Sunday, July 26, 2015

Just Finished Reading - Shifting Grounds

Significant scholarly works have been written on the diversity of political thought in the white antebellum and Civil War South. William Freehling's The South vs The South quickly comes to mind, but fewer books have attempted to examine the transitions that were necessary to spark a nation-making attempt that eventually consisted of eleven states called the Confederate States of America.

That gigantic hole is now largely filled with Paul Quigley's Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865 (Oxford University Press, 2012). This eye-opening look at the South's evolution, from a strong United States nationalist position to that of a separate entity, and then with defeat, a non-nation of commemoration, should find an eager audience.

Although national events such as the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Nullification Crisis (1832-33) predate Quigley's time frame, the Mexican-American War and the lands acquired from that conflict sped up sectional division. New territory meant new states, which meant making difficult decisions and taking strong actions on which newly formed states would be slave and which would be free. So, what was to be gained or lost? To the South what to be lost was a balance of power in Congress. With a loss of balance of power, presidential elections, and Supreme Court appointments was potentially the loss of their economic, social, and cultural way of life; i.e. slavery. The Compromise of 1850 brought about the first true Southern considerations about secession and serious thoughts of creating their own nation; one that was designed to protect slavery and guarantee its ability to expand as new land was added.

The nineteenth century was an era of nation making. European efforts in places like Italy, Hungary, and Ireland brought about a certain romantic idealism which often overlooked the difficulties encountered along the way. Southerners' questions abounded though: "What made a nation? Could an individual or a group change nationality at will? How should one balance different layers of identity and loyalty when they came into conflict? How did nation-states secure and maintain legitimacy at home and abroad? What were the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?"

To help illustrate some of his points, Quigley looks at traditional forms of American nationalism and how the South adapted them for their own purposes. Events such as Fourth of July celebrations and the legacy of the Revolutionary War, symbols such as the American flag, and heroes like George Washington were all incorporated in different ways in the new Confederacy's claims for nationhood.

Of course, the Civil War brought challenges to what white Confederates had hoped would be a more free nation than that experienced in the old United States. However, conscription (just a year into their national experience), slave impressment, crop confiscation, and geographical pockets of strident Unionism that had be controlled, all made nation building a more difficult experiment than originally expected.

The Confederate nation ended with its army's defeats on the battlefields, but although no longer in existence, the suffering and sacrifices experienced by the soldiers and their families created a culture of commemoration and pride in heritage that continues to this day. Without understanding how the Confederate nation came into being, one cannot truly understand or appreciate the cultural divide that has existed since 1865.

I highly recommend this excellently written and researched book. It was truly one of those rare books that I found difficult to close and eager to reopen. On a scale of one to five, I give it a well deserved five.

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