Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the bestselling American Nations Colin Woodard tackles the evolution of ideas about America’s nationhood leading up to the Civil War in Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. Part biography, part political and intellectual history, Union chronicles the tumultuous clash of regional cultures and competing visions of America’s destiny through the lives, writings and ideas of five very different men.
In 1817, future historian and diplomat George Bancroft had graduated from Harvard and was heading to Germany for further study. Attending a school at the bottom of the rung was his future rival, author William Gilmore Simms of South Carolina, who became an avid proponent of slavery and secession. Sometime in February of 1818, Freddy Bailey was born into slavery in Maryland. If that name isn’t familiar, it’s because he later assumed the name Frederick Douglass after becoming a fugitive in Massachusetts in 1838. Douglass soon made a name for himself as a powerful orator for the cause of equality, both in America and on his famous 1846 visit to Britain, where English abolitionists purchased his freedom legally.
In the following years, both Douglass and Bancroft met with Lincoln. These sections are some of the most powerful of the book. (It was Bancroft who asked Lincoln to write out a copy of the Gettysburg Address, now considered the definitive version and preserved in the Library of Congress.) While Douglass pressed Lincoln for equality, Simms and others in the South set forth to find ways “to dispossess” formerly enslaved people, wrenching efforts at reconstruction away from the federal government.
As the narrative moves into Reconstruction and beyond, Woodard focuses on two other figures: Woodrow Wilson, who influenced the creation of a federal government that “actively resisted making diversity an official part of American life,” and Frederick Jackson Turner, a scholar best known for his “frontier thesis,” tracing the role of westward expansion in shaping American values and democracy.
This choice of narrative structure makes for a fascinating journey through history. However, given the centurylong time frame, chapter titles and defined sections might have added welcome context. It’s also worth noting that not much attention is paid to women’s contributions.
In the end, though, Union is timely and thought-provoking, accomplishing much more than a static history. In an author’s note dated December 2019, Woodard writes that several paths lie before us and that “the survival of the United States is at stake in the choices we make about which one to follow.”