Desperately Seeking Union.

AuthorWoodard, Colin
PositionJoel Richard Paul's "Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism"

Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism

by Joel Richard Paul

Riverhead Books, 528 pp.

A new biography of Daniel Webster argues that the antebellum statesman forged a civic nationalist vision that has held America together. If only it were true.

The United States is in the midst of an existential crisis. The right's authoritarian turn has confounded the notion that most Americans share a vision of the U.S. as a pluralistic democracy. In the fall of 2021, the majority of Joe Biden and Donald Trump voters alike said they believed red and blue states should secede to form separate countries.

Americans rightly wonder what still holds us together, which quickly leads one to ask what held us together in the past. After all, the Founding Fathers knew in 1776 that they were trying to create an ad hoc alliance of separate countries to defeat a common enemy. In 1787, the Framers feared that absent more formal and empowered federal institutions, those same countries might descend into military conflict. ("It could not but occur to everyone that these separate independencies, like the petty States of Greece, would be eternally at war with each other," Jefferson later recalled, "and would become at length the mere partisans and satellites of the leading powers of Europe.") There were secession movements in Appalachia in the 1790s, New England in the 1810s, and, of course, Dixie from the 1840s onward. In the late 19th century, the federal government poured money into the creation of the transcontinental railroads for fear that without such infrastructure, the Pacific states would break away.

The national narrative that eventually led "Virginians" and "New Englanders" and the residents of the Republic of Texas and the California Republic to genuinely think of themselves as "Americans" had to be constructed more or less from scratch. Our country had started without a common history, ethnology, or religion. Its people lacked a unique language all their own or a sense of having lived in this place since time immemorial, and they were killing or displacing those people who could make such a claim. The rival colonial cultures had distinct and often incompatible ideologies, social models, and attitudes toward the promises in the Declaration of Independence. The story of American nationhood, as I described in my own book on the subject, was artificially constructed--and violently contested--over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Understanding that process, and the eternal fight it triggered between civic and ethnic nationalism, is essential to figuring out how to hold the American project together going forward.

Joel Richard Paul's new book, Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism...

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