Monday, April 12, 2021

Booknotes: Sweet Land of Liberty

New Arrival:
Sweet Land of Liberty: America in the Mind of the French Left, 1848–1871 by Tom Sancton (LSU Press, 2021).

From the description: In Sweet Land of Liberty: America in the Mind of the French Left, 1848–1871, author Tom Sancton "examines how the French left perceived and used the image of the United States against the backdrop of major historical developments in both countries between the Revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. Along the way, he weaves in the voices of scores of French observers―including those of everyday French citizens as well as those of prominent thinkers and politicians such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Victor Hugo, and Georges Clemenceau―as they looked to the democratic ideals of their American counterparts in the face of rising authoritarianism on the European continent."

Over the decade preceding the American Civil War, the end of France's Second Republic through Napoleon III's rise to imperial rule created a home-grown opposition on the French left that "looked to the American example as both a democratic model and a source of ideological support in favor of political liberty." During that same period, however, the anti-Napoleon left also became "increasingly wary of the United States, as slavery, rapacious expansionism, and sectional frictions tarnished its image and diminished its usefulness" to them.

How French and British societies viewed the Civil War combatants has often been summarized as the common people being strongly pro-Union with pro-Confederate sentiments most prevalent in the upper classes and among those most deeply involved in the cotton trade and dependent industries. Interestingly, Sancton "counters the long-held assumption that French workers, despite the distress caused by a severe cotton famine in the South, steadfastly supported the North during the Civil War out of a sense of solidarity with American slaves and lofty ideas of liberty. On the contrary, many workers backed the South, hoped for an end to fighting, and urged French government intervention."

Over eight chapters in the book's middle, Sancton demonstrates how the American Civil War became a "turning point" in how the French left viewed the United States as an inspiring force in its own democratic struggle. More from the description: "While Napoleon III considered joint Anglo-French recognition of the Confederacy and launched an ill-fated invasion of Mexico, his opponents on the left feared the collapse of the great American experiment in democracy and popular government. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Union victory, and Lincoln’s assassination ignited powerful pro-American sentiment among the French left that galvanized their opposition to the imperial regime."

Alas, the French left's fickle ideological regard for America's democratic model took yet another decisive turn in the other direction during the Reconstruction period. "After the fall of the Second Empire and the founding of the conservative Third Republic in 1870, the relevance of the American example waned. Moderate republicans no longer needed the American model, while the more progressive left became increasingly radicalized following the bloody repression of the Commune in 1871. Sancton argues that the corruption and excesses of Gilded Age America established the groundwork for the anti-American fervor that came to characterize the French left throughout much of the twentieth century."

Following America's founding, it often appeared that if the United States would come to form a 'special relationship' with any great European power it would be with France. Sweet Land of Liberty seems to go some way toward explaining why that turned out not to be the case. In the end, Sancton concludes "that the American example, though useful to the left, proved ill-adapted to French republican traditions rooted in the Great Revolution of 1789. For all the ritual evocations of Lafayette and the “traditional Franco-American friendship,” the two republics evolved in disparate ways as each endured social turmoil and political upheaval during the second half of the nineteenth century."

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