Butler on Mathisen, 'The Loyal Republic: Traitors, Slaves, and the Remaking of Citizenship in Civil War America'

Author: 
Erik Mathisen
Reviewer: 
Clayton J. Butler

Erik Mathisen. The Loyal Republic: Traitors, Slaves, and the Remaking of Citizenship in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 240 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3632-0

Reviewed by Clayton J. Butler (University of Virginia) Published on H-Nationalism (October, 2020) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55573

If one were to generate a word cloud for Erik Mathisen’s book The Loyal Republic: Traitors, Slaves, and the Remaking of Citizenship in Civil War America, “obligation” would surely appear front and center. In this thoughtful work, Mathisen argues that prior to the Civil War white Americans lacked a concrete sense of the definition of national citizenship. The onset of the conflict, however, threw the obligations of citizens to the federal government, as well as the federal government to its citizens, into bold relief. The principal obligation of a citizen, Mathisen shows, became loyalty. The predication of citizenship on loyalty, which became policy during the Civil War, had far-reaching consequences, particularly for African Americans. By demonstrating their loyalty through military service and sacrifice, African Americans made a compelling case for their own citizenship that they pressed home during Reconstruction. As distance from the crisis grew, however, loyalty became less central to conceptions of citizenship, ultimately benefiting former Confederates at the expense of African Americans. Mathisen loosely situates his book in Mississippi, using that critical state as a theater to demonstrate how contests over state and different federal powers played out on the ground, how individuals expressed their loyalty (and to whom), and how the Civil War produced a new definition of citizenship that has affected Americans’ political identity down to the present day.

In his first chapter Mathisen argues that, functionally, the national government of the United States did not have citizens between the early nineteenth century and the onset of the Civil War. In the absence of British subjecthood, which those in the Revolutionary era could define themselves against, positive definitions of what constituted national American citizenship became difficult to formulate, ambiguous at best, and hotly contested. Southern, states’ rights understandings of the hierarchy of individual allegiance enjoyed broad cultural purchase. The Dred Scott decision, writes Mathisen, illustrates that as late as 1857 Americans still looked to the Supreme Court to help them understand just who was a citizen, who was not, and what that meant, exactly. Indeed, sharp disagreement prevailed even within the majority opinion, and Roger Taney’s infamous decision only generated greater debate in its wake, exacerbating a rapidly deteriorating political situation. Mathisen shows that conversations over the specific definitions and obligations of citizenship occurred during times of strife, most notably in the antebellum period with nullification. Upon the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, the secession crisis of that winter, and its consummation in the creation of the Confederacy, the United States faced the direst emergency of its existence, and definitions of citizenship, loyalty, and obligation took on a practical importance unlike ever before in both belligerent nations.

In the Confederacy, politicians fretted over not only the loyalty of their white citizens and black subjects, but also the various polities to which that loyalty was owed. A states’ rights revolution subsumed into a national independence movement made the issue of where citizens should direct their primary allegiance messy from the outset. Confederate statesmen, Mathisen finds, almost deliberately avoided defining the strict parameters of citizenship in the early days of state formation. Ultimately, the proving ground of war would provide the answers. In chapter 2, Mathisen focuses on the Republic of Mississippi and its governor, John J. Pettus. He treats Mississippi as the quasi-independent entity it remained into 1862, which, though unusual and a bit disorienting, emphasizes the contingent process of Confederate nation-state formation and its multilayered political operations. In the end, the exigencies of war resulted in federal power prevailing over state. By 1863, the state’s increasing subservience to the Confederate national government’s needs, combined with Union occupation, had effectively rendered the Republic of Mississippi a political nonentity.

For Mathisen, the unbridled growth of the Confederate state represents one of the signal developments of nineteenth-century American political culture, and he further pinpoints the institution of conscription as the “moment when the Confederate state came of age” (p. 73). In his third chapter, he homes in on the Confederate army to better understand the development of the terms of national citizenship. If loyalty had become the defining element of citizenship, as the author argues, military service represented the act of loyalty, and by instituting conscription the Confederate state obliged its citizens to perform that act. The draft made a powerful assertion of the government’s authority and reach. Its citizens’ lives no longer belonged to them; they belonged to the state. Perhaps most importantly, Mathisen insightfully notes that the bonds of Confederate citizenship created during the war proved stronger than the bonds of American citizenship that had existed prior to the war, a development that would have far-reaching consequences.

Perhaps Mathisen’s most compelling chapters concern the ways that African Americans seized upon the newfound centrality of loyalty to citizenship and used it, as he says, “as a wedge to pry open the body politic” (p. 90). By taking up arms to defend the Union, African Americans made an unassailable claim to citizenship, one that they sustained into the postwar debates over reconciliation and retribution and which bore fruit with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. They also tied their postwar appeals for land and property, the subject of chapter 6, to their wartime loyalty.

Protection of property rights represented the government’s most important reciprocal obligation to its citizens, which they promised in exchange for their loyalty. Confederates’ wanton disloyalty, argued African Americans and their advocates, had abnegated the responsibility of the government to maintain their property rights. It ought to go, they said, to those who had risked life and limb to preserve—rather than destroy—the Union, and would provide the only sure basis for independence and self-sufficiency for the vulnerable community of recently freed people. Unfortunately, property redistribution proved a bridge too far for Congress to undertake, and “exposed the limits of the political imagination at the heart of Reconstruction” (p. 164). The unwillingness to do this much, to take the logic connecting loyalty and property to its natural conclusion, set the stage for Jim Crow, the abandonment of southern African Americans by the federal government, and the rehabilitation of former Confederates.

Ultimately, in what has now become a familiar story of the historiography of the Civil War era, the federal government dispensed with loyalty as the litmus test of citizenship in order to facilitate the reunion of white northerners and southerners, leaving African Americans on the outside looking in. Mathisen’s book expertly traces this process, and in so doing adds another layer to scholars’ understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction as the most radically transformative era of American history.

Citation: Clayton J. Butler. Review of Mathisen, Erik, The Loyal Republic: Traitors, Slaves, and the Remaking of Citizenship in Civil War America. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55573

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.