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The Divisive Struggle to Form a National Identity

The Divisive Struggle to Form a National Identity

In 1861, the United States of America faced a crisis unlike any other that had come before. As southern states began seceding from the union after the election of Abraham Lincoln, the very idea of America was at stake and the nation’s identity began to be called into question. Was the United States a nation founded on equality and freedom, allowing peoples from all over the world a sanctuary for free thought? Or was it a nation destined to be the standard-bearer for white, Anglo-Saxon supremacy, where Americans had bestowed upon themselves the task of subjugating and civilizing people of color? Author Colin Woodard attempts to tackle these questions in his book “Union: the Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood,” picking apart the brains of the lead historians, politicians, and writers of the 19th and early 20th century. Woodard selects a handful of key American figures from this time period, each highly successful in their respective fields of academia, publishing, and politics. Viewing America through the eyes of prolific writers and politicians allows Woodard’s audience to understand the tumultuous times from the Antebellum period all the way through World War I.


As Woodard attempts to understand national identity in the early 19th century he first chose George Bancroft, a Massachusetts-born, Harvard-educated, historian and politician. Through his religious upbringing and education in New England, Bancroft believed America had a spiritual destiny pre-ordained by God. First brought under the national spotlight with the publication of his multi-volume work, History of the United States, Bancroft became a household name with thousands of Americans reading and talking about his writings. On the United State’s 50th birthday, Bancroft delivered an address on the nation’s political future and offered a hypothesis on why he believed the United States was destined for greatness. “The dearest interests of mankind were entrusted to our country...the nations of the earth turned towards her as to their last hope. And the country has not deceived them.”[1] Bancroft believed throughout his life that the ambiguous “torch of liberty” was passed from the Anglo-Saxon countries of Europe into the hands of the United States; even as the Civil War was breaking out, Bancroft continued to write lofty-worded addresses expressing his faith in the United States and her divine destiny.


William Gilmore Simms was born in 1806 deep in the plantation aristocracy of South Carolina. Simms would become one of the best-selling authors in the United States, selling thousands of copies of his narrative works on the American Revolution and stories about the unsettled, dangerous lands of South Carolina, as well as defending slavery and his white supremacist beliefs. Simms’ work was filled with racially infused language, unabashedly defending the institution that caused the suffering of millions. In his narratives, Simms uses his characters to deliver an overarching theme that he wanted his audience to identity with: slavery was a cornerstone of the United States’ foundation and an attack on the institution was an attack on the nation as a whole. As the union broke apart in 1861, with southern states seceding from the Union, Simms firmly supported the newly established Confederate States of America and believed this new nation was the beginning of something tremendous. Simms took it upon himself to entreat his colleagues from other states to join the new confederation, which would be “bound together by the cohesive bond of African slavery.”[2] The South Carolinian defended slavery even as it was clearly tearing the United States apart; he believed that slavery would give the CSA “all the essential elements for establishing the greatest and most prosperous, and longest lived of all the republics of the earth.”[3] Without African slavery, according to Simms, the United States would fumble its destiny of being a beacon of hope for the white race and the defender of white supremacy.


In a major narrative shift, Woodard then dives into the life of a man born into slavery himself; from the eastern shore of Maryland, Frederick Douglass grew into one of the world’s most famous orators in his lifetime. Escaping from slavery in Maryland into New York, Douglass was slowly brought into the abolitionism life by way of William Lloyd Garrison. As they traveled around the northern states, audiences were shocked at Douglass’ personal story of escape from slavery and powerful oratory. Douglass became a national sensation, audiences all across the north listened intently as he delivered speech after speech denouncing slavery and all those who supported it. Simultaneously, pro-slavery Americans despised Douglass, believing that he was going to incite a race war with his impassioned speeches and calls for the institutions end. Douglass wanted his listeners to see the hypocrisy in the Founding Fathers writings, trying to explain to them that slavery violated all of the principles that America was founded on in 1776, “your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.”[4] He warned his audience that their hands were covered in blood, and that unless America rid herself of the chains of slavery it would continue to be weighed down by the millions of enslaved Africans.


The most surprising part of Woodard’s book came when he introduced Thomas Wilson, a boy born in 1856, raised in the deep south, and grew up to be the 28th President of the United States. Woodrow Wilson was raised in Augusta, Georgia, under the heavy tutelage of his father, Joseph, who was a Presbyterian minister and an avid supporter of the CSA. After receiving his higher education at Princeton, the University of Virginia, and Johns Hopkins, Wilson began his career in the world of academics. He published a textbook titled Division and Reunion, 1829-1889, in which he chronicles the legacy of the United States in the antebellum years through the present day. In the text, Wilson sides with the southern planter class and slaveowners, defending them by saying slaves “were comfortably quartered, and were kept from overwork both by their own laziness and by the slack discipline to which they were subjected.”[5] Defending slavery was not the only shocking detail in his book; Wilson also defended the secessionist southern states, saying they had legal authority to do so, and even attacked Garrison’s style of abolitionism. He went even further, denouncing Reconstruction and writing that it had created “an extraordinary carnival of public crime set in under the forms of law,” but had nothing to say in the entire textbook about the drastic increase in lynchings and white terrorism.[6] It was clear that Wilson’s ideal vision of America included one that was anything but equal, with people of color kept separate and unequal from white Americans.


Woodard expertly threads all the different narrative threads of these men’s lives throughout his book. As the subtitle states, this time in American history was truly a struggle. There were varying factions throughout the nation that all had their own ideas of what the United States should look like, as well as the proper way to govern the nation. Men like Bancroft believed the nation’s governance was irrevocably tied to religion and that God had placed America on a pedestal to light the way for freedom and democracy. However, Bancroft rarely spoke on the problem of slavery, shying away from it and solely relying on others to fight for freedom. This dichotomy followed him throughout his career, Douglass repeatedly called on Bancroft to stand up for freedom and use his platform to fight for justice. However quiet Bancroft was on slavery, he was more aligned ideologically to Douglass than to Simms. Bancroft had met Simms early in their careers, as they were both up and coming authors, but due to their opposing viewpoints on slavery and the union, their short frienship did not last. Simms would spend the majority of his life in his home state of South Carolina, where he defended slavery until his dying day. Before the fall of Reconstruction, Simms wrote scathing critiques of the new political shake-up of the nation, completely aghast that African Americans were now allowed to serve in federal government positions. Even while white Americans were murdering, terrorizing, and threatening newly enfranchised African Americans, Simms wrote, “he becomes a burglar; commits arson, murder and highway robbery...he bands with numbers and begins the war of race, by plundering and burning towns and villages.”[7] Reconstruction in the United States went against everything Simms knew to be true, and the possibility of freed slaves being equal to the rest of the nation terrified him.


All of the men in this book came from different states, religions and backgrounds, yet they were all major figures in the struggle for an American identity. As a young nation, the United States did not have any founding mythology that unified the people to allow them to feel like one cohesive people. Americans had to create their own mythology as the country progressed, and the creation of its nationhood was a violent, bloody, and extremely ugly ordeal. Douglass believed in his country, however jaded his views on politics may have been, but in order to achieve her true purpose, the United States had to shake off the chains of slavery and pave the way for equal rights for all. Douglass’ America was a nation of equals, brothers and sisters who were willing to stand up for what is just and to fight for equality. Unfortunately, even into the 20th century, the United States continued to struggle with problems of racism. When the people elected a white supremacist into the White House, it caused major delays in the fight for equality. President Wilson oversaw major segregationist policies, advanced his own white supremacist views from the Oval Office, and intimately supported D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which would become the first motion picture ever screened in the White House.


The United States has struggled with these problems of race and equality since its founding, and sadly, they are still the prevailing issues modern Americans face to this day, exacerbated by the results of the 2016 election, when Americans chose yet again to place a white supremacist in the White House. Even in 2020, Frederick Douglass’ words continue to carry significant weight, “Our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds,” continuing, “The outspread wings of the American eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come.”[8] Let us hope that Americans are more willing to lend an ear to the words of Douglass than to the divisive tone of the leadership in the federal government.

[1] Colin Woodard, Union: the Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood (New York: Viking, 2020), 55-56. [2] Woodard, Union, 161. [3] Woodard, Union, 161. [4] Woodard, Union, 129. [5] Woodard, Union, 262-262. [6] Woodard, Union, 262. [7] Woodard, Union, 206. [8] Woodard, Union, 216.

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