Powers on Link, 'United States Reconstruction across the Americas'

William A. Link, ed.
Michael S. Powers

William A. Link, ed. United States Reconstruction across the Americas. Frontiers of the American South Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019. 136 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5641-8

Reviewed by Michael S. Powers (Angelo State University) Published on H-CivWar (July, 2020) Commissioned by Madeleine Forrest (Randolph-Macon College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54957

Examining the Civil War era in a global context has been a leading avenue of recent study. Historians, such as Matthew Karp in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders and the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016) and those in Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur’s The World the Civil War Made (2015), have demonstrated how focusing on the global links of the era are apt case studies for an analysis of slavery, emancipation, citizenship, capitalism, nation building, and a host of other aspects of central interest to Civil War era scholars. More recently, historians have begun to extend analysis of Reconstruction beyond national borders. Grounded in research from North America, South America, the Caribbean, and Great Britain that examines a rich array of primary sources from newspapers and government reports to private correspondence, United States Reconstruction across the Americas admirably broadens the scope of the Civil War’s aftermath.

This chronologically and geographically broad analysis of the end of the Civil War and its implications builds on William A. Link’s previously excellent co-edited (with Brian Ward and Martyn Bone) collection, The American South and the Atlantic World (2013).  Link begins United States Reconstruction across the Americas with an admirable introduction that weaves together the collection’s three essays, demonstrating that the themes in each are “all central to U.S. Reconstruction” and “interwoven with patterns of post-Civil War global political, social, and economic developments” (p. 3). In the first essay, Rafael Marquese compares how American and Brazilian landowners organized and employed labor in the transition from slavery to freedom as a result of the Paraguayan War. Dan H. Doyle, meanwhile, uses the lens of foreign relations to examine partnerships between Mexican resistance to French intervention and the US government under the guidance of William H. Seward to explore the triumph of a more egalitarian republicanism above and below the Rio Grande. Finally, Edward B. Rugemer argues that Jamaican freedmen’s protest against continued oppression, and the British government’s subsequent violent crackdown, known as the Morant Bay Rebellion, significantly influenced the formation of Radical Republican policies. Therefore, all three essays analyze the aftermath of each area’s most significant late nineteenth-century moment of violence and conflict as cathartic events that further entangled the United States, Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil.

In a blending of social history with macro-economic history, Marquese’s essay strives to internationalize the history of Reconstruction without falling into the prevalent pitfall of enhancing notions of US exceptionalism. “The Cotton Economies of the United States and Brazil, 1865-1904” tracks the growth of European immigrant labor in the colonato system of Brazil following gradual emancipation brought on by the Free Womb Law of 1871. According to Marquese, São Paulo planters observed the decentralized nature of sharecropping and established a post-emancipation labor market on coffee plantations that continued, and even consolidated, elite control. Marquese’s compelling essay raises questions for future analysis, especially those that focus on how American and Brazilian racial differences shaped the free labor system of each.    

“Reconstruction and Anti-imperialism: The United States and Mexico” by Doyle is the most historiographically significant in the book. Doyle counters the orthodox view that Secretary of State Seward’s postbellum policies in the Western Hemisphere were indicative of commercial imperialism. Instead, Doyle posits that Seward resurrected the Monroe Doctrine and sought to bring US power to bear against the French Intervention in Mexico to provide a “defensive shield for all American republics against the depredations of European monarchies” (p. 57). While Doyle’s essay is firmly within the vein of recent scholarship that applauds the legacy of Ulysses S. Grant, it implicitly extends some positive qualities to the much-maligned Andrew Johnson. Doyle highlights that Johnson, perhaps as more of a puppet than a president, firmly backed republicanism in the Americas against foreign interference. From Emperor Maximilian’s successful recruitment of hundreds of Confederate exiles to pro-Benito Juárez “Friends of Mexico Clubs,” Doyle’s work likewise demonstrates more acutely than the other essays on the ways foreign affairs shaped American politics and society. The only aspect of Doyle’s work likely to raise the eyebrows of many Civil War scholars is his contention that without trading with the French in Mexico “the South could never have sustained its rebellion” (p. 60).

In line with his previous work, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (2009), Rugemer’s analysis of Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion argues that what began as a local property dispute became a flashpoint for Reconstruction debates. Rugemer argues that the white Southern press “saw the recent history of Jamaica, alongside that of Haiti, as evidence that demonstrated ‘the utter incapacity of the negro race for self-government’” (p. 102). Yet the interpretation Radical Republicans offered of the tragedy won out. According to Rugemer, Charles Sumner and Carl Schurz, the German immigrant and veteran of the 1848 revolutions, spoke most fervently of the Morant Bay Rebellion in their successful support of the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Finally, the essay demonstrates how Protestant Christianity was a transnational force that continued to shape racial politics well after emancipation. A revival that began in the US spread to Jamaica in 1860 and became the crucial event that motivated the radical politics of former slaves, Native Baptists. 

In conclusion, Link makes “no claim that this book is ‘transnational’ history” (p. 4). Such an assertion reflects the ongoing debates over the definition of transnational scholarship. It is my opinion that all three essays are exemplary examples of transnational analysis. For as Link also states, the book analyzes “national history as part of a process involving several state actors” (p. 3). Each essay demonstrates that internationalizing the Civil War and its aftermath cannot be accomplished in a two-state comparison between the United States and another country. For while American ties to Mexico, Brazil, and Jamaica are featured, the collection as a whole also significantly weaves global connections from Central America to Asia. United States Reconstruction across the Americas is an admirable collection that adds to our understanding of the Civil War era in a global context.

Citation: Michael S. Powers. Review of Link, William A., ed., United States Reconstruction across the Americas. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54957

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