A Nation before Nationalism: The Civic and Ethnic Construction of America

Susan-Mary Grant. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

The modern debate over American nationalism is a truly trans-Atlantic one, as befits its origins in nineteenth-century America when two individuals, one French and one American, argued for the exceptional nature of America’s national development. The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who published his assessment of Democracy in America in the 1830s, has been described as ‘the initiator of the writings on American exceptionalism’ (Kammen 1993; Lipset 1996: 17). His perspective was reinforced in 1893 when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued at the Chicago World’s Fair for the significance of the frontier in creating a unique American identity, or what he saw as the ‘nationalizing tendency of the West.’ Between them, Tocqueville and Turner set the parameters for much of the modern debate over American nationalism. Despite the fact that most of that debate has taken place without overt reference either to Tocqueville or to Turner’s famous frontier thesis, it remains the case that much of the scholarly interest—perhaps more so the relative lack of interest—in American nationalism is predicated on the proposition that Americans are unlike other peoples; that they are, in fundamental ways, exceptional: their history, their development and their national identity set them apart from, and perhaps even at odds with, other societies and nations. Seymour Martin Lipset, revisiting his earlier analysis of ‘the first new nation,’ notes the widespread belief that America is ‘qualitatively different’ from other nations, a belief derived from America’s revolutionary origins, ‘the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent.’ As such, while other nations ‘define themselves by a common history as birthright communities,’ Americans have had to look elsewhere for the bonds that would provide national cohesion. Unable to lay claim to a common ancestry, a common history, shared cultural or political traditions or even the land itself, American nationalism was from its inception, according to Hans Kohn and others, ‘an ideological nationalism, the embodiment of an idea,’ an argument that Richard Hofstadter summed up succinctly in his observation that America’s fate was ‘not to have ideologies but to be one’ (Lipset 1979; 1996: 17-18; Kohn 1945 [1944]: 289; 1961 [1957]: 25; Hofstadter in Lipset 1996: 18; Ravitch 1990: 3).

For some modern scholars, however, the first new nation is actually no nation at all. Primordialists and perennialists argue that nations can only be constructed around ‘birthright communities,’ and although they accept that societies developed on an ideological premise display national attributes, and may have constructed—as America very obviously has—many of the outward trappings of patriotism, they do not consider that such communities are nations ‘in the pristine sense of the word’ (Connor 1978: 381; 2004: 37). America’s immigrant origins may, in part, explain the reluctance of some of the major nationalism scholars to engage with America. Even modernists such as Benedict Anderson, having acknowledged that the American nation represented a revolutionary—in all senses—break with the past, have little more to say about the American case, a case further complicated by the element that scholars term Southern or sometimes more specifically Confederate nationalism (Anderson 1992: 192-3). The South, seemingly a nation within a nation because it was unable to break away from the United States during the Civil War of 1861-65 is, as such, something of a stumbling block for those seeking to identify an overarching American identity. Consequently, although American nationalism is discussed by a variety of scholars from widely different academic disciplines ranging from sociology through history to communication studies, there has been no recent, full-length study of the American case, nor is it yet fully incorporated into the specific scholarship on nationalism. Given the persistent fascination with the question of American national identity exhibited by Europeans and Americans alike over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the lack of such scholarship seems surprising, until one considers at what points American nationalism actually has inspired scholarly interest, if not yet much extended debate. American nationalism has exercised American scholars at those times when the nation faced a direct challenge, be it from immigration or from the Civil War that seemed to replicate in some respects the nationalist struggles of Europe, but it was not until America made itself felt as a force in Europe that the academic world began to contemplate the nationalist dimensions and ambitions of the New World.


One of the earliest and still most valuable studies of American nationalism was provided by Kohn, who explored the American case in comparative context—up to a point—in The Idea of Nationalism, a work published during the Second World War. The fact that Kohn regarded that conflict as ‘a consequence and climax of the age of nationalism … a struggle for its meaning’ doubtless influenced his analysis of the ‘ideological’ nationalism of the New World, an analysis he developed in his 1957 study American Nationalism: An Interpretative Essay. Kohn was the first to propose the argument—later developed by Daniel Boorstin—that ‘the very slight knowledge of actual conditions of life in [colonial] America contributed to their idealization; the Americans of whom Europeans then dreamed were legendary figures rather than real human beings. For that very reason,’ Kohn suggested, ‘they could become the embodiment of the European ideals’ (Kohn 1945 [1944]: x, 265). Some twenty years later, Boorstin pointed out that this idealization of the unknown was not restricted to European perspectives on the New World, but was an integral part of the development of American nationalism itself. America, he argued, ‘was so fertile a repository of hopes because it was so attractive a locale for illusions.’ American life, according to Boorstin, ‘was distinguished by its lack of clear boundaries,’ a situation that encouraged, rather than in any way hampered, the nation’s earliest enterprises, and influenced both the form and the function of the emergent nation itself. From ‘a European point of view,’ he observed, ‘the creation of the United States was topsy-turvy. Its very existence was a paradox.’ Whereas nationalism in Europe was ‘self-conscious, elaborately articulated, and passionate,’ American nationalism was ‘shaped by the fact that the nation had not been born in any ecstasy of nationalist passion.’ The American nation, he argued, ‘would long profit from having been born without ever having been conceived,’ a point reinforced by John Murrin’s famous observation that Americans had erected their constitutional roof before they put up national walls’ (Boorstin 1988 [1965]: 401, 221-3; Murrin 1987: 347; Parish 1995: 220; Waldstreicher 1997: 112-13; Butler 2001 [2000]).

Prior to the American Revolution, of course, there was no such thing as the American nation; nationalism, however, was not lacking. The ‘nationality of American identity and consciousness does not require an explanation,’ Liah Greenfeld asserts: ‘The English settlers came with a national identity; it was a given … National identity in America thus preceded the formation not only of the specific American identity … but of the institutional framework of the American nation’ (Greenfeld 1992: 402). Although historians concur that an aggrieved sense of their rights as free-born Englishmen explains, at least in some part, the colonists’ behaviour toward the mother country, it is difficult to conceive of English nationalism sustaining a people that, on the eve of independence, comprised ‘a polyglot of English, Scots, Germans, Dutch, Swiss, French and Africans’ (Butler 2001: 2). More plausible is Kohn’s description of the ‘rising stream of American nationalism’ being influenced by a combination of English nationalism and the natural rights’ philosophy of the Enlightenment, but even as the colonies debated the question of separation from Britain, this stream had hardly become a flood. ‘No sense of loyalty to America filled the hearts of the colonists before the Revolution,’ Kohn observed, and it was unlikely that any such loyalty could have existed in an environment in which a heterogeneous population exhibited equally heterogeneous loyalties, either to Britain or, increasingly, to the states in which they had made their home (Kohn 1945 [1944]: 276-7). That there was a growing sense of difference, a difference that was in certain aspects American,’ is obvious, but to describe that sense as nationalism is premature. Indeed, as Greenfeld notes, immediately prior to the Revolution there were, in effect, 13 separate American nations, and afterwards ‘the uncompromising commitment of Americans to the purified principles of civic nationalism … was bound to hinder the formation of a consensus regarding the geo-political referent of American national loyalty, leaving open the question of what was, or whether there was, the American nation’ (Greenfeld 1992: 423). As Edmund Morgan put it, the American ‘nation was the child, not the father of the revolution’ (Morgan 1977: 100).

In their focus on the popular rituals of the Early National period, scholars have explored the development of America’s national political culture, a process of legitimization not just for parties but for the nation itself. Via public festivals—most notably the 4th of July and Washington’s birthday—the street celebrations surrounding these, and a burgeoning press, Americans expressed themselves in what was an increasingly national voice (Newman 1997; Waldstreicher 1997; Ratcliffe 2000). Although from the early nineteenth century onwards Americans extended the franchise and evolved a mass political system, facilitated by widespread literacy and ever-expanding communication systems, scholars who identify these developments as significant to the construction of nations post-1870 fail to engage with America’s earlier efforts in the direction of modern nationhood (Gellner 1983; Hobsbawm 1990; Anderson 1991). In part this may be because, as Parish pointed out, the centralization that frequently accompanied such developments in other nations was lacking in early America, nor were there many overt declarations of confidence in the American nation, but rather the opposite. As Linda Kerber reminds us, the prediction that the centre could not hold was, for much of the Early National period, ‘a standard conversational gambit’ (Parish 1995: 222). An equally widespread rhetorical gambit, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, was an emphasis on the need for unity rather than on its existence. Washington’s famous Farewell Address reminded Americans that they were ‘Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country,’ and urged Americans to place national loyalties over state distinctions. Lincoln, too, was not oblivious to the lack of ethnic ties in a nation of immigrants, a lack that he believed voluntary acceptance of the principles contained in the Declaration of Independence could replicate. Foreign observers and Americans alike were acutely aware that such patriotism as existed in the Early Republic tended to be local in form and function; it was the states, Tocqueville astutely observed, and not the Union, that Americans ‘identified with the soil; with the right of property and the domestic affections; with the recollections of the past, the labours of the present, and the hopes of the future.’

The Revolution, it seemed, had produced a functioning federal Union, with many of the outward trappings of nationalism but not yet the imagined community that made such nationalism a cohesive and durable force. Although the years following the War of 1812 saw the growth of what Dangerfield termed a ‘common tradition,’ it took the form of a new kind of introspective nationalism that did not necessarily bode well for national cohesion. There is as yet little consensus on the lineaments of antebellum American nationalism, and in some cases profound disagreement over both its nature and its durability. Donald Ratcliffe, on the one hand, has warned against too glib an assessment of the weakness of the federal Union prior to 1860, and the concomitant argument that ‘an American nation, based on a true American nationalism, developed only after’ the Civil War. The development of what he terms ‘sectional nationalisms’ was, he argues, predicated on a shared sense of Americanism,’ and on the feeling in the South that ‘non-Southerners were twisting Americanism into something that contradicted traditional shared values’ (Ratcliffe 2000: 28). Carl Degler, on the other hand, has argued that the Civil War ‘was not a struggle to save a failed Union, but to create a nation that until then had not come into being’ (Degler 1990: 10). In part, the apparent contradiction between those who perceive a functioning nationalism prior to the Civil War and those who focus more on the fault lines of the pre-war Union stems from a different understanding of that Union and its relationship to American nationalism: Ratcliffe’s emphasis on the national ties that bound antebellum Americans draws for its support on the political framework that the federal Union represented; Degler’s description of the Union as ‘more a means to achieve nationhood than a nation itself, more readily permits of an evolutionary conception of American nationalism as a process predicated on the Union, not as a fixed structure constructed on it (Degler 1990: 14; Parish 1995: 220,224: Nagel 1964). In some ways, it depends on whether antebellum America is seen as a community of interests or a community of sentiment. As a nation in which membership was, in theory at least, voluntary both descriptions might equally apply, but it was nevertheless the case that when interests appeared to clash, as they did over the issues of slavery and westward expansion after 1848, such sentiment as existed proved insufficient to hold the Union together. With expansion came division, and increasingly that division was sectional in form. As both North and South began to see in the other a society antithetical to their own they set in motion a process described by Major L. Wilson as ‘a pattern of creation by destruction,’ culminating in a civil war that, according to Kohn, ‘can be well understood as a war for national independence with nationalism as its chief issue.’ As Boorstin astutely observed, Americans had their nation first and paid the price afterwards’ (Dangerfield 1965: 3; Wilson 1974: 188; Kohn 1961 [1957]: 115; Boorstin 1988 [1965]: 401; Foner 1970: 40-72; Taylor 1979 [1961]: 18-20 etpassim; Grant 2000a: 6,39-60; 2000b).


If the first secessionist war had created the American nation, the second threatened to destroy it. The war’s outcome resolved the ‘federal vagueness’ that had proved both a blessing and a curse to the antebellum Union, and the war itself became the focus for a rein-vigorated, but also reconfigured, American nationalism that scholars are beginning to explore in greater depth (Boorstin 1988 [1965]: 393, 400-1; Doyle 2002; Grant 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000a, 2000b; 2004; Lawson 2002a, 2002b). The subject is not without its difficulties, however. The problem of the Civil War’s role in the development of American nationalism is twofold. First, as a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the federal Union, the outbreak of that conflict revealed the shortcomings of American nationalism as a cohesive force between the Revolution and the mid-nineteenth century; at the same time, scholars argue that the Union’s very ability to wage war at all points to a strong sense of nationalism that was itself reinforced in the process of fighting for the nation. Second, ‘The South’—or ‘the south,’ depending on one’s perspective—is rather an awkward element in this equation whereby nationalist sentiment plus military victory equals increased nationalist sentiment, since the Confederacy’s defeat did not, obviously enough, produce a sudden volte-face in favour of national rather than sectional sentiment among elements of the southern population. Further, the juxtaposition of American and Southern nationalism disguises the sectional nature of nationalism in nineteenth-century America, wholly ignores its northern variant, and assumes—as indeed did some northerners—that the American nation was, or ought to be, New England writ large. In part, too, the difficulty arises from the debate over whether the Confederacy was, or was not, a nation in its own right, a debate that began in 1861 and has continued to this day. As early as 1862 William Gladstone, then British Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that ‘there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either, they have made a nation.’ This was a declaration too far for Foreign Secretary Lord Russell, who rebuked Gladstone for going ‘beyond latitude … when you say that Jefferson Davis had made a nation. Recognition would seem to follow, and for that step I think the Cabinet is not prepared.’ Nevertheless, the possibility that the Confederacy might have been recognized as an independent nation was real; that it never was in no way diminishes the efforts made to achieve that end.

Leaving aside the tangled Constitutional issues over which Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, not to mention the various interested foreign powers, wrangled at the time, scholars have by and large accepted that there was such a thing as ‘Southern nationalism,’ whether or not its existence was predicated on, or was productive of, a clearly defined Southern nation. Indeed, in contrast to its northern, or American, variant, Southern nationalism has received a disproportionate share of scholarly attention. Again, Kohn was one of the first contemporary scholars to explore the subject, and although he considered that antebellum ‘Southerners were fully imbued with the common feeling of the American nationalism of the period,’ he also described Southern ideology as a ‘nascent true nationalism, distinct from the original American nationalism.’ The impulse behind secession, according to Kohn, was nationalism, in the sense of its being an ‘emotional impulse’ that transmuted Southern state loyalties into a unified whole (Kohn 1961 [1957]: 101, 116). Although Henry Timrod, the ‘Poet Laureate of the Confederacy,’ described the South as a ‘nation among nations’ at the point of its separation from the Union, scholars have differed over the extent to which nationalism was the cause, rather than a product, of the war itself. Despite its title, Avery O. Craven’s study of the South between 1848 and the outbreak of the war did not uncover much evidence of a distinct Southern national identity prior to 1861, but David Potter argued that this period clearly saw the ‘group loyalties’ of Southerners begin to draw away from the Union. John McCardell, similarly, identified the ‘idea of a Southern nation’ in relation to Southern politics, education, religion, literature and, of course, the pro-slavery argument even earlier, in the 1830s. Southernism, Potter argued, ‘instead of working sectionally within a framework of nationalism, tended to take on the character of nationalism itself and to break down the existing pattern of nationalism’ in America at that time (Craven 1953; Potter 1968: 61; McCardell 1979; Niebuhr and Heimert 1963: 39-41).

Southern and Confederate nationalism are not, of course, synonymous, and no such thing as ‘The South’ chose to secede from the Union in the winter of 1860/61; the various states that did secede did so individually ‘and piecemeal raked together their Confederacy as an aftermath (Ratcliffe 2000: 30). Having done so, however, Southerners did then clearly seek to establish the validity of their nation at both local and international level and invoked not just the precedent of the American but also that of the French Revolution in support of their claims. As Drew Gilpin Faust has noted, Confederates ‘cast their struggle for independence as the equivalent of successful nationalist movements,’ and explored the Dutch, Italian, Polish and Greek examples for parallels with their own experience, parallels that scholars are just beginning to pursue in the context of the modern debate on nationalism (Faust 1988: 11; McPherson 1999; Doyle 2002). Confederate nationalism itself was for a long time indistinguishable in the scholarship from support for the Souths military effort during the war—and by extrapolation support for slavery—and consequently has been disparaged on the moral grounds of repugnance for the Souths ‘peculiar institution’ and on the practical basis of the Souths defeat, a defeat that some have ascribed to a dearth of national sentiment. The title of Paul Escott’s 1978 study said it all: After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism. Escott saw Davis himself as the fatal flaw in the Confederate nation-building process, a man who alienated rather than involved his people. This argument, when juxtaposed with the great number of studies that portray Lincoln—as both man and later symbol—as crucial to the Union’s version of American nationalism, identifies leadership as a crucial factor in national construction. One group of scholars who explored the reasons for Southern defeat went further in their analysis of why the South lost, arguing that ‘the Confederacy functioned as a nation only in a technical, organizational sense, and not in a mystical or spiritual sense. An inadequately developed sense of nationalism,’ they assert, ‘hampered Southerners in their quest for independence.’ In the end, they conclude, Confederate ‘nationalism was insufficient to maintain its war effort’ and, therefore, not a true nationalist ideology at all. Whilst it is recognized that ‘Confederate nationalists surely existed,’ Confederate nationalism is dismissed as ‘more a dream than anything else’ (Beringer et al. 1986: 66-7, 77).

The argument that military defeat revealed a fatal flaw in Confederate nationalist sentiment, however, relies entirely on hindsight. The Civil War’s outcome validated northern nationalist claims, and placed the Confederacy firmly and forever in the ‘Lost Cause’ camp. The nationalism of the Union triumphed, and so historians too frequently reason that the northern variant of American nationalism had always been the stronger and more valid. From the perspective of the time, however, the war’s outcome was by no means certain, and in any case the failure of the South to break away from the Union does not in itself prove that Confederate nationalism was fundamentally weak—only that it was, ultimately, unsuccessful. Neither does it prove that American nationalism as promulgated by the North was, by comparison, strong. More recent research has succeeded in showing that Confederate nationalism was rather more than a pipe dream and that the ideology that sustained the South’s attempt at secession had both form and substance. Yet, crucially, these studies continue to examine the Confederacy almost in isolation. Lacking the wider context of the Union’s search for national meaning, they continue to present the Confederacy very much as a world, and a nation, apart (Faust 1988; Gallagher 1997). Certainly this is what the Confederacy very much hoped to be, but despite its best efforts the battle for Confederate nationalism was conducted both in the context of and in ironic parallel with a similar process in the North. The Confederate struggle towards national definition was tightly bound up with the Union’s defence of the Civil War and its reformulation of American nationalism during the war years. Each relied, in fundamental ways, on the other. Conflict—ideological as well as military—between the Union and the Confederacy helped each side to construct and then defend its relative position. The Union victory ensured that its particular interpretation of American nationalism would dominate, but this new nationalism was both forged and, to a degree, tainted by the challenge offered to the Union by the South. In short, the experience of the Civil War operated on the construction and refinement of both Union/American and Confederate nationalism in much the same way.

In their analysis of Confederate nationalism, scholars have come close to suggesting that, in the American case, nationalism is simply successful sectionalism, and in drawing comparisons with the Revolution—comparisons that were common currency during the Civil War itself—seek to show that America is in some ways ‘a nation of rebels,’ which is a romantic but essentially flawed interpretation of the nation-building process in America (Carp 2002). Not that contemporary comparisons with the Revolution were off the mark; they were all too close to it. ‘Through identification with the War of American Independence,’ Faust points out, ‘Confederates … intended to claim American nationalism as their own, to give themselves at once an identity and a history’ (Faust 1988: 14; Grant 1998: 171; Kammen 1991: 64-6 Mitchell 1988: 1-2; 1993: 144). Yet this was in no sense a purely southern preoccupation: both sides were completely immersed in the ideology and symbolism of the Revolution, with the result that it was held up as defence and justification for both the act of secession and the military response against this. Both sides argued that they were upholding the ambitions of the revolutionary generation and sticking to the letter, and the sentiment, of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In constructing a separate Confederate Constitution, Southerners did little more than imitate the Constitution of 1787, and in their declarations of the causes of secession the various states similarly drew on the Declaration of Independence. There were, of course, telling differences between the original documents and the revised Confederate versions. Most obviously, the idealistic desire ‘to form a more perfect union’ contained in the Preamble to the original Constitution became, in the Confederate version, a rather prosaic intention ‘to form a permanent federal government.’ Nevertheless, this reliance on America’s founding documents as support for both Union and Confederacy reveals that it was not only Southerners who sought to present themselves as ‘the authentic heirs of the Founding Fathers, the true defenders of the ark of the covenant’ (Parish 1993: 113).

The ideological issues accompanying the war forced the North to move toward a redefinition of nationalism that both justified its actions in the face of the challenge offered by the Confederacy and offered a basis for postwar reconstruction of the American nation. The centrality of the Revolution, to American as well as Confederate and Union nationalism, meant that the Union had to find some way of showing that the original Revolution had been the result of ‘a legitimate nationalistic impulse’ which bore no relation whatsoever to the act of secession that had prompted the Civil War. Northerners had, in short, to show that ‘the American Revolution was over and that revolutionary ideology had no further application to American society’ (Fredrickson 1968 [1965]: 133, 135). Fredrickson has shown how, in the process of addressing this problem, Northern conservative intellectuals shifted the boundaries of American nationalism. The Union, they asserted, merited support not because it represented the hope of liberty for the world but because it provided the rather more tangible and traditional basis of American national power. Further, since their arguments in support of loyalty to the Union were directly linked to their support of the Federal war effort, the logical conclusion of their deliberations was to show that ‘the ultimate America to which allegiance was due was not some vague and improbable democratic utopia but the organized and disciplined North that was going to war before their eyes’ (Fredrickson 1968 [1965]: 150). Other scholars have begun to probe the ways in which national sentiment was inculcated in the North both prior to and during the Civil War, but purely in terms of the historiography, the North has a fair amount of catching up still to do (Grant 2000a and b; Lawson 2002). Until this happens, the debate over American nationalism during the Civil War will continue to be one-sided and incomplete.


It can be argued that the Civil War ‘even more than the end of British colonial rule, represents the true foundational moment in American political development,’ but this new foundation was rather different from the voluntaristic nationalism of Washington and Lincoln (Bensel 1990: 10). Both more robust in its insistence on loyalty to the nation-state and more effective in ensuring that loyalty the Civil War ultimately ‘compromised the voluntary principle at the root of the American nation by the resort to compulsion in order to save the Union’ (Parish 1995:226; Bensel 1990:11). The development of what Bensel describes as a new kind of ‘imperialistic nationalism’ was, he argues, a necessary one for a nation facing a choice not ‘between one nation and two but between one nation and many.’ Prior to secession, he suggests, nationalism was of ‘comparative unimportance’ to America, separated—and therefore protected from—the intrusion of foreign states (Bensel 1990: 62-3). The challenge offered by Southern separatists to the nation forced not just a reassertion of American nationalism but also a reappraisal of it. When the radical politician Charles Sumner addressed the question Are We a Nation?’ two years after the war’s end he did not hesitate to answer in the affirmative: ‘Even if among us in the earlier day there was no occasion for the word Nation,’ he observed, ‘there is now. A Nation,’ he confidently asserted, ‘is born.’ But Sumner noted that although the word nation ‘was originally applied to a race or people of common descent and language’ in its modern incarnation it referred to a common government. ‘Originally ethnological,’ he observed, ‘it is now political … the essential condition is one sovereignty, involving of course one citizenship.’ As a radical, Sumner’s vision of America was one of a nation of equals, but it was not a vision shared by all. In the second year of the Civil War, the leading black spokesman Frederick Douglass invoked birthright and voluntarism in his claim for American citizenship: ‘I am an American citizen. In birth, in sentiment, in ideas, in hopes, in aspirations, and responsibilities,’ he declared. ‘I am an American citizen,’ he repeated, ‘I am not only a citizen by birth and lineage. I am such by choice.’ The fact that Douglass felt compelled to state his case so forcibly tells its own story.

Douglass’s claims on behalf of African Americans were realized up to a point. The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, followed by the Thirteenth Amendment, abolished slavery, leaving the way clear for the civic nationalism of America to be, as Sumner described it, truly inclusive of all citizens regardless of colour. The persistence of de facto segregation, however, undermined both the ideal and the nationalism constructed around it. North and South had reached a new national consensus by the dawn of the twentieth century but it was, in many ways, a white, male consensus, predicated on a combination of nostalgia for the past and deep-rooted opposition to an integrated society (Silber 1993; Blight 2001). The history of the American Century’ is, in many respects, a combined story of ideological and ethnic entrenchment, set against a background of the debate over nationalism in the context of the various immigration acts passed since World War I, two of which—the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924—represented clear attempts to control the nation’s ethnic composition. By the 1960s, a decade which saw a new and more open immigration act come into force, the Civil Rights Movement became the most obvious outward expression of the challenge to America’s racial order in a period where segregation—both official and unofficial—highlighted the imbalance between American ideals and the nation’s reality. When America sent troops not once but twice into Europe in support of a liberty that was denied its citizens at home, incarcerated some 71,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II whilst another 12,000 were actually serving in the nation’s armed forces and failed to protect its black citizens from the brutality of racial violence that exploded on the streets of Chicago, New Jersey and the Deep South, it was, at best, sending out mixed signals about who belonged in the nation and what the American citizen might expect from the state.

The twentieth century was, perhaps, the period in which America paid most dearly for having its nation before fully realizing its nationalism. The challenges American nationalism faced in that period were the logical outcome of its development. Anthony Smith has described America as the ‘model for the plural concept of the nation. The historic dominance of its white Puritan Anglo-Saxon culture and language, coupled with its messianic myths of origin and foundation,’ he argues, ‘have provided a firm ethnic base for its subsequent experiment in cultural pluralism’ (Smith 1995: 107-8). Yet so far from providing a firm base, it can be argued that the American national edifice was built on sand. America’s civic nationalism was, from the outset, constructed along clearly demarcated ethnic lines. Skin colour proved the means to inclusion for many immigrant groups and exclusion for both indigenous and imported non-white peoples. Even before the colonies broke away from Great Britain, ethnic divisions had begun to supplant class divisions in a society where racial slavery was becoming the norm (Morgan 1975: 269-70; Foner 1999 [1998]: 37-9). As Patricia Hill Collins describes the process, ‘whiteness, whether propertied whites or indentured servants, became defined in opposition to and elevated above the non-white status assigned to indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans. This core racial triangle among white settlers, indigenous peoples, and enslaved Africans,’ she argues, ‘became foundational to the new US nation-state.’ This ‘racial triangle,’ she asserts, ‘neither disappeared nor radically transformed’ but both lies at the heart of and ‘describes a template for conceptualizing US national identity’ (Collins 2001: 7, 9; Kim 2004: 994). Indeed, from the colonial period through to the Revolution itself, European interest in America as a new kind of nation—and Americans as a new kind of people—was countered by American determination to be a nation in the European mould. America’s civic ambitions were, from the start, couched in distinctly ethnic language. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur’s famous enquiry, ‘What, then, is the American, this new man?’ was of far greater interest to Europeans than to the fledgling Americans of the revolutionary era. Although Crèvecoeur’s work sold well and widely throughout Europe, in America itself it met with lukewarm interest. So far from seeing themselves as a new kind of people, America’s founding fathers invoked a primordialist construction for their nation, one distinctly at odds with the reality of its population and its politics. John Jay made the case for American nationalism clearly and succinctly in The Federalist Papers of 1788 when he argued that the erstwhile colonists had for ‘all general purposes been one people … As a nation we have made peace and war; as a nation we have vanquished our common enemies; as a nation we have formed alliances, and made treaties, and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign states.’ However, when he then went on to assert ‘that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs’ he was describing a nation that did not, neither at the time of writing nor since, exist.

Jay’s conceptualization of the new nation as, in effect, a birthright community comprising the descendants of a single immigrant—British and white—group was codified two years later in the 1790 Naturalization Law, which offered citizenship to ‘free white persons,’ and reinforced in the mid-nineteenth century by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s ruling in denial of black citizenship rights in the 1857 Dred Scott case. Ever since, and despite the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the tension between the nation’s civic ideals and its ethnic social and political constructions has challenged, compromised and, some argue, actually defined American nationalism. Beyond the study of its historical development during the Revolution or the Civil War, if American nationalism is discussed at all today it tends to be in the context of politically charged debates over multiculturalism, pluralism, affirmative action, and the rise of what Carol Swain has identified as ‘the new white nationalism.’ Challenging the ‘tri-umphalist narratives,’ that not only ‘involve a creative reimagining of US history’ but, crucially, ‘function as national mythology,’ this scholarship locates the problem of inequality within the context of both the historic and the modern nationalist forces at work in America (Kim 2004: 989). More effective at revealing American nationalism’s shortcomings than in explaining its persistent resonance even among groups who feel excluded from the nation-state, it sometimes collapses the construction of the nation as state into the development of American nationalism as political and emotional force. No one can dispute that from the colonial era onwards ‘American nation-building was vitally dependent upon the forcible extraction of labour, land, and other resources from coloured bodies,’ nor that ‘multiculturalism’s sanguine story of voluntarism and consent’ masks a plethora of involuntary dispossession and destruction (Kim 2004: 994-5). Further, that there was a great deal of hypocrisy involved in the Founding Fathers’ espousal of liberty and equality for all in a society increasingly reliant on racial slavery is obvious, but the approach taken to what Collins has termed this ‘paradox of US national identity’ differs considerably. Some scholars stress that diversity—religious, cultural, ethnic—offers no barrier to inclusion in the American nation, the first nation to make ‘diversity itself a source of national identity and unity’ (Fuchs in Malik 1996: 180). Stressing the strength and durability of what Eric Foner calls ‘the story of American freedom’ as central to the nation’s sense of itself, these scholars regard American ideals of freedom and equality as a persistent goal, never yet fully realized but nevertheless the cornerstone of American nationalism (Foner 1999 [1998]; Beasley 2001: 171-3). Others are less confident that American ideology can either survive or, indeed, that it ever had much meaning in a nation in which racial inequality has been so persistent and so destructive. From this perspective, the ‘mythology of American freedom’ is interpreted less as a foundation myth of American nationalism and more as a myth in the sense of a fable; a story of American freedom, certainly, but a fictional one (Swain 2002).


In the early nineteenth century, many Europeans were, like Tocqueville, fascinated by—and many not a little critical of—the republic that had emerged across the Atlantic. Their fascination was shared by Americans themselves who were acutely conscious both of the criticism and of the need to establish not just their nation, but a functioning sense of nationalism in this ‘age of nationalities.’ By the end of that century, America had come through a Civil War that had challenged the nation’s very existence, celebrated its centennial and welcomed many hundreds of thousands of new immigrants into a society already characterized by dramatic social, demographic and economic change. When Turner turned his attention to the question of American character, it was in part a response to this degree of change, but in part, too, an attempt to assert Americanness in the face of the prevalent assumption that America was Europe transplanted. ‘Our history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment,’ he observed. ‘Too exclusive attention has been paid … to the Germanic origins, too little to the American factors.’9 Americans themselves consistently debated the lineaments of their nationalism, particularly in the context of the rising immigration toward the end of the nineteenth century, but in the early twentieth century, scholarly interest waned in the aftermath of World War I, a war that made nationalism appear a destructive and not a constructive force. It was not until World War II, and America’s growing international role, that the question of American nationalism began to exercise Americans and Europeans in any kind of sustained way. Americans themselves felt the need to assert their patriotism as part of the war effort; Europeans sought to understand the nature of the nation that would come to dominate the American Century.’ Now, at the start of the twenty-first century, in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and elsewhere on US soil, that prompted both an emotive upsurge of patriotism but also its backlash, the question of American nationalism is more important than ever. However, long before the horrific events of 9/11, the concern had been voiced that America’s ‘best years as a nation’ were over. With American exceptionalism now described by one leading scholar as ‘a double edged-sword,’ scholarly interest in the question of American nationalism, how it was created and sustained, and what it means to Americans—and by extrapolation to the rest of the world—is both necessary and long overdue (Lipset 1996: 17).

What debate there is over American nationalism continues to revolve around the concept of America as an exceptional nation and Americans as an exceptional people held together not by blood but by belief, a shared ideological consensus predicated on selective aspects of the American social, religious and political historical experience from the original Puritans’ ‘errand into the wilderness’ through the war for independence, the Civil War and the westward expansion of the later nineteenth century. Although what Beasley describes as the ‘shared beliefs hypothesis’ is viewed by some as ‘a hegemonic myth which has functioned historically to privilege some voices and marginalize others,’ it continues to function as an epistemological tool in the study of American nationalism, whether the focus of inquiry is historical, political or sociological. At its heart lies the concept of America as the ‘redeemer nation,’ a concept, Tuveson argued, rooted in millennialism, already present in the ‘nascent nationalism’ of colonial America, articulated politically at the point of separation from Europe, refined socially in the growing belief in ‘Manifest Destiny’ during the nineteenth century, and justified morally by the outcome of the Civil War (Tuveson 1968: 101-2; Niebuhr and Heimert 1963: 10-11, 123-8; Cauthen 2004; Smith 1999, 2003: 137-40; Cherry 1997 [1971]; O’Brien 1988). This belief in America as, in Lincoln’s words, the ‘last, best hope of earth,’ was explored and challenged in the scholarship of the 1960s that probed the lineaments of America’s sense of nationalism at a time when American ideology, juxtaposed against Soviet ideology, seemed if not always consistent in application at least clear-cut in conception. The changes that American nationalism has gone through since are less well understood because of America’s absence from the major studies of nationalism, an absence that is regrettable on several levels. The premise of American exceptionalism has never yet been fully explored in the context of other nation’s experiences, despite the fact that America clearly shares many of the attributes of the modern nation as scholars define it. Where America may differ from other nations is in the resolution, albeit sometimes an uneasy one, that it achieves between its civic and ethnic elements and, perhaps, in its millennialist ideology. Although America’s current President, George W Bush, denies that Americans see themselves as ‘a chosen nation,’ his emphasis on ‘the unfinished work of American freedom’ reinforces the concept of American religious purpose in a nation where the evolving interaction between the civic and the ethnic, the religious and the secular may define not just America, but the future of nationalism itself.