Defining Western Civilization: Christendom By Any Other Name

There can be little doubt that Western Civilization is and will for the foreseeable future remain the dominant civilization of the world. The nations of Western Civilization have, over the past several centuries, spread their languages, their cultures, their ideologies, and their political rule to every continent. Despite the decline of Europe, the home of this civilization for the bulk of its lifespan thus far, the ideas of the West continue to be the major shaping influences of the modern world, though the focal points of that world have since moved to North America and are now moving to Asia. Ideas such as communism, democracy, and human rights are finding new homes in India, China, and Japan, far from their birthplaces in Germany, Greece, and Italy. While this renders the term “Western Civilization,” with its directional emphasis, a quaint anachronism, the ideas themselves have taken on a renewed vigor in their current host nations. The first step toward understanding the reasons for the dominance of Western Civilization and for responding to its movement into new and foreign terrain is defining Western Civilization itself.

To define Western Civilization, the term itself must, in a sense, be dismissed. It is clearly not merely “Western,” meaning European, but rather universal in its embrace and pertinence. The “Western” idea of liberty is equally true and meaningful in both France and China. A close look at the history of Western Civilization even before its globalization in the modern era reveals that it has never been strictly “Western.” Its most ancient ancestors, in fact, lie altogether outside of the borders of Europe. The genetics of Western Civilization reveal that it is and has been since its inception an amalgam of peoples and cultures, often with widely divergent worldviews and geographies.

Ancient Greece is generally, and rightly, credited as the birthplace of many distinctively Western ideas, including its political and philosophical systems, its art and literature, its science and medicine, and much else. The Greeks themselves, however, often credited their forebears among the Egyptians and the Babylonians as the progenitors of a great deal of their knowledge. A sizeable portion of this credit is undeserved and may be attributed to the desire, common until fairly recently, to link one’s original ideas with the respectability of antiquity;1 these attributions, however, do demonstrate a Greek admiration for and imitation of the knowledge of the Egyptians and Babylonians.

Fittingly, these two nations also figure prominently among the shaping influences upon the other great early strand in the DNA of Western Civilization, the Jews. Genesis 11:31 claims the Mesopotamian city of Ur as the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, and the stories that make up much of the Jewish scriptures exhibit a common origin with or perhaps an improvement upon the traditional stories of Mesopotamia, such as the creation story of the Enuma Elish and the flood story of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Similarly, Jewish law reflects an improved and universalized application of the rule of lex talionis evident in Mesopotamian law codes such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.2 Jewish influence by the Egyptians is demonstrated in the Jews’ own record in the Book of Exodus of their period of enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent escape therefrom.

The commingling of these two cultures, the Greek and the Jewish, began in earnest with the conquest of the Israelite lands by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Although the relationship between the two was often a tumultuous one, as in the suppression of a distinctively Jewish identity under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the subsequent revolt of the Jews against Seleucid Greek rule under the Maccabees, it nonetheless bore spectacular fruit, particularly in the Roman period. The production of the Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language and the Jewish-Hellenic synthesis philosophy of Philo of Alexandria are two noteworthy early examples among many. By far the most important fruit of this contact between the Greek and Jewish cultural systems was the Christian Church. Early Christians employed Greek language and ideas to convey the events of the life of a Jewish man and their understanding of the significance of those events, which they saw as the culmination of the history and hopes of the Jewish people. When the early Christian author Tertullian wrote in his blustering attack on Christian heretics “what indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” he had hoped for a negative response.3 Had he stopped to consider the origins of his own faith, however, or had access to its later developments, he would have heard his question resoundingly answered to the contrary of his expectations. The Christian Church, and Christians more generally, would continue this grand synthesis of the Greek and the Jewish throughout the Middle Ages, incorporating along with them a number of other cultures as well, most notably the Germanic culture of the Northern European peoples. Indeed, as Christopher Dawson has described it, Western Civilization is the product of “several peoples, composed of different racial elements, all co-operating in the development of a common cultural heritage.”4

When using the term “Western Civilization” one is referring to a great amalgam of cultures and peoples, ideas and worldviews, including but by no means limited to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Germans, all brought together within the framework of Christianity. Early Christian writers, the great majority of whom were Romans writing in the Greek language, were fond of bragging about the expansion of their religion well outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire among the various barbarian nations which surrounded it. They were not, of course, conscious of the great civilization which would be forged by the unity they were bringing to these peoples. Christianity was able to provide a framework which united such disparate cultures while sustaining their local customs because of its emphasis on one particular and central idea, namely, the Incarnation. As Dawson explains, Western Civilization’s “religious ideal,” unlike that of the Chinese, Indian, and other great civilizations, “has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world.”5 Western Civilization has had the marked tendency to regard all knowledge as worthy and to absorb this knowledge into itself, further accreting ever more peoples and their traditions while widening its own civilizational embrace. This is why theories of the dominance of Western Civilization which have seen race or, more recently, geography as the primary impetus fall far short of possessing full explanatory power.

Jared Diamond’s thesis in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, that the success of the West in comparison with other cultures is the result of European geography’s ability to absorb and combine elements from surrounding civilizations fails to account for a number points which must be considered. Diamond’s thesis, for example, does not account for the history of locations such as Alexandria, Egypt, which was a center for the combination, incubation, and distribution of ideas in Western Civilization but has since fallen into stagnation after being acquired and enculturated by another civilization. More importantly, his theory ignores altogether the human factor, or what Dawson calls the “psychological factor,” the place of people and their ideas, which is the primary factor in the shaping of a civilization.6 It was the “psychological factor” of the Christian belief in the Incarnation which provided the glue to hold together such divergent and disparate peoples and traditions as those of which Western Civilization consists.

From an early point, and perhaps because of its dual parentage in Greek and Jewish civilizations, Christians demonstrated a unique openness to the beliefs and practices of a variety of peoples. In the words of the late historian Roland N. Stromberg, “no other civilization … has ever possessed the capacity for change that ours has shown. This was probably the result of its complex inheritance, which came to it from several sources.”7 With some exceptions (such as Tertullian, quoted previously), Christians generally viewed their faith not only as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations, but as the completion of the philosophies of non-Jews as well. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr unequivocally asserted that Christian “doctrines … appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul.”8 From this centrality of the Incarnation, Justin was able to simultaneously assert that the body, reason, and soul of man, which were taken on and redeemed by God in the Incarnation, were also given by God to man as tools for man’s use in acquiring wisdom and virtue.9 With this foundation in the Incarnation and its implications, Justin found it acceptable to commend a number of ideas of the Platonists, the Stoics, the Greek poets, and others as both wise in themselves and consonant with Christian teaching.10 This Christian openness to foreign ideas continued throughout the history of Western Civilization and allowed it to both absorb ideas from outside, such as the medieval Islamic translations of and commentaries upon Aristotelian texts, as well as find new homes in a stunning variety of ethno-linguistic and cultural groups, transforming each of these to meet its own requirements while not displacing their native heritages.

From the foregoing, a definition of Western Civilization can be formulated which removes the misguided focus on geography and favors instead a more complete understanding of the history and nature of the civilization itself. Western Civilization is not strictly European or entirely Western. It is, rather, that collection of disparate cultures which has united itself around the fundamental notion of the Incarnation. Western Civilization is, in short, Christendom.

The immediate objection to such a formulation is the observation that Western Civilization has, beginning with the Enlightenment, entered a period of turning away from its Christian heritage which has resulted in the modern so-called post-Christian societies of Europe and the emergent post-Christian societies of North America. With such a turn to secularism in the former domains of Christendom and with such nations as India and China, which are not now and never have been majority Christian nations, taking on and internalizing ideas which originated in the West, some may see the designation of Western Civilization as Christendom as unnecessary and antiquated. To adopt such a position, however, is to ignore or to be ignorant of the overwhelming influence Christianity has had upon the formation of this civilization. As Dawson points out,

In fact, no civilization, not even that of ancient Greece, has ever undergone such a continuous and profound process of change as Western Europe has done during the last nine hundred years. It is impossible to explain this fact in purely economic terms by a materialistic interpretation of history. The principle of change has been a spiritual one and the progress of Western civilization is intimately related to the dynamic ethos of Christianity, which has gradually made Western man conscious of his moral responsibility and his duty to change the world.11

Although Christianity may be in the process of becoming a minority religion even within the historical borders of Christendom and although the ideas of Christendom are now put into practice with more vigor and among nations with far larger populations in lands yet unbaptized, the force of Christianity in the shaping of Western Civilization cannot be ignored or downplayed. Even the very ideas which are replacing traditional Christian religiosity among those living within Christendom’s native lands are the product, or perhaps the byproduct, of Christianity. Scientific materialism, for example, would hardly be a tenable worldview without the process of the development of scientific thought in the West, a process which largely occurred not only at the hands and in the minds of believing Christians but also, and more importantly, as a result of the impact of Christian ideas. The Christian scholastics of the Middle Ages, for example, in their attempts to reconcile the contents of the Christian faith with the philosophy of Aristotle, “laid a solid foundation of logical thought on which later science could build.”12 The early giant of the Scientific Revolution, Galileo Galilei, was himself inspired and driven by his belief that “this grand book, the universe, … is written in the language of mathematics.”13 This Platonic notion refracted through the lens of his medieval Christian heritage drove Galileo to attempt to formulate mathematical proofs for Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. There are, in addition, more subtle ways in which Christianity made modern science and its sickly cousin, philosophical naturalism, possible; for example, the idea of monotheism renders the cosmos intelligible as natural forces are freed from the provenance of various competing deities and instead placed under the providence of a single divine entity, thereby imbuing the universe with an orderliness and meaningfulness it could not formerly possess.

Whatever Western Civilization may become in the future, it remains the product of Christianity and is as yet inseparable from that foundation. That many of its members are turning away from that foundation and that other civilizations are attempting to adopt its ideas in a piecemeal manner without also adopting that foundation is a challenge Western Civilization is only now beginning to face for the first time. How radically Western Civilization will be altered, whether its products can survive outside of their natural habitat and without the food sources they have hitherto depended upon, and, indeed, whether Western Civilization can survive these upheavals at all are yet to be seen. Until that time, Western Civilization remains what it has been since its inception two thousand years ago in the incipient stage of that great synthesis of Judaism and Greece; it is Christendom.

Notes

1 The attribution of the Babylonians as the source of the astronomical knowledge which enabled Thales of Miletus’s famous prediction of the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC, for example, is almost certainly false. See Dmitri Panchenko, “Thales Prediction of a Solar Eclipse,” in Journal for the History of Astronomy (November, 1994): 275-288.

2 Where the two most notably diverge and where the Jewish law exhibits an improvement over the other Mesopotamian law codes, like that of Hammurabi, is in its application of the law to all people. Leviticus 24:22, for example, makes explicit that there will be one law which applies to all people. Whereas Hammurabi prescribes lex talionis for offenses among equals, the Jewish law prescribes this standard for nearly all offenses by any party against any party. The difference is undoubtedly the result of the previous improvement of the Jewish creation story, in which man is created as a child (in his “image” and “likeness,” according to Genesis 1:26-27) of God and his co-operator, over the Mesopotamian, in which man is created as the slave of the gods. This Jewish emphasis on equality would enter deeply into the DNA of Western Civilization.

3 Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” 7.

4 Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), 399.

5 Christopher Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” in Jacques Maritain, Peter Wust, and Christopher Dawson, Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 228.

6 Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

7 Roland N. Stromberg, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 8-9.

8 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” 10.

9 Ibid., 7.

10 Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 20.

11 Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 23.

12 Stromberg, 32.

13 Galileo, The Assayer.

The Cold War and Modern Identity

Although the 20th century was a period great trials and tribulations throughout the world, including the two world wars, the anti-colonialist movements throughout Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, and the many massacres and genocides, such as the Turkish massacre of Armenians and the Holocaust carried out in Nazi-occupied Europe, if a single defining event must be pinpointed, the defining feature of the 20th century must undoubtedly be said to be the Cold War. The Cold War, which lasted for nearly half of the 20th century, saw first Europe and then most of the rest of the world divided into two camps, communist and authoritarian on one side and capitalist and democratic on the other. The split between these two groups of powers, the former headed by the Soviet Union and the latter led by the United States, was viewed by both sides as an apocalyptic struggle of good versus evil, liberty versus oppression, and democracy versus tyranny. Both sides of the Cold War, the communistic and authoritarian as well as the capitalistic and democratic, have deep roots in the history of Western civilization; the Cold War, then, represented a kind of coming of age and decision point in Western culture, in which sets of principles which had been at tension with one another nearly since the inception of Western thought finally reached a point at which one idea must triumph over the other. Although, of course, the capitalist and democratic ideas won out over the communist and authoritarian, as with nearly any conflict of such a clearly Hegelian nature, the conflict produced a kind of synthesis in which the representatives of capitalism also absorbed portions of communism and the representatives of democracy also absorbed or made peace with elements of authoritarianism. In the end, the Cold War was not so much a victory for either side as an exercise in Hegelian dialectic, in which the final result was, while dominated by one side, a synthesis of both sides.

Although the birth of communism is most readily associated with the labor movements of the 19th century and especially with the thought of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the famous, or perhaps infamous, Manifesto of the Communist Party, as even they point out in the Manifesto, the roots of communism are much deeper in history, and extend to the very origins of Western thought in both of its earliest contributors, Greek philosophy and Jewish religion.1 The similarities between Marx’s ideas and the communal utopia expounded upon by Plato in his Republic are glaring and have been noted by many commentators in the past. Desmond Lee, a scholar in classics and ancient philosophy, for instance, has drawn attention to Plato’s injunction that “both private property and the family are to be abolished” in Plato’s utopia.2 The abolition of private property is, of course, a cornerstone of Marxist philosophy. Although the attempt would later be abandoned, especially during and following World War II, during its earlier, more idealistic phase, the leadership of the Soviet Union, in hopes of creating a communist utopia, also made “a sustained effort … to undermine the family,” which included “establish[ing] collective kitchens and day care centers.”3 According to Nicholas V. Riasanovksy and Mark D. Steinberg, both professors of Russian history, “some Bolshevik leaders even spoke of ‘free love,’” a practice and principle which also bears a similarity to the counsel of Plato.4

In regards to the Jewish antecedents of communist thought, the prolific 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell, among many others, has pointed out that the “soteriology” and “eschatology” of Marxism are essentially biblical in character; Russell even provides a handy “dictionary” to Marx’s ideas:

Yahweh=Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah=Marx
The Elect=The Proletariat
The Church=The Communist Party
The Second Coming=The Revolution
Hell=Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium=The Communist Commonwealth5

Marxist communism in both the form developed by Marx himself and in its later develops in the Soviet Union represents a combination of these and other similar elements in Western thought.

Similarly, democracy and capitalism in their modern liberal forms, which largely emerged from the thought of the Enlightenment, also have deep roots in Western thought. In the first book of history by the West’s first historian, The History of Herodotus, the wars between the Persians and the Greeks in the 5th century BCE are identified as struggles between “freedom” and “slavery” and consistently portrayed in such terms and ideas throughout.6 The Greek polis of Athens is, of course, generally identified as the world’s first democracy and even Sparta, with its characteristically militaristic and authoritarian society, has traditionally been granted a measure of respect as in some sense embodying the first fundaments of later Western democratic ideals, as, for instance, in its insistence on multiple rulers who must reach unanimous agreement in matters of policy so that no one individual can hold absolute power or unilateral decision-making authority.

Just as with communism, democracy and capitalism also had their antecedents in Jewish thought. Historian Thomas Cahill, for instance, has pointed out that “capitalism, communism, and democracy” are all in some sense

children of the Bible, … modeled on biblical faith and demanding of their adherents that they always hold in their hearts a belief in the future and keep before their eyes the vision of a better tomorrow, whether that tomorrow contains a larger gross domestic product or a workers’ paradise. … Democracy … grows directly out of the Israelite vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny. There is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without the intervention of the Jews.7

While democracy, capitalism, and communism, as well as the measure of authoritarianism which the latter implies, all have roots in the very earliest origins of Western thought and have existed alongside each other in that thought as well as in practice since their inception, they have clearly existed in tension and in competition. With the onset of the Cold War, this tension took on new proportions and finally demanded a resolution.

The American poet Walt Whitman once poignantly wrote that it was on the United States that the “Earth’s résumé entire floats” and, addressing the United States itself, added “the antecedent nations sink or swim with thee.”8 In other words, the United States, in the view of Whitman, acts as the heir and representative of the entirety of the tradition of Western civilization. While there may be those who would debate Whitman’s point, there is undoubtedly a great measure of truth to it. The United States, more than any other nation, enshrined the democratic principles of Western thought in its founding documents and principles. No nation embodies Enlightenment thought on politics and economics, as well as in other areas, more than the United States. The principles of the equality of all men before the law, of popular participation in government and the insistence that the state possess the consent of the governed, of the freedom of the individual human conscience, and other similar principles which are essentially unique to Western thought all entered into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, two documents which might, not inaccurately, be referred to as American scripture.

In 1917, with the Bolshevik Revolution and the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union, an, in a sense, equal-and-opposite of the United States was established. If the United States can be considered the representative of the democratic and capitalist principles of Western thought, the Soviet Union can be seen as the embodiment of the authoritarian and communist principles. The Soviet government nearly immediately set about trying to build an ostensibly more egalitarian society, “a new realm of freedom and equality, free of conflict.”9

This age-old dream of such a utopia was alluring even to those who lived in the capitalist democracies and republics of the United States and Western Europe. This is particularly true of Marxism’s claim that “the proletarian revolution marks the end of … [the] historic process.”10 David Gress, a historian whose work has focused on Western identity, has pointed out that this view of communism as replacing and surpassing, perhaps in some sense fulfilling, capitalist democracies drew the admiration of Western intellectuals for the Soviet Union. Following World War II and the collapse of European fascism as well as the witness of worldwide atrocities, the conscience of the West was piqued. According to Gress, “what they needed was the secularized religious impulse that impelled political and intellectual leaders to continue the search for the perfect society, for the revolutionary transformation of all existing conditions, for the place and the moment of the leap into the kingdom of freedom.”11 It was this that allowed the Soviet Union to attain the “moral high ground of anticapitalism” both in the minds of its own leaders as well as in the minds of many Westerners.12

Although the two had been rather cordial allies during World War II and had defeated Nazi Germany with its fascist ideals through their combined efforts, the United States and the Soviet Union were doomed to a wide split from one another. Almost immediately after their mutual victory over Germany, the two sides of the ideological split retreated from each other and entrenched themselves into their ideological camps. As early as 5 March 1946, less than a full year after the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied powers, Winston Churchill, who had served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the majority of World War II, referred to this ideological split, using the phrase “iron curtain,” which would later become popular parlance in describing the situation of the Cold War:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.13

On the other side of that “iron curtain,” of course, were the United States and its democratic and capitalistic allies in Europe, including Churchill’s own United Kingdom. A line had been drawn in the proverbial sand. In the words of Louis J. Halle, a political scientist who worked in the U.S. State Department during the Cold War:

In ideological terms, the Cold War presented itself as a worldwide contest between liberal democracy and Communism. Each side looked forward to the eventual supremacy of its system all over the earth. The official Communist goal was the liberation of mankind from capitalist oppression. Ideologically minded Westerners interpreted this as signifying that Moscow was trying to impose its own authoritarian system on a world it meant to rule. Americans, for their part, had traditionally looked forward to the liberation of mankind from the oppression of autocracy, and to the consequent establishment of their own liberal system throughout the world. To the ideologists in Moscow this meant that “the imperialist ruling circles” in America were trying to enslave all mankind under the yoke of Wall Street.14

This ideological split and the consequent perceptions on either side of it would lead to one of the world’s most protracted and widespread conflicts, which played itself out on nearly every continent of the world in wars both “hot” and “cold.”

The Cold War would, of course, end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This collapse is popularly viewed as the final triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism over communism and authoritarianism. Some commentators, such as Francis Fukuyama, a former deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff, have even went as far as declaring the end of the Cold War to be “the end of history,” in an ironic use of the same Hegelian ideas Marx made use of in declaring communism to be the final result of the historical dialectic.15

The truth of the situation, however, is that, in a far more Hegelian fashion, the result of the dialectic of the two antitheses was a synthesis. The United States, even while expounding on the virtues of democracy, supported autocratic regimes throughout the world, such as that of Shah Mohammad Pahlavi in Persia, on the condition that they opposed communism. While it could be argued that such support was hypocritical, it may also, more positively, be portrayed as an acknowledgement of the value of authoritarian rule in some cultural contexts. In addition, throughout the Cold War, the United States and, to an arguably greater extent, its European allies adopted a number of reforms which reflected the social ideals of communism, including protection for workers’ rights, social welfare systems, universalized healthcare, and others. In the end, these concessions to communism are a large part of what brought down the Soviet Union; in granting that the communists had a point in regards to their criticisms of wealth and poverty in the Western world and the exploitation of the laboring class, the capitalistic democratic nations regained the moral high ground and won the war of ideas. The West became the synthesis, rendering the antithesis obsolete.

Notes 1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 50: Marx (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 419.

2 Desmond Lee, “Translator’s Introduction” in Plato, The Republic (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), xliv.

3 Nicholas V. Riasanovksy and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 2011), 595.

4 Ibid.

5 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 364.

6 Herodotus, The History, Book IX, 45, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 6: Herodotus and Thucydides (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 298.

7 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 249.

8 Walt Whitman, “Thou Mother With Thy Equal Brood,” 4, Leaves of Grass (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 564.

9 Riasanovksy and Steinberg, History of Russia, 482.

10 Ibid., 481.

11 David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 404.

12 Ibid.

13 Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace,” http://www.nato.int/docu/speech/1946/s460305a_e.htm (accessed 30 December 2012).

14 Louis J. Halle, “The Cold War as History,” in Kevin Reilly, Readings in World Civilizations, Volume 2: The Development of the Modern World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 265.

15 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” in Marc A. Genest, ed., Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations, Second Edition (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2004), 393.

Amazon.com Widgets

The American Civil War: A Case Study in 19th Century Diplomacy

Just as in previous eras, diplomacy and international relations functioned as tools by which nations sought to advance their respective interests relative to the interests of other nations in the 19th century. One event of the 19th century that serves as an example of many of the features and facets of diplomacy and international relations as it was practiced in that period is the American Civil War. In the Civil War, a part of the United States broke from the rest of the nation and formed its own ostensibly independent nation, the Confederate States of America. In a complex situation which combined domestic affairs with international relations, the struggle between the two sides included negotiations for prisoner exchanges and attempts by the Confederacy to draw certain European powers into the conflict on its side.

One feature of the Civil War which makes it an interesting case study in diplomacy is that the two powers primarily involved were two halves of the same nation, sharing in a common history and identity, and yet one of those powers, the Confederacy, tried to separate itself from the other and regard itself as a different entity. The other power, the Union, attempted to keep the states which had joined the Confederacy from breaking away but was forced by circumstance to interact with the Confederacy as if it were a separate power. This created an unique situation for both powers, one in which domestic affairs and international relations had to be combined and treated as synonymous in some sense.

One example of this situation may be found in the attempted prisoner exchanges between the Union and the Confederacy. The weapons used by both belligerents in the war, like nearly all weapons before the 20th century, were notoriously ineffective. The soldiers behind the weapons were also often undertrained and sometimes even entirely untrained. As a result, far more casualties were wounded than were killed and far more enemy soldiers were captured than wounded or killed by either side. Very early in the war “the ranks of prisoners began to swell.”1 In total, by the end of the war, the Union had “captured and held about 220,000 prisoners” and the Confederacy had taken approximately 210,000 prisoners.2

Because of these very large numbers of captured soldiers, the two sides found it difficult to adequately provide for those whom they held captive and devised a complex system of values by which to exchange the enemy’s prisoners for their own. Each prisoner was assigned a value determined by his rank and was traded to the enemy based on that value. A captured noncommissioned officer, for instance, was worth two privates. A captured general, on the other hand, was worth as many as 60 privates.

Of particular significance in regards to the complexities of mixing domestic affairs with international affairs due to the nature of the Civil War is the treatment prisoners received at the hands of the Confederacy versus that under the Union. Confederate soldiers captured by Union forces found far better conditions than Union soldiers captured by Confederate forces. The Union had hopes of restoring the Confederate states to itself and so tended to treat prisoners better in the hopes of repatriating them to itself in the future. The Union was also more willing to parole prisoners than the Confederacy, as can be seen by the 329,963 soldiers the Union “paroled or exchanged” by war’s end versus the 152,015 prisoners the Confederacy had “paroled or exchanged.”3

Also demonstrative of these complexities is the failed attempts of the Confederacy to gain the recognition and support of European governments. Immediately after secession, Confederate leaders had believed that European dependency on cotton from the states of the Confederacy would lead the nations of Europe to support the Confederate cause. Contrary to their hopes, however, the British government issued an official “proclamation of neutrality, which the other European powers followed” within only about a month of the war beginning.4

The Confederacy made several attempts throughout the years of the war to try to gain legitimacy through securing the recognition of European governments and possibly even bringing them in on its side. They sent ambassadors, for instance, to the French and English capitals in the hopes of persuading those nations’ respective leaders to support the Confederacy. They also, in part, determined battlefield tactics based on their belief that the Europeans might be swayed by what they saw on the battlefield. General Robert E. Lee, for instance, justified his strike into Northern territory, which seemed to go against the stated Confederate desire not to conquer the entire United States but to establish their own independent nation in the South, by reasoning that “a victory on Northern soil might spark foreign recognition for the young Confederate States, particularly from Britain and/or France.”5

Britain and France, for their parts, both exercised some very shrewd diplomacy in regards to the war, which they saw as a regional conflict from which they may be able to secure some profit. To this end, both European nations refused to give official recognition to the Confederacy, believing that doing so would alienate the United States. They did, however, agree to and engage in trading with the Confederacy as well as the Union. In this way, they were able to secure financial gain from both sides in the conflict and set themselves up for future diplomatic success no matter which side won the war.

The American Civil War was a complex situation which involved a strange combination of domestic and foreign affairs, and exhibits the intricacies of both as they were practiced in the 19th century. The issues of prisoner exchange and involvement of European powers both serve as examples of this complexity and importance.


1 David. J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 629.
2 Ibid, 628.
3 Ibid., 629.
4 U.S. Department of State, “Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy,” accessed 18 November 2012, http://future.state.gov/when/timeline/1861_timeline/prevent_confederacy.html.
5 Eicher, 337.