Lawson on Pears, 'Cords of Affection: Constructing Constitutional Union in Early American History'

Author: 
Emily Pears
Reviewer: 
Melinda Lawson

Emily Pears. Cords of Affection: Constructing Constitutional Union in Early American History. American Political Thought Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2021. 328 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-3278-7.

Reviewed by Melinda Lawson (Union College) Published on H-Early-America (December, 2022) Commissioned by Troy Bickham (Texas A&M University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57835

Americans’ faith in their national government is near an all-time low. A 2022 Pew poll found that only 20 percent of Americans trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time, and confidence in all three branches of federal government has declined significantly in the previous year. Analysts who bemoan this phenomenon have struggled to come up with possible remedies. But concern for the relationship between Americans and their national government is not a new phenomenon. As political scientist Emily Pears’s Cords of Affection: Constructing Constitutional Union in Early American History explains, political leaders since the founding have strategized ways to cultivate “political attachments,” defined as “patriotic sentiments and beliefs that connect individuals to their institutions of government” (p. 11). Such attachments, Pears argues, are critical for the survival of democracies, where citizens are called upon to remain loyal even when their government pursues policies that conflict with their values or interests. Thus, political attachments depend on emotional connections that do not come naturally, must be constructed, and require maintenance.

Cords of Affection sets out to describe the construction of political attachment in early America and to apply any lessons that can be learned to the challenges we face today. Pears begins with an exploration of the founders’ awareness of this issue and identifies in their thinking three suggested “methods of attachment” (p. 49). The utilitarian mechanism, seen in the proposals of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, developed programs that recognized the “practical reality of Americans’ self-interested nature” (p. 76). The cultural approach, inspired by the concerns of the anti-Federalists and John Jay, sought to create a shared sense of cultural identity. The participatory mechanism, first articulated by James Wilson, provided citizens with opportunities for active involvement in government, leading them to feel connected to national institutions.

Pears then explores these methods as implemented by political leaders during the first half of the nineteenth century. The utilitarian mechanism stood to meet two of the most pressing needs of political attachment: it could tie individual, geographically dispersed Americans both to the national government and to one another. It was put to work most notably by Hamilton and later by John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay in the American System. But efforts at nation building rooted in self-interest faced distinct challenges. In a diverse society such as the United States, the federal government could not possibly provide everyone with the specific benefits they needed, so there would always be “winners and losers” (p. 104). Moreover, for the utilitarian mechanism to be effective, the federal government would have to be recognized as the source of the benefits it provided. But Americans as a people distrust centralized government, and whether by design or by happenstance, intermediaries often received credit for federally sponsored projects.

The cultural mechanism was employed in hopes of cultivating the emotional attachment that Pears argues is essential for the survival of a constitutional republic. Here the chief focus is on historical narrative and its ability to engender love, not just for the Constitution but also for the institutions that support it. Pears examines the efforts of George Bancroft, whose self-declared purpose in writing the nation’s history was to promote patriotism. His ten-volume history of the United States was a bestseller in its time but was criticized for its historical inaccuracies, overly dramatic writing, and glorification of the American experience. Still, Pears notes, by creating a “single, definitive, and complete history of the United States, Bancroft ensured that Americans would have a common, shared analysis and conception of their story” (p. 163). Massachusetts Whig orators Rufus Choate, Daniel Webster, and Edward Everett also set out to “bolster shared cultural foundations among Americans” (p. 165). The effectiveness of the Whig appeal, however, was limited: their identification of the Puritans as the root of America’s greatness excluded the South.

Pears’s section on the participatory mechanism focuses primarily on Martin Van Buren and the party system. One of the chief obstacles for political attachment to the national government lay in the fact that most Americans located their primary political identities in their localities, regions, or states. Van Buren’s party system could work to overcome that obstacle. He proposed a party “that mirrored the nation’s federal structure.... A pyramid structure of robust local participation could provide citizens with a sense of ownership of and investment in national institutions” (p. 201). Americans participating in politics on the local level would be drawn into national political life, “reframing ... political perspectives from local issues to national electoral offices and institutions” (p. 226). While Van Buren’s strategy did, in the end, increase participation and educate American citizens about national issues, the larger loyalty it inculcated was to a national party, not to the Constitutional Union.

In many ways, this is an innovative and insightful book, which asks important questions about Americans’ relationship to their government’s institutions and contributes significantly to the literature on the building of the American nation-state. Pears’s work is strongest when it is exploring the ideas, strategies, and actions of the leaders who sought to cultivate political attachment.

The book is weaker when it attempts to glean lessons for today from these nineteenth-century proposals. A particularly ironic example is its nod to the twenty-first-century Tea Party for the attention it paid to the Constitution, even though its members were notorious for their misunderstanding of that document. But historians may find the most troubling application of these ideas in the section on historical narrative. Bemoaning the loss of Americans’ shared sense of identity, Pears notes, “Many Americans no longer take pride in their country.... Without an instinctual love of country and even passionate devotion to the Constitution and the institutions that uphold it, American democracy weakens. When a people lack a common understanding of what their polity is, a uniform understanding of its roots and origins, the basic premises of republican governance fall apart.... The citizens of a republic must see themselves as one people committed to one goal” (pp. 137-38). Pears calls for a narrative “that includes our flaws, without dwelling on them.... America’s is ultimately a narrative of triumph.” This narrative, Pears emphasizes, “must be presented as a common inheritance” (p. 256). But the notion of a “common inheritance” assumes a shared historical experience that Americans did not have, nor do they share equally today in the triumph of ideals that Pears embraces. Most notably, Pears’s proposal underestimates the profoundly destructive and ongoing impact of slavery and white supremacy on the American people. Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” was an early expression of the divergent meanings of America: “To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”[1] Emancipation did not end that divergence: white supremacy and institutional racism continue to divide the nation, and racial progress generates racial backlash.

History may, as Pears proposes, be able to help heal the American people. But as Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, emphasizes, “Truth and reconciliation have always been sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation ... until you’ve got to the truth, and we’ve not done a very good job of telling the truth.”[2] The historical narrative that might help heal us will be far more complicated than Pears suggests.

Notes

[1]. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” in The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, ed. William L. Andrews (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 119, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/ows/seminars/civilwarrecon/cwcause/Douglass%20Fourth%2....

[2]. Bryan Stevenson, quoted in Jared Fortek, “Seeking Peace and Justice, Alabama Nonprofit Builds Lynching Memorial,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, August 7, 2017, https://savingplaces.org/stories/seeking-peace-and-justice-alabama-nonprofit-builds-lynchi....

Citation: Melinda Lawson. Review of Pears, Emily, Cords of Affection: Constructing Constitutional Union in Early American History. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57835

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