U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Nationalism–The Elephant in our Americana Room

Banksy's Elephant

Banksy’s famous Elephant in the Room (2006)

One of the peculiarities of American historiography is that very few historians over the years have chosen to use the concept of nationalism as their primary category of analysis, especially for the era one would expect to find such a study—early America, when insurgents in the North American British colonies chose to forge a nation together. I can think of two major books and one major article in the last half century or so to have embraced early American nationalism as their focus: In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism by David Waldstreicher (1997), Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood by Peter Onuf (2000), and “Look on this Picture… and on this: Nationalism Localism and Partisan Images of Otherness in the United States, 1787-1820” by Andrew Roberston (2001). Mysteriously there was a five year window (1997-2001) for American nationalism. Any comparison to European history will surely suggest that historians of the United States have chosen other paths of inquiry much more than their counterparts in the European field. For in European history the study of nationalism in the post WWII era has always been at the very center of historical study and interest. To be sure much of this has to do with the interest in European nationalism in the wake of WWII and with the complacent notion of American ‘consensus intellectuals’ that in America nationalism has never reigned supreme as it had in Europe. But I suspect that something else—not disconnected with this complacency—is at work. Maybe the problem is that American nationalism is not relatively insignificant, as many once had it, but that it is rather too large a phenomenon.

The fact that we call the United States “America,” and that we refer to the people of this country as “American” is, I think, one indication that Americans have a hard time telling where their nation ends and the continent or world begins—or that their nation is a conventional nation, just like other nations. Furthermore, early American historiography’s focus on the American Revolution makes the study of that period particularly confusing if one is interested in American nationalism. Indeed, the problem may be that the focus of historians of early American political, cultural, and intellectual history on the creation of the Unites States as a state and a ‘novel society’ during the revolutionary period has led us to neglect to a large degree the creation of the United States as a nation. Focusing for so long on the novelty of republican self rule, we forget to consider how nationalist patterns in the early United States mirrored nationalism in many other emergent nations. Indeed, in this very important regard—one that explains how western societies organized along new frameworks with the coming of modernity—the U.S. was hardly exceptional.

While the English and later British state—from which the United States seceded—appeared centuries before the English or British nation, the U.S. emerged as a nation and a state in tandem. France, the other great emerging nation state of the period, much like England existed as a state for centuries before the French Revolution, which historians usually regard as the “Big Bang” of French and continental European nationalism. This has helped European historians dissect the early appearance of the nation as distinct from the state. Moreover the comparative nature of European history as a discipline allows them to compare Germany and Italy, as they appear on the scene, to earlier nationalist efforts in ways that again highlight the distinction between nation and state. Thus, though the U.S. might be the first ‘nation state’ in history in the full sense of the term, historians usually overlook it. Instead they concentrate on Europe when they discuss the early history of nationalism and the appearance on the historical scene of the nation state.

More striking still, when discussing modern Europe historians tend to highlight the emergence of the three major ideologies of the modern era during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: liberalism, socialism, and nationalism. This tripartite divide also jives neatly with the slogan of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Often, with hindsight, European historians determine that nationalism was the juggernaut ideology that found ways of coopting both liberalism and socialism to further its ends. This was the case especially after 1983, when two seminal studies of nationalism—Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson and Nations and Nationalism by Ernest Gellner—called scholarly attention to the endurance and force of nationalism.

In the U.S., by contrast, we usually talk about competing revolutionary ideologies and of capitalism or liberalism, often tracing the relationships between them. Nationalism is somehow almost too obvious. Yes, we might admit, revolutionary ideologies, as well as capitalist/liberal ideology upheld the existence of the nation state in America, but that is hardly interesting.

If nationalism is the elephant of modern ideologies—the ultimate winner in the European nineteenth century struggle between the ideologies that emanated from the French Revolution—then in American history we might have on our hands a mammoth. Indeed the elephant might be so big and we too close that we find it hard or overwhelming to see the elephant in its entirety. The most we usually do, then, is describe it from different angles. We have histories of Democratic Republican and Federalist ideologies that explain how each envisioned the experiment in republican self rule. We have histories of religion that explain how in the U.S. Christianity became an American religion. We have literary scholarship that traces the creation of American mythology, and we have histories of the public sphere that explain how civic life in the U.S. became part and parcel of political life. But we do not have many studies that tackle nationalism head on.

The main drawback of this neglect, in my view, is that we have not tried to explain often enough how American nationalism emerged and persisted. If, for instance, Eugen Weber’s famous study of French nationalism Peasants into Frenchmen (1976) convinced European historians that they have not fully accounted for the degree to which nationalism was a manufactured historical phenomenon, U.S. historians have only relatively recently tried to wrestle with the full implications of this idea. If Gellner’s insistence that for every successful nationalism there were many more failures stimulated the study of the circumstances that prioritized one nationalism over others, in U.S. history we still do not have a very good idea how nationalism in America took one path over many others or why the U.S. held together despite numerous attempts to contrive alternative nations. We know of the Civil War—indeed we can hardly avoid noticing that breakdown of the American nation—but we do not sufficiently consider, for instance, the efforts of westerners to forge an alternative nation before the American Mexican War, or of New Englanders to secede from the Union after 1800. More importantly perhaps, we do not understand well enough the reasons for the failures of these alternative nationalisms and the persistence of one national umbrella.

Ultimately, like with so many other shortcomings of American historiography that stem from the myth of American exceptionalism, a comparative reappraisal might be the only solution.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the essay. Now, I have read Onuf’s Jefferson’s Empire to refresh my memory.

    I think part of the problem with early Americanist’s approach toward nationalism is symptomatic between a long standing disjunction within the field and rears its head from time to time. For those who weren’t trained as early Americanists, it might be useful to review how they are trained and socialized in graduate school. Colonialists, Revolutionary, and scholars of the early republic are all crammed together into a one group with the focus ending in either 1815 or 1830. As anyone who has read the William and Mary Quarterly the past fifty years can tell you, some scholars are focused on the longue duree and others on political innovation. The tremendous explosion of work produce has been a boon to scholars, but the accompanying balkanization and fragmentation makes it difficult for scholars to talk to either other instead of past one another.

    I think another impediment is that the historical profession and the master narrative it produces are, quite simply, Jeffersonian. Perhaps, I should reword that, the political culture is Jeffersonian. The “Revolution of 1800” and the installation of the slave power for sixty years set the tone for American “nationalism.” Take a look at the inscription on Jefferson’s grave at Monticello. The three inscriptions record his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence, the statute for religious freedom in Virginia, and his role in establishing the University of Virginia. An argument can be made that his “nation” was Virginia and not the United States.

    I also think that it might be useful to check out Seth Cotlar’s Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism. It is a fantastic book and it has some sections on the cosmopolitan strain of citizenship which he more radical Jeffersonians of the 1790s held in opposition to the more nativist Federalist who were as Rogers Smith has shown in his Civic Ideals or in an excerpt contained in Federalists Reconsidered eds. Ben-Atar and Oberg.

    I think nationalism is further complicated by the nature of American federalism. As Pete Onuf has shown in his many works, “Union” and not “Nation” was the important consequence of independence. Along that line of inquiry, Douglas Bradburn’s The Citizenship Revolution provides many gems. It wasn’t until I read that book did I understand why impressment became such an issue during the run up to the War of 1812.

    Since you’ve written about settler colonialism in the past, I am curious to read how it impacted notions of citizenship and nationalism.

    • Thanks. Great points and reading suggestions!
      I think settler colonial nationalism is usually in tension with its metropolitan center and with the local indigenous population. This is certainly the case in the US. I also think that a commitment to regenerative expansion and to immersion in the new environment is common for such a nationalism.
      As for citizenship, I have to think about it, but off the bat I would say that there is a certain form of subjectivity that develops in settler colonial societies. It is formed by the project of creating a true citizen, at one with the new environment. This usually has to do with manhood as a central tenet.

  2. My mind was set to rattling by the assertion in the third para about the chronological sequence of nation and state in respect of England, France, and Britain. What you say, Eran, is on first reading unobjectionable but I noticed a kind of quick finessing when it came to date and detail. I would argue that the British state is indeed a late-arriving phenomenon but it has always been a bit of a three-card trick with the British “nation” anyway (as Tom Nairn has most famously and trenchantly argued). If anything, it’s the British passport and other concrete signals of identity that suggest that British nationality is at least somewhat of a functional thing (not despised but not exactly universally embraced either). At the foreign passport control the Scot says “I’m British” but having a drink later that night in the bar he says “I’m Scottish.” In contrast, “English” has had, I think, a “national” rhetorical force in which British-ness is seen as ever so slightly more the possession of the English. So the Scot who is British has a historical memory buried somewhere of a Scottish national sovereignty that was nixed by the English arriving to, ultimately, make all things British. That said, I think you’re on to something with your argument about the U.S. as nation and ‘state’ emerging simultanously, or almost. But the relationship between the idea of the nation and the political authority of the nation is noticeably weak in the United States. It often seems as if many Americans, even today (or, especially today?) seem to extol the idea of American national bravado while not grasping that the national representative function of the state (the federal govt in our case) is precisely what gives that idea the possibility of actual existence. What to make of nationalists who don’t understand the meaning of the nation? And to make it a little more interesting, it may be, all in all, the progressive thread in American history that has fed the elephant in the room over a long time, while insisting that it’s really a gentle and well-meaning elephant.

    • Thanks for this. These are great points, but I think that every nation operates under certain centripetal and centrifugal forces. The question is why, so long as the nation holds, in some respects at least, do these uniting forces outweigh the dividing forces. Usually the answer to that is that there is a critical mass of people or an elite that has an interest in holding it together. This is pretty much Hobsbawm’s argument in *Nations and Nationalism since 1780*. In the early US it was for the most part the common interest of white men. In Britain, as Linda Colley shows, it was an elite that increasingly consisted also of both Scottish and Welsh gentry.

  3. Very interesting post, Eran. Just two brief mentions that might be worth following up. First is the gradual emergence of regional, eventually national, consciousness, in the South in the ante-bellum years. The South’s model was the secession of the thirteen colonies from British imperial control. In a sense, the South is a lab experiment for how national consciousness and state can emerge–and explosively.
    Second is the conceptual distinction made by some people(I believe John Schaar did back in the late 1960s/early 1970s) between nationalism and patriotism, with the former a dubious, too abstract, thing but the latter as understandable and even necessary for a cohesive society/community.

    • Thanks Richard,
      I am not familiar with Schaar’s work, but I should look it up. I agree that nationalism is too slippery a term sometimes. The problem is that it is very powerful nonetheless and I don’t think that patriotism fully accounts for it in its modern context or addresses its powerful hold on us. I think that what is really interesting about the nation is how it interacts with such modern ideas as ‘the people’ and applies it in new, often exclusionary, ways.

  4. I offer what follows with apologies to all who claim pre-1865 US history as their expertise:

    Building on Richard’s comment, one argument I’ve heard repeated in basic texts—and an argument I find compelling—is that the United States was not really “a” nation, in any unified sense, until after the Civil War. We were in actuality 2-4 nations (i.e. regions) under a single state structure during the 1788-1865 phase. This seems to come out in the literature about the Civil War and about the US. West (I’m thinking of survey texts like *Out of Many* or *Nation of Nations* on the former, and about Patty Limerick on the latter). And this lack of unified nation status in fact explains, partly, why the Civil War happened.

    And even after the middle decades of the 19th century, to extend this further, we were perhaps 3 nations within a single Union structure until maybe the 1930s? I guess I’m disagreeing with the point expressed in the post about the U.S. being founded at once as a nation and a state. But perhaps my rudimentary understanding of the pre-1865 period corresponds with why there has been a recent reluctance to analyze the U.S. a nation in that period? I say recent because I’m guessing that pre-1960s historians generally assumed singular nation/state status as a matter of U.S. pride and exceptionalism. – TL

    • Thanks for this Tim. I think one of the problems is that we do not have a very good definition for a nation. As Hobsbawm said at one point, it would be nice if ‘nation watching’ was akin to bird watching.
      But I do think that the US was a nation before the Civil War. Perhaps not as powerfully held together by a complex state apparatus and by decades of indoctrination, but a nation as much as any nation was a nation at that period. I would say that the US was more a nation than say France at the time, and certainly more than Britain.
      But that does not mean that there weren’t other nationalities or proto-nationalities in competition.
      I think that the idea of the union between the states was central to the thinking of many people–even to southerners during the Civil War. That is not to say that at that point southern nationalism was not more compelling to them. Just like British nationalism was still with many revolutionaries throughout the war with Britain after which the southerners modeled themselves, as Richard mentioned.

  5. The discourse of nationalism, as it crosses borders and time, has always fascinated me, particularly from a philological eye. Some critics have argued that, since the rise of cultural nationalism as a conceptual framework, it has been used anachronically to reduce past imaginaries to what is understood from a 20th century perspective as a “nation” in cultural (and not political) terms. What happens to popular imaginaries of region and locality, when they intersect with elite imaginaries of a united nation, for example? Homeland is another key term here–which in Spanish and French translates as the patria one links to patriotism. In my own work, I have found that keeping a close look at how these different notions appear in documents–if they do at alll–gives us a better grasp of these imaginaries, while taking into account how they interconnect with other “national” imaginaries. A comparative outlook can help us in the task of breaking through the ideologies of exceptionalism that one still finds in scholarly work. And then there is the unresolved dilemma of the difference between cultural and political nationalisms, which perhaps dovetails with Richard King’s reference to the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. It’s a doozy, nationalism, and it always makes me nervous when teaching it.

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