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National Identity and Why It Matters

Reading: “The Man without a Country” By Edward Everett Hale


How To Use This Discussion Guide

Materials Included | Begin by reading Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man without a Country” on our site or in your copy of What So Proudly We Hail.

Materials for this guide include background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by Wilfred McClay (Hillsdale College) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

Learning Objectives | Students will be able to:

  • Explore the meaning and significance of national identity in general and American identity in particular, using the principles set out in the Declaration of Independence as background;
  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it;
  • Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text;
  • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development;
  • Summarize the key supporting details and ideas;
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text;
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone;
  • Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to one another and the whole; and
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Writing Prompts

  • Is there anything especially American in the identity and attachment that Philip Nolan comes to desire? After reading “The Man without a Country,” write an essay that addresses the question and support your position with evidence from the text.
  • Is the Civil War background important for understanding the meaning of “The Man without a Country”? After reading the story, write an explanatory essay that addresses the question and analyzes the reasons why it is—or isn’t—important to the story, providing examples to clarify your analysis. What conclusions or implications can you draw?
  • Which is more important for making attached American citizens: the love of American principles or love of our native land? After reading “The Man Without a Country,” write an essay that compares these two forms of attachment and argues which one is important for making good citizens. Be sure to support your position with evidence from the text.

About the Author

It is probably no accident that Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909) was a lifelong American patriot. He was the nephew of Edward Everett, renowned orator and statesman. And his father, Nathan Hale, was the namesake and nephew of Nathan Hale, executed by the British for espionage during the Revolutionary War and famous for his last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

As a Unitarian minister in Boston, as chaplain in the United States Senate, and as a prolific writer of essays and short fiction, Edward Everett Hale was a devoted activist, championing especially the causes of the abolition of slavery and the advancement of public education. “The Man without a Country,” his most famous story, was published anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly during the terrible days of Civil War, in 1863, the same year that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking about the Text


The plot of Hale’s story is straightforward: Seduced, “body and soul,” by the charm and grand vision of Aaron Burr, young Philip Nolan, an ambitious artillery officer in the “Legion of the West,” becomes a Burr accomplice (23). Tried for treason, “Nolan was proved guilty enough” (3). Still, no one would have heard of him “but that, when the president of the court asked him at the close, whether he wished to say anything to show that he had always been faithful to the United States, Nolan cried out, in a fit of   frenzy,—

‘D—n the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!’”

His judges, half of them veterans of the Revolutionary War, are stunned. They decide to give him precisely what he has asked for: From that moment, September 23, 1807, until his dying day, May 11, 1863—nearly fifty-six years later—Nolan is literally, and figuratively, put out to sea. He never again sets foot on American soil; only as he is dying does he again hear anything about the United States. Yet during—and perhaps because of—his enforced separation from his native land, Nolan’s attitude toward her changes dramatically. The rest of the story powerfully shows how his transformation comes about.

Section Overview

The story has a historical setting, but it is almost entirely fictional. Hale tells us his purpose both in the story proper and in the introduction he wrote for it twenty years after publication, to correct public misperceptions of the story’s historicity. In the text, the narrator, Fredric Ingham, says that his purpose is to show “young Americans . . . what it is to be A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY” (2). In the later introduction, Hale reports that he had hoped the story would be published before the 1863 elections, as he intended it not only “as a contribution, however humble, towards the formation of a just and true national sentiment, or sentiment of love to the nation,” but also as “‘testimony’ regarding the principles involved in [the election].” He had especially in mind the notorious activities of Clement Vallandigham, an ardent antiwar, pro-Confederate Ohio Democrat, then running for governor of Ohio from his exile in Canada. Some people believe that Hale’s story was in fact inspired by Vallandigham’s widely publicized assertion that he did not want to belong to the United States.

Only a couple of historical facts inform this otherwise fabricated tale about a purely fictitious character. After Aaron Burr left the vice presidency in 1805, he did make two trips down the Mississippi. Also, he and his accomplices were tried for treason. Burr was accused of a conspiracy to steal the Louisiana Purchase lands away from the United States and to crown himself as king or emperor. Despite the fact that US President Thomas Jefferson threw his full weight against Burr, the evidence available did not hold up in court, and Burr was acquitted. Not so for Philip Nolan, the fictitious protagonist of Hale’s story. Appreciating Nolan’s story requires us to try to understand, from the text alone, the young Nolan, the fate he was made to suffer, and his responses to it, from beginning to end. We need also to reflect on Hale’s stated purpose for writing the story.

A. Philip Nolan’s Early Life, His Crime and Punishment (1–6)
  1. Describe young Philip Nolan. What is he like as a young officer in the Legion of the West? What is the Legion of the West? (See pages 2–3.)
  2. Why do you think he is attracted so quickly and completely—“body and soul” (3)—to Aaron Burr, the man and, later, to his cause? What is Burr’s cause?
  3. Does the punishment he receives fit his crime (4)? If you think it doesn’t, what do you think a fitting punishment would be?
  4. What is Nolan’s initial attitude toward the punishment he receives (5)? Do you understand his reaction? Do you sympathize with it?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: Who is Philip Nolan? Why is he attracted so quickly to Aaron Burr, the man and, later, to his cause? 

B. Charting Nolan’s Changing Attitude toward Home and Country

About each of the following incidents, please consider these general questions:

  1. What happened during the incident?
  2. What events led up to the incident?
  3. What is the meaning—what are the consequences—of the incident for Nolan?
  4. Why does it have such the impact on him that it does?

In addition, consider the following incident-specific questions:

Reading “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” (8–9). (Note: “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” [1805] is a long narrative poem by the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott. A canto is a main division of a long poem; the word comes from Italian, meaning “song.”)

  1. What does Sir Walter Scott’s poem mean? Why and how does it affect Nolan? See, specifically, Canto 6, including the last four lines which are not referred to in Hale’s text.

Rebuke from his dancing partner, Mrs. Graff (10–11).

  1. Does Nolan’s acquaintance with a person like Mrs. Graff, back in Philadelphia before her marriage, shed any further light on Nolan’s former life? 
  2. What kind of person do you think Nolan was back then? What kind of society did he belong to?

Nolan’s receipt of the “sword of ceremony” for his splendid and courageous action in the frigate (=warship) duel with the English (11–12).

  1. What do the tears Nolan sheds here tell us about the state of his soul?
  2. Why might the receipt of the “sword of ceremony” be both especially meaningful and especially painful for Nolan?

Nolan’s confrontation with the newly freed African slaves (15–17).

  1. Nolan’s ability to take on this job is due to his knowledge of Portuguese. Does his knowledge of the language surprise you? What can we infer about the type of upbringing and education Nolan had growing up? What kind of family do you think he came from?
  2. What role does Nolan play in their emancipation?
  3. Why is Nolan’s agony especially moving here?

The speech to young Fred Ingham (16–17).

  1. What significance does Nolan here attach to “home and country”?
  2. What really has he come to long for?

Nolan’s deathbed exchange with Danforth and the “little shrine” in his stateroom (20–23).

  1. Why did Danforth, so forthcoming in many other ways, decide not to tell Nolan about the Civil War?
  2. Why did Nolan take such pleasure in discovering that the then-president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was a man of the people, not a man of privileged birth?
  3. Nolan dies with his father’s badge of the Order of Cincinnati pressed to his lips. (The Order of Cincinnati is an eagle-shaped badge to be worn by veterans of the Revolutionary War.) What is the meaning of this gesture?
  4. Was Nolan a man without a country? Why or why not?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: How does Nolan's punishment affect him?

C. Hale’s Purposes
  1. Despite Hale’s insistence that the story is fictional, as noted earlier, we do know when it is written—during the height of the Civil War, in the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. Is its Civil War background important for understanding the story’s meaning?
  2. If you regard the background as key, is the story anything more than a piece of wartime propaganda? Why do you answer as you do?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: Is its Civil War background important for understanding the story's meaning?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking With The Text

Section Overview

Hale’s story, the first entry in What So Proudly We Hail, appears under the first and overarching theme of the anthology: “National Identity: Why Should It Matter?” Since the story’s first appearance, many people have been moved by it to patriotic feeling. But as many have rightly noted, throughout the story Hale uses the word “country,” not “nation.” Many have thus wondered whether, and in what way, the story is particularly about American national identity and how it works to promote it. These questions also arise when one notes that in the fourth and fifth incidents cited above—Nolan’s encounter with the newly freed African slaves and his subsequent impassioned speech to Fred Ingham—the emphasis is on home as the place of one’s own, not as the embodiment of political institutions devoted to the idea or fact of freedom. One’s country is spoken of as alma mater (Latin: “the nourishing mother”)—the source of one’s life, love, and rearing, in a particular place, in a particular time—but not as a people looking up to particular ideals. What, then, is it that makes for national identity? How should one speak about it? What does it mean if one cannot speak or hear about it? These are among the larger issues that the story raises for our consideration.

A. Human Being and Citizen
  1. Do you think that Nolan comes to miss America in particular, or simply misses belonging to a country in general? Is there anything specifically American that Nolan comes to desire?
  2. Does Nolan’s longing for “home” differ in any way from the longing for home of the newly freed slaves?
  3. What is the difference between belonging to a “country” and belonging to a “nation”?
  4. Why has Nolan become so attached or devoted to America by the time of his death (23)? Do you feel an attachment to America? Is it important to have attached citizens?
  5. Which is more important for making attached American citizens: the love of American principles or the love of our native land? Can love of principles suffice to make attached citizens?
    1. If love of one’s native land is crucial, what, then, about the national attachment of immigrants, who are Americans not by birth but by choice?
    2. If love of American principles is crucial, what happens to one’s attachment when the country’s deeds are at odds with its ideals? Can you think of examples of this dilemma in American history or the present day?
  6. Could a roughly identical story be written about a treasonous Frenchman or Briton who expressed a similar wish that he would “never hear” of his country again? Is this story not about American identity but, rather, about a primal human need to belong to some larger community or nationality?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: Does Nolan's longing for “home” differ in any way from the longing for home of the newly freed slaves?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: Can love of principles suffice to make attached citizens? 

B. Speaking, Hearing, and National Attachment

For these questions, consider the story in conjunction with Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural.

  1. Nolan’s punishment does not prohibit his speaking about the United States; it only prohibits others from ever speaking of it in his presence. Presumably, they must also ignore him when he speaks or asks about it. As we have noted, this punishment has a powerful effect on Nolan’s soul, demonstrated by his general transformation of heart, and, more visibly, by the shrine he erects in his stateroom (20). What is lost by the absence of shared speech about one’s country? What do we gain by talking with one another about the things we value? Would we still value them the same if we were unable to talk with others about them?
  2. In his First Inaugural, Lincoln expressed the hope—forlorn as it turned out—that the “mystic chords of memory” would draw the Union back together. This memorable expression invites us to think about how and why speech about the things we share is important for forming and cementing our loyalties, our affections, our commitments, and our common memories. What are the “mystic chords of memory”?
  3. Reflecting on your experience of reading this story and—we hope—discussing it with others, did it affect the way you think about your own American identity? How so?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: What is lost by the absence of shared speech about one’s country?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.


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