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  • Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North
  • Michael T. Bernath
Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North. By Melinda Lawson. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Pp. 288. Cloth, $29.95.)

Historians have long marveled at the awesome transformative power of the Civil War. Out of the ashes of the Old Union, a new nation arose with a strong centralized Federal government and, for its citizens, a new sense of national identity. In her excellent new book, Melinda Lawson examines how this new American patriotism was created and by whom. Her focus is not on the patriotism of the soldiers on the battlefield, but rather on the men and women on the Northern home front who, during the latter half of the Civil War, advanced various competing visions of patriotism in an effort to bolster flagging enthusiasm for the war effort and bind Northerners to their nation.

Lawson argues that though localism, self-interest, and partisan identity had hampered the development of American patriotism in the past, Civil War "nation builders" ingeniously used these very same traditions to form the foundation of a preeminent national loyalty and worked to encase the nation state in a "mystical aura" that would inspire patriotic devotion. Collectively, these nation builders, and especially Abraham Lincoln, created what Lawson calls the "transcendent nationalism" that the nation required and that we still live with today.

In the absence of a government agency entrusted with rallying the people to the Union's cause, the task of constructing national identity and interpreting the war in patriotic terms fell to private individuals and associations. These "self-conscious nation builders" took it upon themselves to promote their own visions of nationalism. Often appropriating the language of patriotism to advance their own interests and agendas, these nation builders presented the Northern public with a variety of often contradictory rationalizations for national allegiance, and it was through a dialogue between, [End Page 104] and synthesis of, these competing visions, Lawson argues, that the ultimate transcendent American nationalism emerged.

Lawson's book examines the projects of six of these nation builders. From the apolitical patriotism of the Sanitary Fairs rooted in long-standing American traditions of localism, domestic feminism, and Christian charity and inspired by the suffering of soldiers; to financier Jay Cooke's "market-model patriotism" which called upon Northerners to unite behind the nation in order to further their own economic self-interest; to the leaders of the Republican party who increasingly equated party loyalty with national loyalty and political opposition with treason; to the members of the elite metropolitan Union Leagues in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston who offered an organic patriotism which demanded deference and unquestioning allegiance; and to the contingent, and often inconsistent, patriotism expressed by the abolitionists (specifically Phillips, Douglass, and Dickinson) which demanded that the nation first make itself worthy of loyalty by living up to its ideals, Lawson uncovers a cacophony of competing and seemingly incompatible models of the proper bond between citizen and nation. It was Abraham Lincoln, Lawson argues, who through his writings and speeches synthesized these disparate voices into a composite national loyalty drawing on "nearly all the elements in the Union's patriotic repertoire" (160). Infusing this synthesis with "profound ideological significance" and modifying various themes as he saw fit, Lincoln provided his ailing nation with the transcendent nationalism it needed, and his tragic death provided the organic bond to cement it.

Using a combination of original research and an excellent synthesis of secondary works, each of Lawson's chapters is a self-contained narrative. But herein lies a problem. Lawson tell us that this transcendent nationalism was the "product of a dialogue—and at times the struggle—between these disparate voices," but the chapters are so insular and discrete that the reader sees little evidence of this dialogue except apparently within the mind of Lincoln himself (160). How did these competing visions engage with each other and in what forum? Partly these questions arise from the chapter structure, but primarily they result from Lawson's focus on ideas and their originators, but not their influence. By her own admission...


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