A Lost National Narrative

Maintaining a shared sense of nationhood has always been a special challenge for the United States, arguably the world’s first civic nation, defined not by organic ties, but by a shared commitment to a set of ideals. The U.S. came into being not as a nation, but as a contractual agreement, a means to an end for 13 disparate rebel colonies facing a common enemy in the 1770s. Its people lacked a shared history, religion or ethnicity. They didn’t speak a language uniquely their own. Most hadn’t occupied the continent long enough to imagine it as their mythic homeland. They had no shared story of who they were and what their purpose was. In short, they had none of the foundations of a nation-state.

By the 1830s, the federation’s identity crisis had reached a tipping point. It had weathered Appalachian and New England secession movements in the 1790s and 1810s. The stopgap remedy – to celebrate the shared struggle of the American Revolution – had lost its strength as the Founders’ generation passed from the scene, leaving a gaping void. Slavery, rather than withering as the Founders had assumed, was ascendent, a frontal assault on the values that had been articulated in the Declaration. Americans knew they needed a story of U.S. nationhood if their experiment were to survive. Instead, they wound up with two rival narratives. We’ve been fighting over them ever since, a story told in Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood.

The first was a civic national vision – packaged and popularized by the 19th century Yankee intellectual George Bancroft – that defined an American as one devoted to the ideals set down in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: equality, liberty, self-government and the natural rights of all people to these things. It’s this national myth – originally articulated, in line with the Yankee Puritan tradition, as a divinely sanctioned mission – that was championed by Frederick Douglass, taken up by Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address, and which became our consensus story of national purpose with the triumph of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

But from the moment of its popularization in the mid-1830s, this narrative met a vigorous challenge from the political and intellectual leaders of the Deep South and Chesapeake Country, who had a narrower vision of who could be an American and what the federation’s purpose was to be. People weren’t created equal, insisted William Gilmore Simms, the Antebellum South’s leading man of letters; rather, the continent and the promises in the Declaration belonged to the allegedly superior Anglo-Saxon race. The U.S., they argued, was a federation of Anglo-Saxon ethnostates, and slavery was its foundation, just as it had been for the republics of Classical antiquity. This was no fringe movement. Its adherents drove the nation into a cataclysmic civil war and then fought a successful terrorist campaign to roll back the political emancipation of African-Americans in the former Confederacy. They captured the White House in 1913 and their white Protestant supremacist ideas became the first dominant, nationwide consensus narrative, leading to the segregation of the federal government, the triumph of Jim Crow in the South, the erection of most of the Confederate monuments Americans of the early 2020s were tearing down, and the explosive success of the film that literally created Hollywood, The Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the first Ku Klux Klan and created the second.

This ethno-nationalist vision of our country was dethroned in the 1960s, but it remains with us, resurgent, today. Its strength can’t be underestimated: it is as old and as “American” as the civic national one and was the dominant paradigm in this country for nearly as many decades. It will not just slink off into the night, but must be smothered by a more compelling alternative.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the Cold War the U.S. dropped its devotion to its civic national story in favor of a neo-liberal globalization story, in which the free movement of capital, supply chains and goods would create widespread prosperity and cause nation states to become obsolete. Instead, the catastrophic failure of that model in 2008 discredited American leadership in the world and American leaders at home, ushering in a global resurgence of authoritarian ethnonationalism that has challenged liberal democracies everywhere.

Increasingly, Americans have been asking what still holds us together as a nation and wonder if we no longer have a commitment to shared values and ideals. Intellectuals from Jill Lepore and Michael Lind to David Brooks and Ross Douthat have pointed to the need for a new national story, or possibly a renewed one, to provide a communal identity incorporating an understanding of our national origins, purpose and possible future. People need such a story and, as Lepore has put it, “they can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.” A society without a credible story, historian William McNeill wrote 35 years ago, “soon finds itself in deep trouble, for in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain.” This is why Nationhood Lab is developing and testing a revised U.S. national narrative for the 21st century that reflects who we are as a people, recognizes and incorporates our past failures, and furthers the liberal democratic and civic nationalist ideas at the core of the American experiment.