The Growth and Collapse of One American Nation,
The Early Republic 1790-1861
By Donald J. Fraser
Fraser & Associates, Roseville, California, 2020, 605 pp.
A Book Review by Nancy Spannaus
June 21, 2020—In examining the question of what defines an American identity, author Donald Fraser has chosen one of the most urgent topics for our time. His lengthy, citation-full exposition of U.S. history from our Constitution to the Civil War provides the reader with the many conflicts over that question, many of which resonate ominously today.
The central divide, Fraser argues, is between the United States as an ethno-nationalist nation, or a creedal one. In other words, are we a nation because our people come from the same cultural or ethnic heritage, or because we believe in the same core ideals, as enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution? At various points Fraser makes clear that he stands for the latter.
Yet his exposition is in many respects an agonizing review, which leaves the reader with few handles for resolving the fundamental dichotomies which Fraser presents. The pathway to the “more perfect Union” which the Constitution’s Preamble cites seems dim indeed.
I believe that pathway can be found through the principles of the American System, as I outline them in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics. Aspects of those principles make an appearance in Fraser’s narrative, and in one location, he even cites a historian who argued that their application might have saved us from the fratricidal conflict. But most of Fraser’s discussions of Hamilton and the Banks of the United States echo the myth that they were tools of “inequality” and “top-down” policies that did not serve the nation as a whole.
That said, Fraser’s book is a valuable contribution to the national discussion we require today, and I will highlight some of its salient features in the text below. As companion pieces, I would suggest not only my book, but two posts I wrote in March 2019 which directly addressed the issue of creating national unity in these tumultuous times: “Hamilton’s Economics Could Have Prevented the Civil War,” and “No National Unity Without Hamilton’s Economics.”
Two Views of the Nation
From our founding, Americans have had two views of what makes America a nation. Fraser describes a nation as “a collective identity of a people as a result of common history, expectations of a shared future, and, usually, a common language,” plus consciousness of their own unity and a common vision of the future. But within that general concept there was a sharp divide. Some Americans cling to a racial or ethnic view, which could be called ethno-nationalism; others see the American nation as defined by the ideas and ideals it espouses, starting with the Declaration of Independence. These ideals have been denoted the American Creed, hence the “creedal view.”
Both of these concepts can be found among the Founding Fathers, and throughout American history. There were those, like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry (at times), who saw their particular states as their country, while others, like Gouverneur Morris and Alexander Hamilton, defined themselves as Americans from the start. While the necessity for unity led to the adoption of the Constitution with its commitment to “a more perfect Union,” the tensions remained. Fraser isolates two major unresolved issues which fueled the conflict: slavery and federalism.
Before launching into the history, however, Fraser throws some other concepts into the mix, which I find confusing, and sometimes downright destructive. Utilizing the work of political scientists who actually see biological determinism to whether an individual is liberal or conservative, he set up the following antinomies: 1) tradition v. change; 2) group v. individual; 3) acceptance v. rejection of outsiders; and 4) top-down v. bottom-up politics.
As he tries to categorize American historical figures within this matrix, Fraser of course runs into innumerable contradictions which show they don’t work. For example, Alexander Hamilton wanted change (liberal) in the economic system toward industrialization but valued stable institutions of government (conservative); and Thomas Jefferson claimed he wanted bottom-up politics (liberal) but defended the feudal slave system (conservative).
Having introduced these categories, Fraser ends up essentially categorizing the American System of Economics – which can be identified with its promotion of a national banking system, internal improvements, and tariff protection – as a reactionary system! He denigrates John Quincy Adams’ promotion of the system as a failure, despite the enormous progress on internal improvements and industry during his Administration. He defends Andrew Jackson’s “intentions” in eliminating the Second Bank of the United States, despite the disastrous results for the economy, especially for the yeoman Jackson allegedly wanted to protect.
In fact, the fulfillment of Hamilton’s American System principles would have permitted the resolution of the two unresolved issues Fraser identifies, slavery and federalism. With an active role by the Federal government in providing credit for infrastructure, industry, agriculture, and technological innovation, the country could have been unified around a vision of economic progress. Such a policy could also have eliminated slavery, which was an economic as well as moral drag on the improvement of the nation. This was Abraham Lincoln’s progressive vision, which I see as the embodiment of Hamilton’s 60 years earlier.
Lincoln was also our leading historical spokesman for American identity based on the American Creed as expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution, and the American System. His most direct statement, as my friend Bonnie James reported in a post on this blog, read as follows:
We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men … men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.
If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. (emphasis added)
Tragically, it took a Civil War to assert Lincoln’s vision, and then the failure of national leadership to fulfill that vision has left our nation vulnerable to the deep divisions we experience today.
The Legacy of Andrew Jackson
One of the strengths of Fraser’s book is his portrayal of President Andrew Jackson, whom he effectively exposes as the epitome of the ethno-nationalist view of American citizenship. The logical result of that view is, and was, a host of evils: genocide against the Indians; sabotage of a national system of internal improvements and industrialization; the perpetuation of slavery; the degradation of our national culture; and the Civil War itself.
Fraser devotes nearly three full chapters to the Jackson turning point in American history. The first (Chapter 8) deals with his championing of “democracy,” which started with his assertion that the people are always right. But Jackson’s view of “the people” excluded African-Americans, immigrants, Indians, and anyone else he considered undesirable. In addition, Jackson asserted that he himself embodied the “will of the people,” and thus could act as he pleased. This is contrasted with John Quincy Adams’ idea that the nation’s liberty and well-being depend upon the exercise by the Federal government of its powers for good. The core idea from Adams’ First Address to Congress, which Fraser believes would send Jackson up a wall, was:
While dwelling with pleasing satisfaction upon the superior excellence of our political institutions, let us not be unmindful that liberty is power; that the nation blessed with the largest portion of liberty must in proportion to its numbers be the most powerful nation upon earth, and that the tenure of power by man is, in the moral purposes of his Creator, upon condition that it shall be exercised to ends of beneficence, to improve the condition of himself and his fellow men.” (emphasis added)
In the following three chapters, Fraser elaborates on Jackson’s policies on the Indians, the Bank of the United States, slavery, and the “democratization” of the state vs. Federal governments. Most horrifying is the Indian policy, of course. In each area other than slavery, Fraser claims that Jackson has “good intentions,” but somehow most of his measures ended up with disastrous results. Only his assertion of national sovereignty against the South Carolina nullifiers in the tariff crisis of 1832 puts a positive mark on his record.
Jackson’s record on slavery is also an unmitigated disaster. In addition to being a notably harsh master of his 150 slaves, Jackson used his Presidential powers to try to prevent the distribution of anti-slavery literature. He even proposed legislation to ban such distribution; Congress, to its credit, took the occasion to reassert the requirement that the Post Office deliver all mail, although this law was unenforced in the South.
On balance, Fraser understates Jackson’s negative role, because he does not appreciate the vector which the John Quincy Adams administration and Second Bank of the United States represented as a unifier for the nation. Andrew Jackson, the first beneficiary of the mass popular vote for President (voters went from 350,000 in 1824 to 1.2 million in 1828), ended up acting as a tool of major financial powers (Wall Street and London) who took us into Civil War, and left us with the bleeding scars we have today.
The Road to Unity
There is no lack of available historical material on plans by advocates of the American System to build a unified nation. National unity through Federal support for internal improvements, national educational institutions, and advancing technologies was a virtual obsession of President Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton. Other American System spokesmen such as Mathew and Henry Carey (among many others) worked tirelessly in pursuit of the same goal.
Nor were such programs only “economic” in their scope. Projects such as the national road, or the C&O canal, brought people from different states together around common objectives which would benefit the general welfare. They would help build a sense of national identity and unity that mere preaching could not hope to accomplish, convincing people in different parts of the country that they really do have a common interest.
It would be a mistake not to mention, in this regard, the role of foreign powers in the great drama of American history. The authors of the Federalist Papers put a major emphasis on the danger of disunity in the face of the imperial powers who surrounded the young United States – Great Britain, France, and Spain, to be precisely. Those powers did not disappear in the 19th century—quite the opposite. There is ample evidence that Great Britain and France, in particular, continued to intervene to sabotage the American System programs that could bring the nation together. And when physical warfare became infeasible, financial warfare was a ready tool.
The necessary defense against disunity — the Constitutional powers of a Federal government committed to the American System – has not been extensively used since the FDR administration. But it remains available for us today.
Some today would claim that it is foreign powers like Russia and China who are the source of our extreme polarization. But even if these nations have intervened propagandistically to exacerbate our internal conflicts, they were certainly not their cause. Rather it is the financial powers behind Wall Street (which include the powerful City of London) which are implementing the policies which maintain U.S. disunity – black against white, rural against city, coast against interior. Their intent is to maintain their own power by encouraging our divisions, a classic “divide-and-conquer” strategy.
Curb Wall Street’s power over our national economic policy, and replace it with the American System, and we will be well on our way to creating the unified American nation that our people and the world need.
 At the end of Chapter 8, Fraser cites Daniel Walker Howe’s argument in What Hath God Wrought that a second presidential term by John Quincy Adams might have prevented the Civil War.
 Hibbling, John R., Smith, Kevin B., & Alford, John R., Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences (New York, 2014).
Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.