A World “Transfixed”: The International Resonance of American Political Crises during Reconstruction and at Present

A World “Transfixed”: The International Resonance of American Political Crises during Reconstruction and at Present

The conditions of the global pandemic have made us keenly aware, once again, of the interconnectedness of the world we share. Recent protest movements against systemic racism have radiated from the United States to distant places. Reporting the reactions of people around the world to American events, The New York Times has described many as “transfixed by the unrest in the United States over police brutality, racism and President Trump’s response.”[1] Even before this spring, in the past few years the dynamics and content of political movements around the world have suggested intertwined experiences. Many people have attempted to explain parallels among so-called populist uprisings and centrifugal forces gripping nations geographically far removed from one another. Rapid travel and social media have certainly bound our world more closely, but do they fully account for the political convergences we have witnessed?

The era of Reconstruction, though an age of telegraphs and steam rather than Twitter and Snapchat, presents analogous puzzles for historians. As scholars have pointed out, the reunification of the United States coincided with the consolidation of other powers, including Italy, Germany, and Japan.[2] To what degree did advances in technology and communication contribute to patterns of nation-state formation in the mid- to late nineteenth century? To what extent were the developments in disparate places related? In particular, how should we understand the emancipation of four million people within the United States in relation to abolition in other societies? Historians have made forays into answering these questions. Emerging work builds on W. E. B. Du Bois’s insistence in Black Reconstruction that Americans awaken to the “worldwide implications” of Reconstruction and the resounding impact of its curtailment.[3] New scholarship also expands on earlier comparative studies. Initial results are evident in an assortment of conferences and edited volumes.[4]

As we reflect on Reconstruction and its international resonance, we might recall a specific moment – the election of 1868. In November of that year, the United States held the first national election in which African American men in the former Confederacy could vote, introducing a new and potentially powerful force in electoral politics. The election came on the heels of a momentous few years. The Republican Congress had wrested control of Reconstruction from President Andrew Johnson. The Reconstruction Acts of March 1867 had set in motion the expansion of suffrage in the South and prescribed the process for adopting new state constitutions. In the spring preceding the presidential election, an impeachment trial narrowly resulted in Johnson’s acquittal. In the South as election day approached, the Ku Klux Klan (founded in 1866) waged a campaign of terror, targeting African Americans and white Republicans.[5]

International observers, particularly within the British government, were riveted by these events and the prospect of a tumultuous election. British officials’ own domestic, imperial, and diplomatic preoccupations drove their profound interest in American politics. At the time of Radical Reconstruction, British politicians and intellectuals were in the throes of reassessing British institutions and debating the organization and representation of the colonies. At home, the Reform Act of 1867 had almost doubled the British electorate. Although hailed as the “Leap in the Dark,” this legislation retained significant restrictions on the franchise and was far more limited than the changes underway in American governance.[6]Looking to the United States as a laboratory in which to watch political experiments unfold, British officials speculated about where the expansion of American democracy might lead and how it would alter the nation’s role in the international sphere. Marveling at the rapidity and unpredictability of developments in the United States, they worried about how these changes might disrupt the British Atlantic. One prominent British cabinet member observed, “On the whole the American Revolution (for the practical change in their government amounts to nothing less) is watched with more interest than any other event of the moment.” He added, “It is hard to see how a majority of Congress, with the president in opposition, is to govern a conquered country half the size of Europe yet this they must do or fail.” British leaders’ calculations about a shifting international order drew on their interpretation of changes in the relationship between the federal government of the United States and the American electorate and public.[7]

Now, looking back on the election of 1868 and the contests of U.S. Reconstruction reminds us how protracted the struggle for equality, voting rights, and basic safety for African Americans has been. If we also consider the international interest the election inspired, we can better appreciate the stakes of that election for both voters and witnesses at the time. Awareness of the international ramifications and responses might enhance our understanding of the acute historical significance of both 1868 and 2020. A similar insight animated Du Bois’s work in 1935 and promises to sharpen our analysis of Reconstruction and its striking relevance to our own times.

[1] Rick Gladstone, “Dear America: We Watch Your Convulsions with Horror and Hope,” The New York Times, June 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/world/americas/global-protests-george-floyd.html.

[2] See Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); Charles Maier, Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012); Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Patrick Camiller (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[3] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1935; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 24, 579.

[4] These include the David Prior, ed., Reconstruction in a Globalizing World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018) and a 2018 conference on “Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World,” held at the College of Charleston.

[5] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), chapters 6 and 7.

[6] Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland, and Jane Rendall, Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the Reform Act of 1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). For the basic provisions of the Reform Act of 1867, see “Second Reform Act,” Living Heritage: The Reform Acts and representative democracy, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/houseofcommons/reformacts/overview/furtherreformacts/.

[7] Brooks Swett, “Fashioning a New Democracy and Empire: Reconstruction of the American Union in the Shadow of Britain, 1865-1885,” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, manuscript, chapter 3.

Brooks Swett

Brooks Swett is a doctoral student in nineteenth-century U.S. history with a focus on Anglo-American exchanges and relations at Columbia University.

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