Saturday, February 23, 2008

Paul Johnson on the American Civil War

Paul Johnson's History of the American People, is valuable because Johnson, not being American himself (he is British), has achieved a level of insight into American history that is rarely present in our own historians. Here is what he says about the American Civil War.

“The Civil War…made America a nation, which it was not before. For America…was, rather, an artificial state or series of states, bound together by negotiated agreements and compacts, characters and covenants…. Their contract to become Americans – the Declaration of Independence – did not in itself make them a nation. On the contrary, the very word ‘nation’ was cut from it – the Southerners did not like the word. Significantly it was John Marshall, the supreme federalist, the legal ideologist of federalism, who first asserted in 1821 that America was a nation. It is true that Washington had used the word in his Farewell Addess, but elliptically, and it was no doubt inserted by Hamilton, the other ideologue of federalism. Washington referred to ‘the Community of Interest in one Nation,’ which seems to beg the question whether America was a nation or not. And even Marshall’s definition is qualified: ‘America has chosen to be,’ he laid down, ‘in many respects and for many purposes, a nation.’ This leads one to ask: in what respectsm and for what purposes, was America not a nation? The word is not to be found in the Constitution. In the 1820s in the debates over the ‘National Road,’ Senator William Smith of South Carolina objected to ‘this insidious word:’ he said it was ‘a term unknown to the origins and theory of our government.’ As one constitutional historian has put it: ‘In the architecture of nationhood, the United States has achieved something quite remarkable…Americans errected their constitutional roof before they put up their national walls…and the Constitution became a substitute for a deeper kind of national identity.”

(Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, New York: NY, 1997)

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