The World’s Civil War A pathbreaking book puts the U.S. Civil War inside Europe's Age of Revolution.

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War

Don H. Doyle (Basic Books, 2015) 382 pages, with illustrations, endnotes, and index

Don H. Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations is likely the first scholarly work on the Civil War to imply that Giuseppe Garibaldi’s failed 1862 march on Rome was the war’s pivotal moment. The boldness of the implication is indicative of the ambition of Doyle’s work, which aims to offer both a new emphasis on the importance of international diplomacy to the outcome of the war and to position the Civil War as a revolutionary moment for the wider western world. In Doyle’s pages, far from a localized war in which brother fought brother, the Civil War stretched from Antietam to London, from Gettysburg to Madrid, and from Mexico City to Paris. It is a bold, and largely successful, attempt to apply the current transnational focus of American historical scholarship to the most national of American wars.

Doyle’s most penetrating insight is to depict the Civil War as many in Europe perceived it, as the last gasp of the Age of Revolution. Today, liberalism has largely triumphed throughout the western world, but at the time, as Doyle reminds the reader, it was commonplace to think that “government by the people … was destined, sooner or later to descend into anarchy or tyranny.” The Revolutions of 1848 had brought republicanism to several European nations, but, in the aftermath, conservative forces had clawed their way back into power and beaten back the revolutionary fervor that had toppled their predecessors. By the time of the Civil War, France was ruled by the grasping Napoleon III, Germany by the repressive Otto von Bismarck, and the Catholic Church by the arch-conservative Pius IX. Even Great Britain, which offered some protections for the freedom of the press and a limited democracy, was led by the conservative Lord Palmerston, who viewed the United States system of government with a profound skepticism. To these leaders, the Civil War and the shattering of the Union was proof, as Doyle quotes one French officer taunting an American guest, that the United States “republic is dead, and it is probably the last the world will see.” As Doyle argues, in that context, Abraham Lincoln’s contention in the Gettysburg Address “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” was less a rhetorical flourish than a defiant challenge to his peers across the Atlantic.

Doyle argues that, in the context of the Age of Revolution, Abraham Lincoln’s contention in the Gettysburg Address “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” was less a rhetorical flourish than a defiant challenge to his peers across the Atlantic.

Though usual characters like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee make brief appearances throughout the text, Doyle’s primary focus is on the diplomatic corps of the Union and the Confederacy, each of which were motley crews of experienced ambassadors, patriotic representatives, and neophyte ideologues. These men run the gamut from those familiar to readers and scholars in Civil War era history, like Charles Francis Adams and John Slidell, to others now mostly obscure, like the colorful Carl Schurz. As a group, their task was difficult: to at once please their superiors at home, to navigate complicated European political waters, and to persuade national leaders with their own wide ranging agendas to cast their lot with one side or the other. At times, The Cause of All Nations adopts a faintly comic tone, as these inexperienced officials mistake a routine honorific as proof of an ironclad alliance, blurt out exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person, or find themselves delivering threats that even they themselves find absurd. Fleshing out their predicaments, Doyle deftly identifies the unforeseen conflicts between Union and Confederate domestic and foreign policies, singling out the moments in which diplomatic officials were forced to grapple with statements and actions meant solely for a domestic audience. It is little wonder that most appear out of their depth from the first page to the last.

In competing for the favor of European leadership, the Confederacy and the Union each enjoyed distinct advantages. Confederate diplomats stressed their right to national self-determination and self-governance, an argument to which European leaders already hostile to the United States were particularly receptive. Rather than a revolutionary declaration of independence, Southern leaders argued repeatedly that they were already a nation in law and required only recognition of that fact. Against that simple proposition, the Union had only one defense, which it offered with greater strength as the war went on: that to side with the Confederacy would be to side with slavery. As most of the world had turned against slavery out of a deep sense of moral outrage (it persevered only in the United States, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil), European leaders were hesitant to publicly associate themselves with a country whose leaders had bragged that slavery lay at the very cornerstone of their nation.

Doyle portrays these two opposing sentiments, the practical wish to undermine the United States and a general moral revulsion to slavery, as being evenly matched. Indeed, he argues it was only the aforementioned march of Giuseppe Garibaldi on Rome and the subsequent international outpouring of support that dissuaded European leaders on the verge of intervening in favor of the Confederacy. However, given the speed with which Garibaldi’s march inspired international support for liberal causes and the alacrity of conservative retreat, the reader has to wonder whether even the most conservative European leader would dare challenge public opinion and stand side-by-side with slavery. Doyle has a ready explanation for Europe’s initial iciness towards the Union–at first, Lincoln and the Republicans were quick to disavow slavery as the cause of the war for domestic reasons–but following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, despite Doyle’s arguments to the contrary, one doubts whether European support for the Confederacy was a possibility at all. Yet, Doyle tracks the various meetings, propaganda pieces, and top-secret communications with the same tension throughout the book, as if one Northern faux pas might invite global retribution. A world in which diplomatic decisions are subject to such variable whims and realpolitik holds so little sway simply does not ring true.

There are other instances in the book that invite the skepticism of the reader. Rather than reflecting flaws in Doyle’s research, these are indicative of his ambition and narrative scope. Public opinion is notoriously difficult for historians whose work extends before the 20th century to pin down, and Doyle invites an even greater challenge by trying to measure it in several countries that lacked protections for the freedom of speech. Faced with such a daunting task, Doyle utilizes inference, anecdote, and supposition where necessary, all fine tools but ones with inherent flaws. When the Confederate minister to France, John Slidell arrived in Paris, he was greeted by a crowd of “ebullient” students who serenaded him in song. Three years later, while out for a stroll with his wife, a group of schoolboys accosted him, mocking the Confederacy in a song of their own and bombarding him with spitballs. While colorful anecdotes, extrapolating the state of public opinion from such isolated incidents is a thorny problem for a historian, just as it likely was for the diplomat himself.

Doyle’s most profound point might be his most basic. He opens with a French officer warning an American that “no Republic ever stood so long, and never will. Self-government is a utopia.” His closing pages offer a rejoinder, an account of the construction of the Statue of Liberty.

Given the boldness of Doyle’s vision, it hardly seems like a fair criticism to ask for more. Setting its action in at least five countries that were home to four different primary languages, The Cause of All Nations boasts a breadth that few manuscripts can match. Yet, Doyle omits any mention of the only Confederate diplomat to successfully treat with a foreign government, Albert Pike. Pike, an Arkansas editor and attorney, traveled west to the Indian Territory and experienced remarkable success, reaching agreements with each of the Five Civilized Tribes in a manner of months. These negotiations, in which Southern slavery was a point of commonality rather than a mark of shame, might have provided a valuable counterpoint to the frustrations of Confederate ambassadors abroad. Moreover, the postwar experience of the Confederate-allied Native American nations of the West offered a grim confirmation of Union Secretary of State William Seward’s threat to make any nation that allied with the South “feel the fire of our battle and be burned by our conflagration.” At the conclusion of the Civil War, the reconstituted United States tore up its old treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes and seized vast tracts of land from each nation. Seward’s repeated warnings, in this case, were far from the blustery proclamations they might have appeared to be in European capitals.


La Liberté éclairant Le monde (Liberty enlightening the world), under construction at the workshop of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi in Paris before it was erected in New York Harbor in 1886, more than 20 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War.

By the same token, Doyle might have found fertile ground by looking south, to Latin America. With the partial exception of Mexico, most of the nations of the Americas appear throughout the text only as potential prey of European imperialists eager to violate the Monroe Doctrine while the Union was distracted by the Civil War. Doyle offers a chilling evocation of Napoleon III’s vision for an imperial empire in the Americas, but does little to explore the response of those who stood in his way. The reader learns of desperate Dominican envoys trying to marshal United States support following a Spanish invasion, but they disappear after being dismissed by officials of the State Department. Other responses are noticeably absent. The most glaring omission is the Empire of Brazil, which, with its status as the second largest slave society in the world and its natural congruence with the Confederacy, would seem a natural subject. Perhaps the Confederacy chose not to explore the creation of a slaveowning bloc for fear of alienating Europeans nations, but an explanation would have offered some insight into the wider international situation. The Cause of All Nations promises an international history of the Civil War, but it might have offered a grander picture by not affixing its eyes so tightly to the eastern horizon.

The Cause of All Nations is, nevertheless, a valuable and groundbreaking work. Doyle overcomes linguistic barriers and breaks out of rigid definitions of historical field to offer an exciting new perspective on an event that one might have supposed had already been looked at from every angle. Specialists in British, French, Spanish, Italian, and, yes, Civil War history will all find new ideas to explore and new contentions with which to grapple. Doyle’s most profound point might be his most basic. He opens with a French officer warning an American that “no Republic ever stood so long, and never will. Self-government is a utopia.” His closing pages offer a rejoinder, an account of the construction of the Statue of Liberty. The French artists who designed the monument, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and Édouard René de Laboulaye, envisioned it as a testament to the perseverance of republicanism across the globe. Its original title, Liberty Enlightening the World, framed the Civil War as many at the time saw it, a war that decided the fates of both slavery and democracy in the western world. The struggle for freedom and republicanism is a global struggle, Doyle argues, and the Union victory was a victory for the people of all nations.