The Fraught Battle to Create an American Nationhood

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As the USA marked its 243rd birthday this yr, its residents can be forgiven for worrying that the union may not attain its 250th

Divided into more and more hostile pink and blue zones–locations the place one occasion and its concepts have been utterly vanquished–humiliated by half-serious requires its most populous states to secede, and ruled by one of the crucial divisive figures in its historical past, this federation of ours is fraying, with monumental dangers for ourselves and our world. Commentators throughout the political spectrum lament the lack of a way of unity, of function, of widespread beliefs, of settlement on who’s or ought to be an American.

Fact is, sustaining a shared sense of nationhood has at all times been a particular problem for the USA, arguably the world’s first civic nation, one outlined not by natural ties, however by a shared dedication to a set of beliefs. Sustaining a shared narrative is troublesome; not solely and even primarily as a result of we’re a nation of immigrants—a spot whose individuals share a future, however not a previous—however as a result of North America, from the very beginnings of Euro-American colonization, was Balkanized. Our most abiding variations fall alongside centuries-old geographic fissures that may be traced again to respective settlement streams and contrasting beliefs of the distinct European colonial cultures that first took root on the japanese and southern rims of what’s now the USA. These political cultures and their beliefs then unfold throughout a lot of the continent in mutually unique settlement bands, laying down the establishments, symbols, and cultural norms later arrivals would encounter and, by and huge, assimilate into.

I wrote about these regional cultures and their legacy in a 2011 e-book, American Nations: A Historical past of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and there’s a brief abstract in this New York Occasions opinion piece I wrote about how they have an effect on one issue: the rural-urban divide in U.S. politics. However from its very starting, the USA had been torn between these areas’—or “nations’”—competing visions of what the American experiment was all about, with the northernmost tier of the nation emphasizing collective motion to construct a stronger, higher, and extra simply Union and the southernmost tier preventing for self-government, the liberties of native rulers, and the sanctity of native custom. The opposite areas—and there have been nicely greater than two—discovered themselves caught in between these generally actually opponents. These variations have by no means gone away, and there may be appreciable proof that they’ve, in reality, been rising stronger in latest many years. Plot a variety of phenomena at county-level decision—presidential voting outcomes, indices of well being, revenue inequality, training, gun violence, social mobility, dialects and religiosity—and you will note a recognizable sample.

People within the Early Republic have been nicely conscious of their federation’s frailty and disaster of identification—how might they not be when New Englanders had been near secession in the course of the Struggle of 1812, simply as backcountry Appalachian settlers had been within the 1790s—and knew they wanted a narrative of United States relatively than New England or Virginian nationhood. There was a wrestle over the 150 years that adopted between a story of ethnic nationhood (that stated we have been the homeland of the allegedly superior “Anglo-Saxon race”) and a civic one, and it’s the latter that has held us collectively.

It’s a story first correctly packaged and introduced by the historian-statesman George Bancroft (1800-1891) who proclaimed that People had been charged by God to hold forth the subsequent stage of the progressive improvement of human liberty, equality, and freedom. Bancroft’s imaginative and prescient of America was of an harmless, unified, God-chosen, freedom-loving nation, its continent-spanning future manifest in historical past and peopled by the philosophical descendents of the Puritans finishing up their errand within the wilderness, setting a beacon for the redemption of all humanity, no matter origin. Drawing on the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, it’s a imaginative and prescient that has remained with us in its broad define ever since. Abraham Lincoln reasserted it in much less triumphal kind at Gettysburg and Frederick Douglass fought for it via the terrorist marketing campaign of the primary Ku Klux Klan within the late 1860s and the shameful years of neo-Accomplice Redemption that adopted. This was the American civic nationwide imaginative and prescient, the embrace of the mission of furthering and perfecting the liberal democratic preferrred whereby all people is perhaps meaningfully free. 

It’s a nationwide story vulnerable to hubris and self-delusion, vanity and the temptations of empire, however in its greatest kind it is usually optimistic, idealistic, and open to individuals universally. It is usually the one nationwide narrative we’ve got ever had that has had a hope of holding our disparate federation collectively, an end result we must always all hope for as the options are fraught with hazard.  

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