I am currently working my way through The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by historian Stephanie Coontz. It’s a very provocative book that challenges a lot of our preconceived notions about family structures in U.S. history, and Coontz convincingly argues that the concept of “traditional family values” is really an invention of contemporary politics rather than anything rooted in historical fact.
Coontz points out that a common and persistent myth in current political discourse is that families today are suffering from the effects of modern “rootlessness”: this belief suggests that families today are more mobile and transient than they used to be, children generally have more fractured relationships with their parents and grandparents, and that children are being raised less by their parents and more by surrounding influences such as television, the internet, popular media, friends, and other community members. Coontz challenges this interpretation with a stunning fact that I have never seen before:
Families are not more mobile and transient than they used to be. In most nineteenth-century cities, both large and small, more than 50 percent–and often 75 percent–of the residents in any given year were no longer there ten years later. People born in the twentieth century are much more likely to live near their birthplace than were people in the nineteenth century (14).
She goes on to suggest that families today actually have stronger bonds than those of the nineteenth century. Grandparents are living longer and forging stronger relationships with their children, visits with relatives have increased, and only four percent of children today do not live with either parent, as compared to ten percent in 1940 and perhaps even higher in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, enslaved people in the nineteenth century often saw their families broken up and torn apart while family struggles and employment structures like apprenticeships for white families also demonstrate how communities and outside factors have always played an integral role in raising children.
This discussion got me thinking about the sorts of identities and allegiances nineteenth century Americans would have forged for themselves.
There is a school of thought that argues that more people identified with and considered themselves citizens of a state before aligning with the United States as a whole, especially before the Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee is seen as the archetype figure for this line of thinking. At the outbreak of war and with Virginia choosing to side with the Confederacy, Lee asserted that “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children & my home . . . & never desire again to draw my sword save in defence of my State.” Despite his years of service to the U.S. Army, Lee’s first allegiance was to Virginia and, by extension, his family. In his mind he had little agency in the matter since a choice to fight for the Union would be the ultimate form of betrayal to his primary allegiance. The novelist Shelby Foote infamously crystallized this state allegiance theory to millions of viewers on Ken Burns’s documentary of the Civil War:
Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are’—grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always ‘the United States is,’ as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.’
While this theory is compelling, I think there is room to question its accuracy.
Lee’s life experiences before the war represent an aberration from those of most nineteenth century Americans. He grew up in a prosperous, stable family with deep roots in his native state, and those roots were solidified even more when he married into the Custis family. Most families had neither the wealth nor the state roots of Lee’s family in the years before the Civil War. While it’s true that Lee’s army career took him to places far away from Virginia such as St. Louis and Texas, those travels initially strengthened his allegiance to the Union, not his state. As the late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor pointed out, Lee commented in 1857 that his patriotism extended to the whole country and that it “contained no North, no South, no East no West, but embraced the broad Union, in all its might & strength, present & future.” That argument clearly contradicts his later statements at the outbreak of war. Moreover, there were a number of Lee relatives that felt differently about their allegiances and eagerly signed up to fight for the United States against secession, and other notable Virginians like George Thomas and Winfield Scott had no qualms about maintaining their commissions in the U.S. army and their allegiance to the Union.
Shelby Foote’s assertion is also questionable. Andy Hall analyzed nineteenth century publications using Google Ngram and discovered that while “United States are” and “United States is” were used interchangeably during the early years of the Republic, the 1840s witnessed a sharp spike in the use of the term “United States is,” which may be indicative of wartime passions and calls for unity during the Mexican-American War. These calls were often led by nationalists North and South like Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and Daniel Webster. But beyond the written word we may also question how nineteenth-century Americans could have developed such strong allegiances to a state if they were so geographically mobile. And what about the millions of immigrants who came to the United States in the years before the Civil War? Did they emigrate out of an allegiance and identification with a particular city or state within the country, or did they come because of a belief in American ideals and a love of the whole Union?
Nineteenth century Americans were a mobile people. In an age of cheap, federally subsidized land, ever-developing transportation and communication technology, and rapid westward expansion, many Americans moved from place-to-place in search of communities and infrastructures that gave them the best chance at maintaining a stable family and economic life. It’s not evident to me that they would have automatically identified with a state more so than a local community, a city, or the whole Union. Their allegiances may have been multiple and endearing, but for many Americans their love of Union was paramount.