Patriot Fires

Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North

Melinda Lawson

The Civil War is often credited with giving birth to the modern American state. The demands of warfare led to the centralization of business and industry and to an unprecedented expansion of federal power. But the Civil War did more than that: as Melinda Lawson shows, it brought about a change in American national identity, redefining the relationship between the individual and the government.

Though much has been written about the Civil War and the making of the political and economic American nation, this is the first comprehensive study of the role that the war played in the shaping of the cultural and ideological nation-state. In Patriot Fires, Lawson explains how, when threatened by the rebellious South, the North came together as a nation and mobilized its populace for war.

“A well researched, excellently written, and remarkably clever book. It should be required reading for any scholar interested in the Northern home front or the construction of American nationalism. . . . A delight to read.”

Civil War History

“The issues raised in Lawson’s book—changing and contested definitions of loyalty, patriotism, nationalism—seem as fresh and relevant today as they were during the Civil War years. . . . An important contribution.”

American Historical Review
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With no formal government office to rally citizens, the job of defining the war in patriotic terms fell largely to private individuals or associations, each with their own motives and methods. Lawson explores how these "interpreters" of the war helped instill in Americans a new understanding of loyalty to country. Through efforts such as sanitary fairs to promote the welfare of soldiers, the war bond drives of Jay Cooke, and the establishment of Union Leagues, Northerners cultivated a new sense of patriotism rooted not just in the subjective American idea, but in existing religious, political, and cultural values. Moreover, Democrats and Republicans, Abolitionists, and Abraham Lincoln created their own understandings of American patriotism and national identity, raising debates over the meaning of the American "idea" to new heights.

Examining speeches, pamphlets, pageants, sermons, and assemblies, Lawson shows how citizens and organizations constructed a new kind of nationalism based on a nation of Americans rather than a union of states—a European-styled nationalism grounded in history and tradition and celebrating the preeminence of the nation-state.

Original in its insights and innovative in its approach, Patriot Fires is an impressive work of cultural and intellectual history. As America engages in new conflicts around the globe, Lawson shows us that issues addressed by nation builders of the nineteenth century are relevant once again as the meaning of patriotism continues to be explored.

About the Author

Melinda Lawson is visiting assistant professor at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series