Among American history’s most misquoted lines is, “The British are coming!”
On his horse over a year before independence was declared, Paul Revere was himself British as were all the townspeople and farmers along his route. Using that word would have been nonsensical. Since the troops stationed in Boston were commonly called “Regulars” by the colonists, it is likely he used that term. Of course, by the time the first talking film was made, the word “Regular” fell flat and “British” seemed more to the point.
To this day we forget that the revolution did not begin with one united population seeking independence, but with a confederation of 13. And even after Thomas Paine coined the galvanizing name, United States of America, people still thought of themselves according to colony or region, Pennsylvanians and Virginians, or Carolinians and New Englanders.
A new book, Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism, traces the evolution of how we perceived ourselves from our break with England to our break with each other. Gradually, our identity was defined less by state than by region, North and South, with the slave economy as the wedge between all attempts by John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and others to make E Pluribus Unum come true.
Others, most notably John Calhoun, were determined to maintain the South’s distinct identity of white supremacy and slave economy, and a skewed Constitution enabled the South to do exactly that: The wildly disproportionate Electoral College, the equally disproportionate composition of the Senate, and the 3/5ths clause which counted enslaved people as 60% of a person for the sake of a census upon which representation in the House and the Electoral College was based–while not allowing those enslaved people themselves to vote.
Today, the 3/5ths rule is long gone, but a disproportionate Electoral College and Senate remain in a document that many Americans–especially Southerners for much the same reason they did two centuries ago–consider sancrosanct.
Enter a third region into the mix, the West, and the countdown to Civil War begins. According to author Joel Richard Paul, the South wanted to counter the spread of Northern industry into the Great Lakes region with a spread of their own slave economy into Mexico (and Cuba). At the time, Mexico stretched north all the way into northern California and what is now Wyoming. The South wanted more slave states, and with Tennesseans flooding into Texas–and with Southern presidents such as Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and John Tyler calling the shots–a fabricated war that would result in at least one new state was inevitable.
Polk’s rallying cry of “American blood on American soil,” was as false as the absurd retroactive claim that Texas was part of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, but the imagination of the nation was captured by the idea of a unified and enlarged identity. Writers at the time responded to a call from Ralph Waldo Emerson for a national literature, especially Herman Melville who set that identity on ships that sailed the world, and Walt Whitman whose “Song of Myself” was sung with America as his persona. As if to galvanize the whole “Young America” movement, a New York newspaper editor coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny.”
Ulysses Grant, a young officer of low rank when we attacked Mexico, would later call it “a wicked war” in his post-presidential memoirs, and there is a reason that the Mexican War is the only war with no plaque or monument anywhere in Washington, DC.
Still, as we learn in Indivisible, the Mexican War began our turn from regional identities toward a national one even as the standoff between North and South spiralled toward secession. War can do that. This where Daniel Webster played what may be called the lead role in the tragic drama.
There were others. John Quincy Adams, the only former president to later serve in Congress, was a leading voice of abolition in the House for 17 years, spending much of that time fighting Southern gag orders on the subject of slavery. Henry Clay worked as long and as tirelessly for compromises that, while not challenging slavery where it existed, would prevent its spread westward. Andrew Jackson’s military victories–some by way of his deceit of Native American tribes that trusted American treaties–made him a popular hero who advocated a strong union despite his uneasy alliance with the rabid Carolinian Calhoun necessitated by Old Hickory’s support of slavery. And then there was Martin Van Buren “whose obsequiousness and flattery were unmatched” but who “never drank his own poison.”
Above them all, Webster was the orator who drew the crowds, with a charisma that often made his opponents a bit more accomodating. His “Second Reply to Hayne” in 1830, a 30,000-word blaming the South’s economic problems on slavery while “arguing that the prosperity of the North and West was due to their reliance on free labor,” became required reading for decades in public schools. To this day, historians regard it as “the greatest extemporaneous oration ever delivered before Congress.”
Indivisible is generous with quotes of pointed passages Webster aimed at South Carolina’s quest for nullification, of rhetorical flourishes describing the cooperative country to be passed on to future generations, and barbs that made the chamber roar:
If we were to allow twenty-four states each independently to decide what laws were valid, he joked, “it should not be denominated a Constitution. It should be called, rather, a collection of topics for everlasting controversy.”
Paul does not shy away from one of the most controversial disputes of American history: Did Webster betray his Northern constituents and his own humanitarian principles when he endorsed the Compromise of 1850 with its abhorrent Fugitive Slave Law?
The short answer, clearly, is yes. Less clear is that the South would have split in 1850 without it, and so Webster, at the behest of Clay who appeared at his Washington door with a hacking cough on a stormy January night, reconsidered his firm, long-time stand that gave abolitionists hope. Webster’s mantra, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” was about to separate the man himself. For the sake of Union, Webster caved and sacrificed a liberty that Northerners held dear.
Other historians have vascillated on the truth and consequence of this move of a man who, from an early age, had his sights set on a presidential bid. Was Webster calculating that political gain in the border states and the South would more than compensate for losses in New England? Or was he sacrificing himself for the sake of avoiding a Civil War?
According to Paul, Webster was buying time. In 1850, industry in the North was not developed enough to prevent secession. Ten years later, that changed. Paul suggests that secession would have been successful had it happened a decade sooner. Given the amount of cotton and tobacco traded to England, Europe, and–as a result of a treaty engineered by Pres. Tyler in 1844–China, the South likely would have had allies that would not import manufactured goods from the North at that scale for at least another five years.
Indivisible ends with the death of Webster in October, 1852. Just months earlier he was vying with incumbent Millard Fillmore for the Whig nomination for president. Fillmore was the second Whig vice-president to ascend to the presidency after the death of a military hero within months of their inaugurations. Back then vice-presidents tended to be hacks chosen for their appeal in a region opposite the presidential candidate. Remarks Paul:
It would not be the last time a polarizing president from New York relied on southern and nativist support for his reelection.
That coincides with descriptions of Andrew Jackson that, if you remove the military references, echo descriptions we hear today. If you ever wondered why Jackson’s portrait was so often a backdrop for White House pronouncements from 2017 through 2020, and why the plan to replace him on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman was scrapped, consider this one:
Jackson… regarded the federal bureaucracy with suspicion. He feared that civil servants formed a shadow government or deep state that would impede him. The president set to work to “clean out” the embedded elite… He vaguely alluded to “widespread corruption” in government and insisted on firing civil servants… Jackson did not claim that these men were incompetent or corrupt. He simply wanted to replace them with civil servants who would be beholden to him.
Other presidents fare much worse in Paul’s estimation. When Whig stalwarts Webster and Clay vied for the presidential nomination in 1848, the party opted instead for Gen. Zachary Taylor, well-known to the public as “Old Rough and Ready” despite his dubious conduct of the Mexican War. Says Paul, “once more, inexperience and ignorance proved to be a winning combination in presidential politics.”
Many other passages in Indivisible you could file under, “History repeats itself,” or “Doomed to repeat,” or “The Past is not Dead.” As well as two blurbs on the back cover, not for what they say, but for who wrote them: Jamie Raskin and Anita Hill.
During a month when the governor of Florida signs a bill forbidding the teaching of African-American history in the state’s public schools on the grounds that it has “no educational value,” we might wonder if we are repeating the decade leading to the Civil War.
We may no longer think of ourselves according to our native states or geographic regions, but it is clear that, our nationalism notwithstanding, we have yet to think of ourselves as “American” in any honest sense of the word.