, republicans, socialists, radicals—rallied to the Northern cause and used it as a propaganda tool for furthering their own goals in France. Branching out beyond the Civil War itself, I saw that the American image and example were central to the thinking of the French left throughout the years ranging from 1848 to 1871, a period comprising the entire Second Empire and bookended by the February Revolution and the Paris Commune. That naturally led me to take a good look at Napoleon III and his regime, against which the American image was relentlessly used by the left as a counterexample and an embodiment of republican ideals.

What is your argument in Sweet Land of Liberty?

TS: My main argument is that while the French left looked to the example of American democracy as a powerful symbol and an argument in favor of political liberty, they didn’t really understand the realities of American government and society very well. They looked at America through the prism of their own political culture and goals. In the end, the U.S. example served the French left more as a general inspiration and a propaganda weapon than a practical model for the kind of republic that emerged in France after the fall of the Empire.

You already mention that you are interested in the French Left and indicate that it is a pretty diverse group--can we really group Proudhon, Hugo, and others under such a broad category? What unified the political left ideologically?

TS: The left as I present it is admittedly a broad grouping. What they had in common ideologically was a belief in political liberty and some form of popular government. Another thing they had in common during this period was opposition to the authoritarian regime of Napoleon III. Thus most of them found the example of American democracy useful as a model, or a propaganda tool, or both. Proudhon was an exception.

How did French people learn about the United States? There have been some really good studies for Great Britain on travel literature, people visiting the United States and writing about their observations--do we have something akin to that in France? Obviously beyond Tocqueville and Beaumont.

TS: The French learned about the United States from the well-known books of travelers like Tocqueville, Beaumont, and Michel Chevalier, but also from articles in the press and periodicals like the Revue des Deux Mondes. The anarchist and geographer Elisée Reclus, for example, wrote lengthy articles about slavery in the RDM, based on his experience as a tutor on a Louisiana plantation in the 1850s. Then there was the correspondence back home from French emigrants or travelers. French impressions of America were also shaped by writers like James Fenimore Cooper and especially Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a huge bestseller in France. Finally, a large number of Americans, known and unknown, visited or lived in France during this period, which also served to shape French impressions of America.

One part that I found rather fascinating about your book is how the "leadership" of the left and its membership did not see quite eye to eye on how to approach the conflict in North America. Workers, suffering from the economic impact, favored some of Napoleon's possible plans to alleviate their suffering, but the leadership opposed to Napoleon took a different view on the United States. How do we reconcile these differences? Was the leadership too naive or focused in its ways of opposing Napoleon and liking the US for their purpose?

TS: What you call the “leaders” were members of a broad pro-republican front that had a vested interest in the success of American democracy and the victory of the Union forces in the Civil War. Among them were bourgeois republicans like Agénor Gasparin, Camille Pelletan, and Edouard Laboulaye, who had no direct connection with the working class but wanted to think that the workers were stoically accepting their suffering as a means of supporting the North against the slaveholders. In England, men like John Bright were preaching the same view. The problem is that none of these men had access to the thinking of the workers themselves. In France, workers had few means of openly expressing their views under the Second Empire, so it was not easy to know what they really thought. By studying the secret reports of government officials in the affected regions and other sources, I discovered that most French textile workers were indifferent to the political and ideological aspects of the American War. They just wanted it to end so the flow of cotton to their mills could be restored. For that very practical reason, they largely supported the emperor’s efforts at mediation and even the possibility of a direct intervention to break the blockade. And there was also some measure of working class support for the south. I concluded that the claim that French workers chose silent suffering out of solidarity with the slaves was largely a myth. The difference between the workers and the republican leaders is that the workers’ opinions were conditioned by the dire realities of their own situation, whereas the republicans were motivated mainly by ideological considerations.