What is “Western Civilization”?

Simultaneity and Juxtaposition in the Fight for Civilization

How newspaper coverage of the Crimean War shaped Americans’ views of Western Civilization

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau expressed bitter contempt for his compatriots’ passion for newspapers, particularly their interest in the latest news from abroad. “There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival,” he wrote, “that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure, — news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelvemonth or twelve years beforehand with sufficient accuracy.”

When the original draft of that passage first appeared in Thoreau’s journals in 1848, the fascinating foreign story of the day would have been news of the Revolutions of 1848 sweeping across Europe. When the final draft of Walden was published in 1854, the foreign news of greatest interest and perhaps most frequent appearance in American newspapers would have been the latest reporting and commentary on the Crimean War — a conflict referred to at the time as the Eastern War, the Eastern Conflict, the European War, and similar designations.

But in the 1850s no less than the 1840s, Americans’ appetite for foreign news was not simply an indulgence of some idle curiosity. Americans did not seek out the latest foreign news exclusively or in isolation from important domestic or national news. In fact, most Americans could not have done so even if they had wanted to.

The format of 19th century newspapers, the constraints of publication, the uneven access to information in various parts of the country, the need to economize in printing by filling every space, the need to satisfy subscribers by catering to every taste — all these constraints meant that national and international news, local color stories, advertisements, poetry, humorous fillers, and reprints of reports from small-town papers around the country would all be juxtaposed on the same page. As the newspaper reader turned the pages of any number, they would see all these topics and genres ranged before them in one glance.

This twofold aspect of the newspaper as a print medium — the apparent simultaneity of various reports as they appeared in the same number of the paper, and the juxtaposition of various kinds of texts that made them all of a piece when they appeared side by side on one page — constituted a sort of intellectual gestalt. Ideas and events that were not necessarily or essentially associated with one another outside of a newspaper might become of a piece in readers’ view. Typesetters, never mind editors, could create a connection between the Crimean War and various national crises on this side of the Atlantic simply by juxtaposing stories about those two seemingly disparate events on the same page. That juxtaposition invited conceptual connections and comparisons between “foreign news” and domestic crises.

What were the domestic crises in the United States from 1854–1856, events that Americans read about and thought about in connection with the Crimean War? Political and extra-judicial battles over “popular sovereignty” and the expansion of slavery, as distilled into debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the formation of the Republican party, the sufferings of “Bleeding Kansas,” and the growing sectional crisis.

Thus, news of the battle for Western Civilization taking place in the Crimea could shape how Americans understood domestic politics and the battles over the expansion of slavery into the Western territories of the United States. Conversely, domestic debates over the expansion of slavery shaped Americans’ understanding of what was at stake for “Western Civilization” in the battle to balance the ambitions of Ottoman Turkey and Czarist Russia.

At least one American historian has examined how newspapers reflected Southern slaveowners’ support for Russia during the Crimean war. In the 1970s, Horace Perry Jones established that members of the Southern planter class in Louisiana were largely sympathetic to Russia in its battle with the Western Powers. They saw themselves as cultural kinsmen to Russian nobles who relied upon the labor of land-bound serfs for their wealth and their power. The cultural conservatism of Russian Orthodoxy and Russia’s status as a Christian empire battling against an Islamic foe matched the Southern elites’ understanding of themselves as knightly Christian defenders of a morally conservative culture that had brought millions of benighted Africans beneath the beneficent influences of Christianity.

But American historians have had less to say about how this war over “the Eastern Question” — the status of Ottoman Turkey as a world power, as a European nation or an “oriental” nation — appeared to abolitionists. What, if anything, did abolitionists have to say about the Crimean war? What significance did they give to it?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Frederick Douglass explicitly connected the political and physical contest over slavery’s expansion in the U.S. and the military contest over Russian expansionism abroad as two fronts in a single struggle for human freedom. On March 24, 1854, in the pages of his own newspaper, he wrote, “[Czar] Nicholas and [Stephen] Douglas have had their heads together; the one is aiming to extend his dominion over Turkey, and the other to extend slavery over Nebraska.”

Here Douglass was referring to the recent passage of “the Nebraska Bill” championed by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Known today as the Kansas-Nebraska act, the bill controversially provided that the white settlers in the Western territories north of the old Missouri Compromise line — a line that had prohibited the northward spread of slavery as a legal institution — would have the opportunity to vote on whether or not the newly settled territories would permit or prohibit slavery. This bill removed the prior restrictions on the northward spread of slavery and prompted those who were opposed to the expansion of slavery — including young Whigs like Abraham Lincoln — to bolt from their old party allegiances and form a new, Republican party.

“Nicholas and Douglas, Nebraska and Turkey, slavery and dominion,” Douglass continued, “are the prominent features of the times.” Indeed, in an adjacent column on the same page, Douglass published correspondence from an “Anti-Nebraska” abolitionist activist who was traveling on the northern speaking circuit to drum up political support for abolitionism. “This Nebraska bill has opened the eyes, the ears, and the hearts of the masses,” the correspondent reported. “The fearful aggressions of the slave power, are as palpable as the noon-day sun….The North is now conscious of the fact, that its safety lies only in aggression upon the South. She must resolve that freedom shall go South, before slavery shall go North. And she must ACT upon the resolution. This seems to be the sentiment of the Northern community.” Here the argument that the ambitions of “the slave power” to enlarge the territory where slavery held legal sway would have to be countered by force fit nicely with Douglass’s reprint in an adjacent column of a report from the London Times describing the military might of England, France, Austria, Prussia, and the Ottoman Porte ranged against the invading Russian forces.

Abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, who was both a pacifist and, by the 1850s, a bitter ideological enemy of Frederick Douglass over differences within the abolitionist camp, nevertheless viewed the conflict between Russia and Turkey in much the same way that Douglass did. Garrison, along with other abolitionist publishers like Gamaliel Bailey of the Washington D.C. National Era, saw Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula as a contest between a despotic “slave power” and a non-aggressive neighbor open to ideas of abolition. On June 2, 1854, on the front page of The Liberator, Garrison condemned newspapers like the Washington Sentinel, which was preaching against “American sympathy in behalf of Turkey.” He viewed such news outlets as organs that promulgated “slavery’s foreign policy.” In much the same way, on July 5, 1855, Bailey’s National Era argued that “the true motive for Russian aggression was, that Turkey was progressing so rapidly [in reforms] that Nicholas feared ‘the sick man’ was getting to stand too firmly upon his legs.” Bailey argued that recent reforms in Turkey showed “the swift spread of liberal ideas” in contrast to “barbaric rule…at the point of Muscovite bayonets.” Both newspaper editors condemned those who took up the cause of Russia against Turkey as those who defended slavery against abolition, and those who abandoned the cause of liberty and showed sympathy to tyranny.

Frederick Douglass viewed American sympathies with Russian expansionism with similar outrage, and he was particularly concerned that purportedly “liberal” Northerners were showing sympathy with Russia. “We are not surprised that the Southern slaveholder and the Russian owner of serfs should fraternize,” he wrote on February 2, 1855. “[B]ut how any man who even thinks he loves freedom and progress, can have any bonds of affinity with dark, despotic Russia — a nation, whose history is written in blood, and which, with conscious strength and defiance, stops the advancing flood of light, and liberty, and civilization, and rolls it backward, is one of the anomalies of the nineteenth century.” This astonishing passage not only underscored a moral equivalency between the slaveholding South and the serf-driving Russian aristocracy (an equivalency that Southerners themselves recognized) but also depicted Turkey as moving on the path of “light, liberty, and civilization.” For Douglass and other abolitionists, the Islamic rulers of Turkey were partakers in “western civilization” while the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia were “dark,” barbaric, despotic, uncivilized.

In the 19th century United States, the contest over Western Civilization was the contest over slavery versus liberty — that is how the abolitionists saw it, anyhow. Southern slaveowners, on the other hand, saw the contest of Western Civilization as a struggle between conservativism and liberalism, with a wealthy aristocratic elite fighting to preserve and even extend a caste system that consigned some to a life of unceasing labor so that the master class might practice a life of traditionilst piety, inherited gentility, and lordly ease.

Whatever the Crimean war meant for Europe, in the United States the Eastern Question was the Western Question, and the fate of the Kansas and Nebraska territories was linked closely on the pages of abolitionist newspapers with the fate of Turkey, caught between two powers ranged against them, the “dark” power of despotic slavery represented by Czarist Russia and the “light” power of civilized liberty represented by the allied nations of Western Europe. The Crimean War was a foreign analogue to a domestic struggle whose outcome would determine the shape of America’s future. That struggle abroad and the struggle at home formed the conceptual crucible that gave shape to the idea of Western Civilization and gave Americans the idea that it was theirs to shape and to be shaped by.

Writer, historian of American thought & culture. Editor of TheMudsill.substack.com, a little magazine publishing new & established authors. Book under contract.

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