July 7, 2014

With events continuing in the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, it strikes me that one of the more overlooked aspects of the war continues to be its global impact. The Union’s victory over the Confederacy not only dealt a fatal blow to slavery in the United States, but it served as a catalyst to human rights reform across the world.

We all know the famous lines from Abraham Lincoln: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.” “[A] new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”


But we tend to forget that the party that nominated Lincoln for president in 1860 invented the phrase “crimes against humanity.” The Republican Party’s 1860 national platform branded the recently reopened African slave trade a “crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country and age.”

We also tend to forget that in 1862 there were only two independent sovereign nations ruled by Africans or people of African descent—Haiti and Liberia—and that until that year the United States had refused to extend official diplomatic recognition to those nations because of the influence of slaveholding states in the federal government. But in 1862, President Lincoln took the “revolutionary” step of offering diplomatic recognition to the two “black republics,” as they were frequently called.

We see, then, that the Civil War was indeed a global event—with global implications. Most historians point out that if the Confederacy had won, slavery in the western hemisphere would have continued for at least another half century. Instead, with the Emancipation Proclamation, and then the 13th Amendment, and the end of slavery in the United States, only Brazil (an independent former colony of Portugal) and Cuba (a colony of Spain) continued to maintain a system of human slavery. But with emancipation in the United States, America was in a position to take the lead on global ethical and moral issues—on global human rights.

In the decades after the Civil War, then, the United States was able to use its newly-found moral standing to end, once and for all, the Atlantic slave trade (in collaboration with Great Britain) and to pressure Spain to end slavery in Cuba. Once slavery in Cuba had ended (in 1886, two decades after the end of the Civil War), Brazil could see the handwriting on the wall and ended its slave system two years later.

The Civil War, then, had monumental implications for the role of the United States in the world area. Over the years, many Americans—ranging from Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams to William H. Seward and James G. Blaine—understood that an active American role in the world hinged on domestic American reform.

Recognizing Liberia and Haiti meant that the U.S. could deal with the rest of the world, and at least potentially be John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.” The “new birth of freedom” proclaimed by Lincoln could now steer American foreign policy and, in turn, transform the “Monroe Doctrine”—previously a relatively general statement of American principles —into an instrument with moral and ethical overtones that justified a forceful U.S. presence, throughout the hemisphere.

The United States began, even in the midst of a civil war, to stride the Western Hemisphere like a colossus. The rearrangement of the U.S. relationship with the world, brought about by the Civil War, and the power of the message of human rights, are clearly illustrated by the U.S. relationship with its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors during that war. Crimes against humanity could never again be allowed to continue.

Kenneth Blume, Ph.D., is a Professor of History in the Department of Humanities and Communication at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

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