Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Was the Confederacy a Nation?

The Confederate States of America. Was it a legitimate nation? I mean...they had a flag and everything - but more often than not, a flag just isn't enough.

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Last week, I gave a talk on the turning points of 1862. As a sidebar, I mentioned that the Confederacy was indeed a nation...it just didn't last for very long. What followed was an audible groan from the audience. The (mostly northern) group insisted that what passed as a nation in the southern United States was in fact nothing more than a collection of said states in rebellion. No nation.

I asked them to think about that for a minute. The Confederacy resembled a nation in many respects. They had executive and legislative branches of a national government. They had a constitution. They had an army and a navy. They were granted belligerent status by European powers. Not enough? Even the Lincoln administration recognized the Confederacy as a nation de facto when it was convenient. For example - you do not exchange prisoners with rebels, nor can you blockade yourself. But in the end many deny the Confederacy national status because they lost the war. I am not sure that I won many over. They seemed determined to disagree with me. Always careful to choose my battles, I moved on to the topic at hand

But as naming is the origin of all particular things, perhaps we should reflect on some further aspects of nation, nationalism, and indeed...legitimacy. If by recognizing a Confederate nation are we implying as well the existence of Confederate nationalism? Historians have debated this problem for some time. Some say it did not exist in strength - pointing to protests, the relatively few number of slaveholders, etc. Others say that government officials "created" Confederate nationalism and thus duped the white southern populace into supporting the cause. Still others say that despite the privations that went hand in hand with living through war, white southerners remained virulently committed to Confederate nationalism.

I side with the latter - and push the issue even further. The evidence suggests a strong southern commitment to a national vision that existed before the war broke out. In the South, this commitment easily fit with a new national experiment that to white southerners more closely resembled the intentions of the founding generation. Generally speaking, they were nationalistic and created a nation to fit their vision - a slave-holding democratic republic free from the tyranny of an outside power.

Sound familiar? They didn't put George Washington on the national seal for shits and giggles.

And here's where the trouble really gets brewing. Recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate nation (albeit with a pretty short shelf life) might give one away as a member of the neo-Confederate ranks. Not meaning to complicate the obvious,  I would still like to point out that such logic is profoundly flawed. Dear readers, rest assured - I am not throwing my support behind the Confederacy. But I will stand behind my position. The white people of the South created a new nation. They went to war to protect it and in short order...failed on a catastrophic level.



  1. Keith, what you have described is a "government" or a "state", not a nation. A "nation" typically predates the creation of a unifying state and endures after conquest. A nation may or may not be coextensive with a state.

    For example, there is a state called the United Kingdom, but there is no UK nation. Instead there are the nations of the English, Scots, etc.

    The Confederacy may have been a state or not, and it may have tried to employ implements of ideological formation to encourage the creation of a Confederate nationalism, but it could never develop, in four short years, the sense of apartness from the broader American nation (still only partially developed itself) necessary for even a negative nationalism.

  2. Pat - I have indeed described a government - that functioned in every way as a national government. One thing I should have perhaps emphasized more clearly is that the Confederates saw themselves as a nation (rather than a loose collection of states, which I find strange for a nation devoted to state rights...but that's another story) - so in the end, if you want to understand the CSA cause, nation and nationalism, it doesn't really matter what we think from a 21st century perspective...it matters what they thought in 1861-65.
    And in terms of CSA nationalism, I could not disagree with you more. Nationalism in the CSA was intensely strong. It comes across in the letters and diaries of soldiers and civilians alike. This is not to say that it might have developed in various ways had things gone differently - but that counterfactual is best left to the beer and peanuts crowd. Suffice it to say, Many (not all of course) felt a strong connection to their national government.
    As always - thanks for the comment. You insightful words are always welcome at Cosmic America.

  3. Keith, I think first we need to have a common, agreed-upon definition for "nation." Whether or not the confederacy was a nation depends on how "nation" is defined, after all. I went back to my old Comparative Politics textbook from college: "Like many other terms in political science, the term 'nation' is widely used, useful--and somewhat ambiguous. Sometimes it is used to mean a particular legal entity, such as the United States of America or the Dominion of Canada; sometimes it is used to mean a group of people with common political loyalties or cultural bonds, such as 'the Apache nation' or 'the Jewish people.' Some political scientists reserve the term 'nation' for the group of people and the term 'nation-state' for the legal entity, but most use the two terms interchangeably. ... One result of this ambiguity is that there is always some question about just which political systems should be called either 'nations' or 'nation-states' and how many there are. Systems like the United States, the Soviet Union [the book is from 1975], and India are universally acknowledged to be nations, and systems like New York, Derbyshire, and the Auvergne are recognized as cities, counties, and regions respectively." [Austin Ranney, The Governing of Men, 4th Edition (1975), pp. 57-58]

    Ranney identifies "the characteristics most often stipulated for the nation" as: "a definite territory, a definite population, a government, formal independence, and a sense of national identity." [ibid., p. 58]

    Using these characteristics, the confederacy fails to meet the criteria of being a nation.

    Can a system that is not a nation have a population that possesses nationalism? Again, let's go to Ranney. "Nationalism is found among peoples who display most, though not anecessarily all, of the following traits.
    Identification with National Territory
    Common History
    Common Language and Literaure
    Common Culture
    Desire for Political Independence" [pp. 60-61]

    Nationalism, then, would seem to be able to exist in the absence of nationhood.

  4. Let me respectfully disagree (again). Many letter do show a high sense of identification with elements of the Confederate state, but that identification was during a crisis. As with our modern post-911 unity, crisis induced unity and allegiance often is short-lived.

    For real nationalism, Southern whites would have had to exhibit a commonality of culture across internal geographic regions that was superior to and exclusive of all other cultures having claims upon them. In other words, Texans, Virginians, and South Carolinians would need to see themselves as sharing an identity beyond the immediate project of preserving slavery and winning the war. That identity did not exist. In fact, Virginians may have felt more cultural identity with Marylanders than with folks from South Carolina and Texans often claimed a separate nationality of their own.

  5. Pat - I have to stick to my guns on this one. You seem to be confusing regional/cultural affinity with a lack of nationalism (yes...the real kind). I know this is the conventional wisdom regarding the CSA - it helps explain defeat retrospectively. But you could say precisely the same thing about the United States - then..and now for that matter. Evidence has a nasty habit of turning conventional wisdom on its head. Letters and diaries are filled with nods to "our country" and "our nation."
    There are many many examples of southerners from one state showing allegiance to their sister southern states. Cultural ties were strong indeed. And speaking of ties between Virginia and Maryland - no one from the CSA was singing Maryland, My Maryland after 1862 when Marylanders failed to flock to the Confederate colors. So much for that cultural connection.
    But I'll give you Texas. I am not quite sure they ever got over being a republic :)

  6. Al - it is a shame that the Confederates didn't have access to these books. It might have saved us (and them) a lot of trouble. Defining nation is a tricky thing and I am not sure political scientists do the job. From where I sit - it is a felt experience as much as any of the other criteria.
    Let me ask you this...when did the Unites States become a nation? At the formal declaration in 1776 or the Treaty of Paris in 1783?

  7. Hi Keith, I see what you mean. Why should we take seriously the results of the study of political scientists when we're considering political systems? Next thing, someone will suggest we take seriously the results of the study of historians when we're considering history. What was I thinking? :)

    I should point out also, they didn't have access to any of our history books either, so they could see that whole secession thingy was just a big waste of time. :)

    Seriously, though, I think an agreed-on definition is necessary to answer your question, and I don't find any better definitions around.

    As to the answer for your question, those pesky political scientists (there I go again) have it. Nothing succeeds like success. Because we won the Revolution, we won not only our independence but also the right to say when we became a nation. We won that right in 1783, and then we retroactively declared 1776 to be that moment. Had we not won in 1783, we would not have been a nation in 1776, 1783, or any other time.

  8. Ha...I take them seriously, that's for sure. I just think some of the conclusions you listed above are begging for revision - one that includes a consideration of what people said at the time. I mean - I hardly think anyone has the final word in a retrospective sense. If that was the case, there would be one book, we would read it, and that would be the end of the story. Precisely the same thing goes for historians and history as well.
    My biggest problem with applying such formulaic rules to the formation of nations is that those forming the nations do not consider how political scientists will define them over a century in the future.
    I believe sir, that you are reading history the wrong way.

  9. Hi again, Keith. I agree absolutely with you that there's certainly a possibility these things need to be revised based on what we learn. As we learn more, we should always revise our understandings.

    You appear to me to be arguing that self-identification is definitive. Certainly the confederates thought they had a nation. At least one Englishman felt they had a nation. But just because they believed they were a nation, were they? Again, I have to say we need to agree on a definition and apply that definition to their situation, otherwise we enter into an endless argument of "Yes, they were, no they weren't." Can I self-identify myself and my house as constituting a nation? Quite obviously not, but why not? I would argue it is because I don't fit the definition. Sure, we can revise the definition based on additional insight later on, but to answer the question, "Was the Confederacy a nation?" we have to understand what a nation is, n'est pas? If we can't agree on what a nation is, then we can't answer the question. Perhaps, though, we ought not to answer the question. Maybe it's the wrong question to ask. Maybe we should ask, "Why did they believe they were a nation?" Maybe there are even better questions to ask?

    Maybe, and quite probably, I am indeed reading history the wrong way. I'm hoping to be educated. :)

  10. Whether the Confederacy was a nation is a good question. As Al noted, it depends upon one's definition of the term. I think the truth is probably somewhere in between. The Confederacy did demonstrate many of the usual qualities of nationhood--a common culture, a government (though it never had a central judicial system), and a common language. Also, its national government quickly established dominance over its states.

    But in other areas, the Confederacy didn't quite fit the bill. The governors, congressmen, and many citizens of individual states, like Georgia and North Carolina, frequently and fiercely resisted nationalism and the authority of the central government--much more so than in the Union. States often refused to send their militias outside their borders even in dire national emergencies and they refused to share railroad rolling stock between each other. Even economically, the US dollar (when available) was greatly preferred to the weak Confederate currency.

    Personally, I view the Confederacy as something of a collection of nation-states, not unlike ancient Greece. Did these states act as one? Yes, but mainly because of the war--and it took a lot of effort from the Davis administration. And there was an awful lot of dissent from the leaders on down.