The Fortunate Heirs of Freedom: Abolition & Republican Thought

By Daniel J. McInerney | Go to book overview
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IN HIS MASTERFUL STUDY of events leading to the Civil War, David M. Potter reflects on one of the central disagreements between the North and the South: whether the Republic was a "unitary nation" or a "pluralistic league" -- whether America was one, single political entity or a composite of many political units. "Perhaps," Potter writes, "the United States is the only nation in history which for seven decades acted politically and culturally as a nation, and grew steadily stronger in its nationhood, before decisively answering the question of whether it was a nation at all."1

Although Potter raises this point in the specific context of Southern separatism, his observation contains far broader implications. His study examines how a people engaged in continental expansion without a secure grounding in national explanation, how they took risks on the taken-for-granted, how they acted without knowing finally what they were about. Potter's argument suggests that a political body can travel only so far before confronting the consequences of self-evasion; at some point, the definition of underlying national principles and purposes has to take place.

Abolitionists believed that their campaign provided such an exercise. "They not only conceived of their cause in the language of republicanism; they also concluded that the reform movement would determine if theirs was a republican society at all. Proponents maintained that the abolitionist argument drew out "those high-principled republicans, who wish fully to carry out the noble and the incontrovertible principle on which their own independence is based." Reformers sought to demonstrate that the contest between slavery and liberty was one "involving the very existence of the Republic"; that "slavery is inconsistent with the genius of re


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