A Secret Society History of the Civil War

By Carlson, David | The Historian, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

A Secret Society History of the Civil War


Carlson, David, The Historian


A Secret Society History of the Civil War. By Mark A. Lause. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 209. $35.00.)

This new study is perhaps better described in its introduction as a "secret society history of the Civil War period" (ix). What Mark A. Lause has written is actually a brilliant study of the transnational forces and structures that framed the origins of the Civil War rather than a history of the shadowy recesses of the war itself. In the aftermath of the European revolutions of 1848-1849, political and social radicals from France, Germany, and England emigrated to the United States. Building on the organizational models provided by existing Masonic lodges, these emigres and their American counterparts created a series of secretive associative groups aimed at disrupting elite power structures by fostering a sense of working-class solidarity and socioeconomic nationalism. Rarely overtly political, these organizations nonetheless provided intellectual, structural, and organizational support for activists seeking systemic changes to American society.

The dynamics of these groups diverged wildly amid the slavery debates of the 1850s. In the North, the collective known as the Universal Democratic Republicans (UDR) remained devoted to "socialism, free thought, and physical culture," the pursuit of which included land reform and the elevation of all labor including enslaved Southern blacks (37). This focus on the sanctity, unity, and liberty of labor, coupled with the organization's inclusion of several prominent radical abolitionists in its membership rolls, made the UDR and its affiliated organizations ripe for political organization. …

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