Mastering America: Southern Slaveholders and the Crisis of American Nationhood (review)
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Mastering America: Southern Slaveholders and the Crisis of American Nationhood. By Robert E. Bonner. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xxii, 346. $82.00 cloth; $23.00 paper)

In Mastering America, Robert Bonner, an historian at Dartmouth College, offers a far-ranging and ambitious reading of "proslavery [End Page 223] nationalism" in the United States. The study spans the period from the creation of the Constitution to the time of Reconstruction, with a particular focus on the decades immediately preceding the Civil War and on the conflict itself.

Bonner draws on three broad areas of existing scholarship; one on the intellectual life of the southern elite, a second that has examined slavery in the Americas, and the master classes of slave societies in particular, in comparative perspective, and a third body of work on the "contours of modern nationalism" which most historians of the Civil War have been particularly reluctant to consider might be significant to their own great nationalist paroxysm. Bonner, thankfully, exhibits no such parochialism.

The study is divided into three parts. The first—on "The Geopolitics of Mastery"—centres on questions of "power" which, in Bonner's view, can be overlooked in favour of an emphasis on "self-understanding" in discussions of nationalism. Bonner brings a depth and subtlety to his extended discussion of the slaveholders' defense and pursuit of their interests from colonial times to the Civil War as they negotiate the changing, interlinked contexts of national expansion to the west and assertion abroad, and evolving political structures and philosophies at home. His reading of events is characterized by close attention to changing circumstances from the local to the state level and by a subtle understanding of region and of regions within regions. The second section traces "The Contours of Proslavery Americanism," interweaving it with other cultural and political ingredients of the nation's developing sense of itself, including its sense of mission, the developing historical interpretations of its past and what Bonner calls "the gospel of nationhood," a worldview infused with a providential faith in present and future progress. The third section, on "Confederate Nationhood and the Revolutions of War," reveals, among other things, how much the "notions of national mission and destiny" which animated the Confederacy came from the minds and words of once-unionist but always proslavery public leaders such as the New Orleans minister Benjamin Palmer. This [End Page 224] section also contains a fine discussion of internal debates within the Confederacy as to its ultimate aims and character.

An impressive aspect of Bonner's work is his ability to link specific events to larger issues in genuinely illuminating ways. For example, an analysis of the negotiations and maneuverings surrounding proposals to construct monuments to George Washington in both Washington, DC, and Richmond, Virginia, offers a fascinating episode in the wider story of the meanings and uses given to history in the conflicted circumstances of the nation's second revolution. Perhaps most impressive, in a study seeking to say something imaginative and meaningful about such heavily covered subjects, is the evident time, care, and thought that Bonner has put into negotiating the secondary literature on a myriad of topics, small and large. Bonner's analysis is also an ongoing engagement with this material—rejecting, reworking, and building upon it as appropriate but seldom simply taking it at its word.

With the Civil War bookometer ticking inexorably towards one hundred thousand, and surely destined to pass that number soon with four years of one essential sesquicentennial celebration after another already upon us, the student of the era is perhaps entitled to approach yet another book on the causes, conduct, or consequences of the great national trauma with some trepidation. That is perhaps especially so, when the work in question addresses an extensive range of topics most of which will already be somewhat familiar to most of its likely readership. In this case, such trepidation is entirely misplaced. Mastering America is a superior addition to a literature that contains fewer works of genuine quality and wisdom than the quantity on offer might lead one to expect. It is an essential work for any serious student of the...


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