Liberty and Slavery Cover

Liberty and Slavery

European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War

Niels Eichhorn

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2019, 216 pages

Book Review published on: December 18, 2020

In Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War, Niels Eichhorn examines separatist movements in Europe during the middle decades of the nineteenth century and how these movements personally and intellectually influenced the separatist movement in the United States. Eichhorn applies an Atlantic history perspective to explore the interconnections of the Atlantic world, and he successfully argues that separatism was not a unique American experience. By examining separatist movements in Poland, Ireland, Hungary, and Schleswig-Holstein, Eichhorn demonstrates that the secession of the South was not exceptional to the American experience but was part of a wider movement that swept the Atlantic region. He contends that these movements intellectually influenced each other and should not be viewed in isolation.

Eichhorn makes his case by providing a short summary of the European uprisings in 1830 and 1848 in his first two chapters and then recounting the personal experiences of several prominent European separatist immigrants in America. The failure of the separatist movements in Europe resulted in a large influx of separatists immigrating to America and Eichhorn chronicles that migration and then highlights some of the prominent leaders to support his premise. Eichhorn relates the experiences of Adam Gurowski, Kacper Tochman, and Ignatius Szymanski from Poland; Lajos Kossuth and Alexander Asbóth from Hungary; Thomas Meagher and John Mitchel from Ireland; and Theodor Olshausen, Rudolph Schleiden, and Hans Reimer Claussen from Schleswig-Holstein in the succeeding chapters. He uses these cases to explain how these individuals’ experiences in Europe shaped their responses to the emerging separatist crisis in America.

In addition to demonstrating the interconnectedness of the secessionist movements, Eichhorn also illustrates the diversity in separatists’ views and the complexities of the decision to choose sides during the American Civil War. Eichhorn asserts that separatists did not naturally side with the Confederacy as their views on separatism might imply. He proposes that the reasons for their loyalty were more complex than mere geography basing their loyalties on several ideological factors. Despite their separatist leanings, most of the immigrants supported the Union, and Eichhorn explains the factors contributing to this decision as he chronicles their experiences in America.

As Eichhorn chronicles the activities of the prominent leaders, he explains how they exploited the “language of slavery” to support their views. These leaders applied the word slavery in the context of the majority suppressing the interests of a minority in the political system, not in the context of chattel slavery—that is, the ownership of individuals and their descendants as property to be bought and sold. The separatists considered themselves slaves to the ruling class in their respective countries because they lacked political or social power and ultimately liberty to advance their interests. This perspective, and the ideals it informed, infused the language of the secessionist leaders in Europe much like the Southern elites and extremists used the language of slavery as they accused the North of tyranny.

If you are looking for a book that describes the horrors of chattel slavery in the American experience, then this is not a book for you. However, if you are interested in understanding the American secessionist movement in the larger context of the Atlantic world and how prominent separatists from Europe influenced the American separatist movement, then Liberty and Slavery is an essential work for your collection. This is a professionally researched and scholarly work with nineteen pages of endnotes and an extensive bibliography. His use of primary sources from Germany and Poland as well as his extensive secondary sources is impressive, and his research is apparent in the pages of his work.

Eichhorn does a commendable job of placing the secession of the South in the larger context of Atlantic history, while also demonstrating how the backgrounds of separatist immigrants influenced their responses to the American secessionist movement. Although not a military history, Liberty and Slavery is relevant to military professionals who desire to expand their understanding of America’s crucible event and gain an ideological understanding of separatism.

Book Review written by: Col. Ken Turner, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas