Sample Research paper on The Role of the Civil War in Shaping the American Identity

The Role of the Civil War in Shaping the American Identity


The American Civil War was one of the many events that strongly influenced the transformation of America into its present nation- state condition. As in most countries in the 19th century, immense changes were experienced in America during the civil war period as well as in the periods following it. Although there have been contestations concerning the role that the war played in the creation of present day America, many studies clearly explain how the war shaped the American nationality as well as its economic growth. Changes such as the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of racial discrimination can be linked to the civil war and its outcomes. At the same time, there are many negative outcomes that were linked to the civil war such as massive destruction of property and loss of life. Such destruction resulted in huge economic losses for the country, some of which were believed impossible to recover due to the civil war impacts.

It is thus agreeable that the civil war had a strong impact on the nation- state of America. However, many of the studies conducted on the subject initially focused on the nationality aspect of national identity. However, it is important to note that national identity entails more that nationalism. Aspects such as economic positioning are also important in the exploration of national identity. In a paper authored by Bernarth, the concept of national identity is mentioned to have been confused by many people to be the rationale for explaining the beginning and progress of the civil war. However, the author suggests that contrary to this perception, the civil war should be taken as one of the aspects that have gone a long way in defining American nationalism. In the past, other authors have also described national identity narrowly in terms of political affiliations. This perspective is also said to be limited in scope according to the findings of Bernarth. As such, the description of national identity should not be confined to the concept of political affiliation but rather extended beyond boundaries of patriotism and citizenship.

The distinctions in the definitions accorded national identity and nationalism as a subject under historical study makes it crucial for an understanding to be established. From an exploration of past literature on the civil war and on national identity, it can be argued that there is still need to determine various aspects of the civil war and how they contributed in the construction of the American nation – state. In most previous studies, exploration of the role played by the civil war in shaping the American future is restricted to its impacts on nationalism or to the economic impacts of the war. Finding papers that explore the effects of the civil war on both aspects is quite a challenge. For this reason, there is clearly need to focus on nationalism, not as an antecedent of the civil war but as something that is progressive and which was shaped more by the civil war era. Moreover, there is also need to consider the economic standing of the country in terms of its relevance to the civil war era. In the present paper, the key objectives are thus to understand how the civil war shaped the American national identity in terms of nationalism as well as in terms of economic growth.

To accomplish the study objectives, the study was conducted using the following research questions as the basis for the study:

  • What role did the civil war play in shaping nationalism in America?
  • What role did the civil war play in the present economic placement of the U.S?

The research was conducted using a literature review as the foundation of the information included herein. This makes it essential to understand some of the key words that may be found within the text of the study report. The following are some of the key words herein.

National identity: This refers to a collection of aspects that uniquely define a nation- state. Such include the religion, culture, racial identification and the economic growth among others. The history of a country may also be part of its national identity as it is unique to each country.

Nationalism: In this regard, nationalism refers to a group of features such as patriotism, loyalty and politics that clearly define national boundaries and identify the people of a country to their country. Nationalism is therefore a crucial part of national identity as it gives characteristics of the nation’s people as a part of the entire national identity.

The paper is divided into four major sections which include the introduction, the literature review, discussion of key concepts and conclusion.

Literature Review

America in the pre- Civil War Period

According to a book authored by Lawson, the civil war period in the American history came as an interjection to a period that was characterized by great misunderstanding especially with regards to the concept of nationalism. Lawson says for instance, that the period preceding the civil war featured lingering judicial, religious as well as social vestiges in America (5). The coming of the civil war contributed significantly to changes in such aspects from the outlined kind of instability to the desirable levels that were enjoyed in the periods after the civil war and even later to the present days. Lingering religious stands were demonstrated through the lack of constitutional support of all religions which led to the prevalence of the Christian religion and the lack of assurance of other religions. Similarly, the judicial system also demonstrated instability throug1h lack of concrete civil infrastructures and the corresponding laws that could help to obtain justice for the poor as well as for the wealthy in the society. This kind of inequality led to the lack of support for some races and great racial segregation that was canvassed in practices such as slave trade (Lawson 5).

Apart from this, Lawson further describes the society in the pre- civil war period as defined patronage, kinship and patriarchy (6).  This means that the nation could not be clearly identified by values and the constitution but rather by the practices which the people were subjected to. Practices such as slave ownership segregated the society into slaves and slave owners. This enhanced lack of respect, acceptance of patriarchy as a societal norm and consideration of kinship as the sole driver of societal unity. With the civil war and the subsequent signing of the declaration of independence, certain changes came about that led to the recognition of the role of the nation and the people in it in the growth of the country. Henderson (94) also concurs with the arguments developed by Lawson through the assertion that in the pre-civil war state, the nation was considered a separate entity from the people in it. The nation in this regard was considered as something that stood independently and was so separated from the people. The only reason behind this is that the people identified themselves more through kinship ties and through the roles they played in the society.

The national identity in the periods preceding the civil war was thus rooted in the history of the people it bore. As such, most of the Americans regarded themselves more as affiliated to their origins rather than to the American nationality. In a book review conducted by Bogue (par. 3), the sense of nationalism among the Americans in the early days is described as having been strenuous. This is further explained through the position that the American people interacted with the national government to a very limited extent leading to their lack of consideration of its unifying role in the country. The nation was defined more in terms of the cultures, historical aspects and the traditional settings that bound the people together. This could explain the reason behind Lawson’s argument that the society was defined more in terms of kinship ties than in other terms. While this may have shown a kind of seclusion in the society them, Bogue argues that it formed the foundation for the development of the American nationalism in the post civil war periods. Henderson (95) on the other hand posits that although change originated from the recognition of the unifying roles of tradition and cultures, the change that resulted was not sufficient to settle the debate on national identity.

Bernarth opines that in most of the previous studies on the civil war and its impacts on the American society, conflated between nationalism and political affiliation. From the perspectives presented by the other authors such as Henderson and Lawson, it could be argued that the position held by Bernarth is faulted to a certain degree. However, accepting his position on the role played by the civil war in the construction of the national identity of the country does not go contrary to the positions held by others. For instance, Bernarth clearly recommends that while studying the impacts of the civil war in shaping the future of America as a country, it is crucial to note that some of the impacts were transnational rather than within the country (par. 6). This is expected since the American nation has since grown from the civil war to be recognized as a world super power, a role that was recognized by the 20th century.

In the economic context, the role of the civil war is explained by Jaworski. From the viewpoint of this author, the accumulation of wealth in the traditional (pre- civil war period) in America was driven by slavery and slave trade which led to the availability of free labor and thus increase in the accumulation power of the slave owners. At the same time, the author argues that the civil war formed one of the many events that strongly shaped America’s economic growth to its present status. Lawson also gives a point that may be considered in support of this. From Lawson’s argument, economic evolution found its beginning during the civil war.

America in the Post Civil War period

The Organization of American Historians describes the 19th century as a period characterized by great ideological conflicts as well as violence across many countries. At the same time, it is also the period in which most of the countries experienced a consolidation of the nation –state (456). In this period, America also underwent changes similar to those experienced in other countries leading to immense changes in the economy as well as the social systems of the country. In the late 19th century, America began a reconstruction of the nation- state to take advantage of the presenting opportunities in several aspects of life. In particular, foreign interventions following the civil war period played a crucial role in shaping the modernization of America with regards to the national values and the national identity. The civil war could therefore be said to have resulted in many positive outcomes for the country even though the immediate years following it could not be linked to any positive outcomes.

The role played by the civil war in the development of America’s national identity is still argued by many of the authors of history. For instance, Henderson suggests that the role of the civil war in American identity is still a subject of contestation; with many authors arguing that the civil war was racially inclusive and thus led to many changes especially with regards to general acceptance and tolerance across races and religious divides (93). On the other hand, others argue that the civil war was conducted under white supremacy and thus could not have been the driver of racial unification in the American history. From the perspective developed by Henderson, it seems that he is of the opinion that despite the contestations regarding the civil war, its role in shaping the American history is indelible. Similarly, Bernarth argues that instead of focusing on the role of national identity in the onset and the outcome of the civil war, studies should be focusing on the role that the civil war played in shaping the American identity as this is more important than the latter (par. 6). These suggestions from more recent studies indicate that the civil war, in spite of having resulted in massive economic and social losses at the time it occurred, can be linked to many positive outcomes in the latter years.

Lawson on the other hand suggests that the civil war was responsible for societal transformation in a number of concepts. An example is given regarding the transformation of America from the society founded on kinship and patriarchy to one shaped by democratic institutions, space and opportunities for economic growth (6). Such change could only be achieved when the driving force behind the change was strong enough as well as sustainable.   Bernarth also argues that the conception of nationalism in America has since shifted from focus on political affiliation to the sophisticated consideration of nationalism as entailing creation of substance and dissemination of various national values through the years (par. 6).  Bogue (par. 4) argues that the changes in the conception of the nation –state came about due to the efforts of those considered to have possessed the voices and positions of influence among the people. These people however did not define national identity but rather influenced the actions and the voices of others towards national identity development. In particular, Abraham Lincoln could have played a very crucial role in the development of the identity of the American people.

In accordance with the reports founded on the work of Lawson, Abraham Lincoln was capable of constructing a sense of national identity through drawing from compositions of elements that were in congruence with the nation’s patriotic sense (100). While this may have contributed to the shift in national identity among the Americans, it could have also constructed a misaligned sense of identity that focuses on nationalism only. Apart from Abraham Lincoln, Lawson also mentions the declaration of independence, the American constitution and republicanism as some of the factors that also contributed to the advancement of the sense of national identity among the Americans. However, she also suggests that the aspect of republicanism was first rejected among the masses as rationale for development of a national identity as it segregated the rich from the poor as it was in the pre-civil war period (5).

Other activists also pushed for the declaration of independence to be considered and extended to include equality in aspects of race and to be capable to advocate for equality and justice for all people (Lawson 129). This could be cited as the origin of the abolition of slave trade and the subsequent advocacy for racial inclusion among others. It is also identified as one of the factors that contributed to the consideration of the civil war as having been racially inclusive rather than a factor for white supremacy. From Henderson’s conclusion, the end of the civil war signified the beginning of a new war on the aspects that would represent the national identity. From this position, it can be argued that this was another entirely different war that resulted in several changes across the country in terms of culture, practices as well as the economy of the country.

After the end of the civil war, modernization led to the creation of more robust modes of the nation- state and also formed an impetus for economic growth.  The role of the civil war in economic growth is also explained by Lawson (5) who claims that the economic growth of America and the development of new economic policies of a new nation were based on the effects of the civil war. At the same time, such new policies also led to the development of contractual patriotism which eventually led to a shift to total patriotism in the later years. Economically, the abolishment of slave trade also played an important role in changing the American identity. For instance, Jaworski asserts that this change led to a decline in the level of wealth accumulation (52). This could be tied to the lack of free labor and a decline in disposable cash levels. Moreover, technological advancements in the post civil war period initiated by the demands during the civil war period also led to the increase in productivity in spite reduced labor forces. Other factors that led t economic changes in the country following the civil war was increase in freedom and hence increase in education and employment capability. Trans-nationalism also contributed significantly to economic changes in the country following the civil war as many countries recognized the strengths of the American nationality based on the demands of the declaration of independence.


While conducting the study, a qualitative research approach was adopted. The study was based on a literature review in which various pieces of literature were explored. The criteria for inclusion of literature was that the pieces considered were to provide content that was relevant to the study objective. This was determined through an abstraction procedure where each piece of literature obtained was screened and using certain key words and only the materials that contained more relevant information were considered for inclusion. The materials were only considered credible when they were obtained from peer reviewed journals or academic books. Similarly the accuracy of the information presented therein was ascertained through confirming if there was similarity with other materials by other authors. Pieces of literature that were both credible and accurate were taken to be reliable as information sources for the study and thus used in the literature review.

Examination of Evidence

The discourse on the role of the civil war on American progress is one that desires more research. However, a review of various relevant literatures on the subject has led to the realization that the civil war played an important role in the developed of America as a nation- state as well as in terms economic development. Many of the suggestions given from various authors suggest that this subject has not been given sufficient attention in the past studies. This does not however imply that the study has been ineffective in answering the study questions. On the contrary, many of the reviewed literatures provide information that collectively leads to the deduction that the civil war contributed greatly to the construction of national identity. Through key outcomes such as the declaration of independence and the constitution, it was possible for the future of the country to be formed distinctively. At the same time, the economy of the U.S transitioned greatly through modernization and changes in labor force composition.

Discussion of Key Concepts

Role of the civil war on American National identity

One of the objectives of the present study was to determine the role that the civil war played in shaping the national identity of America. The study shows that many of the earlier works on the civil war as a part of the national history of America focused on its negative impacts rather than the positive outcomes that may have resulted from it. For instance, studies show that earlier works focused on the national identity as having played a role in the onset of the civil war as well as influenced its outcomes. From the counter arguments, it has indeed been shown that the civil war shaped the national identity rather than the other way round. For instance, some aspects of the national identity such as culture, societal consideration and the value of the nation have all been shaped by the outcomes of the civil war. Initially, America was characterized by societies that were more enhanced and tied together by kinship ties and which gave consideration to patronage and patriarchy as the drivers of societal life. The declaration of independence and the constitution of the U.S which came about following the civil war have both played a crucial role in transforming the U.S society into one in which space and opportunity take precedence over kinship. Moreover, democratic institutions are of greater importance than the social ties between the people of the country.

Apart from this, the change in justice profiles as well as enhanced equality can all be linked to the civil war and the ensuing signing of the declaration of independence. It is clear that these are the factors that eventually led to the illegalization of slavery and slave trade, led to the institution of various frameworks for ensuring justice to the oppressed. Civil societies also worked hard towards the abolishment of inequality through the declaration of independence. It could thus be said that apart from changing people’s perceptions of their societal ties, the civil war also helped to change some of the negative traditions and practices in the country. Furthermore, consideration of the nation as separate from the individuals in it also came to an end as a result of the declaration of independence. The constitution enables the American people to integrate the societal norms into their being and thus interweave the nation and the state into one. Just like in other countries, the civil war led to the consolidation of the nation- state in America subsequently to changes in beliefs and practices of the American people.

In terms of national identity change, it can be said that the civil war led to many developments in the country. Equality and freedom that is currently enjoyed across religions is one of the most prominent outcomes of the civil war. For instance, contrary to the explanations that Lawson gives regarding the characterization of lingering religion, social and judicial vestiges, the present systems are stable as well as all inclusive and tolerant.

Role of the civil war on American economy

From the findings in the study, it is evident that America changed not only in terms of nationalism but also in terms of economic standing. While not many studies explicitly discuss the role that the civil war played on America’s economic changes, it is clear that one of the key outcomes of the civil war was the abolishment of slavery and slave trade. In the period immediately following the civil war, the loss of productivity as a result of reduced labor forces could be cited as a negative outcome of the war. However, trans-nationalism and modernization that followed the period of late 19th century came about with great economic advantages that can only be linked to the civil war. As such, economic growth in the American history cannot be discussed without touching on the civil war.


The American civil war came with many changes in the economy as well as in the shaping of the national identity of the country. While there have been contestations on the role of the war on shaping the identity of American nationalism, it is clear that such contestations may have been founded on the destructive reports of the earlier periods. However, the declaration of independence and the constitution, both of which came about as a result of the civil war have shaped the country through increased justice, equality and tolerance. As such, the American identity is more established in terms of an outstanding economy, freedom of religion and racial tolerance. The integration of national and societal lifestyle can also be linked directly to the civil

Works Cited

Allan Bogue. Review of Lawson, Melinda, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. March, 2006.
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Bernath, Michael. The future of civil war era studies: Nationalism. Journal of the Civil War Era, 2010 Retrieved from

Henderson, Simon. Aspects of American History. Routledge, 2009.

Jaworski, Taylor. War and Wealth: Economic opportunity before and after the civil war, 1850- 1870. Working Papers 114/ 9, London School of Economics, 2009.

Lawson, Melinda. Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North. Lawrence: Kansas University Press, 2002.

Organization of American Historians. Interchange: Nationalism and internationalism in the era of the Civil War. Journal of American History 98, 2(2011): 455- 489. Retrieved from