Creating the Idea of the American Nation

The Civil War in the United States changed a lot of things. It brought about the administrative state in the United States and gave absolute sovereignty in our country to the national government, wrestling that sovereignty away from the individual states. Our Civil War occur nearly 100 years after our battle for independence, and it was the Civil War which cemented the idea of American nationhood throughout the world.


When our founding fathers created our Constitution they introduced a new idea to our continent, that ever was a citizen of one nation, and not just a citizen of an individual state. Today this is obvious, but at the time of the revolution, at the time of our Constitution’s adoption, and even at the time of the Civil War, this was not clear. American’s thought of themselves first as Virginians or New Yorkers, not as collective citizens across the nation. In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis explains this shift in ideology from the actions of Lincoln during the war:


“In 1863 Lincoln had some compelling reasons for bending the arc of American history in a national direction, since he was then waging a civil war on behalf of a union that he claimed predated the existence of the states. This was a fundamental distortion of how history happened, though we may wish to forgive Lincoln, since it was the only way for him to claim the political authority to end slavery.”


Ellis shows that the idea that each state was part of a larger union, and that the union to which they belonged had ultimate authority over each state was anathema even in the 1860’s. We fought the revolution as a group of united states, but we were not a united nation as much as a collective group of independent governments with aligned self-interests. Thinking back on the decisions made during the Constitutional Convention and at our nations founding requires that we remember that our Founding Fathers did not see our government and our associations as a unified whole, but often as a group of sovereign entities forming a compact. Some of our founding fathers did see the importance of American nationhood, and in his book, Ellis sheds light on the actions of Washington, Madison, Hamilton, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert Morris to turn the nation into a cohesive sovereign entity, a concept that was not fully cemented until after the Civil War.

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