- The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America, and: Nations, Markets, and War: Modern History and the American Civil War, and: The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861–1865
Did nineteenth-century nationalism serve liberalism, or vice versa? Each of these works implicitly addresses that question; each does so from a different angle and arrives at a different answer, from intermittent but ultimately mutually beneficial collaboration between railroads and the state (Angevine) to a tradition of nation–state authority, unknown to most historians, that became decisive during the nation’s greatest crisis but faded afterward (Wilson), to a contest between sectional economic nationalisms that ultimately posited individualist liberalism against the compromises essential to national union (Onuf and Onuf).
Nations, Markets, and War is a difficult book, tremendously broad-ranging and sophisticated, but sometimes maddeningly abstract because it operates on many levels, employing protean thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith to examine the development of nationalism and the coming of Civil War through debates over commercial policy. [End Page 467] This second collaborative book by brothers Nicholas and Peter Onuf begins with “a conjectural history of conjectural history” (19), half philosophical and half an exploration of modernity as “a mode of historical thinking that . . . authorized the nation-states making up the modern world” (6). In the second half of their book, the Onufs examine the transformation of the federal union, initially seen as a model for a liberal world order, into a national union, even a nation–state, through conflicts over “the proper extent of the market” (6), a nationalism fashioned in anticipation of the “discipline of nations”—war. Was this process a reversion to the European balance of power and the terrible evils of necessity that Jefferson and other founders had sought to transcend, or was it part and parcel of nineteenth-century liberalism, the product of a tragic declension as nationalism submerged the impulses of the age of revolutions?
For the United States, this path was embodied in the conflict rooted in slavery. Here the questions of cause and effect, causal priority, and levels of analysis appear most acute. The Onufs observe that “conflicts of interest over commercial policy—like divisions over slavery—drove Americans apart” (6) and that divisions over slavery often operated through “definitions . . . predicated on assumptions about the future of American foreign trade relations” (259). But these conflicts of interest—“the tension between nation-as-market and world-as-market” (181)—were rooted in specific markets for specific products, some produced by slave labor and some by free. I am not persuaded that absent slavery the debate between “free traders”—essentially slaveholding planters—and protectionists would have been so potent, or that it would have been argued by slaveholders in the uncompromising political languages of republicanism and minority rights, rather than negotiable, potentially utilitarian economic ones of cost–benefit calculations. Indeed, the reader is left wondering how to account for the protectionist demands of sugar and hemp producers, southerners and slaveholders, often Whigs and Constitutional Unionists, who did not espouse the sectionalism of the cotton kings. As the Onufs observe, during the 1830s or 40s “southern nationalists abandoned the liberal cosmopolitanism of an earlier generation of free traders” (324). One might ask, however, how “cosmopolitan” the Old Republicans and Quids (the earlier free traders) really were, and whether we can or should characterize them principally through their exchange relationships as free traders, rather than through their labor relationships as lords of the lash? Distinguishing between slavery and commercial policy highlights the international dimensions of American [End Page 468] political economy, but may mistake forms and...