Race, Class, and Nation Building in the Euro-American World: Connections and Comparisons between the United States, Ireland, Southern Italy, and Russia, 1815–1900

AHA Session 144
Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Peter Kolchin, University of Delaware
Andrew Zimmerman, George Washington University

Session Abstract

Scholars have long used comparative and transnational methodologies to refine our understanding of historical developments on both sides of the Euro-American world, starting from Peter Kolchin’s pioneering investigation of similarities and differences between American slavery and Russian serfdom, to Andrew Zimmerman’s more recent explorations of links between the U.S. South and Germany. Notwithstanding these important precedents, much research is still needed to disentangle the complex web of America’s and Europe’s interconnected histories during the long nineteenth century.

Through the prism offered by specific connections and comparisons between the United States and three different European countries, this panel addresses the interplay between issues of race, ethnicity, class, and nationalism from the antebellum period through Reconstruction. By looking at the nineteenth-century United States as ‘a nation among nations,’ but at the same time also as a country whose identity was shaped and constrained by political, cultural, and class differences, this panel seeks to highlight the fact that the American process of nation-building was not unique. Rather, as the most recent scholarship has highlighted, it was part of global phenomena of civil wars, of creations of racial categories, and of developments of mass ethnic politics.

As Cathal Smith argues, the role of the Irish ethnic constituency was more important than scholars have previously suggested in shaping sectional conflicts between the U.S. North and South within the context of American mass politics before the Civil War. On the other hand, Enrico Dal Lago shows that parallel experiences of civil war and nation-building led to comparable mass protests against the exclusivist politics of new nations, whether these were based on race or class, in both the Confederate States of America and southern Italy. Finally, Amanda Bellows demonstrates how largely comparable cultural developments in post-emancipation periods led to similar crystallizations of stereotypes of slaves and serfs in the United States and Russia during the later part of the nineteenth century. The chair of this panel will be Peter Kolchin, who has pioneered the comparative history of nineteenth-century American and European unfree labor systems, while the commentator will be Andrew Zimmerman, who is a renowned expert on comparisons and transnational historical links between the United States and Europe.

Together, the three case studies in this panel show that comparative and transnational perspectives on nation-building and either existing or perceived class and racial differences provide a healthy challenge to narratives often taken for granted in the national historiographies of the four countries at the heart of this session, and point the way to the integration of those narratives into contexts of wider global developments. At the same time, this panel also advocates the ‘Euro-American world’ as a fruitful conceptual framework for the investigation of similarities, differences, and connections between race, ethnicity, class, and nationalism in the United States and Europe during the long nineteenth century.

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