The Approach of Danger

A new book project is tentatively titled The Approach of Danger: The International Origins of the American Civil War (where the phrase "The Approach of Danger" is drawn from Lincoln's 1838 Lyceum Address). I seek to understand how the global cotton trade influenced the onset of the American Civil War. I contend that Southern secession and the Northern response to secession are largely explained by a belief, held by key decision makers on both sides, that European dependence on Southern cotton would lead to European recognition of the Southern Confederacy (and potentially an alliance between the Confederacy and the recognizing power).


My initial research on this topic appeared in Security Studies. This piece argues that Lincoln’s cabinet chose to respond to southern secession with military violence (in the form of the First Battle of Bull Run) in order to prevent European recognition. This paper offers a new narrative on the onset of the American Civil War. While it is well recognized by historians that concerns over European recognition influence Union behavior throughout the war (from the Trent Affair, to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation), scholars have not fully considered that fear of recognition might have influenced events at the war's beginning. Additionally, this paper uses the notion of preventive war to develop the theoretical argument that fear of foreign support for a rebel group can drive a government to initiate violence against that group. This paper was featured here and reviewed here.  


The research for the Security Studies paper inspired me and three co-authors to investigate the broader phenomenon of leaders "Backing In" to a war.  This offers a novel contribution to the extensive literature on  audience costs. This literature commonly explores when leaders "back out" of a threat to us force. The claim is that leaders will be punished by domestic constituents for the inconsistency between their words and deeds.  We extend this logic to the idea that a leader should also be published for entering a conflict after promising not to use force (which was the case with Lincoln, as well as Woodrow Wilson prior to US entry to World War I).  We find that leaders can experience a loss of public support for "Backing In", but the punishment is smaller than that experienced for "Backing out". Moreover, consistent with other research, we find that leaders can reduce these costs by claiming new information or changed circumstances.  This study appeared in the American Journal of Political Science (with policy implications discussed here).

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