Labor, Democracy, Law, and International Reconstruction

Labor, Democracy, Law, and International Reconstruction

The three essays posted here relate to a session planned for the June, 2020 meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians.  The authors’ abbreviated comments, to be expanded at the rescheduled meeting in 2021, convey tantalizing glimpses of the global scope of America’s post-war Reconstruction.

In “Free Labor, Emancipation & Reconstruction’s Global Lens,” Erik Mathisen frames the humanitarian efforts of an Egyptian-based consul in relation to the world-wide systems of coerced and dependent labor. Brooks Swett, in “A World ‘Transfixed’: The International Resonance of American Political Crises during Reconstruction and at Present,” singles out the presidential election of 1868 for special attention, observing how ballots cast by former slaves became a reference point for Britons experiencing their own “Leap in the Dark” towards their own expanded electorate.   James Shinn, in “Reconstruction at Sea: The American Campaign to Reform International Neutrality, 1865-1871,” sketches a campaign to make a bitter Anglo-American diplomatic dispute over the Alabama an opportunity to reform basic norms of great power statecraft.

We witness across these three vivid and fresh accounts a world shrunk by steam transportation and by the 1866 launching of regular trans-Atlantic telegraphy. We see engagement of Americans with cosmopolitan discourses of ascendant free labor, democracy, and codified international law, three particularly intriguing realms of global reform across the last third of the nineteenth century.

Most of all, we see figures from the Republican Party building on the nationalist – and revolutionary – vanquishing of the Confederate slaveocracy.[1]  With military victory by force of arms largely completed, Lincoln’s injunction to “act anew” and “think anew” opened opportunities to use comparatively peaceful means of sustaining and expanding international influence.  In 1864, Karl Marx had termed the Union’s “rescue of an enchained race” as “an earnest of the epoch to come.” Admittedly, the Republicans featured in these posts did not serve as a revolutionary vanguard of Marx’s “social reconstruction of the world.” Yet to offer that observation neither undermines the reality of Republicans’ ambitious global vision nor the consequential results of the party’s endeavors beyond U.S. borders.[2]


[1] Gregory P. Downs, The Civil War Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[2] Robin Blackburn, An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (London: Verso, 2011), 48.

Robert E. Bonner

Robert Bonner is the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography at Dartmouth College. He is now completing a biographical study of Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens titled Master of Lost Causes and launching a book-length account of Confederate commerce raiding, privateering, and slave trading, titled Slaveocrats At Sea: The Global Menace of a Maritime Southern Confederacy.

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