Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism

Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism

by Joel Richard Paul
Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism

Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism

by Joel Richard Paul


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The story of how Daniel Webster popularized the ideals of American nationalism that helped forge our nation’s identity and inspire Abraham Lincoln to preserve the Union

When the United States was founded in 1776, its citizens didn’t think of themselves as “Americans.” They were New Yorkers or Virginians or Pennsylvanians. It was decades later that the seeds of American nationalism—identifying with one’s own nation and supporting its broader interests—began to take root. But what kind of nationalism should Americans embrace? The state-focused and racist nationalism of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson? Or the belief that the U.S. Constitution made all Americans one nation, indivisible, which Daniel Webster and others espoused? 

In Indivisible, historian and law professor Joel Richard Paul tells the fascinating story of how Webster, a young New Hampshire attorney turned politician, rose to national prominence through his powerful oratory and unwavering belief in the United States and captured the national imagination. In his speeches, on the floors of the House and Senate, in court, and as Secretary of State, Webster argued that the Constitution was not a compact made by states but an expression of the will of all Americans. As the greatest orator of his age, Webster saw his speeches and writings published widely, and his stirring rhetoric convinced Americans to see themselves differently, as a nation bound together by a government of laws, not parochial interests. As these ideas took root, they influenced future leaders, among them Abraham Lincoln, who drew on them to hold the nation together during the Civil War.

As he did in Without Precedent and Unlikely Allies, Joel Richard Paul has written in Indivisible both a compelling history and a fascinating account of one of the founders of our national perspective.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593189047
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/25/2022
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 412,755
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Joel Richard Paul is a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He is the author of Without Precedent: Chief Justice Marshall and His Times and Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution. He lives in Northern California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Independence Day 1801

Draped in solitude, a model of polite reserve, Thomas Jefferson seemed far removed from the sweaty masses crowding round him. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his most famous writing, he opened the still incomplete President's House for a public reception. Tables and chairs were pushed aside to accommodate the common and uncommon white citizens of the capital. Uniformed enslaved servants hustled through the crowd, replenishing cold drinks in the stifling heat. Never before had the public been invited to a social at the President's House. Though some Americans had privately celebrated the Fourth with illuminations, Jefferson was the first president to sponsor a public celebration of Independence.

The president sat stiffly in the dining room flanked by five lanky Osage chiefs. They wore traditional face paint, and their heads were shaved except for a tuft of hair on top. The chiefs were wrapped in woven blankets and embroidered leggings fringed with colored beads. The men wore earrings and necklaces, while their wives dressed modestly in short gowns with no ornaments other than artificial flowers in their hair. The chiefs were too amazed by the presence of iced drinks on a summer's day to notice the curious gaze of onlookers. Anyone close enough to the president strained to hear him exchange pleasantries above the martial blare of a Marine band performing in the front hall.

President Jefferson was no longer the comely, cinnamon-haired Virginian who at thirty-three penned the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Shaggy gray hair loosely framed a freckled face cracked and burned by another quarter century of sun. His hazel eyes reflected a genteel indifference. Still tall, and inattentively dressed in tight-fitting green corduroy knee breeches, a red underwaistcoat, yarn stockings, and worn slippers, he looked more like a homespun farmer contemptuous of fashion than a head of state.

Jefferson's casual appearance belied his cool formality. Thomas Jefferson was a cipher, an ambitious politician, a warm host among friends, and a brilliant writer with a curious mind. Yet, before strangers, he often froze. His soft, womanly voice was barely audible before an audience, so he avoided public speeches. Reticent to address Congress directly, he preferred to deliver his annual message in writing.

Earlier that day in the park behind the President's House, concessionaires sold food, drink, and handicrafts to the crowds gathering for the celebration. There were horse races and cockfights. Then there was a military parade led by the Marine band. Even though he had invited the public, Jefferson hated events like these. He preferred the quiet of his study, the soft squeak of his writing nub, the rustle of shuffling pages. He dreamed of remaking the world in his mind's image, but he had no wish to engage in it.

Jefferson's introverted personality may explain his political philosophy, his preference for a country of yeoman farmers tending their own plots, spread across wide open spaces, solitary and independent. Such a society would avoid the corrupting influence of cities, industry, and finance, which he deplored. Agriculture was the country's "distinguishing feature" and its pursuit was "more likely to make us a numerous and happy people than the mimicry of an Amsterdam, a Hamburg, or a city of London." He thought that "banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies." Yet Jefferson preferred Paris to rustic Washington. Born to great wealth, he lived and died in debt and enjoyed little success as a planter. Indeed, the only return he ever earned on an investment was the small nail factory he set up on his estate at Monticello, staffed by enslaved boys. Despite all that, Jefferson somehow imagined that he remained untainted by the very temptations he feared would corrupt his countrymen.

Jefferson once declared "the only birthday I ever commemorate is that of our Independence, the Fourth of July." Indeed, he claimed it for himself. The public credited Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence even though the Declaration was largely revised by a committee that included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and Roger Sherman. It was Adams who suggested it would be politic to have a Virginian take the first crack at the document. Adams reasoned that his own aggressive advocacy for independence had already rubbed some delegates the wrong way, while Jefferson rarely spoke up. Moreover, Jefferson was undeniably a gifted writer. He had already authored A Summary View of the Rights of British America in 1774, and more recently, he had written the first draft of A Declaration Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Jefferson was not as famous a writer as John Dickinson, however, whose Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania was immensely popular. But Adams shrewdly judged that Jefferson could help persuade his fellow Virginians to join the struggle for independence.

So Jefferson spent a few weeks working on a draft based on the committee's instructions. Jefferson was not charged with inventing new ideas. His job was to weave together the arguments of multiple delegates. Much of Jefferson's eloquent preamble also borrowed from sources like John Locke's Treatises of Government, the English Declaration of Rights, and George Mason's draft Virginia Declaration of Rights. The committee presented its draft to Congress on June 28, 1776. Over the next several days the delegates tore apart Jefferson's language, improving on the style and tempering the tone. As delegates dissected the text, Jefferson lost patience. Franklin consoled him. It is not clear who slipped in the one truly awkward phrase, "unalienable rights"—it might have been a printer's error—but it surely annoyed Jefferson.

Peculiarly absent from the Declaration was any claim of national sovereignty. Instead, the Continental Congress declared the universal rights of all people. The Declaration was steeped in the philosophy and language of the Enlightenment: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And it concluded by asserting the colonies were "FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES." That is, plural "states," and not one sovereign nation. The United States did not declare independence; rather, the individual states declared their independence. The Declaration, in other words, was not a declaration of national unity. The states were allies in the struggle for independence, but they were not yet one nation. There was no central government, no national leader, no national law, and no national courts. It would take twelve years before the Constitution was adopted by all the states, and the first Congress would not meet until 1789.

No one thought that the Declaration of Independence would persuade King George III or the British Parliament of the justice of their cause. The intended audience was the people in the various states, the vast majority of whom remained skeptical of independence, and King Louis XVI, on whom the Americans depended for help. Congress sent one copy of the Declaration to their representative in France, Silas Deane, on July 8, but it was lost at sea-possibly captured by a British ship. As a result, Deane did not receive confirmation that the Americans had declared independence until November, by which time all of Paris was buzzing with the news. By then Deane had already succeeded in secretly obtaining all the arms and uniforms needed for Washington's army.

When the war ended, Americans did not celebrate July Fourth as a national holiday. Yes, there were scattered displays of pyrotechnics on that date, but it was by no means uniform. Americans might have chosen to commemorate another date-the Battles of Lexington and Concord; the surrender at Yorktown; the signing of the Treaty of Paris; the adoption of the Articles of Confederation or, later, the ratification of the Constitution. Any of those occasions was at least as significant as the issuance of a Declaration of Independence. But as president, Jefferson found it politically convenient to remind Americans of his role as the author of the Declaration. And Jefferson's party, which regarded the federal Constitution with ambivalence, set the Declaration in the celestial firmament of American history, hoping it would eclipse the Constitution.

The twelve years between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution passed in a constitutional no-man's land. It would take five years after independence for the states to ratify the Articles of Confederation, a loose and unworkable framework for voluntary cooperation under which the Confederation Congress was little more than a glorified debating society. The Confederation Congress had no power to tax or raise an army. Congress could try to cajole states to contribute to the treasury, but that was all. Foreign relations were complicated by the absence of an executive and by the requirement that treaties had to be ratified by each state separately. States had their own currencies, tariffs, and militias, and some states sent agents abroad to manage their own foreign relations. In the absence of any national courts, it was difficult to enforce contracts or collect debts across state borders.

The Articles of Confederation left states to pursue beggar-thy-neighbor policies as they struggled to pay off their war debt. Some states pumped out worthless currency that led to hyperinflation. Other states imposed confiscatory taxes that plunged their economies into depression. The weakness of the central government also meant that British troops remained stationed on American soil even after the Treaty of Paris, and Congress was unable to evict them. To make matters worse, state courts flagrantly ignored the terms of the Treaty and violated the rights of foreign nationals and creditors. These difficulties led Congress to consider amending the Articles of Confederation. State delegates met in Philadelphia for that purpose in 1787.

James Madison, a delegate from Virginia, appeared at the convention with a draft of a wholly new constitution. He persuaded the delegates to create a new constitution, rather than merely amend the Articles. Arguably, the delegates' decision to write a new constitution was unauthorized and was itself unconstitutional. The debate over the ratification of the Constitution polarized the country. Many people feared that a strong national government would threaten state sovereignty, and several states, including Virginia and New York, nearly rejected the Constitution. Even Jefferson, Madison's close friend and political ally, had concerns. Jefferson avoided taking a public position on the Constitution since he was posted to revolutionary Paris at the time, but in private letters to Madison, he expressed doubts. The Constitution proposed to "mend a small hole by covering the whole garment," in Jefferson's eyes. He wrote John Adams that "there are things in it which stagger all my dispositions to subscribe to what such an Assembly has proposed." Jefferson was especially troubled by the absence of any explicit protection for individual liberty.

One of the central issues that would plague the young republic was the question of whether the Constitution was a compact among the states—which any state could at any time abrogate—or whether it was a contract formed by all the American people that bound the states in perpetuity. Jefferson scoffed at the idea that the Constitution had formed a permanent union. Even when he was vice president, Jefferson expressed the view that the Constitution was a mere compact of states and that each state was free to nullify any federal law that it considered unconstitutional. Jefferson's position made a certain sense: each state held its own ratification convention. The Constitution's own terms required the ratification of nine states—not the approval of a popular majority of the people. All of the people were hardly represented among the propertied white men who signed the Constitution or ratified it among the states.

Jefferson's election in 1800 felt like a revolution. Jefferson boasted to an associate that "the revolution of 1800 was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form." Jefferson ran and won as a radical disrupter of federal power. He swept into office on a wave of southern and agrarian discontent against northern finance and the urban elite. Jefferson's electoral victory divided the American people. Roughly half the country was elated by the prospect of ridding the government of the aristocratic Federalists; the other half feared that the democrat Jefferson had no respect for the Constitution, property rights, or the rule of law. Jefferson was a revolutionary figure whose attachment to the French revolutionaries shocked many. He had dismissed the bloody Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts with the words "What signify a few lives lost in a century or two?" After all, he continued, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants."


Precisely four months earlier Jefferson had taken the oath of office. The sun smiled on the first inauguration in the nation’s capital. A small military parade greeted Jefferson at the door of his modest lodgings at Conrad and McMunn’s boardinghouse on Capitol Hill. The temperature was unusually mild for the beginning of March, so Jefferson did not need to wear an overcoat to walk the few blocks to the unfinished Capitol. President John Adams was conspicuously absent from the ceremony. He felt betrayed by members of his own Federalist Party who had failed to support him-Alexander Hamilton, in particular-and rejected by the electors. Refusing to see old friends, Adams had spent his last days in the President’s House isolated-Abigail had already returned to Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams could not in good conscience witness the transition of power to a man whom he believed threatened the very institutions of government. He regretted his long public service: “If I were to do over my life again,” he wrote his son, “I would be a shoemaker rather than an American statesman.”

The inauguration was held inside the Hall of Representatives. Since the south wing of the Capitol was still under construction, the House met in a temporary, unreinforced, oval-shaped building inside the south wing of the Capitol. The House chamber was dubbed the Oven by representatives who had to endure the insufferable Washington heat without ventilation while fearing that the walls could collapse at any moment.

For the inauguration there were about two hundred in attendance, but only those in the front rows could hear the president's wispy voice as he gave thanks for a "rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land . . . advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye." Jefferson extended an olive branch to the Federalists after a bitter and divisive election. While the "will of the majority is in all cases to prevail," he declared, "that will to be rightful must be reasonable." Sounding magnanimous, he proclaimed, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." He called on the nation to "unite with one heart and one mind." After all, he reflected, "Having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions." Jefferson reminded his audience that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii

Author's Note xxi

1 Independence Day 1801 1

2 Independence Day 1861 9

3 Independence Day 1812 17

4 Disunion 1814-1815 34

5 The Longest Winter 1815-1818 49

6 Panic 1819 58

7 The American in the Wilderness 1818-1822 67

8 Stealing Florida 1818-1822 77

9 "Leave the Continent to Us" 1818-1823 90

10 "The Land is Not Wholly Free" 1820-1821 103

11 "Godlike Daniel" 1824-1825 115

12 "The Corrupt Bargain" 1824-1825 125

13 "Lighthouses of the Sky" 1825-1827 137

14 The Earthquake 1828 155

15 The Populist Revolt 1829-1839 163

16 "What is Reform?" 1829-1832 177

17 "Liberty and Union" 1830 190

18 "The Magician and his Tricks" 1830-1832 202

19 "A Few Thousand Savages" 1830-1832 216

20 Nullification 1832 222

21 "The Monster Bank" 1833 229

22 "Van Ruin" 1835-1339 234

23 "Savage Cruelties" 1837-1840 247

24 Fire on the Falls 1837-1839 258

25 "His Accidency" 1839-1841 270

26 "Prepare for War" 1841-1842 282

27 The Red Line 1841-1842 292

28 "Manifest Destiny" 1842-1845 306

29 "Young America" 1836-1850 325

30 "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" 1845-1848 348

31 "A War of Conquest" 1845-1846 357

32 "Ours is a Government of the White Man" 1846-1848 371

33 "Old Rough and Ready" 1847-1850 383

34 The Compromise 1850 396

35 Union without Liberty 1850-1852 416

36 Will the Union Endure? 1851-1852 428

Acknowledgments 439

Notes 441

Bibliography 473

Index 487

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