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Nations, Markets, and War: Modern History and the American Civil War

Author(s):Onuf, Nicholas
Onuf, Peter
Reviewer(s):Flaherty, Jane

Published by EH.NET (October 2006)

Nicholas Onuf and Peter Onuf, Nations, Markets, and War: Modern History and the American Civil War. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006. xii + 362 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8139-2502-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jane Flaherty, Department of History, Texas A&M University.

The brothers Onuf move the American Civil War from a national struggle to the “larger context of conceptual change” in the Western development of liberalism and nations. Modernity, and the modern concept of nations and markets, led to the conflagration, according to the authors. “The outbreak of war between great and expansive nations is a much more predictable outcome in the modern history of the ‘civilized West,'” they suggest (pp. 179-180). Thus the American Civil War represents not just a “war between the states” but the culmination of this trajectory. “Our contention,” they declare, “is that these developments were not only historically contingent but that they could only have taken place at a specific moment in the rise of a liberal world of national markets and international exchange, of an international society of bellicose yet civilized nations” (p. 177). Far more than a study of Civil War causation, this book reflects deeply upon the forces that shaped this “modern history.” This masterful book moves the American Civil War from a national tragedy to part of the broader development of western, liberal nations, and the markets that served, and were serviced, by these nations.

Nicholas Onuf, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Florida International University, and Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, are two of the most respected scholars in their respective fields. This book represents their second collaboration, “as equals in ignorance,” focusing on the impact of the American republic on the “liberal world order in the nineteenth century” (p. ix). They unleash a tremendous wealth of knowledge in this study, and students of both American history and European economic thought and intellectual history will find much to digest on each page.

They have divided the manuscript into two parts. Part I traces the development of “Liberal Societies” (Chapter 2) and “Civilized Nations” (Chapter 3). “Europeans told themselves that engaging in commerce and war had made their nations more advanced — more civilized,” the Onufs argue (p. 95). Yet, this concept of what constituted a civilized nation exacerbated the sectional tension in the United States. “Two nations [within the U.S.] developed because of slavery. One defined itself as civilized because slavery gave it a prosperous economy, a genteel ruling elite, and a secure place in the liberal world. The other defined itself as civilized because commercial and industrial prowess secured its place in that same world” (p. 81). For this reason, they digressed into war, “the one to save the union and the other to save itself” (p. 108). In Chapter 4 they link this development to Adam Smith and other European enlightenment thinkers’ concept of “Moral Persons.” Finally, in Chapter 5, they show how northern and southern Americans expanded this concept into the intellectual framework of “think[ing] themselves a people” (p. 145).

Peter Onuf’s very visible hand is seen in Part II, which traces how “nationalist thinking” and the “consciousness” about “nationhood” pushed the United States to secession then war (p. 181). Chapters 6 and 7 examine how Adam Smith’s ideas of trade and markets influenced American political economy, most notably Thomas Jefferson and the National Republicans’ “oscillation between his republican optimism … and geopolitical realism” regarding trade and national economic development. “Could Americans trade freely with Europeans without compromising their independence?” the Onufs ask. “This simple question divided Americans along sectoral and sectional lines in the antebellum years and ultimately eroded the foundations of their union,” they suggest (p. 224-25). Chapter 8 chronicles the debates that followed over protection and free trade, with the authors noting the symbiotic relationship between protection and warfare. “Protectionists would prepare for war in order to secure true national independence and a more durable peace,” (259) whereas “free traders inverted protectionist logic at every point,” arguing that “protectionism was the second coming of mercantilism” (p. 272). In Chapters 9 and 10, the authors chart the development of the national identities of the North and South. “On the eve of Civil War, Americans no longer shared the founders’ fears of descending into a Hobbesian war of all against all,” the authors posit (p. 312). For Northerners, “preservation of the union meant war and success in war required the development of the modern, protective, war-making state protectionists had long advocated” (p. 303). Southerners “relocated the national ideal,” in part by moving towards commercial expansion in the late antebellum, and less surprisingly, by allowing “slavery to define the emergent southern nation” (p. 337). Thus, the brothers conclude, the “first fully modern war was the Civil War fought within the boundaries of the United States” (p. 345) yet with roots that stretched deeply into western concepts of nations, markets and war.

This book has some flaws. Primarily, it reads like a collection of essays rather than one narrative. The authors describe the book as “an essay in modern history” (p. 21). However, the overall package seems disjointed in places. Second, their thesis would need further buttressing if brought back into the broader discussion of nineteenth-century European history. For example, could not the Crimean War, which preceded the American Civil War and pitted national commercial interests of Britain and France against those of Russia, also fit the authors’ rubric of nations, markets, and wars? Finally, how could a book so rich in intellectual resources be published without a bibliography? Graduate students in particular will sorely miss not having a list of the rich bibliographic resources the authors use throughout.

What does this book offer the economic historian? First, it provides a thorough analysis of the development of transnational economic thought in the eighteenth century, and how this influenced antebellum American political economy. Their vigorous discussion of protectionism and free trade beliefs will challenge future writings on American tariff policy. Finally, they provide an economic context to the American Civil War that goes far beyond the Beardian determinism.

Jane Flaherty is the Assistant Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of History at Texas A&M University. Her book, The Revenue Imperative: Union Financial Policy during the American Civil War, will be published by Pickering and Chatto in 2008.

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century