- One Nation Divided by Slavery: Remembering the American Revolution While Marching Toward the Civil Warby Michael F. Conlin
This lively, eloquent, and meticulously researched book examines how Americans of different political persuasions interpreted the American Revolution in the context of their debates over slavery. Contrary to historians of the antebellum period who focus on nationalism within a particular region (generally the North), Michael F. Conlin argues that both northerners and southerners participated in the formation of "a common national identity" in the decades before the Civil War (p. 10). Examining Americans' uses of a wide variety of Revolutionary symbols, he concludes that "there was remarkable agreement among most antebellum Americans in the North and the South as to what civic virtues they valued and who displayed them" (p. 11). While emphasizing antebellum Americans' shared historical memory, Conlin also carefully considers variations in Revolutionary memory both within and across regions. He pays frequent attention to the '"Hotspurs'" at both extremes of the slavery debate—abolitionists and proslavery radicals—but he also considers the more measured voices in either section (p. 14). Indeed, some of his most interesting discoveries revolve around shared appropriations of the Revolution by southern moderates and northern doughfaces.
As the book's title suggests, the question of slavery severely strained shared historical memory and national identity. While this conclusion is unlikely to surprise readers familiar with the period, what makes One Nation Divided by Slavery: Remembering the American Revolution While Marching Toward the Civil Warrewarding to read is Conlin's nuanced interpretation of different appropriations of Revolutionary history. The book is organized thematically, with each chapter focused on a symbol or set of symbols associated with the Revolution: the Fourth of July holiday; Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, and the Declaration of Independence; George Washington, Mount Vernon, and his Farewell Address; and a series of notable Revolutionary War battles, such as Bunker Hill and Cowpens. A brief final chapter follows these "history wars" up to secession and the [End Page 402]opening of the Civil War (p. 4). Across these chapters, and with admirable clarity and concision, Conlin traces how the various stakeholders in the slavery debates perceived these symbols as representing different implications for the future of slavery in the American nation.
Readers interested in historical memory might wish for a deeper historiographical or theoretical engagement with that flourishing subfield. In particular, more analysis of the relationship between historical memory and contemporary politics would have been welcome. Were participants in the antebellum history wars simply shaping the past to meet their particular views of the present? Or were their perceptions of the past guiding their political positions in the antebellum period? Conlin might also have clarified the relationship between popular and elite memory of the Revolution. For example, his chapter on commemorations of Revolutionary War battles draws on a rich body of sources—literary magazines from both the North and the South, abolitionist letters and newspapers, antebellum histories (most notably, George Bancroft's), and the rampant monument building of the 1850s—to show how "conflicting understandings of the American Revolution underlay the political strife of the antebellum era" (p. 107). But the chapter concludes that "[m]ost Americans did not participate in the history wars" (p. 145). Conlin's attention to the limited reach of the acrimony over Revolutionary symbols is admirable, but it raises the question, again, of significance: if most people were happy to go along celebrating the Fourth of July and visiting battlegrounds, why and how did these contests over memory matter?
This book will prove a valuable resource to scholars of regional and national identity, of appropriations of the American Revolution, and of sectional politics in the antebellum period. Conlin succeeds in showing his readers how powerful symbols of the Revolution tenuously united one nation divided by slavery.