Working to understand France

Lynn M. Case & Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970. (part two)

As I mentioned in part one of this commentary, The United States and France is a long piece of nearly 610 pages followed by extensive notes and bibliographic commentary.  I also pointed out that in the first go round, the general style appeared to be very formal in sentence structure and wording.  I’m happy to report that this issue resolved itself relatively quickly – whether I simply got used to the authors’ idiosyncratic choices or the material did, in reality, smooth out, I’m still unclear.  Perhaps by our third or fourth report I’ll have a conclusive thought.

While at times Case and Spencer have a tendency to go for the long quote to prove a point (there are some immensely long block quotes) the authors also make use of primary evidence in an interesting manner by going for a more conversational style at times.  The reader gets a a good sense of this when conversations between Napoleon III and his foreign ministers or other nations’ foreign ministers are taking place.  This choice has the effect of bringing the words to a livelier level – the authors still maintain their point, but do so in a manner that reminds the reader of the human element.  This skill is sometimes lacking in historical writing.

From a content perspective, the debate back and forth within France over supporting preservation of the Union, supporting the Confederacy, or maintaining neutrality is interesting.  It is clear that in the early going most of the French press was at least nominally unionist.  However, Case points out that some of this may have been due to a clever tack by French writers, praising American democracy as a method of critiquing their own limitations on freedom under Napoleon III.  Northern diplomats at times despaired that the Confederacy would be granted “belligerent rights.”

This point on belligerent rights is of interest as well because of its repercussions in the modern era.  Case reminds the reader that the world looks at those in revolt and wonders whether they should be recognized as a new nation.  However, foreign countries, (even today, but particularly in the late sixties) delay.  Case used the historical example of France waiting two years to recognize the United States as an independent nation.  Further, he points out that recognizing independent sovereignty was often dependent on the new nation using bellicose actions to demonstrate authority.  For their part, officials from the United States consistently demanded foreigners stay out of what was described as an American affair and problem.  Meanwhile, Case also does a great job portraying how even within France itself, the foreign ministry was less than clear as to what its government wanted to do in relation to the Confederacy.  Case also conveys clearly the trepidation that French ministers had when dealing with Secretary of State Seward.  I imagine, and Case helps create the scene, that discussions must have been very uncomfortable and tense as ministers have to explain that France would be interested in ideas like neutrality or mediating a settlement between the two parties, etc.

…the Federal government, which is determined to perish rather than recognize the Southern Confederacy, will not suffer the Europeans to have relations with its present leaders, which would raise their prestige.” – William Seward, United States Secretary of State, 1861


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