A new book argues that the development of a unified national narrative was largely accomplished by the Whig orator Daniel Webster during the period between 1815 and 1852. (1851, Wikimedia Commons)

 The United States is in the midst of an existential crisis. The right’s authoritarian turn has confounded the notion that most Americans share a vision of the U.S. as a pluralistic democracy. In the fall of 2021, the majority of Joe Biden and Donald Trump voters alike said they believed red and blue states should secede to form separate countries. 

Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism by Joel Richard Paul Riverhead Books, 528 pp.

Americans rightly wonder what still holds us together, which quickly leads one to ask what held us together in the past. After all, the Founding Fathers knew in 1776 that they were trying to create an ad hoc alliance of separate countries to defeat a common enemy. In 1787, the Framers feared that absent more formal and empowered federal institutions, those same countries might descend into military conflict. (“It could not but occur to everyone that these separate independencies, like the petty States of Greece, would be eternally at war with each other,” Jefferson later recalled, “and would become at length the mere partisans and satellites of the leading powers of Europe.”) There were secession movements in Appalachia in the 1790s, New England in the 1810s, and, of course, Dixie from the 1840s onward. In the late 19th century, the federal government poured money into the creation of the transcontinental railroads for fear that without such infrastructure, the Pacific states would break away.

The national narrative that eventually led “Virginians” and “New Englanders” and the residents of the Republic of Texas and the California Republic to genuinely think of themselves as “Americans” had to be constructed more or less from scratch. Our country had started without a common history, ethnology, or religion. Its people lacked a unique language all their own or a sense of having lived in this place since time immemorial, and they were killing or displacing those people who could make such a claim. The rival colonial cultures had distinct and often incompatible ideologies, social models, and attitudes toward the promises in the Declaration of Independence. The story of American nationhood, as I described in my own book on the subject, was artificially constructed—and violently contested—over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Understanding that process, and the eternal fight it triggered between civic and ethnic nationalism, is essential to figuring out how to hold the American project together going forward.

Joel Richard Paul’s new book, Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism, promises to reveal how this nation-defining effort happened. As the subtitle suggests, Paul, a constitutional law professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, makes the novel argument that this was largely accomplished by the Whig orator, senator, and lifelong presidential aspirant Daniel Webster during the period between 1815 and 1852. “Contending ideas of material, continental, populist, and cultural nationalism would eventually be displaced by the brilliant oratory of one man: Daniel Webster,” he writes. Webster’s famous speeches sanctifying the union were reprinted in widely used school readers and “thoroughly indoctrinated” the generation that fought the Civil War with constitutional nationalism, an attachment to the ideals, values, and institutions of the federation, including the Constitution and the union itself. Webster’s ideas, Paul contends, inspired this generation to join a battle against the ethnonational populism unleashed by the demagogic Andrew Jackson in which they vanquished the foe and set the country on a better path. Paul also argues that the battle was essentially won then and there because “until the recent rise of white nationalism in America, the Webster-Lincoln ideal of American nationalism had displaced Jackson’s racial populism,” forcing it underground to “fester in the fissures in American society, to bloom in times of stress.”

The story of American nationhood was artificially constructed—and violently contested—during the 19th and 20th centuries. Understanding that process, and the eternal fight it triggered between civic and ethnic nationalism, is essential to figuring out how to hold the American project together going forward.

But did Webster play such a singular role in setting the country on the path to civic nationhood? And did the ideas he put forth help vanquish racial populism for a century and a half, making a tenuous, contractual union of states into one United States? Paul’s account is a lively, well-written romp through the events between the end of the War of 1812 and the collapse of the Compromise of 1850, but the thesis at its core is unsound.

Webster did help rally northerners around the union—and his rhetoric inspired a young Abraham Lincoln—but ultimately he betrayed the very commitments for which his version of the union was supposedly built. Less than a decade after his death, the union failed as well when the country descended into civil war, and a decade after that, white Protestant ethnic nationalism was again in rapid ascent.

Webster’s calls for civic nationalism had limited reach, their appeal almost entirely confined to his native New England and swaths of the country initially colonized by New Englanders: upstate New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, and the Upper Great Lakes states and territories. By Paul’s own account, Webster’s ideas had little influence south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where, in 1830, about half of the U.S. population resided. 

That’s not surprising, given that Webster was a New Englander through and through. Born and raised on a farm in southern New Hampshire, he attended Phillips Exeter, graduated from Dartmouth, and espoused the ordered liberty, faith in institutions, moral rectitude, and republican virtue that dominated the cultural ethos of that region. He rose to prominence as an attorney, successfully argued McCulloch v. Maryland before the Supreme Court (establishing the supremacy of federal over state law), represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House and Senate, served as secretary of state in the Fillmore and Harrison administrations, and ran for president in 1836 (carrying only the Bay State). Horrified by the rise of the Jacksonians, he helped found the Whig Party to oppose them and emerged as one of the leading orators in the country. 

His speeches championed values dear to New Englanders: moral restraint, individual self-denial for the common good, faith in government as the people’s covenant to accomplish the holy work of providence. His early oratories celebrated the Pilgrims and Puritans as the founders not just of New England but of America as a whole. Even when he spoke in Charleston, South Carolina, in an effort to bolster southern Whiggery, he appealed to his own region’s special role and sacrifice. “New England blood has moistened the soil where we now stand, shed as readily as at Lexington, or Concord, or Bunker Hill,” he decreed. “May it prove a durable cement of the union in our respective states!” Such rhetoric certainly inspired New Englanders and their descendants, but it proved weaker in regions founded by Quakers, Jackson’s Scots-Irish, the lesser sons of Anglican manorial gentry, and the English slave lords of the West Indies. 

Indivisible ignores several key figures in the creation of the U.S. civic national story who have equal or better claims to having sparked American nationhood than Daniel Webster. There’s nary a word about the historian and Massachusetts Democratic Party boss George Bancroft’s immensely popular articulation of a U.S. civic national story, which transformed the way Americans thought about their country, and unfortunately included lasting and unhelpful elements like exceptionalism, divine providence, and manifest destiny. Bancroft’s 10-volume History of the United States argued that America was the inevitable result of God’s plan to further human freedom and that each colony was planted with the same cultural seed, an argument which received pushback from his southern colleagues. Bancroft helped put these ideas into practice, serving as secretary of the Navy and acting secretary of war in the Polk administration and, later, as our ambassador to the U.K. and Bismarck’s Germany. 

Frederick Douglass, every bit Webster’s match as an orator, isn’t mentioned until the final pages of this book, when he gets a cameo delivering his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech. But Douglass was arguably the pivotal figure in the creation of our now-familiar civic narrative: that we are defined by our commitment to further the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence. His speeches emphasized the ongoing betrayal of those ideals and tasked his northern white audiences to take action to uphold them, be it on behalf of African or Irish or Chinese Americans or the women agitating for their rights at the Seneca Falls convention. He too met and influenced Lincoln and helped carry the president’s torch through the dark decades that followed his assassination.

Webster’s 1830 “Second Reply to Hayne” is officially regarded as the most famous speech ever delivered in the Senate and is where he delivered his most famous line: “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” But, as Paul himself discusses, Webster betrayed his own mantra 20 years later by supporting the Fugitive Slave Act and then, overseeing federal prosecutors as secretary of state, aggressively enforcing it in Massachusetts, ruining his reputation in the very region where it had been most sterling. The transcendentalist intellectual Theodore Parker likened the choice to Benedict Arnold’s treason. “The word liberty in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word love in the mouth of a courtesan,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. Henry David Thoreau declared Webster a “bug.” Not only had Webster chosen union over liberty, his compromise backfired, in that the new law swelled the ranks of New England’s abolitionists, driving the sections even further apart. 

Paul’s account also misses many of the forces arrayed against Webster’s version of America. He sketches the odious Andrew Jackson as a thinly disguised Donald Trump: corrupt, amoral, bellicose, racist, and skilled at firing up a populist base against “elites.” But Jackson’s racial populism, based in the Upland South, wasn’t the most lasting adversary of the civic national narrative. That was, rather, the ethnonationalist authoritarian project of the Lowland South and its leading intellectuals and orators, a group of now-forgotten men who in their day were celebrities: the novelist William Gilmore Simms and his predatory child-abusing friend James Henry Hammond, governor and senator for South Carolina; and the Virginian intellectuals George Fitzhugh (who argued that poor whites should also be enslaved) and Nathaniel Beverley Tucker. Their national narrative was that the Declaration of Independence was wrong, humans were unequal, and the U.S. was the shield protecting the ethno-states of the Anglo-Saxon race, the only people capable of republican self-government. It was the clash of this story against the civic national one promoted by Bancroft, Douglass, and Lincoln that defined the period Paul focuses on and, indeed, most of our history thereafter.

This brings us to Paul’s second argument, that civic nationalism triumphed over ethnic nationalism in America until the rise of Donald Trump. Even if we were to clear the stage for Webster and grant that his speeches helped inspire northerners to fight for the union, the fact is that the Civil War decidedly did not vanquish the darker forces fighting to define America in the 1860s. On the contrary, authoritarian racial populism and white supremacy rapidly reconsolidated control over the former Confederacy shortly after the war ended—spearheaded by the Ku Klux Klan’s violent terrorist campaign—and successfully infected and spread across the northern tier of the country. It became the reigning American ideology of the 1910s and 1920s, when Woodrow Wilson was segregating the federal government; an extended homage to the KKK, Birth of a Nation, was packing theaters and the membership rolls of the second Klan; the Jim Crow South was at its zenith and putting up those Confederate monuments we’re tearing down now; and Congress established a restrictive new immigration regime that sought to maintain the “Anglo-Saxon” character of the country. 

Even if we were to grant that Webster’s speeches helped inspire northerners to fight for the union, the fact is that the Civil War decidedly did not vanquish the darker forces fighting to define America in the 1860s.

However, the triumph of civic nationalism didn’t come in the 1860s but, rather, in the 1960s, with the civil rights movement—and there’s no guarantee that it will endure. The history of our fractious federation is the story of the struggle between the civic nationalist and ethnic nationalist visions, a battle for the “soul of America” that will likely last as long as the United States does. The battle has been joined again, replete with voter suppression, legislative efforts to ban books and interfere with elections, and the storming of the Capitol. We’d best make sure the civic national story survives this uncertain moment, because if it doesn’t, both liberty and the union will perish.  

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Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. He is the director of the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.