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Comparing the effects of the Civil War on American national identity

The Civil War transformed America, expanding democracy and citizenship, but these changes faded after Reconstruction. The belief in America's divine mission to spread across North America intensified. These seeds of change sprouted into major shifts in the 20th century.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] It's hard to imagine anything more transformative in American history than the Civil War. Before the Civil War, the United States was a largely rural, barely unified collection of states not making much of a blip on the world stage. After the Civil War the United States was well on its way toward becoming a modern country with a strong central government and a thriving industrial economy that was soon to make it into a serious world power. The Civil War is seen as such an enormous turning point in US history that most colleges split courses into US history before 1865 and US history after 1865. But was the United States really that different before and after the Civil War? As historians, we could tackle that question from a lot of different angles. We could look at the role of the federal government in American life before and after the war. We could look at changes in the economy. I'm curious about changes in American national identity during this period. What do I mean by national identity? National identity encompasses things like core beliefs about democracy, citizenship, and America's proper role in the world. We can identify these beliefs in different time periods by looking at practices like who gets to vote, which groups are defined as a part of the American people versus which groups are defined as aliens or others, and whether the American public is expressing lots of national pride or lots of doubt about the way things are going. So now we've got a historical question that we're curious about. If we saw that question like this on an exam it might say something like compare the relative significance of the effects of the Civil War on American values. Okay, well what we're really doing is asking, how much did the Civil War change the core beliefs around American national identity? Did it change some more than others? To answer this question, first we need to decide which core beliefs we want to track. I'm gonna choose ideas around democracy. So who gets to vote, whether Americans believe that democracy is something everyone should participate in or just a select few? Second, let's look at ideas around citizenship. Who is defined as an American or as part of the American people and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship. Last, let's look at ideas about America's role in the world. Whether or how the United States should be involved in world affairs or extending its influence beyond the boundaries of the United States. Now you might want to look at different core beliefs than I've chosen here like maybe whether people saw their regional identity as more important than their national identity. And if you want to do that that's totally okay. I'm gonna go with these three themes for now. So let's brainstorm some of the major trends that occur in each of these themes before and after the Civil War in between 1844 and 1877. I've got our timeline here with the big dividing line at the end of the Civil War. Now we're looking at this from a bird's eye view of the whole era so I'm not gonna go into much detail about the events we're talking about. If something sounds unfamiliar to you just make a note of it and you can go back to review that concept when you have time. All right, first democracy. In the years before the Civil War, what were the prevailing ideas about who should be able to vote and who actually could vote in practice? Well by 1844, most States had extended voting rights to all white men regardless of property ownership, women couldn't vote and neither could enslaved Africans in the South, and voting rights for free African American men in the North were pretty limited. How about after the Civil War? Now the biggest change there was the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 which granted all men the right to vote enfranchising African American men. It did not, to the disappointment of the women's suffrage movement, enfranchise women but by 1877, the end of Reconstruction when the federal government stopped enforcing the rights of black citizens in the South, Jim Crow laws would make voting all but impossible for black men. Okay, now let's look at how values around citizenship changed before and after the Civil War. Who was a citizen before the Civil War and who was considered eligible to be part of the American people? Well white men definitely and white women, free people of color in the North with some limitations depending on their state of residents, immigrants arriving from Ireland and Germany were eligible for citizenship but Native Americans were considered to be members of separate nations not Americans. Mexican Americans and the territories acquired in the Mexican Cession were technically American citizens but had few legal protections. And enslaved people in the South were still considered property not citizens. How did that change after the Civil War? Well the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the 13th Amendment in 1865 ended slavery. The 14th Amendment in 1868 made all people born or naturalized in the United States citizens, granting citizenship to African American men and women in the South. But again, the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow made it difficult for them to access the rights of citizenship after 1877. White men and women and immigrants were still citizens. The US government began to stop treating Native Americans as members of separate nations but started classifying them as wards of the state rather than citizens. In the West, Chinese immigrants were looked upon as two different to become citizens and they would soon be forbidden from entering the United States at all. Mexican Americans saw little change in their precarious status. Finally, how did Americans view the proper role of the United States in the world before and after the Civil War? In 1844, the US was still practicing isolationism to avoid entangling alliances abroad but the ideas of manifest destiny led to a general sense that the United States had a divine mission to occupy North America from coast to coast which provided the impetus for the Mexican War and for Indian Removal. After the Civil War, both isolationism as a foreign policy outside North America and manifest destiny as a foreign policy within North America continued on as before. So now let's return to our question, how much did the Civil War change American national identity? In terms of ideas about democracy there was definitely a big expansion of the franchise due to the Civil War with the addition of two million African American men as new voters in the South after the ratification of the 15th Amendment. But that was short-lived. The Jim Crow system would effectively prevent black voters in the South from casting ballots until the 1960s. In terms of citizenship, that too was altered by the passage of a constitutional amendment. In this case, the 14th Amendment. Those citizenship guarantees were also short-lived but let's not forget the long-term importance of the 14th and 15th Amendments for securing equal rights in the 20th century. Even though those rights were only on paper during the Jim Crow era that paper would eventually be very important for expanding voting and citizenship rights after World War II. As for ideas about America's role in the world, those didn't change much at all. The drive to expand the borders of the United States all the way to the Pacific only intensified after the Civil War. So we might answer our question with the following thesis statement. The Civil War brought on some immediate short-term changes in American ideals of democracy and citizenship, which would fade after the end of Reconstruction, while the belief in the divine mission of the United States to spread across North America only intensified in this time period. Even though there was little change in the 19th century, the seeds planted immediately after the Civil War would sprout into major changes in the 20th century. What do you think? How would you weigh these pieces of evidence to draw conclusions about how the Civil War changed American values? You might come up with a completely different thesis statement than I did and that's perfectly fine. The important part of thinking like a historian is to gather evidence and then craft an argument supported by that evidence.