The fight isn’t about the Left versus the Right; it’s the Left versus the West.
A New Kind of Nation
America is neither unreservedly an empire nor altogether a European-style state.
Aaron Renn’s recent article at The American Mind offers a welcome correction to the ongoing conversation about nationalism and conservatism, which has dominated political discourse since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. As Renn puts it, America is not and was not a nation “in the European sense.” Nationalism was “a 19th-century European state-building movement.”
This is true to an extent. Americans have always been reluctant to define themselves as nationalist. Even during the jingoistic days of the 1980s, Renn notes, Americans did not call themselves nationalists. In the past, figures such as Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson referred to America as an empire. However, they typically added the proviso that it was an empire based on the principles of liberty. Unlike most historical empires, the United States has never embraced that label unreservedly.
Americans have always thought of themselves as a civilization, however. For all the diversity of the United States—racial, religious, and social—there was still a general acknowledgement that Americans shared some civilization values, embodied in the Constitution and broadly understood under the heading of ordered liberty. That stipulation was sacrosanct in 1776 and remains worthy of our reverence now in 2023, however battered and maligned it may be.
As for an ethnic identity (the “birth” element inherent in any natio), it might have been easy to characterize the 17th-century colonial settlement of the United States as English. But even that would be too simplistic: American settlers came from four relatively distinct regions of the British Isles. David Hackett Fischer’s venerable book Albion’s Seed (1989) showed how four different cultural folkways and their respective peoples settled the Atlantic Coast of eastern North America.
Puritans from East Anglia settled in New England. Quakers from the English Midlands staked out the Delaware River Valley. Cavaliers, minor Gentry, or untitled sons of great noblemen took the Virginia Tidewater. And the Scots-Irish tamed the back country. There were some commonalities among the four peoples, such as the English language and Protestantism. Among all of them, local assemblies and representative institutions developed gradually into what would become the 13 colonies.
But despite these similarities in customs and origins, these groups had significant differences regarding religion and politics. Borderlands Presbyterians and Roman Catholics in Ireland and Scotland despised Anglican Cavaliers. East Anglian Congregationalists loathed Anglicans, Catholics, and even fellow Calvinist Presbyterians. An Anglican Cavalier commitment to a powerful monarchy and the state church grated against Scots-Irish borderers’ hopes for representative assemblies. Congregationalist emphasis on township democracy and Quaker egalitarianism made for exciting bedfellows in colonial North America. Nonetheless, all these traditions formed what became the American people and their way of life.
Representative assemblies and the development of constitutional traditions born out of English Whig political theory eventually led to the American Revolution and the creation of the American Republic in the late 18th century. The United States Constitution was not designed to create some Hegelian nation, pegged to a unitary ethnic or racial community. Potential Americans did not need to come from the island of Great Britain or be Protestants to be good citizens of the United States. They came from all over Europe: France, Switzerland, Germany, and Scandinavia all contributed some of their people.
The federalist structures of the American Constitution allowed the states to serve as nurseries of democracy to develop distinctive civil laws necessary for their contexts. If there was an American nation in the 19th century, it was based on civil creeds extolling the virtues of a liberty-loving people, as well as on the veneration of the Constitution and the laws that protected American freedoms. A nation it was, but an ethnic or racial “European-style” nation it most certainly wasn’t. Since 1850, immigrants worldwide have come to the United States and willingly submitted to the important constitutional and creedal catechesis that the United States government believed was vital to shaping citizens until very recently. Unregulated immigration, a non-existent border, and an overall rejection of the United States Constitution threaten the creedal nationalism the United States rightly celebrated for two centuries.
In the early 21st century, it is easy to argue that the very openness of American nationalism means it cannot stand for anything substantive. This would be a mistake. The United States’s nationalism is not gnostic or unhinged from reality. Very real and distinct cultural hallmarks, for example, the English language and the constitutional norms inherited from Great Britain and the American Founders, rightly continue to inform and shape the United States. Russell Kirk once said that Americans had to understand themselves as inheritors of a tradition to keep their hard-earned liberties. So, too, do Americans in the early 21st century have to understand that we are stewards of a tradition not tied to race or ethnicity but to a constitution and a specific understanding of ordered liberty. It is incumbent upon us to protect those liberties vigorously for ourselves, our posterity, and those worldwide who someday hope to be Americans themselves.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
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