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United States as a nation–state


Nation divided in 1861
Nation divided in 1861

The Civil War finally established the United States as a nation–state. Secession and state veto power had been recurring questions from the beginning of government under the Constitution. Americans before the Civil War spoke of the United States as a plural noun.

Walt Whitman, the great poet of the Union, declared in the prewar years that “the United States need poets.” Since the Civil War the United States has been a singular noun (The United States is …). Thus at the highest constitutional levels, the Founders’ Latin motto E Pluribus Unum (“From many, one”) finally became a reality. However, the unification of the country went further than most Northerners had wanted. The enormous government debt incurred during the war, followed by the postwar occupation of the South, created a central government more powerful than even the most nationalistic Americans had imagined before the war. The many had indeed become one, but only under a national government that would have frightened most of the Founding Fathers.

The Civil War had long-term economic and social results as well. The South was the theater of war, and the physical destruction of that region was enormous. White Southerners lost their plantation labor system and their huge investment in slaves. Egyptian and Indian cotton had entered world markets during the war, and American cotton never regained its prewar dominance. The South remained the poorest region of the United States for a very long time. The Northeast’s economic dominance was secured by the war, and—although historians debate this point—the war seems to have sped Northern economic development. Finally, the status of the trans–Mississippi West (the great prize in the argument between North and South) was settled on Northern terms.

In 1862 Republicans and Northern Democrats passed the Homestead Act, which gave free government land to settlers if they turned the land into farms (see Homestead Laws). In the same year Congress subsidized private companies that built a railroad from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. The same Congress, in the Morrill Land–Grant College Act, gave huge amounts of federal land to state governments for the purpose of establishing state universities. Southerners had blocked similar bills for many years. With the South out of Congress, Northerners imposed their blueprint for Northern–style family farms, public education, and market society upon the West.

Disfranchised groups often saw their positions improve as a result of the war. Irish and German immigrants had experienced (and returned) the hostility of native–born Americans in the decades before the war. About one in four Union soldiers was an immigrant, and their help in defeating the South temporarily eased anti–immigrant feeling.

Northern women saw new possibilities open up during and after the war. In wartime they often took jobs previously done by men on farms and in factories, and thousands served in the Union nursing corps. Partly as a result, postwar women’s political and reform groups were larger and more militant than the groups that preceded them.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Civil War was a watershed in the history of African Americans. The war permanently ended slavery. At the same time, it raised questions about the economic, social, and political place of African Americans in the United States. Those questions have been near the center of American public life ever since, providing the strongest evidence that E Pluribus Unum is a contested possibility and not an established fact of American history. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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