One Nation Divided by Slavery

One Nation Divided by Slavery

Remembering the American Revolution While Marching toward the Civil War

Michael F. Conlin

Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2015, 240 pages

Book Review published on: May 25, 2017

One Nation Divided by Slavery examines the antebellum struggle to shape American national identity through the interpretation of history. One Nation offers period abolitionist, fire-eater (pro-slavery), and moderate interpretations of national icons such as the Founding Fathers, Revolutionary War battles, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Fourth of July celebrations through literary journals. In contemporary terms, One Nation captures the battle to dominate the narrative over the incongruity between liberal ideals and slavery. Abolitionists and fire-eaters alike explained how Washington and Jefferson were in their camp. When evidence was too tenuous for even sophistic reasoning, Michael Conlin traces the disparaging of national symbols or the invention of alternative facts. For example, Northerners and Southerners argued the importance of Revolutionary War battles based on their location or the relative contributions of their respective soldiery. As abolitionists used the Declaration of Independence as a bludgeon, slavery advocates invented new versions with different wording or venerated earlier, and by implication, more authoritative, alternatives such as the Mecklenburg Declaration.

One Nation’s contributions are fourfold. First, it is a comprehensive view of ideological arguments over slavery and the value of American unity. This is invaluable for anyone seeking a richer understanding of American national identity. Second, readers can develop a more informed assessment of Washington and Jefferson and their contributions and flaws as national heroes and men. Third, Conlin exposes how the stresses of politics, popular opinion, and harbingers of war can bias even the most conscientious of historians. Fourth, and perhaps unintended, military readers should note One Nation’s demonstration of narrative following interest rather than the reverse sequence. This insight undermines conventional wisdom framing the key to victory in the al Qaida and the Islamic State campaigns as primarily a narrative battle.

One Nation has one minor lacunae. It is a history of the educated elite. The focus on literary journals leaves the beliefs of ordinary people underrepresented and creates a bias toward ideological explanations. This is perhaps inevitable. As the participants passed away only the written record remained. Lastly, I was left with the impression Conlin has a mild and unexplained case of military phobia that occasionally surfaces in the book. Regardless of these observations, I highly recommend One Nation Divided by Slavery for anyone, military readers in particular.

Book Review written by: Richard E. Berkebile, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas