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Enrico Dal Lago MRIA: Historian

22 February 2023

Professor Dal Lago’s research looks at the comparative history of the nineteenth-century Americas and Europe—particularly the United States in the era of the American civil war and Italy in the age of Italian national unification.

Enrico Dal Lago MRIA, is established professor of history at the University of Galway and a recipient of the D.Litt. on published work in history awarded by the National University of Ireland. 

In my research I apply a comparative methodology; looking at two case-studies and analysing the similarities and differences between them in order to understand better the reasons for the occurrence of apparently similar historical developments in different contexts.

My research in comparative history shows that the paths followed by the modern United States and Italy can be taken as paradigmatic examples for the study of the deep changes in economics, in social and labour relations (free and unfree), and in political ideologies that characterised the processes of nation-building in the nineteenth-century Euro–American world, and that continued into the twentieth century. 

Focusing on the years 1815–76 I have explored the events and transformations happening in the United States and Italy at this time as being particularly representative of the deep economic, social and political changes experienced by the nineteenth-century Euro–American world as a whole. I have analysed these changes in relation the economies, the ideologies of power and the labour relations that characterised the agrarian countryside, exploring in particular—in a book called American slavery, Atlantic slavery, and beyond: the U.S. ‘peculiar institution’ in international perspective (Routledge, 2012)—the effects of capitalism on slavery and free labour in the United States, Italy and the entire Atlantic World.

I have also looked at the birth of radical public opinion, which equally affected discourses of antislavery and democracy, and at the successes of ideologies and political programmes of nationalism based on progressive principles. My research on the former appeared in a book focused on the two most prominent radical activists in the nineteenth-century United States and Italy: William Lloyd Garrison and Giuseppe Mazzini: abolition, democracy, and radical reform (Louisiana State University Press, 2013). I published on the latter in a book that compared Abraham Lincoln with the first Italian prime minister: The age of Lincoln and Cavour: comparative perspectives on nineteenth-century American and Italian nation-building (Palgrave, 2015), and partly in a just-published biography of Lincoln (Lincoln, Salerno, 2022).

I consider the different issues in my research as parts of a common history of nation-building in the nineteenth-century Euro–American world. I have been particularly interested in the role that regional elites and agrarian labourers—especially African American slaves and southern Italian peasants—played in the processes of modernisation of the southern peripheries of North America and Italy, and the impact of elite ideologies and of cataclysmic events such as civil wars on the incorporation of those southern peripheries into modern nation-states. Taking the U.S. south and southern Italy as paradigmatic case-studies in this sense, I published two books that compared these regions in the nineteenth century, specifically at the time before and during the American civil war and Italian national unification: Agrarian elites: American slaveholders and southern Italian landowners, 1815–1861 (Louisiana State University Press, 2005) and its sequel Civil war and agrarian unrest: the Confederate south and southern Italy (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Following a period of heavy administrative duties at the University of Galway—first as head of the History Department and then as head of the School of History and Philosophy—I once again have more time for research. I now aim to bring my particular comparative perspective forward in time, into the twentieth century, specifically the 1930s, but also to connect with the present. My current project focuses on the historical roots of large-scale governmental intervention and how it relates to environmental awareness and social justice. It involves a comparative study of the two largest public projects undertaken in the United States and Italy in the 1930s, which sprang from two very different types of government: establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), undertaken by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal democracy, and reclaiming Latium’s Pontine Marshes, undertaken by Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship. Despite sharp divergence and enormous differences in terms of the politics, society and economics that characterised American democracy and Italian Fascism in the 1930s, I believe it is worthwhile to investigate comparatively how the two governments had a profound impact on pre-eminently agrarian regions in the United States and Italy. In the process, they both provided early examples of the type of full-scale public involvement in environmental issues and in plans for the improvement of the lives of workers that is currently advocated by many as a necessary step for dealing effectively with the global ecological, social and economic crisis.

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