Theses Doctoral

Law, Power, and the Anglo-American Relationship during Reconstruction of the United States, 1863-1878

Swett, Brooks Tucker

The Civil War and Reconstruction remade the United States. The defeat of the Confederacy, end of slavery, and postwar amendments to the Constitution inaugurated a new stage in national life. The most commanding histories of the period have presented the regional and national contests over the legacies of the war. Yet, the forces shaping the nation’s transformation and the effects this process unleashed were not confined within American borders. Drawing on British, American, and Irish archives, this dissertation reveals international influences and consequences at the core of the nineteenth-century reconstitution of the United States.

The legal transformation of the United States after the Civil War required the assertion of American federal sovereignty in the international sphere. Fulfillment of key aspects of Reconstruction depended upon recognition by other nations and empires. Certain subjects, such as the terms of United States citizenship, were by definition international matters and necessitated coordination with the laws and policies of foreign powers. Other fundamental issues of Reconstruction, though not intrinsically international, also compelled attention to precedents, developments, and potential ramifications abroad. Agents of the United States government could not resolve the central issues of Reconstruction unilaterally. Their debates and decisions had consequences abroad, particularly in the British Empire, during a critical period of state-building worldwide.

Each chapter of this dissertation examines international dimensions of a key question of governance and canonical subject of Civil War and Reconstruction scholarship – emancipation, land reform, democracy, citizenship, treason, and federalism – to gauge the far-reaching factors that shaped American policymaking and its results. The analysis demonstrates the multiple layers of the questions the war unearthed. It also establishes that changes in constitutional and other domestic law were inextricable from the nation’s relations with foreign powers, particularly Britain. This approach captures Reconstruction as the internationally disruptive event that it was and allows for a more complete accounting of what the Civil War and Reconstruction did and did not accomplish. Developments during these years destabilized the nation’s position and commitments in the international realm but did not provide a clear path forward. The transformation of the United States’ role and power in the international realm proved more gradual and restrained than many Americans and Britons anticipated. Divisions over the Constitution as well as challenges emanating from abroad impeded the assertion of federal power both within and beyond the nation’s borders.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
McCurry, Stephanie
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 20, 2022