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.