Lessons from the American Civil War: Nation-Building as a Matter of Identity

by Esther Elizabeth Suson

Research is a funny thing. It is the 90% of the iceberg, the 10% being what actually shows up on the paper. However, sometimes you only end up writing 1%. This article is part of a remaining 9%. The 1% inspiration was this article: ‘Was the Civil War Inevitable?

The bare minimum of what we learn about our rights and duties is good citizenship. To throw our trash in the trash bins (and segregate them, in some cases). To cross the street on pedestrian lanes, and not to run red lights. To vote during elections.


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While researching for the Civil War article, I realized that nation-building was something very different from good citizenship. It has to do with a projected identity of a nation, held in the minds of its citizens. Nation-building happens when we form an idea of the kind of nation that we want, and act accordingly.

What the United States was Facing During the Civil War

At least when the US shook democracy into our (the Philippine) political system, they had and tested it, so to speak. At the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the American Revolution was not yet a century old. Europe, which had just gone through the French Revolution (1792) and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), was watching them.


So you want your own country? So you declare your independence? So you won an international war (War of 1812)? Sige. Let’s see if you can keep your country together, or if you will finally understand why we’re still having border wars in Europe that will last until 1945.

Say the Union let the Confederate States secede and declare their own independence. The Union would be saying, in effect, that they could not keep their new nation together.

This was important, since they were the first modern presidential Republic, and they had declared independence from a monarchy among monarchies (the United Kingdom).


Failure of the Union meant their political system failed to work for a large group of people. Since this was the main reservation of early democracy-friendly philosophers like John Locke, it was very important to the young United States.

On the other hand, keeping their state whole meant waging war anyway, and risking loss and continuous warfare. Why, then, did they choose to start that Civil War?


They discovered that nation-building is a matter of identity. President Abraham Lincoln had a concept of the United States’ identity in his head, and it was of a united nation, both the Union and the Confederate States together. After he decided on that identity, he did everything in his power to achieve it.

How Does that Apply to the Philippines, Today?

The minimum that is asked from us Filipinos is good citizenship. But if we think of our relationship with our nation in that way, are we not cheating ourselves? Nation-building is about more than citizenship, it is about identity. Nation-building means that negative things we are known for today should not be what we are known for tomorrow.


Practical nation-building is envisioning the Philippines as it should be, and practicing it today. We want a law-abiding country? We abide by the law. We want incorruptible leaders? We refuse to abuse our own powers and positions. Why? We have a vision of the Philippines as a nation of law-abiding people, a nation of order. That is how nation-building begins.


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