The Civil War as International and Revolutionary Conflict

UC Davis Professor of History Gregory Downs
Professor Gregory Downs. Photo: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis.

At the final Book Chat of the 2019-2020 academic year, Gregory Downs, Professor of History at UC Davis, discussed his recent book, The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). The Book Chat focused on two main themes herein: that the Civil War was not solely a war, but a revolution; and that the conflict was not merely domestic but part of an international crisis. In addition to The Second American Revolution, Downs is the author of two other monographs—Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908, and After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War—as well as a short story collection, Spit Baths

The DHI Book Chats, Director Jaimey Fisher explains, “always foreground the latest scholarship by faculty around UC Davis.” As our first online Book Chat, Downs’ book not only offered a stimulating discussion but also enabled the event to be archived on our Youtube channel. Downs began by reading an excerpt from The Second American Revolution before launching into conversation with Fisher and then opening the floor to questions from attendees. The book’s main goals are to explore what it means to think about the ways in which United States was shaped by revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as to query how Americans have lost the sense of the revolutionary nature of the Civil War. 

The term “civil war,” Downs argued, doesn’t capture the breadth of the 1861-1865 conflict. It “created a new political order” and thus was not merely a war. Although there is a myth that the Constitution was working and that just one thing—slavery—needed to be fixed for the nation to be cohesive, “in the middle of the 19th century, many Americans had lost the sense that the United States and its constitution worked.” During that revolutionary moment, Americans understood that they needed to transform the Constitution, and the United States themselves. The Civil War, Downs underscores, was a fundamental revolution in the Constitutional order, Congressional power, and make-up of the states, which together Downs terms a form of bloody constitutionalism.

Not only do contemporary Americans lose sight of the revolutionary nature of the Civil War, they fail to see that the conflict “was not merely civil but part of an international crisis.” Downs argues that it is crucial to ask not just “how the U.S. in some ways helped make the world, or draw upon the world, but in what ways did the world make the U.S.?” For many at the time, the Civil War, he explained, was seen to be a “war about the future of the world,” or at least one about the North Atlantic world. Downs’ studies of the Civil War include the contexts of Cuba, Spain, Mexico, and Great Britain. Downs contended that contemporary domestication of the Civil War  “construct[s] the politics narrower than its participants’ imaginations and experiences.” Downs’ international methodology supports his interrogation of the main conflict of the Civil War. 

The Second American Revolution argues that “as we’ve lost the language of what the Civil War was, we’ve also lost some of that imagination.” Its revolutionary character and inherent internationalism are, of course, linked. Downs maintains that as Americans, “we’ve convinced ourselves that the country can run on its own” with some tinkering with politics around its jagged edges. Rather, he argues, running a country requires imagination. By shining a light on myths around the Civil War and how it is understood, Downs illuminates not only our past but our present. During the Civil War era, if the Constitution wasn’t working, Americans were willing to fix it in fundamental ways: Downs points out the creation of new states to generate political power. Perhaps today this type of bold imagination is also necessary to change the constitutional order, including creating bolder models of state governance.