You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
One Nation?

We Fought Over American National Identity During the Antebellum Period. The Fight Should Be Ongoing.

A new work of history finds the best antidote to today’s authoritarian politics in Daniel Webster’s nineteenth-century civic nationalism.

A lithograph of Daniel Webster from William H. Brown’s 1845 series “Portrait Gallery of Distinguished American Citizens”
Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism
Joel Richard Paul
Riverhead Books, 528 pp., $30.00

It’s often forgotten that New England, not the South, was the first part of the country to flirt with breaking away. As the War of 1812 dragged on, the northeast region—battered by successive embargoes on trade with Britain and vulnerable to attack by the formidable Royal Navy—was fed up with a conflict it viewed as the fault of Southerners who didn’t have to suffer the consequences. Resentment had been brewing for a while. The South blasted the Yankees as traitors for their refusal to go along with the war effort; the Yankees countered that the South had rigged the system with the Three-Fifths Compromise—which included enslaved people when determining a state’s proportional representation in Congress—and locked the North out of power. Tensions grew so high that in late 1814, when New England’s political elite gathered in Hartford, Connecticut, to deliberate a response to the perceived attack on their regional interests, secession was not off the table. Just a few decades into its existence as something more than a hodgepodge of British colonies, the “United” States was less reality than aspiration, and “American” national identity was mostly a convenient fiction.

Joel Richard Paul’s new book, Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism, retraces the process by which that fiction became a reality. In his overview of the period between 1812 and 1852, the University of California law professor presents the great antebellum orator and statesman as a foundational figure in the American pluralist tradition, which holds that the United States represents “a coming together of many identities” under the rule of law. Webster’s vision of a nation united in allegiance to the Constitution profoundly shaped the development of American national identity and, Paul argues, remains its dominant expression. But the triumph of a liberal democratic conception of the body politic was not a foregone conclusion. Out of several alternative philosophies vying for supremacy, the racist populism of Andrew Jackson and his spiritual successors proved (and continues to prove) the strongest challenger to an inclusive civic nationalism of the kind Webster advanced. Indivisible makes the case that, then as now, Webster’s insistence on a common American destiny enshrined in law is the single best “antidote” to authoritarian politics.

Daniel Webster is perhaps not the most obvious subject for a pop history book in 2022. For generations after his death in 1852, he was one of the early nineteenth century’s most influential political figures; Paul notes that the soldiers of the Union Army likely memorized excerpts of his most famous speeches while in grade school. In Webster’s 40 years in public life as a lawyer, congressman, senator, and secretary of state, he was about as close to a celebrity as one could get in the earliest days of mass media. His ability to enrapture an audience earned him the moniker “Godlike Daniel,” and contemporaries, such as Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, described his oratory as “superhuman.” Yet Webster’s profile has faded considerably since the early twentieth century, in no small part because his major accomplishments—arguing two landmark property rights cases before the Supreme Court and fixing the northern border with Canada—were not quite as earthshaking as those of, say, Harriet Tubman or Abraham Lincoln. If in 1876 Webster earned a larger-than-life statue in Central Park, today he earns at most a paragraph or two in high school history textbooks.

The choice of Webster becomes clearer when reading Indivisible as a history of ideas instead of as a straightforward biography. Paul’s aim is not to give an exhaustive account of Webster’s life, but rather to invoke the period in which he lived, roughly spanning the gap between the Revolution and the Civil War, as a mirror of our own. If in the current moment Americans are renegotiating certain fundamental aspects of the body politic, they are revising a rough draft hashed out during the antebellum era. More than a repository of ineffectual half-remembered presidents, that epoch, Paul argues, was the decisive moment in the formation of American national identity. It was an ideological cauldron in which competition between visions of what the young country would become—a nation of small farmers; a continent-spanning empire; a beacon of liberalism; a slave society—pushed it to the brink.

In Paul’s telling, a type of civic nationalism based on shared allegiance to the Constitution, as an “organic expression of the will of ‘We the People,’” proved victorious, with Daniel Webster as its avatar. Throughout the book, Webster functions more as a symbol of this idea than as a protagonist, disappearing for long stretches of the narrative only to reappear, deus ex machina–style, with a rousing speech defending national unity against growing secessionist influence. Perhaps even more than as a legislator, Webster was primarily known as an orator in his day, and Paul devotes special attention to his public addresses in order to tease out the essence of his philosophy. The picture that emerges is of a man whose deeply and sincerely held belief was that the United States should be understood not as a compact between former colonies, but as a true nation formed by an act of popular sovereignty. One famous phrase encapsulated his core conviction and defined his legacy: “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable.”

While he has not exactly written a hagiography, Paul is still more or less working within the “Great American Hero” framework, and he casts Webster’s particular civic nationalist idea as the germ of our country’s tradition of pluralism. This is a somewhat odd framing, given that Webster devoted his career as a politician and public speaker almost exclusively to establishing the federal government’s authority over the states and keeping the states united; there is little, if anything, in the speeches cited that connects political union to any notion of equality. Paul himself characterizes Webster as a “progressive conservative” who “disdained the democratic spirit that defined his milieu.”

Nevertheless, if Webster’s nationalism was limited in scope and legalistic in nature, within the time period in question, he is as good a stand-in for the liberal tradition as any. The other characters in Paul’s narrative also serve as proxies for concepts of American national identity, past and present, and a substantial portion of the book is devoted to looking at these roads not taken. Paul draws John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams and frenemy of Webster, in perhaps the most interesting and nuanced manner, associating Adams with “continental nationalism,” the idea that America was destined to become a (paradoxical) “empire of liberty” spanning the Atlantic to the Pacific, and highlighting his lesser-known role in establishing what would later be known as the Monroe Doctrine (the U.S. policy of opposing European intervention in the Americas). Late in life, Adams hewed closer to the liberalism that Paul less fittingly ascribes to Webster, becoming an indefatigable opponent of slavery and a defender of the rights of African captives in the Amistad trial.

Unsurprisingly, Paul spends the most time contrasting Webster’s civic nationalism with the populism of Andrew Jackson, which he (also unsurprisingly) casts as the precursor to Trumpism. The case for continuity is strong. Paul characterizes Jackson as a corrupt demagogue with a penchant for cruelty who riled up the masses with a vague promise of “reform,” a “gauzy populist slogan signifying nothing but a mean-spirited campaign against civil servants, bankers, foreigners, and Native Americans.” If Paul struggles to establish Webster as a liberal pluralist, he has no trouble getting at the exclusionary, white supremacist heart of Jackson’s populism, which found its most infamous expression in the expulsion of the Cherokee and the forced migration along the Trail of Tears. This tension between Webster and Jackson—between an open definition of American identity and a violently narrow one—is for Paul the through line between the antebellum era and the present, and the main justification for returning to Webster’s vision as a guide for the way forward.

Paul acknowledges early on that Webster is a “problematic figure to cast in a hero role,” but that is an understatement. Webster’s personal role in the maintenance of the slave system is another, if not the biggest, reason why he no longer commands the same respect that he once did. In the final phase of his career, against the backdrop of a dispute over the spread of slavery to territories conquered from Mexico, the civic nationalist vision that he embodied was pushed to its absolute limits. As it turned out, when the issue of slavery threatened to tear apart the country, Webster considered liberty and union not as inseparable as he’d initially suggested.

In a last-ditch effort to hold the nation together, Webster signed on to a package of legislation that would go down in infamy as the Compromise of 1850. A born-and-bred New Englander representing Massachusetts in the Senate, Webster had to persuade his colleagues in the Chamber of the merits of the litany of concessions to the South, and attempted to do so by placing a substantial part of the blame with Northern abolitionists. Not only did they poison the political climate with their moral absolutism, he argued, but their agitation only ensured that the “bonds of the slaves were bound more firmly than before, their rivets were more strongly fastened.” When the Compromise was finally passed, Webster, in his capacity as secretary of state, was charged with enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act at the heart of the deal. Abolitionists in Boston resisted fiercely, condemning him as the “slave catcher-in-chief.” In February 1851, a crowd of antislavery activists stormed a courthouse to whisk away an enslaved man on trial for escape and brought him to safety in Montreal. Webster did not let this happen again: Two months later, he personally arranged for Thomas Sims, a 17-year-old who had escaped from Georgia, to be marched in chains to Boston Harbor and shipped back to Savannah. Upon his arrival, Sims was whipped in the city’s public square and sold to a plantation in Mississippi.

Lest this seem like a retroactive cancellation of Webster, his contemporaries were even more forceful in their denunciation. Ralph Waldo Emerson saw Webster’s “absence of moral faculty” as “degrading to the country.” And even at his funeral two years later, the Reverend Theodore Parker censured him for his betrayal of the Northern cause.

From the beginning, slavery posed a problem for Webster’s belief that freedom and unity under a single government were inseparable; by the end of his life, his myopic focus on preserving the country’s political institutions led him on a quixotic mission. He was “forced to conclude that union could only continue if human liberty were sacrificed,” and, his famous line notwithstanding, he decided to do exactly that. If Indivisible mainly highlights Webster’s inspirational qualities, Paul, perhaps unintentionally, has also written a cautionary tale about the limits of civic nationalism. When the law of the land becomes untethered from substantive ethical principles, it loses its legitimacy as the bedrock for national identity.

But civic nationalism has the potential to go beyond Webster’s anemic understanding of it. Defining, in a founding charter, a political community on the basis of equal citizenship and equal rights empowers members to make demands of the government when it falls short of realizing that ideal. Such an understanding of national identity enshrines egalitarian principles in the basic structure of society and can encompass all people regardless of language, religion, race, or any similar category underlying other forms of nationalism. This conception of our country’s identity, rather than Webster’s more limited one, has provided past movements against injustice with a powerful rhetorical tool. As American democracy finds itself imperiled once again, it can continue to do so. Only when it is in service of higher ideals can liberal nationalism truly be the antidote to Jacksonian populism.