- One Nation Divided by Slavery: Remembering the American Revolution While Marching toward the Civil War by Michael F. Conlin
In One Nation Divided by Slavery: Remembering the American Revolution While Marching toward the Civil War, Michael F. Conlin has crafted an inventive analysis of where antebellum Americans agreed and disagreed over their shared Revolutionary legacy. In turn, Conlin analyzes how the contested meanings of the Revolutionary heritage divided Americans before the Civil War. Following the work of David Waldstreicher and other historians who study popular expressions of political culture in the early American republic, Conlin offers an explanation of national unity and disunity informed by how people celebrated and remembered the founding of the American nation.
In five chapters, Conlin analyzes the “history wars” of the antebellum era (9). Just as present-day Americans cannot agree on how to remember the past, so too did antebellum Americans struggle with the meanings of places like Bunker Hill, Mount Vernon, and Monticello and people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. By the 1850s, Conlin posits, northerners and southerners had arrived at different interpretations of the nation’s sacred civic sites and its pantheon of founding fathers. Slavery, of course, had corroded the politics of consensus—as much as it had ever existed—and had divided the North and South politically, socially, and culturally. Abolitionists and fire-eaters alike sought to appropriate [End Page 437] the legacy of the American Revolution to suit their political ends. In doing so, they wrote contrasting histories of the places and people who gave meaning to Americans’ sense of nationhood. This clash of competing histories within the nation’s already fractured political culture, Conlin implies, helps explain how the nation went to war with itself by 1861. Slavery, he argues, was pivotal to the development of American national identity but also led to the development of competing notions of nationhood. When northerners and southerners could no longer agree on whether the Founding Fathers sought to terminate or preserve slavery; whether they had created a slaveholders’ republic or a refuge for the blessings of free labor, the sense of unity dissolved.
Fortunately, Conlin does not relegate moderate Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to the fate of a silent majority. His analysis pays close attention to northern and southern extremists, but in his attention to the moderates Conlin distinguishes himself from other historians of antebellum nationalism. Historians often dilate on the extremes of the political spectrum only to lose sight of the “pan-sectional nationalism” that united a majority of Americans before 1861 (11). For generations, moderates on the slavery issue had held together a consensus—albeit tenuous at times—that the American Revolutionaries of the North and South had built a common legacy of unparalleled freedom and liberty. When the opponents and advocates of slavery, as Conlin calls them, threatened the moderate consensus, the moderates latched onto the founding legacy all the more strongly. The moderates sought to preserve that legacy by illustrating the hypocrisy of both abolitionists and fire-eaters. To them, it seemed the founders had created the United States as a union of slave states. Only when the southern hotspurs threatened secession—and then acted upon it—did the moderate coalition fail. To explain why disunion was folly and why the southern counterrevolution was illegitimate, the moderates, then, would have to rewrite their own version of the Revolution’s history.
Conlin’s inventive approach to studying antebellum nationalism distinguishes his work from other studies of American nationhood. By focusing on the politics of slavery as a continuum of opinions and by studying how Americans expressed their opinions through political culture and historical memory, he has created a fresh approach to understanding the creation of a national community and its ultimate demise in 1861. One Nation Divided by Slavery inserts itself into old but vibrant discussions of nationhood, Civil War causation, and memory by explaining how northerners and southerners of all political...