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The Fraught Battle to Create an American Nationhood

As the United States marked its 243rd birthday this year, its citizens would be forgiven for worrying that the union might not reach its 250th

Divided into increasingly hostile red and blue zones–places where one party and its ideas have been completely vanquished–humiliated by half-serious calls for its most populous states to secede, and governed by one of the most divisive figures in its history, this federation of ours is fraying, with enormous risks for ourselves and our world. Commentators across the political spectrum lament the loss of a sense of unity, of purpose, of common ideals, of agreement on who is or should be an American.

Truth is, maintaining a shared sense of nationhood has always been a special challenge for the United States, arguably the world’s first civic nation, one defined not by organic ties, but by a shared commitment to a set of ideals. Maintaining a shared narrative is difficult; not solely or even primarily because we are a nation of immigrants—a place whose people share a future, but not a past—but because North America, from the very beginnings of Euro-American colonization, was Balkanized. Our most abiding differences fall along centuries-old geographic fissures that can be traced back to respective settlement streams and contrasting ideals of the distinct European colonial cultures that first took root on the eastern and southern rims of what is now the United States. These political cultures and their ideals then spread across much of the continent in mutually exclusive settlement bands, laying down the institutions, symbols, and cultural norms later arrivals would encounter and, by and large, assimilate into.

I wrote about these regional cultures and their legacy in a 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and there is a short summary in this New York Times opinion piece I wrote about how they affect one factor: the rural-urban divide in U.S. politics. But from its very beginning, the United States had been torn between these regions’—or “nations’”—competing visions of what the American experiment was all about, with the northernmost tier of the country emphasizing collective action to build a stronger, better, and more just Union and the southernmost tier fighting for self-government, the liberties of local rulers, and the sanctity of local tradition. The other regions—and there were well more than two—found themselves caught in between these sometimes literally warring parties. These differences have never gone away, and there is considerable evidence that they have, in fact, been growing stronger in recent decades. Plot a wide range of phenomena at county-level resolution—presidential voting results, indices of health, income inequality, education, gun violence, social mobility, dialects and religiosity—and you will see a recognizable pattern.

Americans in the Early Republic were well aware of their federation’s frailty and crisis of identity—how could they not be when New Englanders had been close to secession during the War of 1812, just as backcountry Appalachian settlers had been in the 1790s—and knew they needed a story of United States rather than New England or Virginian nationhood. There was a struggle over the 150 years that followed between a narrative of ethnic nationhood (that said we were the homeland of the allegedly superior “Anglo-Saxon race”) and a civic one, and it is the latter that has held us together.

It is a story first properly packaged and presented by the historian-statesman George Bancroft (1800-1891) who proclaimed that Americans had been charged by God to carry forth the next stage of the progressive development of human liberty, equality, and freedom. Bancroft’s vision of America was of an innocent, unified, God-chosen, freedom-loving nation, its continent-spanning destiny manifest in history and peopled by the philosophical descendents of the Puritans carrying out their errand in the wilderness, setting a beacon for the redemption of all humanity, regardless of origin. Drawing on the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, it is a vision that has remained with us in its broad outline ever since. Abraham Lincoln reasserted it in less triumphal form at Gettysburg and Frederick Douglass fought for it through the terrorist campaign of the first Ku Klux Klan in the late 1860s and the shameful years of neo-Confederate Redemption that followed. This was the American civic national vision, the embrace of the mission of furthering and perfecting the liberal democratic ideal whereby all humans might be meaningfully free. 

It is a national story prone to hubris and self-delusion, arrogance and the temptations of empire, but in its best form it is also optimistic, idealistic, and open to people universally. It is also the only national narrative we have ever had that has had a hope of holding our disparate federation together, an outcome we should all hope for as the alternatives are fraught with danger.  

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