From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776

By George C. Herring | Go to book overview

6
“Last Best Hope”
The Union, the Confederacy, and Civil War
Diplomacy, 1861–1877

The American Civil War was an event of great international importance.1 Union and Confederate leaders recognized that their success or failure might swing on actions taken or not taken by the European great powers. European leaders, in turn, saw enticing opportunities and grave threats in the conflagration across the Atlantic. For Europeans, the Civil War also had momentous ideological implications. Conservatives welcomed the breakup of the Union, which some had long predicted, hoping that it would eliminate the menace of U.S.-style democracy throughout the world. Along with President Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, liberals viewed the Union as the “last best hope of earth,” agreeing that upon its survival hinged the future of republicanism for “the whole family of man.”2 The triumph of the Union, as Lincoln seems to have understood, ensured that within a short time the United States would emerge as a major world power.


I

The Civil War was part of a worldwide mid-nineteenth-century flowering of nation-building, a broader effort on the part of peoples across the globe to affirm, often through force of arms, their national identity. In Europe, Hungarians and Poles rose up in unsuccessful revolts against Austria and Russia. Modern nations took shape in Italy and Germany through military conquest. After a short war, the Swiss formed a federal union binding together cantons previously divided by religion. The Taiping “rebellion” raged for years in China at gruesome cost; the 1868 Meiji Restoration converted Japan from a feudal entity into a modern nation-state. The quest for

1. Robert E. May, ed., The Union, the Confederacy and the Atlantic Rim (Lafayette, Ind., 1995), 1–2.

2. James M. McPherson, “ ‘The Whole Family of Man’: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope Abroad,” in ibid., 136–38.

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