Michael F. Conlin. One Nation Divided by Slavery: Remembering the American Revolution While Marching toward the Civil War. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2015. xii + 226 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60635-240-3.
Reviewed by Justin Iverson (Northern Illinois University)
Published on H-War (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Influenced by current battles over historical revisionism in history textbooks and in educational standards, in One Nation Divided by Slavery Michael Conlin takes readers to antebellum America and shows how Americans once fought “history wars” about the proper interpretation of the American Revolution as they constructed and reshaped American nationalism leading up to the Civil War (p. 9). Conlin suggests that antebellum American ideas of patriotism and national identity relied heavily on the American Revolution, and that their memory and commemoration of the Revolutionary War reflected a unified idea of American nationalism before the Civil War. Whereas many other historians argue that Northerners and Southerners developed different ideas regarding nationalism, Conlin argues that slavery was at the heart of the attempts by both groups to establish a common identity in the era. In fact, if slavery were isolated from nationalism, it becomes clear that antebellum Americans broadly agreed on what it meant to be patriotic.
To frame how slavery altered American nationalism and led to sectional ideas of national identity, Conlin categorizes Americans into a “sectional trinity” (p. 12). On one end of the spectrum were radical opponents to slavery such as abolitionists and former slaves, while Southern slavery apologistss or “fire-eaters” constituted the polar opposite. In the middle were moderates, who also represented the largest and most ambiguous group. Conlin is quick to acknowledge that groups in the trinity were fluid and overlapping, and that where his framework may lack precision, it makes up for in convenience and is still generally accurate.
In five chapters and relying heavily on antebellum newspapers and personal papers, Conlin examines how groups in the trinity celebrated the Fourth of July, interpreted the legacies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and commemorated revolutionary battles as competing ideas of nationalism based on slavery led to the sectional crisis and the Civil War. While almost all Americans celebrated the Fourth of July, they began to emphasize different points of the holiday that reflected “the dynamic quality of American nationalism and the constant construction and reconstruction of American identity” (p. 19). Radical men and women compared their opponents to King George III as a metaphor for tyranny that either protected or threatened slavery. Meanwhile, slaves considered the hypocrisy of Independence Day, and some masters prohibited their slaves from celebrating, fearing that slaves would appropriate revolutionary rhetoric and resist, which they did. In addition, free blacks often celebrated alternative anniversaries instead, such as the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and Haitian independence. As radicals modified Fourth of July celebrations, moderates called on the nation to remember that it took unity to earn independence.
Antebellum Americans also celebrated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as military and civilian figureheads of independence, visited Monticello and Mount Vernon, and held orations of the Declaration of Independence and parades for Washington’s birthday. But over time antebellum American opinions diverged on what these two men hoped for in the new nation. Radicals interpreted the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson’s writings as proof that he either supported abolition or the preservation of slavery. Free-Soilers clung to Jefferson’s influence on the Northwest Ordinance that restricted slavery in the Northwest, while “fire-eaters” emphasized the Louisiana Purchase that expanded slavery to the Southwest. More importantly, Conlin observes that antebellum Americans frequently misquoted Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence to emphasize that “all men are born free and equal” (p. 60). The fact that even ardent fire-eaters did this, according to Conlin, indicates that antebellum Americans generally agreed that Jefferson was somewhat soft on slavery. While Jefferson drew more controversy, most Americans regarded Washington as a hero first and foremost, even though they disagreed on his relationship with slavery. Abolitionists believed that if the great moral leader Washington could not manage his slaves perfectly in accordance with Southern paternalism, then how could the average planter? In contrast, slaveholders viewed Washington as the apotheosis of a paternal master, whose plantation management could purify chattel bondage. Moderates in turn reminded Americans to remember Washington’s Farewell Address and emphasized its call for unity.
Aside from these battles over founding fathers and the Fourth of July, antebellum Americans fought even more over the proper interpretation and commemoration of Revolutionary War battles. Though most people agreed that battlefields had to be preserved, Northerners and Southerners began to privilege their own regional battles to show how important their involvement was for the war. Southerners reiterated sacrifices at Cowpens and Eutaw Springs in response to Northerners who claimed Bunker Hill and Saratoga, and who challenged Southerners’ contribution to the war effort.
Conspicuous in this history and perhaps indicative of the lingering effects of “history wars” is Conlin’s desire to moderate and correct some of the antebellum revisionist interpretations. Notably, Conlin gratuitously defends historian George Bancroft, arguing that revisionists pressured Bancroft to change his writings. Notwithstanding these asides that few historians will likely pay much attention to, students and a broader audience may find it informative of the historian’s craft, and draw parallels on how historical interpretations change over time. In addition, Conlin deserves much credit for incorporating the voices of average Americans, women, and slaves in his analysis of a topic to which historians all too often take a top-down approach.
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Justin Iverson. Review of Conlin, Michael F., One Nation Divided by Slavery: Remembering the American Revolution While Marching toward the Civil War.
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