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Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction.

Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction. By Mitchell Snay (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. xii plus 218 pp. $40.00).

Mitchell Snay's important new book examines some neglected topics concerning Ametica's post-Civil War Reconstruction. Most broadly, this concise, comparative study reminds readers that Reconstruction was profoundly shaped by transatlantic ideas concerning nationalism and by the continuing power of the discourse of republicanism. Snay accomplishes this by examining three movements during early Reconstruction--the diasporic struggle for Irish independence from Britain, the political mobilization of southern freedpeople, and the efforts by former Confederates to preserve a white supremacist order in the South. Snay argues that these movements, antagonisms notwithstanding, organized similarly, had at least the potential to develop and pursue separatist agendas, and were restrained from doing so by the discourse of republicanism and the Republican Party's hegemony in national politics. This carefully researched work will prove a provocative read for both specialists and advanced undergraduates.

Snay's introduction defines his key concepts of civic, ethnic, and proto nationalism. For Snay, civic nationalism denotes devotion to a territorial state motivated by ideas of common citizenship. Ethnic nationalist movements, in contrast, form around notions of membership in exclusive groups defined by allegedly inherited cultural or racial characteristics. A proto-nation exists when a people have the potential to develop a nationalist consciousness. During Reconstruction, Snay argues, the persistence of the discourse of republicanism combined with the civic nationalism of Republican Party policies and principles to turn the energies of Fenians, freedpeople, and southern whites away from potential or actual desires for ethnic nationalist separatism and toward the ideal of citizenship.

Snay's first chapter offers a detailed look at the development of the Fenian movement, the spread of Union League Clubs among southern freedpeople, and the terror of the Ku Klux Klan. Here, Snay stresses that Reconstruction was at heart a political process involving the expansion of federal power, voting rights, and the Republican Party. The Union League movement and the KKK developed as political organizations deeply involved with these contested developments. Irish Americans found themselves indirectly involved in the politics of Reconstruction as northern Democrats and Republicans fought over their votes. Snay notes the ongoing power of the discourse of republicanism, explaining how southern whites argued that concentrated power, here in the form of the Republican Party, threatened liberty. In his second chapter, Snay explores the similarities among the KKK, Union Leagues, and the Fenian movement, noting that all were semi-secret, fraternal societies that developed paramilitary capabilities. Each organization, moreover, could, with some justification, animate traditional republican concern that it sought to subvert or manipulate normal electoral processes. Because these otganizations were liable to such criticism from their opponents, republicanism can be seen as another force encouraging Irish Americans, freedpeople, and southern whites to pursue their agendas along civic lines. Snay's third chapter explores the possibility that desire for and attachment to land promoted the development of class consciousness and collective identity within these three groups. He argues that concerns over land did not facilitate stronger group consciousnesses or movements for ethnic separation and autonomy. Instead, the continuing influence of republicanism led freedpeople and southern whites to aspire to individual and not collective land holding, while the mostly urban Fenians discussed land ownership primarily to dramatize British oppression. Among freedpeople, this tendency was further reinforced by their connections to the Republican Party with its free labor ideals. As a result, republicanism and Republican Party hegemony inhibited the development of class consciousness and ethnic nationalism.

Chapters four and five explore the development and interplay of separatist ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism. Republican values were changing during the Civil War and early Reconstruction, with many developing a more organic understanding of the nation and greater support for state centralization. Critical too, clearly, was a deepening commitment to civic ideals. Snay then examines his three subjects and finds that, while ethnic nationalism was weakest among freedpeople and strongest among southern whites, what stands out is their common ambivalence. All three groups contained elites who pressed a strong ethnic nationalist consciousness, perhaps as a means of bridging internal class antagonisms. More prevalent among Fenians and freedpeople, however, was an emphasis on universal rights. The white supremacy of ex-Confederates came closest to a fully formed ethnic nationalism, yet even here Republican policies redirected energies towards citizenship instead of separation.

A book so concise dealing with a historiography so vast and a topic both varied and broad will necessarily but profitably prompt questions. Did republicanism's valorization of individual land ownership necessarily inhibit class and ethnic nationalist consciousnesses? Were there not established radical and racist strains of republicanism that embodied both? Does Snay understate the factionalism and racism of the Republican Party? Could this divided party really exercise hegemony, let alone a civic nationalist one? Snay argues, variously, that civic forces inhibited the development of ethnic nationalism, redirected ethnic nationalist energies, and, in one case, served the underlying goal of ethnic autonomy. Snay also suggests that where ethnic nationalism gained force it led to separatism. But was not racism critical to calls for sectional reunion during and after Reconstruction?

The book perhaps also distinguishes too rigidly between Republican civic nationalism and republicanism on the one hand and ethnic nationalism on the other. Could not seemingly contrary ideas coexist within these movements? Did some Fenians, for example, claim ethnic-national self-rule as a universal right ? Could not southern freedpeople want autonomy and even separation from southern whites but still desire inclusion in an American civic nation? Was the civic nationalism of southern freedpeople wholly contingent on their connection to the Republican Party? Did the racism of southern whites prevent them from having their own circumscribed but nonetheless genuine civic nationalist impulse?

Such questions are, ultimately, testimony to the value of this fine book. Snay offers an original work with an overarching argument that merits careful consideration and sustained engagement.

David Prior

University of South Carolina
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Author:Prior, David
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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