Patriotic Allegory of Civil War Rebellion and Secession The Man Without a Country Published
“The Man Without a Country”
In December 1863 The Atlantic published a short story by Edward Everett Hale, the nephew of Edward Everett, the distinguished orator whose two-hour speech preceded Lincoln’s two-minute masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address. The story proved immensely popular in the North.
Entitled “The Man Without a Country,” it is the fictional story of Philip Nolan, an army lieutenant tried for treason as Aaron Burr’s accomplice. (Former Vice President Aaron Burr had been tried for treason in 1807 but acquitted.) The fictional story is made more compelling for being presented as if it were fact, with references to specific dates, events, and documents. I read the patriotic story in middle school during the Vietnam War and amidst the patriotic and anti-patriotic passions of that day. What I didn’t know then was that the story was a pro-Union allegory examining the conflicting themes of love of country and rejection of one’s country that were being played out in the Civil War when it was published.
In the story, Nolan is asked during his trial if he has anything to say that would prove his loyalty to the United States. “D–n the United States!” he shouts. “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The courtroom is shocked, and the judge sentences him to “never hear the name of the United States again.”
Nolan spends the rest of his life on American naval warships, never setting foot in the US again, his newspapers censored, books referencing the US banned, and sailors prohibited from mentioning the United States in his presence.
While initially unrepentant, Nolan grows over the years more sad and more desirous of any word about his former country. “In one of the story’s more poignant episodes,” literary critic Randall Fuller writes, “the banished man takes his turn reading poetry to a gathering of sailors. Unwittingly, he selects the fifth canto of [Sir Walter Scott’s long poem] ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel.’ Nolan begins to recite ‘without a thought of what was coming.'” He reads,
Breathes there a man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said . . .
This is my own, my native land!
Realizing how much he has lost, Nolan is unable to continue reading.
Later, he tells a young sailor to not make the mistake he made, but to remember his country and remember “that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her, boy, as you would stand by your mother . . . !”
As he is dying, Nolan shows the story’s narrator his private cabin, “a little shrine” of patriotism that includes an American flag draped around a portrait of George Washington. The narrator, knowing that Nolan is on his death bed, tells him “everything [he] could think that would show the grandeur of his country and its prosperity.” And he can’t get himself to tell him about the Civil War then underway. And so Nolan, not knowing of the “infernal Rebellion,” dies contented.
See Randall Fuller’s From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, pp. 169-72.
Discussion guide, “The Man without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale, The Meaning of America: National Identity and Why It Matters, whatsoproudlywehail.org
Editor’s note: This entry was submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council, executive director