Nov 14, 2014

Why did southerners feel they were citizens of their states rather than of the USA?

In our discussions of the Civil War (here, here, here and here)  it seems to me that we have not adequately addressed a fundamental question. It is the question of choice of nationality (which is also addressed in The Long Shadow that we just discussed). Why is it that in 1860 many people in the United States believed that they were citizens of their individual sovereign states while many others felt that they were citizens of the United States of America -- the true location of national sovereignty? How is it that former U.S. president John Tyler, former Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and former U.S. Army officer Robert E. Lee believed that their loyalty to their states was more compelling than that to the United States of America.

Let me begin by differentiating civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism occurs when the citizens of a state accept that citizenship because they accept a common ethnic identity. Civic nationalism exists where people choose to be citizens of the state, abiding by the country's laws and fulfilling the obligations of citizenship; citizens can have different ethnic backgrounds, be of different religions and speak different languages in their homes.

If we think of the United States of America as "a nation of immigrants" then the nation would seem to be built on civic nationalism. Thus, its citizens might be seen to conceive of the USA as a state with citizens of many ethnic backgrounds; its citizens choose to be Americans, to abide by U.S. laws and to fulfill the other obligations of U.S. citizenship (in part because of the advantages of doing so).

The decision between civic nationalism in a larger state or ethnic nationalism in a smaller ethnic state is still present in many places. We have just seen the Scots vote to accept British nationality rather than separate Scotland from the other states of Great Britain. A majority of Catalans have just voted to separate from Spain. One could point to ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Basques in Spain, or Tamils in Sri Lanka as examples of ethnic groups still debating their identities as part of larger states. The partition of India into India and Pakistan, and of Pakistan into a reduced Pakistan and Bangladesh were examples of countries breaking apart into ethnic nation states with great loss of life.

In 1776 the residents of the individual colonies rebelling to obtain freedom from the British empire clearly declared their individual colonies to be sovereign states. It is not surprising given the distances between them, the difficulties of transportation and communications of the time, and the differences in their histories (for example, the different religious histories), that the people of these colonies did not understand themselves as being a single ethnic nation. The Articles of Confederation recognized that the colonies had to form a confederation if they were to remain independent in a world dominated by European imperial powers. The Confederation was conceived as an alliance of sovereign states. I find it interesting that the Articles explicitly invited Canada (with its French speaking, Catholic population) to join, but did not so mention the British colonies in the Caribbean, nor Spanish colonies in North America.

Clearly the Constitution was written and ratified in recognition that the Articles of Confederation did not make the U.S. Government strong enough; it could not raise the money to defend itself against potential foreign enemies. The federalists sought to locate sovereignty in the federal government of the Republic. The nullification crisis during the Jackson administration seemed to affirm that a state did not have the sovereign power to decide whether or not to obey a federal law. Yet disunion frequently discussed up until the Civil War (see Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth R. Varon).

Those prior to the Civil War who thought that the USA should divide into ethnic nations  might be said to include the representatives of the New England states that met in the Hartford convention during the War of 1812.  The members of the Know Nothing movement who opposed the immigration of large numbers of Irish Catholics, and those who opposed the annexation of Texas and of large areas after the Mexican War wanted the larger USA to be ethnically homogeneous. Indeed, there were many in the north and in the south who questioned whether people whose ethnicity included African ancestors and a recent history of slavery could ever be citizens of the United States of America.

Abraham Lincoln appears prototypical of those holding that the United States was a single nation, "indivisible with liberty and justice for all" and that the citizens of all the states formed a civic nation; there were millions of Americans who agreed with him in 1860.

Let me suggest that the institution of slavery was the dividing line. In the south, many people defined themselves as a nationality for which the institution of slavery was not only important, but defining; they were the people who provided the political support for the institution of chattel slavery. In the north, many abolitionists defined themselves as a nationality of people who rejected the institution of slavery. If all the people of the United States were to become a single civic nation, this fundamental difference had to be settled.

Those who defined themselves as the dominant group in a slave holding nation, also apparently believed that sovereignty was placed in their (southern) states. On secession, they formed a confederation of sovereign states, not a federal union holding sovereignty. On the other hand, those who defined themselves as of a non slave holding people also believed that sovereignty resided in the United States of America. Perhaps it was a realization in the south that only be leaving the union might they maintain the institution of slavery, and leaving the union was only morally justified if their states had the sovereign right to do so.

Was the issue settled by the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution? During the Reconstruction, the south was divided into military districts and placed under martial law. While the North never admitted that the 11 states of the Confederacy had seceded from the Union, it also did not immediately allow them to participate in elections after the war. Congress admitted members from Tennessee in 1866, and from 6 additional southern states in 1868. Four states had to wait until 1870 for readmission to Congress.

Culturally, the reintegration has taken much longer. Thus veterans organizations formed after the Civil War were composed of either Union or Confederate veterans, but not both. The Ku Klux Klan was active (albeit not just in the south) until the 20th century. "Lost Cause" ideas were common in the south long after the war.

Education: On the other hand, the idea that Americans had common civic responsibilities goes back to the foundation of the country, as does the idea that they must learn how to fulfill those responsibilities. When  schools in the United States began to be publicly funded in the 19th century, civics education began to become more available to all children. As immigrants from many nations flooded into the country later in the century and early in the 20th century, civics education became a way to promote civic nationalism.

The Pledge of Allegiance, declaring the USA to be "one nation" was not written until 1898, and was not adopted by Congress until 1942. The American Legion, created in the aftermath of World War I specifically accepted a mission of promoting "Americanism" -- essentially indoctrinating immigrants into American civic nationalism, while those immigrants retain other aspects of their national culture.

The USA remains composed of many ethnic minorities; Hispanics, Asians and Blacks are an increasing portion of the population, and the population is split among many religious denominations. Still, perhaps more than in the past, Americans also share many aspects of the same culture. Ask a foreigner how long it takes to identify whether someone comes from the USA by speech, appearance and attitudes. Perhaps this is becoming a hybrid of both civic and ethnic nationalism.

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