Cultures of Nationalism, Movements of Reform, and the Composite–Federal Polity: From Revolutionary Settlement to Antebellum Crisis
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Cultures of Nationalism, Movements of Reform, and the Composite–Federal Polity
From Revolutionary Settlement to Antebellum Crisis

In November of 1825, the New Haven Christian Spectator published a letter on “National Feeling” from “S. D.,” an anonymous correspondent. This writer noted that “[p]oliticians and literary speculators have long been lamenting the want of an American feeling in this nation; and employed all of their resources to find something which should counteract our strong tendency to localism.” He or she—let’s say he—had a solution: “The founders of the national Bible Society, by that simple measure, have given us more nationality than all of our wars, our commerce, or even our canals.” Pointing to the rising tide of national societies in the Benevolent Empire, he was assured that “the feelings of every man of principle will be completely nationalized”; he was certain in his “hopes of seeing this whole nation bound together by ties, stronger than the politician ever devised; and united as one in all the great measures of Christian benevolence.”1

Standing in 1825 on the unstable boundary between the early modern and modern worlds, this correspondent saw religion and reform—rather [End Page 1] than politics—as the grounds of national identity. Faced with the push of economic transformation and the pull of entrenched localism, and despite the disestablishment of religion, he reached back to ancient assumptions about civil and spiritual loyalties, reclothed in the energies of organized benevolence, to consolidate national identity. Thirty-six years later the readers of this article would have witnessed the dissolution of that identity in secession and civil war. And they might have seen how, in a polity shaped more by localism than union, religion and reform had shaped two competing, warring nationalisms.

What I have to say in this essay may well be utterly obvious. In the spirit of the 2008 SHEAR Program Committee’s call for papers, I want to make connections—and raise questions. This is fundamentally an exploratory, synthetic paper, grounded to some extent in my own thinking, but most importantly in the work and ideas of others.2

The historiography with which I want to engage falls in two broad literatures, linked by a third. On the one hand, over the last decade or so, political historians have written widely on the “composite” structure of state formation in the early modern Atlantic world, and its relationship to the federal polity that emerged as the United States after the American Revolution. On the other hand, cultural historians working in an entirely different domain have described how early modern configurations of sensibility and religion shaped the opening of nineteenth-century movements of reform. There are obviously important questions of continuity and discontinuity in both of these interpretive tracks, but my fundamental problem rests in the relationship between political states and cultural sensibilities in the early and antebellum republic. At the heart of these [End Page 2] two problems—and literatures—lies the question of nationalism, the cultural and structural glue that binds the citizen to the state.

From the outset, American nationalism was a matter of civil rather than ethnic identity; citizenship and national affinity were grounded not in homogenous origins, but in the civil space established by charters and constitutions. There were powerful tensions between the morality of nation and nationalism and the structure of governing polity in the early and antebellum republics. Although national identity is inevitably grounded in a broadly moral understanding of the collective enterprise of governance, the cultural implications of “nation” were connected only tenuously in the antebellum decades to the actual practices, actions, and outcomes of governing. Governance in its most direct and tangible form unfolded in the states, not in the “federal government.” And beyond the detachment between national culture and state governance lay the rapidly intensifying differences evolving from labor systems, specifically the survival and expansion of slavery in the southern states.3

My thesis begins with this proposition: The failure of Federalist nation-building in 1800 led to both the revival of early modern composite governance by Jeffersonians and Jacksonians and the deployment of benevolence as a vehicle of cultural nation-building by...