Two significant speeches by prominent Americans in the 19th century ended with the same few lines from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part I. These words come from the king’s opening speech, lamenting fratricidal war and aiming to unite his people by means of a holy crusade to liberate Christ’s tomb from the infidels:
. . . those opposed eyes,
Which like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in th’ intestine shock,
Shall now, in mutual well beseeming ranks,
March all one way.
Both speeches omitted a line after the word “shock”: “And furious close of civil butchery.” The speeches, later published and admired, were delivered nearly 40 years apart, on either side of the “civil butchery” that tore America to pieces in the 1860s and guaranteed that the old union would never again exist.
The audience in both cases was the New England Society of New York, an elite group of expatriate sons of the Puritans. Similar bodies sprang up from coast to coast as the Yankee Exodus moved west and south. The first speech came from Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, celebrating the so-called Compromise of 1850 that had dealt definitively, it was hoped, with the territories of the Mexican Cession and the problems of fugitive slaves and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. For Webster, it was the Pilgrim spirit that defined what it meant to be an American. He read the entire Mayflower Compact. The spread of these forebears’ hearty descendants across the continent meant the triumph of what was most truly American.
In 1850, their legacy of “civil and religious liberty, and the reverence of the Bible” had reached the Pacific Ocean. But Webster’s expansive, even imperial, vision did not stop at the western shore: “And it shall yet go hard if the three hundred millions of people of China, provided they are intelligent enough to understand any thing, shall not one day hear and know something of the rock of Plymouth too.” Webster closed with Shakespeare to paint a vision of Americans who, narrowly escaping the disaster of disunion, gloriously “march all one way.”
The second speech to end with this affirmation that Americans were “all of one nature, of one substance bred” was Henry Woodfin Grady’s famous “New South” address in 1886. The Atlanta Constitution editor, too young to have fought in the war, presented a sweeping vision of a modernized, industrialized South to a similar audience of prominent industrialists, financiers, railroad magnates, and liberal clergy. He promised them that the old division between Puritan and Cavalier had been combined and transcended by the new American personified by Abraham Lincoln. The South would retain its regional distinctiveness and ought to be left to deal with the race question on its own, but the sons of the Confederacy would cheerfully join with the North and West and “march all one way.” For good measure, Grady repeated part of Webster’s 1850 address, calling it “verified” prophecy: “Standing hand to hand and clasping hands, we should remain united as we have been for sixty years, citizens of the same country, members of the same government, united all, united now, and united forever.”
These speeches and countless others like them in the US, Europe, Latin America, and beyond told a story of exaggerated national unity. They drew straight lines from a mythic founding to the present time to make one image of America normative for all, insisting on unity to such a degree that the long American argument over the nation’s meaning, purpose, and identity was drowned in these self-congratulatory versions of the past. Today, they sound almost desperate in their effort to reassure themselves and their audiences that America really, truly was and always had been a nation unified by a shared history, ideals, and institutions, all the while obscuring the depths of division in America’s past. The Georgian Grady, after all, was able to joke about Sherman’s carelessness with fire barely 20 years after the burning of Atlanta. The General was in the audience. But nation-builders count on lots of forgetting.
History and Legend
Attempts like these to achieve national unity through selective memory, mythic history, and at times ideological and physical coercion drive Samuel Goldman’s After Nationalism. Goldman has a gift for taking familiar documents and supposedly canonical scholarship and making them unfamiliar again. He brings them to life by asking fresh questions. That sounds simple, but it’s not. He excels in “the reduction of untruth”—to use John Lukacs’s phrase—meaning that he fulfills the duty the historian owes to his contemporaries by “setting the record straight.” That can be a thankless task. But for Lukacs, this is a weighty moral obligation undertaken by the best historians since Thucydides. In a footnote to Historical Consciousness, he quoted Thucydides’s own expectation that “the absence of legendariness in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest.”
“Legendariness” is also absent from Goldman’s book. Indeed, he exposes the legends Americans have told themselves about their own unity, legends that mask how divided Americans have always been on the question of national identity and whose persistence make self-knowledge more difficult. The book’s handling of legends does anything but “detract from its interest.”
I first encountered Goldman’s work when I reviewed his superb 2018 book, God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America. He won me over immediately. He is a political theorist with uncanny historical instincts who doesn’t get trapped by formulas. He knows that all the pieces in our messy past don’t fit together. In God’s Country he took what had become a threadbare topic, America’s identity as “God’s New Israel,” and transformed it. He showed that there had never been anything inevitable or universal about this identity.
Once again in After Nationalism, Goldman raises fundamental questions. How strong have the continuities in America’s national consciousness really been? How straight are the lines that historians and others like to draw from the colonial era to the present day? Just how “normative” were the symbols that we now claim once defined the essence of the “real” America? To what degree and to what purpose have we imposed onto our national history what has been called “retrospective symmetry”? To what degree has the scholarship on American nationalism, exceptionalism, and civil religion helped to create, normalize, and disseminate the very thing it purports to be investigating? I think Goldman would agree with me that much more work needs to be done by good historians in a field dominated for nearly a century by literature professors, sociologists, political theorists, journalists, and theologians.
The Making of American Myths
In his own words, Goldman poses two “animating questions”: “Did we ever share a stable vision of national character and purpose?” And “can we recover it?” He is skeptical on both counts. Why? Because Americans cannot restore something they never had. The most common question today about the health of our national community runs something like this: “How can we recover our national unity for the sake of our wellbeing and future?” This is a vital question, but it is based on a false premise. Goldman’s claim will provoke readers if not offend them. And even if it’s true, it might seem fatal to admit it. Nietzsche warned about this risk 150 years ago as he worried over the collapse of the canopy of meaning in the modern age and blamed the allegedly paralyzing effects of modern historical consciousness. But Goldman cautions that “it is not the task—or usually within the ability—of scholars to provide or sustain such narratives of belonging.” Of course, that has not stopped many from writing such books. We tend to think of the Nietzscheans as the ones who tear down the myths of monumental history, but it is closer to the truth to say that they are those who construct them and expect us all to bow down to them.
Goldman reminds us of the unpleasant truth that the quest for uniformity leads to coercion and thereby increases the likelihood of conflict. Beyond a certain point, the more we try to agree, the more we disagree. “To the extent that nationalism involves centralization and homogenization, it can exacerbate the problems it purports to solve.” Instead, “It is better to approach national politics as a tentative exercise in negotiation and compromise rather than as the formation of a community unified by faith, descent, or ideology.” “Faith, descent, and ideology”—these words reinforce Goldman’s overlapping phases of America’s search for cohesiveness in “our mutual well beseeming ranks”: The Covenant, the Crucible, and the Creed—three ways Americans have used to “make sense of our differences—and our similarities.” The symbol of the Covenant emphasized the ethnic and religious unity of an English people on assignment from the God of Israel; the Crucible projected into the future a hopeful vision of ethnic assimilation thanks to the fabled melting pot making new men in a new world; and the Creed turned to ideology to unify a nation threatened by two world wars and the armed doctrine of Communism. All three of these symbols broke down, the last eroding since the fall of the Berlin Wall left America without the kind of mission-defining opponent indispensable to creedal nationalism and an activist foreign policy.
I fear I am making the book sound darker than it is. Goldman offers hope, but he does so by lowering our expectations about the degree of unity possible, by making refreshingly modest claims about who we are (and have been), and by “propos[ing] that we strengthen institutions of contestation.” “Our problem,” he writes, “is not that we have forgotten how much Americans have in common, but that we have undermined or abandoned structures and organizations that express and embody disagreement.” Institutions are key to Goldman’s analysis and proposal. And for all their penchant for abstractions, Americans at one time insisted that it was primarily their institutions of self-government, deliberation, and liberty under law that made them who they were and worthy of being an example to the rest of the world. Goldman believes that “meaningful discussion is possible only at this [historically informed] level of specificity.”
We need to face honestly and intelligently both the benefits and costs of our attempts to march all one way. Goldman enters the current debate over national cohesiveness as a scholar and patriot, he says. Fulfilling his intentions, he has written a book of intelligence, integrity, and sobriety.