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Chapter 2 excerpt

U.S. South: Reconstruction after civil war

Liberty's Surest Guardian bookcover


Click to learn more about the 5 "P"s of nation-building.

This chapter analyzes the nation-building efforts within the United States that followed in the aftermath of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. Nation-building was a project that brought many PEOPLE together for the first time, especially former slaves.

The 19th century was a century of nation-building on four continents. It witnessed the emergence of united, independent Latin American, Japanese, Italian, and German nations that would transform international politics and domestic society—and precipitate two world wars.

Before 1800 few people thought of themselves as part of a coherent "Argentine," "Japanese," or "German" identity; after 1870 these national identities mobilized people across large centrally organized territories. New unions of diverse "peoples" superseded traditional local allegiances. The nation-state quickly became the common architecture for modern politics.

The United States was a leader in this process. No other government did more to remake the lives of citizens in a region, despite stubborn local traditions to the contrary. No other government devoted as much force, money, and policy innovation to the rapid formation of a new society. No other government redistributed property, power, and political voice with such rapidity and reach.

"Second American Revolution"

Foreign observers studied the American Civil War as the first modern war; they saw Southern Reconstruction as the most ambitious, and perhaps foolhardy, effort at modern nation-building. This was a "Second American Revolution" that simultaneously and reordered a large territory on a scale unimaginable in the Junker heartland of Germany, the small southern towns of Italy, or the rural backwaters of Japan.

Reconstruction imposed the Northern model of government and economy, developed in the shadow of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, on the recalcitrant South. Fusing two nations into a single union, Reconstruction was the most intensive and aggressive nation-building endeavor of the nineteenth century.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass recognized that nation-building in the South would not be easy. It proved even more challenging than the bloody military campaigns of the Civil War, and it never produced anything close to total victory. As in every effort at nation-building, the ambitions for change far exceeded the available resources.


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