Cause of All Nations by Don Doyle, review by Carl Caton
As Americans, many of us tend to consider our Civil War as a strictly internal conflict, one that threatened to destroy our young country, but one that had few, if any, immediate or long-term effects on the greater world. That the opposite is true is the basis for Don H. Doyle’s fascinating new book, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. The conflict sent shock waves across the Atlantic Ocean, disrupting both European and South American politics, and threatening the always shaky global balance of powers.
Using a structurally engaging format, Doyle clearly and convincingly leads the reader through the labyrinth of political maneuvers employed by the Union and by the Confederacy. Each chapter deals with a specific aspect of the war on international affairs, and Doyle deftly weaves the chronological events of the war into each chapter. Both Union and Confederacy needed to either secure the support of European allies, or at least prevent the Europeans from siding with the enemy. In the months leading up to the war, and into the first years of the war, the Union was faced with the challenge of explaining to European governments what the Union was fighting for. Was the underlying principle the preservation of the union, or was it the abolition of slavery? The Confederacy, at the same time, was trying to enlist European support for independence while downplaying the slavery issue.
If the goal was the preservation of the union, the North could not expect support from the monarchical colonial powers of France and Spain, both of which still had significant investments in North and South America. Spain had colonial interests in the Caribbean, much of South America, and California, and was not eager to support a republic with democratic ideals and an aversion to hereditary monarchy. France, having experienced the horrors of its own revolution, which resulted in disastrous experimentation with republican governance and ultimately to the Reign of Terror, Napoleonic dictatorship, and restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, was also reluctant to side with the Union. Even England, which was a much more democratic country, hesitated to side with the Union. Even though England had earlier banned slavery from its commonwealth, the empire depended on Confederate cotton to feed its textile mills, and its industrial economy competed head to head with the states of the Union.
The Confederacy faced equally difficult challenges in getting diplomatic recognition, let alone material support, from European powers. Having expressly established itself as a government committed to maintaining and expanding slavery, the Confederacy found that England was not eager to extend a helping hand. France, a Catholic monarchy, was eager to see the Protestant and democratic North lose the war, but France’s still strong undercurrents of human rights and republicanism prevented it from overtly siding with the racist South.
As both sides worked to justify their cause and to win support, each went to extraordinary means. The Union, early in the war, stopped and boarded a British ship carrying two Confederate diplomats. Union forces took the diplomats into custody, an act the British considered a violation of international law, and which nearly brought England into the war on the side of the Confederacy. Later, as the war looked increasingly dismal for the South, the Confederacy proposed to France, which had invaded and conquered Mexico, that in exchange for emancipation of its slaves, the South would become a protectorate under the French monarchy. The Confederacy, then, in return would be a geographic and political buffer between Mexico and the Protestant republic of the United States.
The core of The Cause of All Nations is the extraordinary story of the efforts of both North and South to justify the war to Europe powers. If England, France, and or Spain had thrown their support to the Confederacy, it is likely that the Union would have lost the war, the consequences of which would have been disastrous. With British, French and Spanish possessions on the north, south and west of the continent, a diminished Union and a slave-based Confederacy co-existing would likely have left the Americas just a mirror image of eternally war-torn Europe.
Don Doyle has given us a detailed yet highly readable and engaging look into the geopolitics of the Civil War era. Anyone interested in the war and its political underpinnings will enjoy this story.