Book Reviews

ZVENGROWSKI: Jefferson Davis, Napoleonic France, and the Nature of Confederate Ideology (2020)

Posted 12/9/2020 Reviewed By Caleb W. Southern

Jefferson Davis, Napoleonic France, and the Nature of Confederate Ideology, 1815-1870 by Jeffrey Zvengrowski. Louisiana State University Press, 2020. Cloth, ISBN: 9780807170670. $55.00.

Jeffrey Zvengrowski, a professor at the University of Virginia and assistant editor of the Papers of George Washington, has produced a truly fresh interpretation of the Confederate States of America. His book, Jefferson Davis, Napoleonic France, and the Nature of Confederate Ideology, 1815-1870, draws from several historiographical trends and approaches.

Zvengrowski's history is among the first to bring a transnational lens to bear on the politics that produced and motivated the Confederacy. The author dismisses simple characterizations of the Confederacy as fighting for states’ rights against a more consolidationist Union; instead, he portrays the Confederacy as a complicated battleground between true states’ rightists and consolidationists, both of whom were caught up in the swirling British-French politics of Europe. Jefferson Davis, Zvengrowski argues, claimed to be fighting more for white supremacy and equality rather than slavery in the abstract (119). Davis, like Calhoun, “saw the French Revolution and Bonapartist by extension as emulating the American Revolution, which stood, in his view, for white equality and supremacy” (80).

The War of 1812 plays an important role in Zvengrowski’s history. In the aftermath of this war, political parties fragmented along ideological lines influenced by Britain and France. Anglophile sentiment rose among northern Whigs, but anti-British sentiment persisted among Democrats. Southern Whigs “stemmed from the Old Republicans or Tertium Quids (‘third somethings’)” who advocated for pure states’ rights in an effort to protect planter liberty and property (3-4). The Quids regarded “white supremacy as a means to the end of slavery” (4). Southern Democrats, in contrast, saw Napoleon and the French as upholding the principle of white equality against British abolitionists, who would elevate the Black race to the same level as whites (16-18). Quids accused Bonapartist Democrats, like Calhoun and later Davis, of being consolidationists; Bonapartists defended themselves by arguing that their efforts preserved white supremacy and equality against British-sympathizing abolitionist ideology which ran the risk of creating Black equality with whites and exacerbating class inequalities among whites (34-35).

Internal division within the Confederacy, Zvengrowski claims, had less to do with class and more to do with politics. Quid Confederates fought for slavery and a hierarchical society (119). “Davis Democrats running the Confederate government saw slavery merely as a means to the end of white rule” (124). All Confederates could therefore claim to be fighting for states’ rights, but Bonapartist/Davis Democrats favored a stronger national government that could maintain the equality/supremacy of whites. The politics of Quids, they argued, produced a hierarchical society that exposed other divisions among whites.

The ideology of white supremacy as the operating feature of the Confederacy goes a long way to explain portions of Confederate history that have long baffled historians. Bonapartist Confederates were more willing to give up slavery to see independence achieved. Davis “described slavery as merely a means to the end of keeping ‘brutal savages…[u]nder the supervision of a superior race’ in 1861, but the ‘basic commitment’ of Confederate Quid planters…[was] ‘to slavery rather than independence and Confederate nationalism’” (132). Slavery could be given up for other methods of keeping Blacks in an inferior position to whites.

Further, Bonapartist Confederates instituted more liberal policies related to women. President Davis, Zvengrowski argues, “wanted all kinds of female Confederates to work for the Confederacy outside their homes, and he encouraged them to defy Quid patriarchy by leaving the so-called domestic sphere, which Confederate Quids sought to safeguard from the demands of the war effort and white equality” (133). All along, Davis sought to ally the Confederacy with the French by claiming the Union sought Anglophilic policies that threatened white equality. By 1864, however, it became clear that “most Republicans were inclined to permit antislavery white supremacy in the South if the Confederacy would not prolong the war” (225).

As the Confederacy crumbled, pro-Davis Confederates committed to white equality/supremacy “laid down their arms trusting that Republicans would permit white supremacy sans slavery” (13). President Davis overestimated the strength of the French Empire and their willingness to intervene without British aid. His attempts to win over French support “merely hampered Quid Confederate efforts to gain British sympathy by portraying the Confederacy as a would-be de facto colony of Britain under the paternal rule of Cavalier planters” (266). 

Zvengrowski’s unpacking of the political relationships between issues of states’ rights, national consolidation, slavery, and white equality/supremacy has greatly clarified and enhanced our understanding of Confederate national purpose and identity. The complicated ways in which European politics, especially in France, influenced and motivated political developments in the United States is a truly unique transnational conceptualization of the Civil War.


Caleb W. Southern is a graduate student in the Department of History at Sam Houston State University.


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