It should be noted that this paper is much more an exercise in argument than an actual representation of the author's views. As we hope to teach our RCRC Fellows, it is vital for one to be able to entertain an idea without wholly accepting it. In this instance, the author endeavors to purposefully reject a conventional narrative. The paper's arguments do not necessarily correspond with the author's true historiographic interpretations.
“The Union is dissolved!” heralds the Charleston Mercury amid the winter of 1860. Thus was the great democratic experiment, embodied by a youthful nation born of feverish sectionalism, accosting its near certain collapse. This is the narrative engrained in the minds of millions; one of the divide of a frustrated country, of the birth of a new nation and its subsequent death, and the binding of our wounds. Yet what if it isn’t true? What if the wounds were never bound? What if there was never a nation to divide? It is these and many more questions this essay seeks to answer. Join us as we excavate the complex evolution of the United States from a loose federation of nations to a cohesive country – as we venture, in the words of Shakespeare later applied to Gettysburg, once more unto the breach.
Let’s begin by exploring the conventional American narrative. What do you know about our history? How did this nation come into existence? As these queries are posed, you likely recline with ease, comfortable in your certainty as to the answers to such familiar questions. Our story as an independent country dates to July 4, 1776. The Continental Congress, a rebellious group of colonial delegates, adopts what is today known as the Declaration of Independence – the fundamental document which pronounces the dissolution of any political bonds between the 13 newly formed states and the United Kingdom.
This in turn ignites a revolution: an ultimate struggle for self-existence, for our emancipation from a hundred years of British imperial tyranny. The justification is clear: the unfair Stamp Act, overbearing repeal of salutary neglect, the outrageous Boston Massacre all press the colonial patriots to reject the Crown. Meanwhile the loyalists are the true traitors, wishing to keep us bound to an apathetic king. Inevitably, via the Treaty of Paris, our statehood gains British recognition. Omitting the brief incompetence of those weak Articles of Confederation, we effectually are now the United States of America. With intermittent bouts of British aggression, we then set out to spread our ideas all across this broad land. From there we derive our legacy, and our republic endures to this day as a cornerstone of the ever unfolding experiment of the people, by the people, and for the people.
If all of what you’ve just combed through sounds like the repetitious regurgitation of the origins of the US that you’ve heard all your life, that’s because it more or less is what’s taught to American youth from an extraordinarily young age. Those who challenge the story are simply deemed un-American or unpatriotic. Nonetheless it is only via the historian’s practice of objective analysis that we may measure the story’s accuracy. What if it isn’t true? What don’t you know about our history? Did this nation come into existence in 1776, if ever?
Permit us to briefly return to the year 1776. Indeed, it was on July 4th of said year that the unsanctioned Continental Congress adopted a revised edition of Jefferson’s declaration (although contrary to popular belief, it was not signed by most delegates until August.) However, what you know as the Declaration of Independence was then entitled the Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. Just as its name has shifted, so has its meaning and interpretation. Though millions of students are taught that it was this document which proclaimed the independence of today’s US, it in actuality proclaimed the independence of 13 nations. Namely: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State of Georgia, State of North Carolina, and all of the other names which are symbolized by 13 red stripes on our banner.
Examination of the evidence is substantially clear. The Declaration explicitly describes …that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States. What’s more, it continues to refer to the United Kingdom as the State of Great Britain. Period terminology and parlance use the word state as a synonym for country or nation. To this day they remain, in the greater international context, words with essentially the same meaning; take for example the State of Palestine or the State of Israel – each of which claims itself a sovereign nation. (The term commonwealth refers to the governmental structure, similar to the Federal Republic of Germany or Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It’s of English origin, tracing to Cromwell’s short-lived Commonwealth of England.)
In summation, the American Revolution represents the temporary banding together of 13 proposed countries. Each sought to serve its own agenda yet was fully aware that it could not stand against the UK individually. They thus formed a military alliance for the common defense, comparable to the earlier New England Confederation.
This idea of separate statehood did not dissipate after the Treaty of Paris. The first constitutional compact authorized by these states was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The Articles explain that the states are joined in a firm league of friendship and as such even devote an entire section to reassuring that each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence. A confederation (or confederacy, a term we are refrained to toss about carelessly due to its future connotation) is, by definition, a loose union of sovereign nations which convene such as to make common decisions. Often confederations are formed for defense purposes.
Moreover, the doctrine of state sovereignty – from which states’ rights spring – is not wholly lost in the 1787 US Constitution still in effect today. The 10th Amendment to the document holds that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people. This is an outright attempt at establishing the relationship between the several States and what Jefferson calls the General Government: federalism. The line which converts confederation to federation is rather thin, and hence not easily defined. Generally, we may define a federation as a union of sovereign states which yield some authority to a centralized government. Typically such centralized, or Federal, government is given to supersede state governments in priority.
Having established all that is above, we must ask ourselves: why is our modern narrative so inaccurate? How has this story of a federation of nations grown to become one of a single nation? The answer lies in the eruption of a mighty scourge of war which ravaged these United States for circa four years.
The American Civil War (1861-65) is the seminal event in American history. Its aftermath continues to bear down upon us to this day. It pressed the very comprehension of the United States in the minds of both citizens and the world. In brevity, it has defined and does define us.
Fittingly, this cruel war has in part defined our interpretation of the United States. In order to discover precisely how it has done so, we must first take a moment to examine the conflict’s origins and nature. The Civil War was born of intense sectionalist fanaticism and an entrenched Southern sentiment favoring states’ rights. With specificity, the supposed right of said states to maintain, perpetuate, and spread their peculiar institution. Indeed most prominent historians conclude that the Constitution permitted slavery prior to the 13th Amendment (1865,) and Taney’s Supreme Court – still sitting throughout the war – had but years prior ruled that popular sovereignty was invalid via the Dred Scott Decision. Thus ironically it would be those seeds of state sovereignty which were sown during the American Revolution that would lead to the collapse of anti-federalism in the US.
Abraham Lincoln’s success in the 1860 Presidential election prompted the near immediate secession of South Carolina in December. Lincoln, whose antebellum ideologies leaned toward Western abolitionism, was a gradualist: he sought to prevent the spread of slavery in hopes of its eventual extinction in states wherein it already existed; to permit it a natural death. This was perceived as an affront to South Carolinian tradition, society, and life style. By spring of 1861, ten other states had followed South Carolina and entered into a confederation (or confederacy) with her (the Confederate States of America.) The CSA also claimed Kentucky and Missouri; however these states never formally adopted ordinances of secession, and Kentucky initially announced its neutrality – much to Lincoln’s annoyance.
The details of the war’s combat and campaigns are here irrelevant. This will permit us to sweep through various sociopolitical portions of 1861-85 much more swiftly.
Lincoln, though a gradual abolitionist, was foremost an ardent Unionist. Although the conflict would later present him with an opportunity to emancipate some slaves as a military measure, his primary concern was the preservation of the Union. His prioritized convictions are perfectly viewed by his letter to Horace Greely:
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
Of course, when weighing Lincoln’s words we must also consider his savvy knowledge of the power of the press (Greely was the editor of a well-known New York paper.) Merely because Lincoln says it does not necessarily mean that he truly believes it; even though they may appear to be true views. He is quite keen to carefully select whatever words will ensure public favoritism and promote the Unionist cause. It is in Lincoln’s words that we begin to behold the forging of a nation. Any Lincoln scholar is undoubtedly aware of the nationalistic symbolism painted in his oratory. There are literally countless examples: …this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom… (Gettysburg Address); The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union… (1st Inaugural); With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. (2nd Inaugural.)
This is again a work of his political genius in bolstering Unionist sentiment. His incentives are quite apparent: he must circulate the language of nationalism, of the concept of a nation brought forth four score and seven years ago, in order to reign in the hearts and minds of common citizens for supporting the war. Simultaneously, though he won’t live to attempt it, a new concept of nationalism rather than federalism (and its accompanying state sovereignty) may prove useful in stitching the Union back together. With the fragility of the Border States, who constantly sway between the Federal and Confederate governments, there was perhaps no alternative. Once Lincoln even let slip in a letter I think that to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.
Nationalistic rhetoric also damaged the Confederacy in American memory. The Federal government’s official name for the war is the War of the Rebellion. This is a recurring terminology; the Emancipation Proclamation frees slaves in States which were in rebellion. By painting the Confederate States as an insurrection against the nation, he successfully secured their eternal treachery in the eyes of millions.
Beyond oratory and the era’s openly partisan press, Lincoln also used another avenue of nationalism in order to muster Unionism throughout the citizenry: music. Songs of the Civil War Era reflect social movements, campaigns, and the general socio-cultural atmosphere. We see shifting social ideas about emancipation – initially an unpopular concept – through such songs as Henry Clay Works’ Marching through Georgia (1865.) Take the piece’s chorus as an example: hurrah, hurrah, we bring the jubilee! Hurrah, hurrah, the flag that makes you free! So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea, while we were marching through Georgia! For context, a jubilee was during the period a gathering of colored people in which they’d sing spirituals and songs of freedom. (Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic actually evolved, indirectly, from a jubilee spiritual called Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us on Canaan’s Happy Shore?) Lincoln then used the popularized rallying song The Battle Cry of Freedom as a means of exploiting growing waves a nationalism in his 1864 campaign. The chorus was modified to read: For Lincoln and Johnson, hurrah, boys, hurrah! Down with the rebellion, and on with the war! While we rally to our cause, boys, rally in our might; singing the holy cause of free men!
The list is endless. We cannot call the Great Emancipator the father of American nationalism in its entirety. It existed in varying degrees throughout the Antebellum Period, primarily within the ranks of the Federalist Party as a means of advancing Federal authority. We can, however, credit Lincoln as the father of contemporary American nationalism. It is his idea of a consolidated nation born in 1776, shattered and rejoined by a fiery trial, which persists in American historical memory. In truth, we are more so a nation born of 1865 than of 1776 or 1787.
These concepts were solidified in the early 20th century by FDR’s expansion of the Federal government’s role via the New Deal. They are what presently remain in our modern society. It is occasionally referenced as New Federalism. Many historians never address this change (although I am glad to report that preeminent Civil War historian James McPherson’s latest work centers on it.) One can well suspect that this is because today’s historians have been indoctrinated into the idea of the US as a nation since birth. One can furthermore consider historical revisionism; some scholars have an incentive to maintain the status quo, as it translates into profit for their publications and reputation.
The fact that we are a federation – a nation of nations – has never changed in any de jure fashion. The Constitution of 1787 remains in effect. Remnants of its doctrine remain, i.e. the term Federal government rather than national, or the State of the Union address rather than State of the Nation. In this legalistic manner, there never was nation. Conventional wisdom falls utterly flat. However for many people perception is reality. We operate as, and view ourselves as, a nation. We must account for shifting ideas throughout time; our Lincolnian nation is indeed a de facto one at the least.
- Austin R. Justice,
River Cities Research Commission Chair.
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Austin R. Justice
PMC of River Cities Chapter and Lincoln Forum & Colloquium Student Scholar.
Spencer M. Dayton