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Civil War historians tackle Confederate ideologies in a transnational context

Virginia Festival of the Book panel dives into Southern nationalism and revolutionary thought

<p>The All-Virtual Virginia Festival of the Book offers a wide variety of conversations with authors from March 13 to March 26.</p>

The All-Virtual Virginia Festival of the Book offers a wide variety of conversations with authors from March 13 to March 26.

Historians Adrian Brettle and Ann Tucker joined William Kurtz, managing director and digital historian at the Nau Center for Civil War History at the University, to discuss the ideologies of the Confederacy Wednesday. The webinar was sponsored by the Nau Center for Civil War History as a part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, which is entirely online this year due to COVID-19 restrictions rather than at the event’s usual venues around Charlottesville that typically draw around 20,000 attendees.

Proponents of the Confederate States of America relied on a distinct set of ideologies to justify the new nation’s existence. For example, the concept of states’ rights was instituted to defend the South’s slavery-based economy. The problem is these ideologies are often discussed as if the war happened in a vacuum. According to the panelists, scholars rarely consider the impact European revolutions had on Southern political thought of the era, nor do they consider the ways in which contemporary thinkers saw the Confederacy fitting into a constantly changing economic and political world. The event sought to provide a more nuanced discussion about Confederate ideologies in a transnational context.

Tucker, a professor at the University of North Georgia, specializes in the history of the U.S. South in an international context. Her most recent book, “Newest Born of Nations,” delves into the ways elite white Southerners studied European revolutionary thought to develop and justify Confederate ideologies.

Brettle, Class of 2014 alumnus and lecturer at Arizona State University, has also written numerous publications on various relevant topics, including 19th-century politics, American slavery and Confederate nationalism. Published last year, his book, “Colossal Ambitions: Confederate Planning for a Post-Civil War World,” grapples with the dueling visions Confederates held for the post-war world. Brettle’s thorough research into the evolving ideologies of the wartime American South reveals a myriad of competing plans for the future of the Confederacy. 

Kurtz moderated the discussion between Tucker and Brettle, fielding questions from attendees to pass along to the speakers. After warm introductions, each speaker briefly discussed their most recent novel. Kurtz posed questions to the speakers that honed in on the intersection of their research interests — the revolutionary ideologies of the Confederacy. The historians provided their virtual audience with fascinating interpretations of the ways in which the Confederacy influenced — and was influenced by — European revolutions.

Tucker began by explaining how mid-19th century Europe was marked by revolutions sweeping across the continent, as nations overthrew their empires to build self-governing systems. As tensions built between Northern and Southern states in the U.S., Southerners in favor of secession began appropriating the ideological arguments of European revolutionaries.

According to Tucker, many Southerners identified the Confederate cause as the ideological equivalent of nations abroad fighting to overthrow oppressive empires in favor of self-governance. European revolutionary thinkers did not, in turn, identify so strongly with Confederate ideologies because they tended to find slavery incompatible with freedom. Nevertheless, Southerners continued to make comparisons between themselves and European revolutionaries.

For example, Confederate nationalists related the attempts by Northerners to restrict the spread of slavery into the U.S. West to 18th-century attempts by Italian revolutionaries to restrict the spread of an oppressive government. 

“Elite white Southerners used international perspectives in order to distinguish the South from the North, justify secession and ultimately legitimize the Confederacy,” Tucker said.

Brettle added that, not only did Confederates incorporate European revolutionary thought into their ideologies, but they also interacted with the transnational world directly through slavery.  They considered interdependency through business to be the best path to widespread acceptance of slavery. In fact, Confederates viewed their role to be an integral part of an evolving global economy. As world empires fell and gave way to modern states, they believed themselves to be a uniquely free and just form of economy and government in an unfamiliar political landscape.

“There was this universal feeling from Americans’ ideology [that] they were the last, best hope on Earth of democratic government for the world,” Brettle said.

Tucker later added that Northerners also felt a transnational pressure to preserve the U.S. as proof that republicanism could be a successful form of government. Northerners believed a Confederate government inherently undermined America's originally intended form of government. Their secession could be construed by foreign nations as a failure of the great American experiment.

Kurtz posed questions — some of his own and some from the audience — that guided the speakers into a conversation regarding the failures of the Confederate ideology in this transnational context.

“[Confederates] were lousy propagandists for a foreign audience in the sense that they were upfront that the Confederacy was about slavery, was about expansion, that it was a great power in its own account,” Brettle said. “It was a nation among nations, but it was also seen as a vanguard of an entirely new nation. It was one about white egalitarian democracy, and it was one about racial hierarchy in an era where races were going to come more into touch with each other.”

Guided by Kurtz’s thoughtful questions, Tucker and Brettle provided their audience with a fascinating and unique perspective on political thought contributing to 19th-century Southern nationalism and revolutionary thought.

Tucker and Brettle’s books are available for purchase online and at the U.Va. Bookstore. The Virginia Festival of the Book will continue through March 26, featuring various live-streamed panels of experts discussing a wide range of literary topics.