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

In The Loyal Republic, Erik Mathisen attempts to redefine the way Americans saw themselves, their citizenship and loyalty in the Civil War era. Mathisen ably demonstrates the loose conglomeration of states that existed in 1861 and the tenuous link the average American had to the federal state, as well as the emphasis placed on state loyalty by proto-Confederates during the secession crisis, and the redefinition of American citizenship prompted by the secession of the Confederate states in the North. Mathisen ‘examines the debate over citizenship that the Civil War set in motion, both by scouring the national macro-societal and political consciousness and the localised debates in Mississippi which he has chosen as a state-level case study.

Mathisen’s modus operandi in this book is to study ‘the ways in which loyalty – as a political act, a language, and a bundle of state policies became part of a larger attempt to redefine citizenship and reckon with the power of nation-states, all at once.

Loyalty has long formed a niche in Civil War scholarship, holding the interest of Civil War historians under the inexorable bulk of military histories and biographies. Works such as Christian J. Samito’s Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African-Americans and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era have recently touched on the notion of citizenship and loyalty, with Samito conceptualizing a citizenship whereby loyalty ‘trumped race, color, and ethnicity in defining who belonged to the American people’.

Mathisen takes these broad strokes and broadens them further, setting the concept of loyalty as the cornerstone of American citizenship as long as it remained relevant in the war-stricken society. It is impossible to argue that the Civil War did not redefine the relationship between the American government and its people. Where Mathisen succeeds in this book, however, is to demonstrate just how much of an onus was placed on loyalty, or as he puts it, how various classes of Americans ‘attempted to reckon with the power of states by using a politicized language of loyalty. The Loyal Republic charts not just what being a citizen entitled 19th-century Americans to; but what responsibilities it required of them to subjugate a rebellion. It also demonstrates the profound effect the secession crisis and the Civil War had on the definition of citizenship, and how the burden placed on loyalty slowly receded as the rebellion was subdued. Mathisen’s methodological approach to this work draws on a wide range of sources, and the book ultimately benefits from truly sound research. By focusing on contemporary newspapers, letters, magazines, the Congressional Globe, official records of secession conventions and diaries, the work possesses a rich primary source based from which Mathisen constructs his argument.

Where he touches on themes already bolstered by a strong historiography, Mathisen expertly deconstructs the sources and ideas previously laid down in the footnotes, demonstrating a strong understanding of the core ideas and themes that underscore the book. Ultimately, The Loyal Republic works because it is balanced. Mathisen expertly brings the reader’s focus in and out of the national scale, concentrating alternately on the federal government and its own grandiose depictions and definitions of citizenship and loyalty, before zooming in on Mississippi and exploring how these grandiose definitions filtered down and affected everyday Americans.

This prevents the work from becoming too broad or too narrow, finding the equilibrium between the government and its people, just as he argues that the relationship between the two changed in the crucible of war. The fundamental questions that Mathisen seeks to answer, namely the ways in which loyalty became a part of the ways in which citizenship was redefined in the Civil War era, are clearly defined, as the tumultuous bond between loyalty and citizenship is tracked over time.

Published in Melange Intl. Magazine September 2018.

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