'The Man Without a Country': The Patriotism of Philip Nolan - Pacific Standard

'The Man Without a Country': The Patriotism of Philip Nolan

Edward Everett Hale and the fiction of treason.
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Edward Everett Hale

Edward Everett Hale (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In January 1863, by which time the United States Civil War had raged for two years, Representative Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, a leader of the Copperheads, gave a speech in the House. He called the United States of America “one of the worst despotisms on Earth"; he urged that Union and Confederate military forces be disbanded; and he said, rather acidly, that “war for the Negro [had] openly begun."

Shortly thereafter, on April 13, Ambrose Burnside, Ohio’s military governor, issued General Order Number 38, which was aimed at opponents of the war. It stipulated, “The habit of declaring sympathies for the [Confederate] enemy will no longer be tolerated.” Two weeks later, Vallandigham, who considered Burnside’s order a violation of the First Amendment, gave yet another speech, in which he condemned “King” Lincoln’s war. He was swiftly arrested, tried, and convicted. On May 19, Abraham Lincoln expelled Vallandigham from the Union. He was now the Confederacy’s problem.

I mention Vallandigham’s transgression because it particularly troubled a Unitarian minister named Edward Everett Hale. Hale was nettled by the disdain in which Vallandigham held his country, and had no respect for a man who, he wrote, “did not want to belong to the United States.” And so, in August of 1863, Hale filed a short story to the Atlantic Monthly, where he was an occasional contributor. “The Man Without a Country” was nakedly and proudly pro-Union—as was the Atlantic itself; it had published “Battle Hymn of the Republic” a year earlier—and the story ran in the December issue.

It is the story of Philip Nolan, an army officer court-martialed for treason. Just before he is to be sentenced, on September 23, 1807, Nolan cries out: "Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" The judge takes him at his word and declares that, forthwith, Nolan be imprisoned on a ship and neither see nor hear of his country for the rest of his life. (The story, incidentally, is a masterpiece of realism. Hale liberally avails himself of real people and events, and there is no hint of his fiction)

In banishment, Nolan’s ardor for his country only grows.

And this is more or less what happens. The character is transferred from ship to ship, and at each stop the crew abides by their orders not to betray any news of their homeland. This requires measures both unfortunate and tedious. Nolan is allowed to read newspapers, but the crew first has to “cut out any advertisement or stray paragraph that alluded to America.”

Right in the midst of one of Napoleon's battles, or one of Canning's speeches, poor Nolan would find a great hole, because on the back of the page of that paper there had been an advertisement of a packet for New York, or a scrap from the President's message.

Nolan spends his days reading, writing, studying the natural world, and generally being a model prisoner. Indeed, for a while that seems sufficient. “At first,” recalls our narrator, he “considered his imprisonment a mere farce, affected to enjoy the voyage.” But the facade cracks when, during a voyage through the Cape of Good Hope, Nolan decides to read aloud from “Patriotism” by Sir Walter Scott. The verse begins:

BREATHES there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
"This is my own, my native land!"

And with that, the reality of his imprisonment—and the magnitude of his loss—is made real for Nolan. “He never read aloud again,” Hale writes, “unless it was the Bible or Shakespeare, or something else he was sure of.”

Nolan suggested his own epitaph: "He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands." He was, I think, too hard on himself.

In banishment, Nolan’s ardor for his country only grows. (Here it is worth noting that Edward Everett Hale was the grand-nephew of Nathan Hale, who lamented—or so we’re told—"that I have but one life to lose for my country.”) Nolan fully repents. On his deathbed aboard the Levant, in May 1863, Nolan is accompanied by a self-made map—drawn from memory—of the U.S. He is informed, after some pleading, of what has happened to his country during the last 56 years. Everything, that is, except for “this infernal Rebellion.”

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Nolan suggested his own epitaph: "He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands." He was, I think, too hard on himself. Nolan suffered disproportionately for a youthful, impetuous act. Reading the story now, more than 25 years after my grandparents first read it to me, I wonder if perhaps Nolan had it backwards; America didn’t deserve his love and his loyalty.

As for Clement Vallandigham: After stays in North Carolina, Virginia, and Bermuda, he ended up in Canada, where he ran in absentia for governor of Ohio, won the Democratic nomination, and then lost the general election. He died in an Ohio hotel room on June 17, 1871, at the age of 50, when he accidentally shot himself. Vallandigham is buried in Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum in Dayton.

Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.

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