The ‘Losers’: Dissent and the Legacy of Defeat in American Politics From the American Revolution to the Civil War

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses
Sophomore and above—Fall

Though our nation was born in conflict and is sustained by conflict, the present always seems inevitable; surely the United States of 2012 is but the flowering of the seeds planted so many centuries ago. To imagine that the Revolutionary War ended in failure and that the Founding Fathers were hanged and the names of loyalists such as Hutchinson and Arnold were as much on our lips as Washington, Adams, and Jefferson seems blasphemous. Or to imagine celebrating the loyalist William Franklin as a hero, rather than his father Benjamin, seems utterly absurd. The world just wouldn’t be what it is if, instead of calling ourselves American, we identified ourselves as Canadian. The melodic themes of liberty, dissent, and equality would seem less lyrical if Americans could no longer claim them as their own; but would our understanding of American identity be the richer if we viewed these themes as forged in conflict? To this end, the course will focus on those groups who were on the losing side of major political conflicts from the American Revolution to the Civil War; namely, the loyalists, the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists, the Whigs, and the Confederacy. The course will also consider the ultimate losers in these conflicts—those who were denied political rights altogether and thus even the possibility of victory. What did the treatment of these different political groups reveal about the extent of—and limits to—American acceptance of dissent? How did a culture that placed a premium on success and achievement regard loss and defeat? How was the South able to turn the defeat of the Confederacy into a badge of honor and a source of pride through the idealization of the Lost Cause? What was the long-term legacy that these losing groups left behind? When viewed from this perspective, were these groups really losers at all? After all, without the Anti-Federalists, there would have been no Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Ultimately, the course aims to cultivate a “tragic” perspective that goes beyond viewing history in terms of winners and losers, heroes and villains, and instead recognizes that, in the final analysis, we are all in bondage to the knowledge that we possess.