In this lesson, we explore the American Civil War's effects on European geopolitics and the remotely connected creation of the Dominion of Canada only a few years after the war's close.
U.S. Civil War and Dominion of Canada
Canada and the United States are two countries which share many more things than other neighboring countries. While there are major differences - French Canada and Los Angeles, for instance, share very little - both countries share similar pastimes, cuisine, and possess a shared, immigrant heritage. Despite how alike the two countries are today, in the 1860s, the two countries were going in opposite directions: one tearing itself apart in Civil War and the other coming together to form a new country.
Civil War's Effects
While the American Civil War's terrible toll in the United States is well known, what is less widely discussed is the war's impact abroad, particularly in Europe. The American Civil War and the Union's success in maintaining a unified nation also scored a symbolic victory in Europe for the American republic.
In Europe, the 19th-century saw the absolute monarchies of the past slowly transform into constitutional monarchies where the king and parliament ruled in tandem. Many monarchists and political theorists felt that republics were doomed to failure, just as the French Revolution's attempted republic had collapsed in less than a decade.
Many felt the secession of the Southern states was a natural progression in America's hopeless attempt at a republican government. The success of the Northern states in preserving a unified republic proved this notion false.
The sides the European powers chose during the American Civil War changed the face of European geopolitics as well. Britain, who had naturally been unfriendly with the American government after the American Revolution and the War of 1812, supported the Confederacy in theory but wavered when it came to actively aiding the Southern war effort.
Despite British political interests, the British public would have heavily opposed British aid of a slavery-supported regime in any state, jeopardizing stability at home. Nonetheless, Britain still nearly declared war on the United States when a Union captain boarded a British naval vessel and seized two Confederate emissaries aboard.
In response, the British demanded an apology and threatened war, but serious conflict between the two nations never occurred. France, too, proved unfriendly to the Union as they had colonial ambitions in Mexico, which the U.S. heavily opposed.
Whereas the Confederacy was non-materially supported by the major powers of western Europe, the Union gained a tacit ally in Tsar Alexander II's Russia. Tsar Alexander freed Russia's serfs in 1861, though his support of the Union had less to do with his reforming nature and more to do with Russia's mid-19th century rivalry with Great Britain.
Russia had lost the Crimean War on its own soil in the mid-1850s, and Russia heavily opposed increased British presence on the seas around Russian territory in the Black and Baltic Seas. Russia's rivalry and the U.S.'s unfriendly disposition toward Britain made the two natural allies. Though Russia did not enter the war, many historians count Russia's friendly countenance with the Union as one of the major reasons why Britain did not get directly involved in the Confederate cause.
Dominion of Canada
While the Civil War was ripping the United States apart, north of the border in British Canada, a new country was starting to come together. This development came about largely due to two factors.
- British settlers living in Canada had long feared their southern neighbor would eventually try to conquer all of North America, as per the American theory of manifest destiny, which claimed it was the United States' birthright to dominate North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Canadians feared this naturally extended over the entire continent. The American Civil War worsened these fears, as Canadians feared retribution for Britain's quiet support of the Confederacy.
- While this perceived need for a strong, united counterweight to American aggression in North America played a large part in the creation of Canada, internal factors motivated Canadians as well. Indeed, the railroads from east to west were disjointed at best, and British-Canadian nationalists wanted more control over the internal affairs of the North American territories.
As a result, in March of 1867, the British Parliament passed the British North American Act, granting the remaining British territories in North America powers over roads, schools, defense, and infrastructure. The three British territories of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia agreed and formed the Dominion of Canada on July 1st, 1867. Signing the bill was Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald. In the process, Canada East and Canada West split to form the provinces of Quebec and Ontario respectively.
Despite this initial union, the Canada we know today came together in a piecemeal fashion. Two years later, the Dominion of Canada purchased Rupert's Land from the Hudson Bay Company. This was a vast territory stretching from the western prairies north and east as far as Ellesmere Island and modern-day northern Quebec. In 1870, the province of Manitoba was carved out of this land and admitted to the Dominion of Canada. British Columbia joined the following year. In 1880, Canada admitted all of the remaining North American British territories and islands into the Canadian union with the exception of Newfoundland. Newfoundland remained separate from Canada until 1949.
That Canada was creating their Union as the United States' was in danger of falling apart was not a coincidence of history. Fears about U.S. retribution against Britain for its support of the Confederacy provided part of the impetus for creating the Dominion of Canada. In addition, the American Civil War's effects were felt by more than just her northern neighbor, as the Union's preservation stymied the hopes of monarchists in western Europe. Moreover, the Civil War affected, and was affected by, European geopolitics and the 19th-century rivalry between Great Britain and Russia. A rivalry which, had it not existed, might have turned the American Civil War into a multi-state conflict.
You'll have the ability to do the following after this lesson:
- Describe how the American Civil War affected the political climate in Europe
- Explain how the then-developing Dominion od Canada was affected by the U.S. Civil War