by Samuel Goldman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 208 pp., $20)
This year marks the 125th birthday of Ira Gershwin. Through numerous songs for Broadway and Hollywood, Gershwin’s dynamic and innovative lyrics have come to epitomize the Jazz Age—and, arguably, American music as a whole. Yet his best-known lyric, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” also provides a useful metaphor for healthy politics. Despite Americans’ cultural and political diversity, we recognize that “we need each other,” and we agree to “call the calling-off off” in favor of an overarching unity. Nonetheless, this view makes our current political environment especially clear: Since our national identity has fragmented into a cacophony of ‘tomatoes” and “to-mah-toes,” a broader unity has become increasingly difficult to maintain.
At least, this is the premise of Samuel Goldman’s new book, After Nationalism. Despite several “recent proposals for a reinvigorated American nationalism,” Goldman argues, we lack a coherent idea of what American nationhood represents. Instead, we resort to “rickety amalgams, authorities, and examples that crumble under scrutiny.” Goldman’s concise history of American identity-building traces those “rickety amalgams” back to three competing narratives: the covenant, the crucible, and the creed.
The covenant is nowadays the least familiar of the three. It originated from the Puritans’ view of themselves as a new Israel: a pious and communitarian nation whose members are bound to one another through belief and blood. This idea gradually became a symbol of the “distinctive manners, morals, and faith” of New England, whose ethnic homogeneity and literary dominance made it a natural wellspring of American nationalism. After the mid-eighteenth-century’s Seven Years’ War, which “pitt[ed] an ostensibly unified Anglo-Protestant people against Franco-Catholic tyranny,” followed by the War of Independence, in which “Yankee patriots presented the thirteen states as counterparts to the tribe of Israel,” the New English covenant had seemingly extended across the entire young nation, under the Anglo-Protestant banner.
The covenant quickly found its home in the Federalist Party, which viewed the Constitution as an “adaptation of the British system of limited monarchy.” The Federalists pursued a rapprochement with Britain, encouraged industrialization, restricted immigration, and opposed slavery. However, it soon became clear that only New England wanted to become a new England. After the Louisiana Purchase, both westward expansion and increased immigration eroded the Federalists’ power, and New England lost its claim to being the country’s heartland. The covenant receded in prominence from American politics, its ideas dispersed among national prayer days, anti-Catholic attitudes, and an outsized role for the Pilgrims in U.S. history curricula.
The political shift produced another form of nationalism, the idea of the crucible—often remembered as the melting pot. Unlike the covenant’s emphasis on centuries-old traditions, the crucible theory placed America’s destiny in the distant future. From the myriad nations of the globe, it saw the creation of the American, “a new kind of human being living in a new world.” A new being in a new world needed new territory, of course: Eager for land free of historical baggage, crucible-era nationalists headed westward, ready to fulfill the young nation’s manifest destiny.
Ironically, the modern image of the American crucible—the “Jewish ghettos, Chinatowns, and Little Italies” of the early twentieth century—formed when the theory was already in decline. Between 1870 and 1900, twelve million immigrants arrived on U.S. shores, many of them from countries far less familiar to native-born Americans than previous arrivals were. More, the new immigrants were more intent on keeping their original cultural identities. In reaction, other individuals sought to unite the huddled masses through an identity they did share: non-white. The results ranged from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to increased hostility towards African-Americans. Still others lost hope for the crucible altogether: Their solution, seen in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, relegated the fabled melting pot to DNA tests and immigration debates.
From this turbulence, a third narrative—the creed—gradually rose to prominence. While Americans’ love of liberty had long been evident, it was Lincoln who “recast the United States” as the “bearer of a messianic task to promote equality and freedom.” The Wilson and Roosevelt administrations further entrenched this idea, fashioning the defeat of totalitarianism into America’s raison d’être. Yet the creed required a political solidarity that only global conflict could supply. The failure of freedom-building at home, with the end of the civil rights movement, and abroad, with the Vietnam War, brought an end to its promise.
Here, however, Goldman may have been premature: While the creed is no longer a near-unanimous view of American nationhood, its shadow looms large over our political discourse. Debates over tax and welfare policy are often struggles between an “un-American” denial of opportunity and an “un-American” wealth redistribution. Discussions about social issues are often clashes between “un-American” discrimination against religious institutions and “un-American” discrimination by religious institutions. The same can be said about issues involving trade, energy, and health care. Despite the creed’s ostensible death in the 1960s, partisans of all flavors still peddle their own True American Way—which just so happens to match their political beliefs.
The book’s discussion of the past fifty years is especially interesting, largely because of its refreshingly rare approach: Goldman highlights trends in historical scholarship while sidestepping their endless reverberations through the decades. Thus, he entirely bypasses the current culture war, instead addressing its viewpoints at their origins.
The recent clashes over American history education, Goldman argues, stem from two key dilemmas. The first is that history education is, quite literally, zero-sum: Despite the increasing complexity of textbooks, “a page devoted to one figure or issue cannot be devoted to another.” In other words, any attempt to add previously excluded perspectives, no matter how important, will come at the expense of more traditional ones. The other dilemma stems from the rise of postmodernism, which argues that “social reality could…be transformed” by “criticizing or replacing” the historical narratives that uphold it. In pursuit of this idea, many scholars have tried to create new, constructive visions of American history. Yet when “useful fabrications” are recognized as fabrications, they stop being very useful.
Goldman’s solution is to abandon the idea of a single national narrative. Instead, in his view, America should see itself as a community of “smaller, more coherent groups”—be they political organizations, religious institutions, labor unions, or other associations—bonded by “constitutionalism, the rule of law, and civic equality.” While this solution is attractive, it may overstate the value of legal norms as a source of unity: The United States may require some level of shared culture to remain united.
Perhaps there is room for a fourth movement—the canon, if you will—based around American cultural works, from Archibald Motley’s paintings to Emily Dickinson’s poetry (and, of course, to George and Ira Gershwin’s music). Rather than subjugating such works to a historical narrative, a pluralist America could revere them, both in themselves and for the unity they embody.
After Nationalism, brimming with colorful details and remarkable even-handedness, is essential reading for any serious discussion of American identity. True, it is not always a straightforward read: Given its brevity, the arc of the book is sometimes buried amid Goldman’s relentless pursuit of nuance. Yet this absorbing and enjoyable book provides a timely, comprehensive framework for understanding who we are. It is a vital resource in forming a more perfect Union, as either a pluribus or an unum. We would be wise to consult it.
Edward Meyer is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, studying mathematics and economics. He has written on culture and American identity for the Tikvah Fund, and has participated in seminars on political economy at the Hertog Foundation.
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