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  • "A Christian Nation Calls for its Wandering Children":Life, Liberty, Liberia
  • Jordan Alexander Stein (bio)

Nations mete death. An array of theoretical and historical studies, from those by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben to those by Orlando Patterson and Russ Castronovo, locate the juridical and punitive power of the nation-state as the singular force of "legitimate" violence in the modern world. By all of these accounts, nations administer death among their own populations, and social markers of population difference (caste, race, and servitude among them) legitimate the modern nation's violence against its own. In the context of such critical attention to death, this essay attempts to recover a corollary account of national life, a historically particular moment of optimism in the power and promise of the nation. This moment comes in the mid-nineteenth century, when social critics in the US were faced with an unacceptable slave economy in the rural South and an undesirable prospect of racial integration in the urban North. Their optimism took the form of the supposition that nations could be made to mete life, not death, if only their populations were adequately homogenous, unmarked by differences like race. For such thinkers, the solution to the twin problems of antebellum slavery and race prejudice was to proliferate the nation as a form or template for all kinds of social aggregation. Drawing examples from bedfellows as unlikely as Sarah J. Hale and Martin R. Delany, this essay argues that through the 1850s, both thinkers imagine that racial difference provides the basis for national affiliation, so that each race ought to have its own nation.1 Rather than proposing a strict liberal nationalism, however, both Hale and Delany also suppose that the nation becomes a basis for affiliation through a particular application of Christian teleology. Their thought [End Page 849] accordingly invites a reconsideration of the degree to which the nation form has been a primarily secular entity in American intellectual history. I argue that by conjoining religion with nation, Hale and Delany contribute, indirectly but surely, to the secularization of social and political life in the nineteenth century.

1

The most familiar moment of integrationist tension in antebellum literature comes at the conclusion of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which sees the departure of George and Eliza to Liberia. The novel's efforts to humanize black characters, and to create sympathy for black families on the part of white readers, falter under the specter of the nation.2 This concluding episode frequently embarrasses modern readers who might wish to promote (for personal, political, or pedagogical reasons) the seemingly integrationist sentiments that characterize the rest of Stowe's text, and many critics are quick to point out that Stowe later thought better of her conclusion and did not end her subsequent antislavery novels in the same way.3 Although Stowe did reconsider this ending in terms more palatable to latter-day integrationist politics, her 1852 position might best be read as symptomatic of larger concerns circulating in the decade before the Civil War about how, or even whether, a racially integrated US nation could emerge.

In her 1857 preface to Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends, one of the earliest among what are now called African American novels, Stowe writes that the book engages "a question which the late agitation of the subject of slavery has raised in many thoughtful minds; viz.—Are the race at present held as slaves capable of freedom, self-government and progress?" (Webb xvi). Linking freedom and self-government together, this passage adumbrates a non-integrationism reminiscent of Stowe's earlier position on Liberia. Furthermore, the nonintegrationist sentiment in the preface is inconsistent with Webb's vision in the novel, which makes repeated pleas for a more benevolent regard of free blacks by whites, endorsing integrated communities and schools, although not racial passing or intermarriage.4 Consonant with this tension, Uncle Tom's Cabin's vision of a nonintegrationist Christian universalism, which suggests that people are equal with respect to race but not nation, comes into conflict with latter-day political desires for an integrationist liberal pluralism, which suggests that people are different with respect to race but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 849-873
Launched on MUSE
2007-11-07
Open Access
No
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