Author Interview--Tom Sancton (Sweet Land of Liberty) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with 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.

Part 1

This does show how difficult it is to balance ideology and reality at times. Let me stay with that theme of ideology for a moment. We both have looked at France and its political system during this era. The individuals you study are very critical of Napoleon and his autocratic government and look to democracy in the United States for inspiration. So first of all, how much were these leaders of the left aware of the corruption, mobs, violence, and the like during elections in the United States? Did they ignore it? On the other hand, I recently argued in an article, that France maintained universal manhood suffrage during the empire and that British supporters of franchise reform often look to the United States with more concern than a desire to imitate--were there any naysayers in France who did not want to imitate the U.S. electoral system or who were critical of how elections were conducted?

TS: The actual workings of the American electoral system were not a particular focus for French proponents of democracy during the period I studied. Tocqueville famously warned against the “tyrany of the majority” but his concern was the quasi-absolute power of the majority, not so much to the electoral process itself. In all the period I studied, there were plenty of French naysayers who criticized aspects of American politics and society in general—Americans were caricatured by French critics as uncultured, vulgar, obsessed with material gain, hypocritically pious, given to flim-flamery and sharp practices, and, until emancipation, all too willing to defend or put up with slavery on American soil. As I tried to show in my book, these criticisms were particularly strong during the decade leading up to the Civil War, marked by aggressive expansionism, sectional frictions, and the exacerbation of the slavery controversy. During the 1850s, even observers on the French left often voiced these criticisms. The early phases of the war raised questions about the survival and durability of American democracy. Once Lincoln made Emancipation a war aim, however, opinion on the French left swung strongly behind the Union. The Union victory and Lincoln’s martyrdom triggered a period of almost hagiographic praise of American democracy on the part of those in France who opposed the imperial regime and called for a republic. However, in all this discussion, I did not detect a particular preoccupation with the American electoral system per se. So it’s difficult to say how much they actually knew about the corruption and electoral abuses you refer to. I think it’s a step too far to say they were aware of America’s electoral excesses but ignored them for ideological reasons.

Very good points. However, your book does not just cover the antebellum, but also Reconstruction and the Third Republic. How did the French feel about the attempt of racial equality and multi-racial democracy, especially in light of their own regime change and the United States' support of Prussia?

TS: The partisans of the French Left had an imperfect view of American Reconstruction and tended to see it through the prism of their own revolutionary tradition and their opposition to the imperial regime at home. In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, they naturally supported the Radical Republicans in America and their insistance on granting full equality and citizenship to the former slaves. At the same time, they opposed Andrew Johnson’s attempt to quickly readmit the southern states and applauded the radicals’ attempt to impeach him. Johnson was often compared to Napoleon III as an authoritarian usurper of power. When U.S. radicals called for the confiscation of the southern estates and redistribution to the freedmen, many observers on the French left cited their own revolutionary history as a precedent. Probably the most lucid observer of all this was Georges Clemenceau, who reported on American Reconstruction for the Temps between 1865 and 1870 and viewed the radical Thaddeus Stevens as a personal hero. Clemenceau saw emancipation as a second American revolution, but one that was left unfinished. He was right, of course. But the dramatic events of 1870-1871 abruptly turned the left’s attention back to their own struggles and away from the spectacle of postwar America. “L’Année terrible” in fact marked a turning point in the French left’s idealized view of America: Grant’s pro-Prussian sentiments were seen as a betrayal, and America’s federal system had little relevance to the kind of unitary republic the French established after the fall of the Empire. 

International events are really important in this conversation, so I will only give you two keywords for my next question: Maximilian’s Mexico.

TS: Napoleon III’s Mexican expedition was a direct challenge to U.S. hegemony in the western hemisphere and was oppportunistically linked to the Civil War. With the Americans distracted by their own internal strife, the emperor seized the occasion to plant the French flag south of the border. In addition to imposing a French-backed regime in the region, he seems to have entertained some notion of forging an alliance with an independent Confederacy and perhaps even recovering Louisiana. The mission predictably enraged the Lincoln administration and drew furious critiques from France’s leftist opposition, which presented it as a challenge by an Old World despot against the embattled republic. In addition to providing the emperor’s opponents with a propaganda windfall, the expedition was an embarrassing military failure. The 1867 French withdrawal under the threat of reprisals from the victorious Union presented Napoleon III with a humiliating defeat and sealed the fate of his puppet emperor Maximilian. The Mexican disaster thus fed into the anti-imperial narrative of the French left in the twilight years the Bonapartist regime.

It certainly was a black mark for Napoleon. One aspect that always intrigues me about this and you hint at this here with the embattled republic. There was talk that Mexico would not be the only place reformed by European princes. Napoleon had this vast scheme for rearranging Europe and the Americas. For sake of conversation, is not it a bit ironic that both Napoleon and the left had major visions for the world, but they were diametrically opposed to each other?

TS: I wouldn’t say that the international visions of the Emperor and the French left were diametrically opposed. They certainly were in the case of the Mexican adventure, largely because of the threat it posed to the American republic. But in other areas, their visions coincided. Napoleon III’s embrace of the principle of nationalities, for example, actually paralleled the views of many of those on the French left—his support for Poland and Greece, though largely rhetorical, was in line with their sentiments, as was his military intervention in favor of the liberation and unification of Italy. The goal of “freeing the peoples” was traditionally the dream of Europe’s revolutionary and insurrectionary left. But as the French historian Louis Girard points out, Napoleon III pursued the aims of the far left without resorting to its methods. Beyond his support for the nationalities, Napoleon III’s grand scheme of reversing the treaties of 1815 and restoring France as the leading power in Europe was something that many of those on the left could applaud as patriots even as they opposed the authoritarian regime itself. What the left couldn’t tolerate in the Emperor’s foreign policy was any attempt to thwart the American republic, via the Mexican expedition or threats of pro-southern intervention, and, of course, humiliating failure, as in the disastrous war with Prussia in 1870. Ironically, as I argued in my book, the republican left bore some responsibility for that defeat by opposing a much-needed military reform in the late 1860s. And they based their arguments largely on the example of the victorious “citizens army” that had won the American Civil War. 

To close our conversation, you mentioned that you are already working on another book. What are your future publication plans?

TS: My next book is not an academic work, but an account of a famous 1978 Paris kidnapping and its consequences. The victim, Baron Edouard-Jean Empain, was a dazzling golden boy who had inherited control of one of Europe’s most powerful industrial empires, founded by his grandfather in the late 19thcentury. The grandfather, the first Baron Empain, was a larger-than-life mover and shaker who had built the Paris Metro, founded banks, laid down rail lines in a dozen countries, mined gold in the Congo, and built a fantastic city on the sands of Egypt. His grandson expanded that extraordinary empire, gained control over France’s nuclear sector, and styled himself a “master of the universe”—until a band of French gangsters kidnapped him. I won’t spoil the ending. It’s not a work of historical scholarship, but it does deal with a lot of history as it traces the saga of the Empain dynasty over more than a century. Title: The Last Baron: The Paris Kidnapping that Brought Down an Empire. It will be published by Dutton in April 2022. And after that? Stay tuned….