nationalism. (Image by Jkarteaga, CC)


Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy International Encyclopedia of the Social SciencesThe Oxford Companion to American Military HistoryDictionary of American History Further reading




Lawrence S. Kaplan

Nationalism suffers from confusion both over the meaning of the term and over its role in the modern world. Its antecedents may be found in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the rise of the nation-state under dynastic rule, but its ideology and vitality are no older than the late eighteenth century, the period of the American and French revolutions. Nationalism represents a political creed in which the people offer their supreme allegiance to a nation-state. It underlies the cohesion of modern societies and legitimizes a nation's assertions of authority over the lives of its inhabitants.


The earliest manifestation of nationalism, as opposed to mere patriotic impulses, was the rejection of an ancien régime and the transfer of sovereignty from monarch to people. There is in this event a note of liberation of the nation from oppression, either internal or external. As Hans Kohn pointed out in 1957, "Nationalism is inconceivable without the ideas of popular sovereignty preceding." In the words of Carlton Hayes, it is a state of mind, "a modern emotional fusion of two very old phenomena; nationality and patriotism." If freedom to realize one's individual potential can be realized only in the nation-state, then nationalism becomes the antithesis of tyranny and oppression.

But this is not necessarily the totality of the nationalist experience. When the nation demands the supreme loyalty of its citizens, the freedom of the individual may be sacrificed to the welfare of the state. In this elevation of the state there is the concomitant denigration of the outsider and the temptation to advance the nation at the expense of other nations. As nationalism evolved in the nineteenth century, it assumed the ugly forms of imperialism, racism, and totalitarianism; it helped to stimulate world wars in the twentieth century.

It is these pejorative qualities that have led some American critics of nationalism to separate the American experience from the nationalism of Europe. Paul Nagel, an intellectual historian at the University of Missouri, refused even to use the term in dealing with American nationality. For him, "'Nationalism' regularly has implied a doctrine or a specific form of consciousness conveying superiority or prestige." Such glorification of country, he felt, should not be part of American loyalties because of the essentially different view of their land and themselves that distinguished Americans from other nationalities. Despite disquieting links between manifest destiny and European imperialism, most American critics find a qualitative difference in American nationalism.

One of the fundaments of nationalism is the sense of folk, of a kinship derived from a common ancestry. Where this bond is lacking or is of secondary importance, a common religion serves as a unifying force. Usually a people united in race or religion also have a clearly defined territory with which they are identified, either in the present or in the past. None of these attributes fits American history. Although England was the primary supplier of settlers, colonial Americans were also fully conscious of their Scottish and German roots at the time of the Revolution. An attenuated Calvinist heritage was as close to common religion as could be found in the eighteenth century, and this was vitiated by the fact that where there were established churches, they were more likely to be Anglican than Calvinist. It was a secularized religious spirit that was found in America. A specific territorial claim evoking national emotions was lacking among a people for whom territorial concerns were equated with an expanding frontier. America was more an idea than a geographical entity.

The "invention of America," as the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman has happily phrased it, marks a major departure from the experience of more organically developed nations. The mythic roots of Italian or Japanese peoples are nourished by a prehistory that tells of special strengths an Aeneas brought to Rome from Troy and special considerations conferred on Japan by virtue of divine descent. It is difficult to locate these qualities in a nation whose beginnings followed the invention of the printing press in western Europe by little more than a generation. The words and deeds of founders could be checked and countered, just as John Smith's tales about Virginia were examined by contemporaries who kept modern records.

Granted that every nation is a mixture of races with synoptic religious values, America is one of the very few nations the distinguishing features of which may be traced directly to the needs of other peoples at a particular period. The courage to embark on an American adventure, as well as the knowledge and skills necessary to discover and settle the New World, stemmed from a Renaissance belief in the capacity of man to achieve a new life. Such a conception was beyond the grasp of the medieval mind. The Reformation's pursuit of individual salvation outside the claims of established religions provided a moral imperative to much of the colonizing experience. Boston became a new Jerusalem when older Zions in Rome, London, and even Geneva had failed. Above all, the potential existence of vast quantities of precious metals in the New World gave a powerful impetus to the discovery and exploitation of American resources. The road to a transformation of life in a secular world, opened by the information of the Crusaders about the Levant and the Orient, led to Europe's colonizing of the Western Hemisphere. American nationalism was touched by all these forces.

The first problem, then, in defining American nationalism is to identify it. An automatic expression of nationalism did not accompany the establishment of the United States. The emotions of the American Revolution were attached to state rather than to nation, and the search for a substitute for a historic memory or a common church or a unifying ruling elite required forty years before it could bind the loyalties of Americans. It was an issue that absorbed the energies of the founders of the new republic and achieved a tentative resolution only after the War of 1812. By that time, the focus of nationalist sentiment was on the special conditions of liberty protected by a new and superior government that had no counterpart elsewhere.

The development of a national identity proceeded throughout the nineteenth century, and continued to be a preoccupation of Americans in the twentieth century. The effort to find suitable symbols to display loyalty was a lengthy process. As late as the Civil War there was more than one design of the national flag. It was not until 1942 that the ritual for its display on buildings or on platforms was completed, and the pledge of allegiance was made obligatory in many schools only a generation earlier. The insertion of "under God" in the pledge of allegiance was a product of the pieties of the postWorld War II era. Even the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," was not so designated until 1931. The insecurity over identification of nationalism is equally apparent in the sensitivity over the meanings of "Americanism" and "un-Americanism."

A second, and overlapping, element in nationalism is the peculiar relationship between state and federal governments. The question had its roots in the making of the Constitution, as did the term "federal" used by its framers. It was a euphemism designed to secure support for a new basic law that implied the supremacy of a strong central government. An open affirmation of this purpose in 1787 would have meant the failure of the Constitutional Convention in a country where primary loyalties still belonged to the states and where the word "federal" suggested a fair sharing of power. The struggle between state and nation, begun with the failure of a genuine federal system under the Confederation, was a persistent theme in American life for three-quarters of a century. Although it was present in the Jeffersonian challenge to Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s and in Federalist disaffection from the Jeffersonian conflict with England in the next decade and a half, its dominance over American life coincided with southern sectionalism, culminating in the Civil War. That conflict ended not only in the triumph of the North but also in the vesting of new mystical powers in the Union and the Constitution. Nationalism after 1865 would always be equated with a nation, "one and indivisible," with the "unum" in "e pluribus unum" superior to the "pluribus."

A third strand in American nationalism, which is also as old as the Republic, is the special destiny of America. The hand of Providence as well as of man is involved. If America is a "new world," its rise must have a divine meaning; and that meaning was always translated into some form of sharing the blessings of liberty with less-favored peoples. The religious quality inherent in the image of a "chosen people" was enhanced by the secular opportunities open to Americans. Vast, empty, rich lands held insecurely by European imperialists seemed manifestly destined for American occupation. Movement into Texas and California was a fulfillment of a destiny not only to occupy the entire continent but also to help the rest of humanity see how that occupation would spread the principles of free speech, free religion, self-government, and boundless economic opportunities that were denied to the Old World. Here was a sense of mission that sharpened in clashes with Britain or with Spain, but it was a mission that was susceptible to foreign influence. The unique character of a civilization serving as a beacon to others, a model to be copied, could be (and was) compromised by the change in status from a small, vulnerable republic to a continental empire with overseas ambitions. The altruism of an earlier time was thoroughly mixed, at the end of the nineteenth century, with prevailing influences of social Darwinism and Anglo-Saxon racism.

Most of the elements making up America's self-image of a divinely favored nation still survive, even though the trauma of a great economic depression in the 1930s, the burdens of world governance in the 1950s, and increasing doubts over social injustice and corruption at home and exploitation abroad have had disillusioning effects upon the meaning of the American mission. Yet with all these doubts, the connection between God's special favor and the American way of life remains part of nationalism. And, for all its flaws, the virtues associated with the record of American nationalism suggest distinctive qualities not found in other national experiences.


The most difficult period to identify in the evolution of nationalism is the time of its inception. The very name of America came comparatively late into the consciousness of the British colonies, and the first awareness of a separate destiny is a matter of continuing speculation. Boyd Shafer found an incipient national loyalty appearing as far back as 1740, during King George's War. Paul Varg of Michigan State University settled on 1759, Britain's annus mirabilis in the war with France. Richard Merritt, a Yale political scientist, employed quantitative techniques to determine that 1770 was the year when key colonial newspapers cited "America" more frequently than "British colonies" in their columns. Although by the middle of the eighteenth century it was obvious that Americans were becoming something more than transplanted Englishmen, many future revolutionaries were quick to proclaim their British affiliations as the mother country triumphed over France in the French and Indian War. There was genuine pride in membership in a great British empire. As late as 1775, the poet Philip Freneau was convinced that Britain could and should "rule our hearts again," if only the rights of the American part of the empire were respected.

After the Revolution had shattered that empire, no automatic transfer of loyalty from London to the Confederation, with its seat in Philadelphia, took place. To a New Englander or a Georgian, Philadelphia was as distant as London. The differences between North and South, tidewater and piedmont, were potentially as deep as differences between Americans and Englishmen. Culture as well as geography distinguished the Bostonian from the Virginian, and the tidewater Virginian from the Scottish frontiersman of the Blue Ridge. Some of the most fundamental characteristics of the American way of lifefreedom from arbitrary government and freedom of speech and religionwere Virginian or Pennsylvanian as well as American. The America of 1776 could have remained as much an abstraction as Europe was then and now. The experience of Latin American revolutions a generation later could have been that of the former British colonies.

The vulnerability of a young republic in a world of hostile monarchies provided a major incentive for the cultivation of an American identity. The strength of nationalism was an inspiration to American statesmen aware of the temptations that quarreling American states offered to Europeans awaiting the demise of the American experiment. An anxious neighbor like Spain to the west and south, and an angry neighbor like Britain to the north, looked forward to exploiting the divisions among the former colonies. Even the ally France observed American weakness with complacence, knowing that it would bind Americans to their French patron.

The anticipated failure of the republican regime made success all the more important to the Founders, and this success depended on a strong pride in their achievements. Richard Morris pointed out that an ideology of nationalism could be built on what Europeans regarded as intolerable infirmities: the spectacle of a free people governing themselves under conditions of liberty no other people enjoyed, and managing their affairs in such a way as to be an inspiration to the less fortunate. As Thomas Paine phrased it in his Crisis, the United States would be in a position "to make a world happy, to teach mankind the art of being soto exhibit on the theatre of the universe a character hitherto unknown, and to have, as it were, a new creation intrusted to our hands."

There was an important distinction, however, between pronouncing American superiority on such grounds and building a foundation to support it. Poets, playwrights, and even lexicographers were as sensitive to the importance of building institutions to sustain American achievements as were the diplomats and statesmen. Noah Webster's labors on a dictionary were intended to establish an American language distinct from the English of the mother country. At one and the same time his dictionary would proclaim the differences between the two nations and provide a standard that could be used to deepen those differences in the future. His work was a success, but not quite on the terms he had set. The American language was only partially freed from its inferiority complexes.

Other intellectuals of this period harked back to classical antiquity to assert the American distinctiveness. The American republic was to be accepted, not as a replication of any contemporary European nation but as an improved reincarnation of ancient Greece and Rome. From language to architecture to political imagery, the classical period was invoked. If Rome had its Aeneid to glorify its origins, the Connecticut poet Joel Barlow was willing to offer his country The Columbiad, which attested to

A work so vast a second world required, By oceans bourn'd, from elder states retired; Where, uncontaminated, unconfined, Free contemplation might expand the mind, To form, fix, prove the well-adjusted plan And base and build the commonwealth of man.

Whatever its poetic merits, The Columbiad claimed a new world to be even more superior to the Old World than Rome was to its rivals. But, like Rome, the United States was prepared to grant to mankind something better in human relations than it had ever witnessed before.

This language was the stuff of nationalism. It was also braggadocio, inviting the mockery of enemies and condescending friends. If, as Europe observed, America was no Rome, certainly Barlow and Freneau were neither Virgils nor Homers. America's pretensions were fair game for Europeans of all stripes. It was the American abroad whose national sensibilities were most exposed. John Adams, minister to Great Britain under the Confederation, was never more the American than when he was snubbed at the Court of St. James's. Even in France, which came to the aid of the United States in war, Thomas Jefferson, Adams's counterpart at the Bourbon court, was a victim of many of the slights suffered by Adams, although French motives were less hostile.

That America was unlike other nations was not the question. It was the nature of the differences that distressed diplomats in Europe. French enthusiasts of America were frequently as negative as open adversaries were. The idealization of Americans as Rousseau's "noble savages" stirred European sympathies for the United States, but the European emphasis upon savagery over nobility stirred resentment among Americans. One of Jefferson's more emotional moments in Europe was his encounter with the pejorative opinions of French intellectuals concerning the American character. His Notes on the State of Virginia was a response to those Europeans who shared the views of the naturalist Georges Buffon that animal life in America was inferior in size and strength to that of the Old World. Jefferson's response went beyond a literary effort; Buffon received skins and skeletons of American animals sent to France at Jefferson's behest to prove the equality, if not the superiority, of life in the New World. Even more galling was the charge of the philosophe Abbé Guillaume Raynal that human life degenerated on the American continent. This observation contained aspersions on American virility as well as on American genius. Jefferson countered this assault with a spirited presentation of Indian virtues. He labored valiantly, but under obvious handicaps, in pointing out poets and artists, mathematicians and scientists, to match the products of Europe. Benjamin Franklin and David Rittenhouse were not the equals of Galileo and Newton.

The vigor of American ripostes to perceived insults to their nationality inspired more derision than respect among Europeans of this period. None was more devastating than the Reverend Sydney Smith, a Yorkshire wit who reacted to American claims to being "the greatest, the most enlightened, the most moral people upon earth" by asking rhetorically, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" So much for the pretensions of American nationalism. A sense of inferiority in relation to older civilizations seemed to have given rise to a hyperbolic style of self-defense that invited ridicule.

But Smith's famous article in the Edinburgh Review, which appeared in 1820, would have been more deflating had it appeared a generation earlier, when Barlow and Freneau were poetizing. Between 1783 and 1815 national pride expanded enormously to encompass a much larger company than a few diplomats abroad and the Hartford Wits at home. The nation, having acquired an inland empire and having faced down Britain in war, again shared its exhilaration. The very newness and freedoms of an empty land lacking oppressive government or a cultivated aristocracy, which Europeans translated as barbaric and uncultured, were the reasons for American superiority.

The Revolution had not stimulated nationalism among most Americans in the immediate postwar years. National attention was on the disarrayeconomic and politicalthat separation from Britain had brought. There was little occasion for self-congratulation. Such loyalty to country as was visible in this period was to the patriarchal figure of George Washington, and even this symbol did not emerge untarnished from the political debates. In the absence of a court, and even of a flag, Washington's services as the unifying father of his country were vital for the rallying of national sentiment. He was the Cincinnatus of America who sacrificed himself to perform services no one else could provide, and then retired rather than retain power. His was a vital function for the growth of nationalism, and yet it was incomplete. He found himself enmeshed, and ultimately damaged, by political controversy in the last years of his presidency. The Fourth of July, Independence Day, was a supplementary unifier, as toasts were drunk and cannons fired in honor of the Declaration of Independence. But as exciting as the celebrations may have been, they were as much a victory over the British by Pennsylvanians or New Yorkers as a victory by Americans.

The wave of nationalism that failed to rise in the 1780s and 1790s finally broke over America in the second war with Britain. The Francophilia that had briefly prevailed among Jeffersonians had dissipated in the disillusionment over the policies of the French Republic and in recognition of the dangers of Napoleonic imperialism. Federalist failure to exploit Francophobia fully during the Quasi-War with France in 17981800 reflects a deficiency in the quality of nationalism as much as it does the political power of the Jeffersonian opposition. Anglophilia, more enduring among Federalists of the Northeast, ended more gradually. For those who could not forsake British ties for reasons of custom or conviction or commerce, the consequence was isolation from most of their countrymen and, ultimately, extinction of the Federalist Party as a political entity. The majority of that party joined Republicans in a nationalism influenced by the trans-Appalachian and trans-Mississippi West. Federalists had exerted minuscule influence in 1783, and the Republican Party did not come into being until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

During the War of 1812, Jonathan Russell, a businessman-politician, was inspired by the Constitution 's victory over the British frigate Guerriére to burst out in a paean of praise of its commander, Isaac Hull. The event elevated Hull to Washingtonian heights:

Yes! deathless, oh Hull, shall thy fame live in story

And cheer, in the battle, our sons on the wave

Through ages unborn shall the beams of thy glory,

Unclouded, illumine the march of the brave.

If such a minor figure as Hull could evoke such emotion from such an unlikely source, it is understandable that the common soldier, who was ignored after the Revolutionary War, would also receive attention. Congress finally granted pensions for revolutionary war service in 1818. American identity was no longer a problem on 4 July 1826, when the two great builders of nationalism and independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died within hours of each other on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence they both helped to write. A generation earlier, when Washington died, the apotheosis of the first president was still a tribute to a single man, no matter how significant the deification was in the fashioning of national unity. On Independence Day of 1826, the passing of the second and third presidents of the United States was the occasion for the nation's apotheosis of itself.


For nationalism to flourish, it was obvious that the United States had to prove its experiment successful. The War of 1812 was one proving ground. More significant than a diplomatic success against Britain was the spectacular rise in the national economy, sparked by population increase, territorial acquisitions, and technological changes in transportation and industry. Speaking of the period after the Treaty of Ghent, Henry Adams observed, "The continent lay before them, like an uncovered ore-bed. They could see and they even could calculate with reasonable accuracy the wealth it could be made to yield." The steady accumulation of power to the central government at the expense of the states was equated with the growth of America. Nationalism implied the denigration of sectionalism and states' rights.

The conflict between central and local governments that accompanied the rise of nationalism was not surprising. The European nation-states experienced the assertion of central power by means of powerful monarchs overcoming the separatism of feudal nobles. What distinguished the American experience from others was the special nature of the central authority; it was not personified by a president, not even George Washington. The mystical conception of a constitution blessing a union permitted the cherished American liberties to flourish.

The argument for centralizing government during the Confederation had been fought on the assumption that no other government could perform that function. States' rights might rally libertarians worried about the tyranny of rule from afar, but the veterans of the revolutionary war returning to their farms and villages were more concerned about economic depression and fore-closures on their properties than with the potential evils of a distant national government. Had there been a stronger central authority in the Confederation, revolutionary war heroes of the order of Ethan Allen, who proposed attaching Vermont to Canada, and George Rogers Clark, who considered a Spanish connection to secure Kentuckians' access to the Gulf of Mexico, would have been less tempted to join with the former British enemy and the hostile Spanish neighbor. Where the states individually or collectively as the Confederation had failed to respond to Indian or European threats in the West, the Union drove the Indians out of the Northwest, saved the nation from the British in 18121815, and wrested Florida from the Spanish in 1819. As the western territories entered the Union their loyalties were to the nation that welcomed them rather than to any pristine colonial commonwealth. Unlike the original thirteen states, they had been created by acts of the federal Congress.

Still, the centrifugal forces that had always been a part of the American experience had not disappeared. Such "good feeling" as existed after 1815 did not have its premise in the end of sectionalism or even states' consciousness; rather, the "American system" of Henry Clay was built on a common hostility to British economic power that would help to mesh the economies of the North, the West, and the South. If there was temporary harmony at this time, it was largely because each section had unrealistic expectations of special advantage from congressional support of tariffs or of internal improvements.

The slave-oriented South found the Union ultimately a threat both to its economy and to its society, and in the Civil War provided the greatest challenge the Union had to surmount in the nation's history. The war was considered by some as a struggle between two competing nationalisms. In the years preceding this conflict, the Union became the most vital national symbol to the North. Southern challenges on constitutional grounds became increasingly insufferable. The South's interpretations signified more than just a peculiar gloss of the Constitution; the North regarded them as a rending of the instrument of America's sovereignty and the consequent extinction of the American nation. While loyalty to a section greater than loyalty to the nation could be considered patriotism, by 1860 the majority of the country was convinced that an effective American sovereignty could be expressed only in a unified nation.

A generation earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville, that astute French visitor, wrote, "The Union is an ideal nation that exists, so to speak, only in the mind." It also existed in the heart. The passions over slavery converted it into something more than a means of achieving effective government. The Union became an object of reverence, the indispensable foundation of national values.

Daniel Webster attempted to exploit this sentiment to deflect sectional rivalry into the popular channel of xenophobia. In a direct insult to Austria in 1849, President Zachary Taylor promised recognition to Hungary if its revolution succeeded, and then, after its failure, his successor Millard Fillmore gave its leader a tumultuous welcome to America in 1852. Secretary of State Webster not only rejected Austria's subsequent protest but went out of his way to taunt its minister to the United States, Chevalier J. G. Hülsemann. He lectured the Austrian on Hungary's good sense in imitating the American Revolution. Should the Austrians have any objection, they must reckon with the fact that "the power of this republic, at the present moment, is spread over a region, one of the richest and most fertile on the globe, and of an extent in comparison with which the possessions of the House of Hapsburg are but as a patch on the earth's surface."

This well-publicized letter struck just the chord Webster hoped to reach in Americans. The appeal to chauvinism with hyperbolic rhetoric performed an important function in 1850. It united North and South in opposition to Europe. But the forces of disunion that Webster had hoped to dissipate were stronger than those of nationalism. In even greater desperation a decade later, Secretary of State William H. Seward tried to divert the country from war by urging President Abraham Lincoln to turn over the executive powers to him so that he could save the Union by initiating war against France or Spain, or all of Europe. The president rejected the proposal, but unrealistic as it may have been in 1861 and fantastic as it has sounded to later generations, the spirit behind the plan was the same one that had propelled the American system of Henry Clay, the Mexican War maneuvers of President James K. Polk, and Daniel Webster's note to Hülsemann. Antagonism to the Old World was a staple of American nationalism, especially in times of crisis.

The traumas of sectional conflict resulted in the removal of the constitutional question from nationalism. The Union had triumphed and with it sentiments of nationalism. The sobriety with which nationalism was expressed in the middle years of the century yielded to a reassertion of the older boisterous spirits. The end of war witnessed a period of even more rapid growth in population, wealth, and power than had been seen fifty years earlier, after the Treaty of Ghent. It also revivedin exaggerated ways before the century was overthe idea of mission that had been implicit in the American self-image from the beginning: the notion that God had given America a special portion of blessings, and with it a mission to share them with less-favored peoples.

Prior to the Civil War the most vocal articulation of the American mission had accompanied crises with Spain or Britain or France over their possessions in North America. They all violated a divine plan. While the idea of providential occupation of the West antedated the annexation of Texas and the demands for Oregonand, indeed, may be found in Jeffersonian ruminations in the 1780sit was John L. O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, who in 1845 specifically charged foreign hostility and jealousy with "limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Texas, California, and Oregonand even Upper Canadawere equated with empty land awaiting the arrival of Americans to bring it under proper cultivation.

Americans did not regard these views or the actions that followed from them as analogous to European imperialism; they were simply the natural spread of free peoples and free institutions into unoccupied space wrongly claimed by others. Although such assertions might have sounded hypocritical to hostile observers, even opponents of the Mexican War could concede that the mission to spread liberty bore marks of idealism. Frederick Merk found in expansionism a spirit that was "idealistic, self-denying, hopeful for divine favor for national aspirations, though not sure of it." So if manifest destiny was connected with the grasping for land, it was also linked to the land's improvement by peopling it with what Americans of the period considered to be a better society than could have been achieved under its original proprietors. In the midst of the Mexican War, former secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin defined the American mission as a great experiment in which "a representative democratic republic" had a chance to try out its ideals on a large scale. "If it failed, the last hope of the friends of mankind was lost, or indefinitely postponed; and the eyes of the world were turned towards you. Whenever real or pretended apprehension of the imminent danger of trusting people at large with power were expressed, the answer was 'Look at America.'"

In this spirit the migration of Americans to Texas or California or Oregon signified not exploitation of native peoples, or governance over unwilling subjects, but the sharing of liberties over a wider area. The growing United States had spilled its surplus population into neighboring territories that were relatively empty. When those territories were sufficiently populous, they would enter the Union, ultimately as full and equal partners of the older states. If there was conflict within the United States over their admission, this was a function of the slavery quarrels, not of a desire for imperialist control on the part of the nation.

But it was difficult to deny that the partial dismemberment of Mexico compromised the missionary spirit behind manifest destiny. The opposition of such distinguished figures as John Quincy Adams, an authentic expansionist, and the poet James Russell Lowell helped to arouse a sense of guilt over a war that many abolitionists regarded as an act of aggression by southern slavery interests. That Mexican and Indian populations, no matter how scattered, lived in California or New Mexico gave a taste of imperialism to the fruits of American nationalism. Was manifest destiny, then, merely a mask for American conquest of a weak neighbor?

Although a repugnant element can never be expunged from nationalism, extenuating factors refine the annexation of Texas and even the ensuing war with Mexico. Manifest destiny was more than an instrument of southern interests; the pull of California had attracted New England mercantile ambitions as well. More important, it was a national rather than a sectional impulse, with a powerful England, as in the case of the Oregon quarrel, a major antagonist in 1844. The hope was that the two Canadas would sue for admission to the new and enlarged Union. O'Sullivan speculated that Canada, as easily as California, could be the next "customer."

Arrogant and self-serving as this language sounded in press, pulpit, and schools, its users could unreservedly contrast the freedom of religion and self-government in the territories under American control with the repression of a state church in Mexico and the limitations of political freedom in Canada. When the demands for annexation threatened to get out of hand, as in the pressure for the absorption of all Mexico, opponents stopped the threat effectively. Partisan fears of Mexico parceled into slave states may have been a powerful incentive for opposition, but they were fueled as well by the unpalatable prospect of governing an unassimilable population that would not participate in the American political process.

Although controversy continues to swirl about the purity of American motives in continental expansion, it does not apply to the display of nationalism in this period. It was genuine and widespread. If any emotion could have overcome the deep divisions within the Union in the middle of the nineteenth century, it was pride in American institutions and in the nation's power to proclaim them to the world. Had it not been for the slavery issue, Thomas Bailey of Stanford University speculated, "Americans would not only have swaggered more in the subsequent years but would have grasped more territories." As it was, the Young America spirit that flourished in the wake of the Mexican War expressed itself in provocations against Europe. The Revolution of 1848 was a suitable occasion for its display. George Bancroft, historian and diplomat, from his post in London expressed America's approval of the revolutions: "Can we show ourselves lukewarm, while the Old World is shaking off its chains and emancipating and enthroning the masses?"


Changes that occurred later in the century provided a different gloss both to the idea of manifest destiny and to the meaning of mission. The new "manifest destiny" of the 1890s involved acquisition and control of an overseas empire. Although the older xenophobia and the civilizing mission remained, they were more strident in their tone and also more derivative of the European experience. The distinctions between European and American imperialism appeared to blur at the turn of the century. It was not that the popular nature of nationalism had altered significantly. The beer-garden simplicity with which the flag was venerated in the 1890s and the gusto with which the Spanish were rebuked for their behavior in Cuba linked Theodore Roosevelt to Davy Crockett. Finley Peter Dunne, the leading press satirist at the time of America's rise to world power, put words into the mouth of his Mr. Dooley that would have been as fitting half a century before: "'We're a great people,' said Mr. Hennessy earnestly. 'We are,' said Mr. Dooley. 'We are that. An' th' best iv it is, we know that we are.'"

What was different was a respectful interest in European imperialism and a wish by many American leaders to imitate it. As the burgeoning American economy produced enormous wealth, the instant oil, meat-packing, and rail barons sought marriage alliances with the Old World and pursued culture by bringing the French Middle Ages or Tudor England architecturally to their Rhode Island estates or New York City palaces. But they were conscious that they still lacked a sense of ideological security that European aristocrats possessed as a birthright. The spirit of Teutonic, and especially Anglo-Saxon, solidarity filled some of the needs of an insecure upper class. Although England may have remained a commercial and political rival, there was a surge of appreciation for the kinship of the two peoples that would account for the greatness of both.

The scholar-diplomats George Bancroft and John Lothrop Motley had commented earlier on the role that racial stock had in assuring a nation's greatness. Both had been students in Germany. Granting his distaste for some aspects of Prussian militarism, Bancroft claimed that it would be the instrument to win "more rapidly liberty in Europe than all that the Kossuths, Garibaldis, and Mazzinis could effect in half a century." Motley celebrated Teutonic virtues by noting that Holland's struggle with Spain in the sixteenth century "must have particular interest, for it is a portion of the records of the Anglo-Saxon raceessentially the same, whether in Friesland, England, or Massachusetts." Another diplomat, James Russell Lowell, more poet than scholar, brought the good news to England that "the duty which has been laid upon the English-speaking races, so far as we can discover, has been to carry over the great lessons of liberty combined with order. That is the great secret of civilization." In a major disquisition on democracy in 1884, Lowell had spoken of the problems that Americans encountered with the irresponsible masses in the large cities that were composed of peoples of inferior stock. America's success in overcoming these obstacles to become a great democracy could be traced to the fact that "the acorn from which it sprang was ripened on the British oak."

The only trouble with these perorations was the implication of a junior partnership for America in the racial connection. This became increasingly unacceptable to nationalists. A colonial relationship with even the best of the Old World did not fit America's self-image by the time the nineteenth century ended. America would be superior to Britain even in racism. Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana pointed out to the Senate that "God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world."

For those who might not heed a divine appeal, the mandate of social Darwinism brought the same message. The transfer of Darwinian principles from a struggle among species for survival to a competition among nations moved the naturalist's theory of evolution from biology to sociology and international relations almost from the moment of its conception. Presumably the laws of nature justified power in the hands of the fittest; and in the late nineteenth century the arena for the display of national superiority lay in carving out colonial empires in Asia and Africa. For the United States to stand by and remove itself from this competition would be an admission of inferiority. Since the American continent was filled, expansion would have to take place overseas. The alternative would be both a sapping of national strength and increasing advantage to European competitors in the Darwinian struggle for greatness.

The naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, more than any other figure, tied together the strains of racial pride and Darwinian sanctions with the economic significance of the acquisition of colonies. Such an undertaking would solve the problems of surplus goods flowing from what appeared, after the Panic of 1893, to be an overdeveloped economic plant. It would also satisfy the defense needs of the nation, through a navy protecting routes to new colonies. Lastly, it would address the imperative of carrying the blessings of American civilization abroad.

Indeed, the American mission was ultimately the most important rationalization for imperial control. The Reverend Josiah Strong, secretary of the Evangelical Alliance and a powerful publicist for expansion, exhorted Americans to respect their sacred trust by bestowing their privileges upon other sectors of humanity. After all, "they are not proprietors, apportioning their own, but simply trustees or managers of God's property. Our plea is not America for America's sake," he wrote in Our Country (1885), "but America for the world's sake." It is this eleemosynary spirit that gave meaning to President William McKinley's reluctance to leave the Philippines under Spanish control or under its own governance. In confessing his agony over the decision to annex the islands, he finally realized, "there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died."

The gulf between McKinley's understanding of America's mission and those of the French, British, Germans, and Russians was not as wide as the gulf between McKinley's or Theodore Roosevelt's conception of mission and that of Jefferson or John Quincy Adams. The Monroe Doctrine had made it clear that America was to serve as a model for others to emulate, but not as an instrument to involve itself in the afflictions of the less fortunate. America's own system could only be corrupted by such involvement. So Adams concluded when he counseled President James Monroe not to intervene against Turkey on behalf of the admired Greek revolutionaries. But by the end of the century the combination of racial pretensions, Darwinian impulses, and putative economic imperatives had broken one great barrier of isolationism. They affected more than the special interests of navalists, businessmen, or missionaries. Even so sensitive a scholar as Frederick Jackson Turner found virtue in overseas expansion. He "rowed with the tide of the new nationalism," Ralph Gabriel noted in his Course of American Democratic Thought, at least for a while, as he pondered the effect of the passing of the frontier upon American democracy. It was hoped that settlement of Hawaii and the Philippines could have the same beneficial results for democracy as the settlement of Ohio and Iowa had in the past.

For Turner and for most Americans, the new manifest destiny was a mistake, an aberration of American tradition. In the wake of Filipino resistance to American occupation in 1899, William Jennings Bryan observed, "'Destiny' was not as manifest as it was a few weeks ago." Most American leaders were slower to realize this than Bryan had been. The tide of empire finally receded, but not before it had left a permanent imprint on the fabric of American nationalism, or at least had deepened indentations that had always been there. The country came to recognize the incompatibility between the governance of Iowa and the governance of the Philippines; the former was based on self-government and eventual state-hood, the latter, on imperial control over unassimilable peoples. The result was the gradual disengagement from the imperial plans of 1900, and ultimate independence for those islands.


If nationalism in the twentieth century recoiled from the problems of assimilation abroad, it could not avoid those problems at home. The rise of Anglo-Saxon racism coincided with massive emigration from nonAnglo-Saxon eastern and southern Europe, which raised questions about the dilution not only of the race but also of the institutions of America. Not all the nativist reactions were hostile. Some were patronizing and even melioristic. The Daughters of the American Revolution and other patriotic societies recognized their duty to "Americanize" the foreigner, to teach him proper speech and manners as well as values. The public school would be the instrument, according to Josiah Strong, by which "the strange and dissimilar races which come to us are, in one generation, assimilated and made Americans." American Catholic and Jewish historical societies, accepting the importance of Americanization, were organized in the 1880s and 1890s to show the nation their own ties with the American past. Their objective was to justify themselves as Americans, different in background but sharing in the creation of a new people. The constitution of the American Irish Historical Society expressed the hope that "in the days to come, that lie in the womb of the future, when all the various elements that have gone and are going to make the republic great, are united in the American,the man who in his person will represent the bravest elements of all the old races of earth,we declare that the deeds and accomplishment of our element shall be written in the book of the new race, telling what we did and no more; giving us our rightful place by the side of the others."

Such modesty of aspiration on the part of an immigrant group and such generous impulses on the part of the patronizing older stock were balanced by less edifying side effects of the racist component in nationalism. Ethnic and religious communities vied with each other in claiming credit for contributions to the national history or character, while the Anglo-Saxon elite, under the impact of war and depression in the twentieth century, blamed immigrants for the nation's troubles. War inevitably stokes nationalist passions, and World War I was no exception. The case then was not simply undifferentiated immigrants. German-Americans were identified as enemies with dangerous attachments to the ancestral country. Such manifestations of nationalism at its worst were seen in the banning of Beethoven, the conversion of sauerkraut into liberty cabbage, and the removal of German language instruction from schools. The vehement denunciation of the "hyphenated" American by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt during the war assumed that hyphenation applied to the Irish and Germans, not to the British. The latter's heritage was indistinguishable from the Americans' in 1917.

The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, with its particularly ugly brand of national exclusiveness, was another manifestation of the Anglo-Saxon tradition translated into a self-conscious white Protestant ascendancy. Immigration restriction rather than immigrant amelioration was a consequence of this mood in the period of disillusionment that followed World War I. It is ironic that a generation later, in the aftermath of another world war, the followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy, many of them from ethnic backgrounds that could not meet the test of Americanism in the past, led a nationalist assault on the loyalty of the older elite.

In the struggle with Soviet communism after World War II, McCarthy's unprincipled attacks on putative American communists numbered among their victims not merely the principles of civil liberties but also the American eastern "establishment," mostly Anglo-Saxon, which was accused of negligence and worse in the struggle of the nation against external enemies. The emotions of the time evoked the xenophobia of earlier crises, except that the "American" embraced a wider constituency. Nonetheless, the nationalism that was demonstrated in the 1950s, as much as in the 1920s or in the 1890s, was a narrow and self-centered view of the nation's interests.


Despite the many xenophobic impulses released in the name of nationalism, the missionary elements did not disappear in the twentieth century. The retreat from moral uplifting of the natives of the Caribbean or East Asia was short-lived and replaced by an attempt to uplift the entire world, not merely those regions under American governance. In both world wars American democracy became the exemplar for the world. Although Woodrow Wilson won a reputation as a supreme internationalist, seeking a new world order that would end national rivalries, his new order would be on American terms. His conception of the American mission was to disseminate those progressive values, both economic and political, that would serve America's own interests in the world. It was nothing less than the remaking of the world according to an American pattern. Wilson himself rejected a narrow distinction between nationalism and internationalism. "The greatest nationalist," he claimed, "is the man who wants his nation to be the greatest nation, and the greatest nation is the nation which penetrates to the heart of its duty and mission among the nations of the world."

In this context the mission of World War II and the Cold War was a continuation of the Wilsonian worldview. The United Nations would replicate the League of Nations by serving to help America fulfill its duty to humanity. Both the goals and the methods were clearly outlined. Nations would be freed from fear of conquest, with American military power protecting them from Nazis or communists; they would be freed from want by the application of American technology to their economies; they would be freed from ignorance by American learning spread through a Fulbright scholarship program or a Peace Corps. These were the benign purposes of the Marshall Plan and Point Four. They reflected an idealism embodied in President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961. The language in which they were expressed lacked the overt racial biases and self-satisfied smugness that had characterized many early missionary activities. The publisher Henry Luce anticipated an "American century," in which the United States would serve "as the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, as the training center of the skillful servants of mankind, America as the Good Samaritan, really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and as the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice."

In 1967, Ronald Steel claimed that Luce's American century was in fact a Pax Americana, with very few distinctions between its dictates and those of Rome's imperialism. Whether America willed it or not, it built a world empire to serve its own economic needs; it elevated communism into a monster out of all proportion to the threat presented; it arbitrarily divided the world into Manichaean spheres of good and evil; and, in the name of altruism, it helped to turn parts of Southeast Asia into a wasteland. As Americans reflected with disillusion upon the exaggerated promises of the Truman Doctrine, undertaken in the afterglow of successes in World War II when the United States sought to extend its system throughout the world, they discovered flaws in even the most altruistic postures. Nationalism was a cover for the erosion of civil liberties identified with McCarthyism, for the corruption of government by the accretion of enormous power in the hands of the executive, and for the corresponding diminution of power in the Congress. While the crudities of American imperialism of the Theodore Roosevelt era may have been smoothed, the brutalization of the American character stemming from the anticommunist campaigns in Asia and Latin America was even more distressing.

The result in the post-Vietnam era was a decline in the nationalist spirit. The conscious abuse of the flag by many of the younger generation was a symbolic act of revenge upon a nation that, in the name of liberty, sought conquest of the world for selfish reasons. The very idea of an American mission was called into question, not simply the matter of its betrayal. The result was a retreat by both conservatives and liberals into a neoisolationist stance in the 1970s. Conservatives would turn America's attention back to its own problems, rather than waste resources on an ungrateful world. Liberals urged a less grandiose vision for America's role in the world, blaming American arrogance for troubling the peace of the world.

Both sentiments were present in American society in the last years of the twentieth century. But they were subsumed under a triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War and implosion of the Soviet empire. President Ronald Reagan's vision of American power seemed to have been realized. Democratic capitalism was to be the model for the world. The striking victory over Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991 marked the nation as the world's sole superpower. That the American way of life was the ideal toward which all peoples stroveand most did envysparked a nationalist pride that almost effaced the memory of failure in Vietnam. But doubts about the reality of American dominance of a fractious world dimmed the optimism of those who saw the "end of history" in the demise of capitalism. The world at the turn of the twenty-first century was in as much turmoil as it had been when the Soviet Union was the nation's powerful adversary. The shortcomings of American society were also as muchor morein evidence as in the past, as hitherto quiet minority voices were heard. David Waldstreicher in 1997 observed that Native Americans and African Americans had no reason to celebrate the national fetes that accompanied Independence Day. Nationalism seemed to many Americans to have been tainted by the realities of the nation's history. For Walter A. McDougall, hubris inhered in the familiar temptation to reform the world in the American image. There were limits not only to national virtues but also to national power.

But there is nothing unique about the present mixed emotions about American nationalism. Indeed, skepticism about nationalism is endemic in the American system. Although nationalism is dependent upon an allegiance above all others, the nature of American pluralism militates against a monistic devotion. The nation must compete for public attention. For all its flaws in the past and the present, the special qualities associated with American nationalisman open society, a mobile society, and above all a society divinely favoredwill remain a force in America as long as the nation-state system of governance prevails among the peoples of the world.


Deutsch, Karl Wolfgang. Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality. Cambridge, Mass., 1953. Employs the techniques of the social sciences to examine nationalism.

Hayes, Carlton J. H. Essays on Nationalism. New York, 1926. A collection of writings by the founder of American studies in nationalism.

Kohn, Hans. American Nationalism: An Interpretive Essay. 2d ed. New York, 1980. Particularly useful for its insights on the American character and its relationships to nationalism.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 18601898. Ithaca, N.Y., 1963. Presents an economic explanation of the growth of nationalism.

Levin, N. Gordon, Jr. Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution. New York, 1968. Links American nationalism with Wilsonian internationalism.

McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776. Boston, 1997. Warns of the dangers that nationalist pride may bring if America overextends its reach in the world.

May, Ernest R. American Imperialism: A Speculative Essay. New York, 1968. Offers speculations on reasons why nationalism developed into imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century.

Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York, 1963. Gives a favorable view of manifest destiny as a link between nationalism and American ideals.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. New York, 1990. Reflects the pride that American leadership conveys.

Shafer, Boyd C. Faces of Nationalism: New Realities and Old Myths. New York, 1972. Summation of the many approaches to nationalism.

Steel, Ronald. Pax Americana. Rev. ed. New York, 1970. Treats nationalism and the Cold War.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right. New York, 1995.

Van Alstyne, Richard W. Genesis of American Nationalism. Waltham, Mass., 1970. An examination of nationalism in the early republic.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 17761820. Chapel Hill, 1997. Emphasizes flaws in the foundations of American nationalism.

Weinberg, Albert Katz. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore, 1935. A major revisionist statement on nineteenth-century nationalism as expressed in manifest destiny.

Zelinsky, Wilbur. Nation into State: The Shifting Symbolic Foundations of American Nationalism. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988. Finds American nationalism evolving from shared national values to events glorifying the nation-state itself.

See also Anti-Imperialism; Continental Expansion; Immigration; Imperialism; Nativism; Religion; Wilsonian Missionary Diplomacy .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

Kaplan, Lawrence S.. "Nationalism." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. 2002. 24 May. 2016 <>.

Kaplan, Lawrence S.. "Nationalism." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. 2002. (May 24, 2016).

Kaplan, Lawrence S.. "Nationalism." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. 2002. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from



The spread of nationalism

Characteristics of nationalism

Ideological transformations and conflicts

Role and prospects


Nationalism is a political creed that underlies the cohesion of modern societies and legitimizes their claim to authority. Nationalism centers the supreme loyalty of the overwhelming majority of the people upon the nation-state, either existing or desired. The nation-state is regarded not only as the ideal, “natural,” or “normal” form of political organization but also as the indispensable framework for all social, cultural, and economic activities. Yet nationalism and the nation-state are comparatively recent historical developments.

Unknown before the eighteenth century, when it originated in northwestern Europe and northern America, nationalism spread with ever-growing rapidity over all the earth, and since the middle of the twentieth century it has become a universal idée-force of contemporary history. It expresses itself in the most varied and opposite ideologies— in democracy, fascism, and communism—as well as in the search for an “ideology,” be it African personality or Arab unity. The nineteenth century in Europe has been rightly called the age of nationalism; the twentieth century, in which history has shifted from a European to a global basis, may become known as the age of pan-nationalism.

Although certain traits are common to all forms of nationalism, each form is conditioned by the social structure, the intellectual traditions and cultural history, and the geographic location of the society in which nationalism asserts itself. Therefore, only a comparative historical study of the various forms of nationalism can do justice to any one of them; and only an interdisciplinary approach will be able to cover the many facets of a highly complex phenomenon. No major collective research effort has yet been undertaken in this field, in spite of its vital importance for an understanding of the contemporary world.

The spread of nationalism

The spread of nationalism on a global scale is a result of the Europeanization and modernization of non-Western and premodern societies. As a phenomenon of modern European history, the rise of nationalism is closely linked with the origins of popular sovereignty; the theory of government by the active “consent of the governed”; the growth of secularism; the lessening of the older religious, tribal, clannish, or feudal loyalties; and the spread of urbanization, industrialization, and improved communications.

Nationalism has from the beginning been a politically revolutionary movement; it has tried to transform or overthrow the “legitimate” governments of the past whose claim to authority was based upon divine ordination or hereditary rights. It wished to establish totally new political entities: states coextensive with ethnic or linguistic frontiers. Lord Acton, in his famous essay “Nationality” (1862), drew attention to the potentially dangerous implications of this identification of political organization with ethnic divisions. Within one hundred years (1815-1920), nationalism completely transformed the political map of central, centraleastern, and southeastern Europe; and since 1947 it has fulfilled the same revolutionary function in remaking the political configuration of Asia and Africa.

The twentieth century has added another revolutionary dimension to nationalism. Nationalism has also become a socially revolutionary movement, demanding equal economic and educational opportunities for all members of the national group and the active promotion of the welfare of the socially underprivileged classes. Its aims have become the establishment of a classless, theoretically equalitarian national society. By the middle of the twentieth century, all “young” nationalist movements had also become “socialist” movements—the word “socialism” covering as many different manifestations as the word “nationalism”—whereas the “young” nationalist movements of the middle of the nineteenth century had sharply distinguished between nationalism and socialism.

Nationalism, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was regarded as the political doctrine of the upper classes, of the rightists in the political spectrum of the age. It stood in sharp and repressive opposition to socialism, an international movement that included the industrial workers and landless peasants, who generally felt excluded from the national society, and expressed their aspirations. In the German empire that Bismarck created in 1871, the nationalists regarded the workers as vaterlandslose Gesellen, and Bismarck’s antisocialist legislation, 1878-1890, treated them as enemies of the nation. This Bismarckian attitude of Germany’s ruling classes continued under the Weimar republic and was one of the main factors causing its overthrow. The situation in France, Italy, Spain, or Russia was not very different. There, too, the right-wing parties and the upper classes identified themselves with the nation and the national interest, and the lower classes felt excluded from both a real stake in the national economy and an active partnership in the determination of the policy of “their” nation.

The first major nationalist revolution that put equal emphasis on the socialist revolutionary aspect was the Mexican revolution of 1910-1917. It set the pattern for the development of nationalism in many underdeveloped countries and for their fight against foreign political intervention and economic penetration and exploitation. Such an integration of nationalist and socialist revolutions was not, and could not be, attempted in the nineteenth century. The Polish aspirations for independence in the period of 1830 to 1848 were unsuccessful largely because the nationalist movement was upper-class; the peasantry had no interest in it and even turned against the landowners and urban intelligentsia. But even after World War I the nationalist revolutions of Kemal Atatürk in Turkey and of the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek in China neglected the need for social transformations of their nations. As the upheavals in Turkey in 1960/1961 and the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 revealed, the economic and social positions of the present masses in both countries had remained backward; they continued to feel themselves victims of “exploitation,” but under the impact of nationalism they were ceasing to accept their age-old status passively. Only after World War II did socialism become an integral part of the nationalist revolution, as in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, in Ben Bella’s Algeria, in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and in Sekou Toure’s Guinea—to name only a few outstanding examples. This development resembles the transformation of the nineteenth-century capitalistic nation-state into the twentieth-century welfare state, except that in the underdeveloped countries truly radical social reforms were required. This task was made more difficult by the need of simultaneously building a cohesive national society, a need that, on the whole, had been fulfilled in the advanced countries by the time of World War I.

Characteristics of nationalism

Nationalism, despite its relatively brief history, has undergone several transformations. It was an elite movement in the first century of its historic role; a “bourgeois” movement in the age of the ascent of the middle classes; it has become, in its second century, a mass movement in which the people at large demand an ever-widening participation in the political, social, and cultural life of the nation.

What remains constant in nationalism through all its changes is the demand of the people for a government of the same ethnic complexion as the majority. Every people awakened to nationalism sees political self-determination as its goal. To be separate, distinct, and independent from other nations, and equal to them, is the fundamental claim of nationalists for their people. The “individualism” and “democratic equality” of the revolutions of the Enlightenment expressed themselves in these aspirations. In the nineteenth century these demands were transferred from the individual to the collective group. Only thus, said the nationalists, could the people become autonomous subjects, an end in themselves, instead of being a means for the policy of others. The Piedmontese jurist and Italian minister Pasquale Stanislao Mancini expressed this sentiment in his Delia nazionalità come fondamento del diritto delle genti (1851), in a classical formulation: “The nationalities which do not possess a government issuing from their innermost life (governo uscito dalle proprie viscere), and which are subject to laws imposed upon them from the outside... have become means for the purposes of others and, therefore, mere objects.”

Cultural self-determination

Political self-determination is only one part of the demands inherent in all nationalism; an almost equal role is played by demands for cultural self-determination. In nationalities that are striving for the creation of a nation-state, the quest for cultural self-determination precedes the quest for political selfdetermination and prepares the ground for the latter. This was the case with most central and eastern European peoples in the nineteenth century and is the case with the Arabs in the twentieth century. Nationalism, from the early nineteenth century on, carried with it the demand for “national” or “popular” foundations for all cultural and intellectual life. This process began with the decline of supranational and theoretically universal cultural elements, such as the founding of all Western education on a thorough and often exclusive training in the classical languages; the role of French as the language of diplomacy and international relations; the erudition in Arabic in all Islamic countries; the exclusive use of classical Chinese as the literary language until Hu Shih’s language revolution in 1917. These elements were replaced by an entirely new emphasis on the vernacular, on the political prestige of the national language, on folklore and folk traditions, and on the accessibility of culture to the nonlearned classes.

Such a demand for cultural nationalism, which in its extreme cases parallels the demand for absolute political sovereignty and self-sufficiency, could also be found in United States nationalism, although it conflicted there with the more cosmopolitan trends of the Enlightenment, the age in which the United States became a nation. Noah Webster, in his Sketches of American Policy, wrote: “America is an independent empire, and ought to assume a national character. Nothing can be more ridiculous, than a servile imitation of the manners, the language, and the vices of foreigners. For setting aside the infancy of our government and our inability to support the fashionable amusements of Europe, nothing can betray a more despicable disposition in Americans than to be the apes of Europeans” (1785, p. 47).

Walt Whitman, with all his cosmopolitan embraces of mankind, in the Leaves of Grass, 1855, could appeal in his dithyrambic way to America: “Strangle the singers who will not sing you loud and strong!... Call for new great masters who comprehend new arts, new perfections, new wants! Submit to the most robust bard till he remedy your barrenness! Then you will not need to adopt the airs of others; you will have true airs, begotted of yourself, blooded with your own blood.” Whitman specifically referred to Johann Gottfried Herder’s belief that creative work can be done only in one’s “own” folk language, that great art has always been the expression of and is determined by the “national” spirit (Volksgeist).

In Whitman two fundamental and opposite strains of nationalism confront each other—the one that corresponds to the “open” society and the one that corresponds to the “closed” society. No nationalism or phase of nationalism shows one of these strains in purity: it is always a question of emphasis. The “open” nationalism represents the more “modern” form: it inclines toward intercourse, and its basis is generally a territorial organization and a political society, constituting a nation of fellow citizens irrespective of race or ethnic descent. The “closed” nationalism stresses the nation’s autochthonous character, the common origins (race, blood) and rootedness in the ancestral soil. These determine the “purity” of national character and preserve it from “alien” influences. The romantic, anti-Western, and anti-Enlightenment Germanophilism and Slavophilism of the nineteenth century offer examples of such a “closed” nationalism; the image of their ideal society was to be found in the tribal or premodern past, in emphasis on Eigenart or samobytnost. The “open” nationalism, on the other hand, finds its ideal image in a future that will build bridges over the separations of the past. The “open” nationalism stresses the free self-determination of the individual; the “closed” nationalism, biological or historical determinism.

One of the outstanding examples of an “open” nationalism is provided by the United States. The Americans rejected common descent as the basis of their nationhood. They did not establish their nation on a common past with its roots in antiquity or medieval times, on a common religion or a unique cultural tradition. They owe their nationhood to the affirmation of the modern trends of emancipation, assimilation, mobility, and individualism. They inherited the English tradition of limited and mild government and constitutional freedoms; but the historical rights of Englishmen became, in the climate of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, universal rights, which, theoretically, had the strength to transform men of the most various pasts and descents into new men, building a common future in a new land.

Racial purity

Racial purity has often formed the theoretical basis of nationality throughout history. At the time of the building of the second Jewish state, national regeneration implied the repudiation of the wives whom Jews had taken from foreign tribes and of the children whom those wives had borne (Ezra 10; Nehemiah 10.30). Even the State of Israel grants an exclusive, privileged status to persons of Jewish descent in matters of immigration and citizenship. In its most extreme form, racial exclusivism and rootedness in the ancestral soil became the basis of nationhood in National Socialist Germany. The German Reich was regarded as the true homeland and the center of loyalty of all individuals of German descent, regardless of the “accident” of their political citizenship or the personal self-determination of their individual allegiance.

The historian Heinrich von Treitschke stressed this point of view as early as 1870 in the case of the Alsatians. The French historian Ernest Renan, in his lecture Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (1882), declared the racial theory “a very great fallacy whose dominance would ruin European civilization.... According to this theory the Germans have the right to take back the scattered members of the German family, even if these members [do not wish it]. Thus one creates a primordial right analogous to that of the divine right of Kings.... Will the Germans, who have raised the banner of ethnography so high, not see one day the Slavs [follow their example and reclaim the lands] of their ancestors? It is good for all of us to know how to forget” (pp. 1-29, passim).

National supremacy

The rise of the new nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries started bitter disputes about frontier territories, as each nationality claimed “historical” rights according to its greatest historical expansion. Thus, independent Serbia and independent Bulgaria, in spite of their close affinity of language and religion and their common past of subjection to the Turks, faced each other in repeated struggles over Macedonia, which both claimed as having formed part, in long-past times, of their respective empires. The fate of the Slav Ukrainians was involved in the centuries-old fight of their Slav neighbors, the Poles, and the Russians, for hegemony in the eastern borderlands of Europe. Nationalities that had demanded release from oppression often became, after liberation, oppressors themselves, sometimes subjecting others to more severe oppression than they had suffered themselves. Most of the new states, although ethnically mixed, regarded themselves as power instruments of the dominant, or “state-forming,” nationality among the several inhabiting the territory, and denied equality to the other nationalities in “their” state. This was the case in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia after World War I, and in Ceylon after World War II. Kurds and Somalis in the 1960s sought national union as the Poles and southern Slavs had done fifty years before. The potentially fruitful innovation of international treaties binding the new nation-states after 1918 to protect national minorities, under the League of Nations, did not become effective. On the other hand, the expulsion or shift of populations from their homelands for nationalistic reasons, first envisaged by the Germans in World War I in order to annex lands “without people” for German settlement and strategic purposes, became widespread in the twentieth century. Nationalism has “solved” many tensions; it has at the same time created new ones, in which modern aspirations and age-old memories are often inextricably mixed.

Ideological transformations and conflicts

Some of the fundamental beliefs of nationalism go far back in history. Among them are the “chosen people” idea and the “promised land” concept. Both originated with the ancient Hebrews; both provided a divine sanction for nationalist aspirations and political aims; both are found in various forms throughout the ages as a conscious or unconscious Biblical heritage. With the advent of Stoicism and Christianity, which became the official creeds of the “universal” Roman empire, the narrow and “closed” tribalism of older times was overcome in an ecumenical “open” society. This universalism survived in the Christian world until the Renaissance and Reformation; in Islam, until the later nineteenth century. In the Western world, the new absolutist states of the post-Renaissance period, with their emphasis on sovereignty, centralization, and raison d’etat, created the political organization that eighteenth-century nationalism began to transform into the modern nation-state. Modern nationalism first took hold in England in the seventeenth century and in Anglo-America in the eighteenth century. But this nationalism respected, and was based upon, the individual liberties and self-government characteristic of the development of these nations. The rise of nationalism in the French Revolution was different. The absolutist and centralized French monarchy had set the example for continental Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the nationalism of the French people continued this form and set the model for the centralized European nation-state of the nineteenth century. The Napoleonic wars carried the aggressiveness of the new nationalism to the four corners of Europe.

The European revolutions of 1848/1849 and the defeat of their liberal aspirations marked the spread of nationalism to central and central-eastern Europe, the “awakening” of the peoples. The striving for individual liberty was drowned in the rising tide of national (collective) self-assertion and will to power. John Stuart Mill complained in 1849 that nationalism makes men indifferent to the rights and interests “of any portion of the human species save that which is called by the same name, and speaks the same language, as themselves” ([1849] 1865, p. 53). He called the new exclusive nationalism, with its appeal to historical rights, barbaric and remarked bitterly that “in the backward parts of Europe, and even (where better things might have been expected) in Germany, the sentiment of nationality so far outweighs the love of liberty, that the people are willing to abet their rulers in crushing the liberty and independence of any people not of their race and language” (Mill [1849] 1865, p. 53). After 1848 nationalism, originally a movement of emancipation and constitutional rights, became known as Realpolitik and Machtpolitik.The sacro egoismo of nationalism reached its climax in the fascist movements.

The war of 1914, which was started by dynastic empires, partly under popular pressure, replaced the empires with nation-states all over central and east-central Europe. At the same time it helped the spread of nationalism to Asia. Half a century later, nationalism had become the dominant force throughout the non-Western world, and the political map of Asia and Africa changed between 1945 and 1965 as completely as had the map of Europe between 1815 and 1920.

In the middle of the twentieth century, nationalism everywhere prevailed over supranational ideology, as it had previously. Catholic France and Muslim Turkey had made common cause against Catholic Austria. At the end of the nineteenth century, republican France and Czarist Russia were brought together, not by ideological affinity but by the common fear of German aggressiveness and overconfidence. Ideological affinity and historical friendship between the dynastic empires of the Romanovs and Hohenzollerns did not prevail against the rising tide of nationalism. German statesmen characterized the war of 1914 as a struggle between Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism for the control of “Mitteleuropa.” When National Socialist Germany resumed the hegemonial war in 1939, it attacked semifascist and anti-Semitic Poland, in spite of ideological affinities and friendship, and destroyed that country in close collaboration with communist Russia. In October 1940, fascist Italy attacked Greece, whose dictator, General John Metaxas, was an outspoken admirer of fascism.

In the ideological blocs of the post-World War II era, nationalist differences made themselves more and more felt. The authoritarian nationalism of de Gaulle’s France might be a factor in the disintegration of the democratic West and is reviving the goal of a European third force under French hegemony, independent of both English-speaking democracies and the communist East. Within the communist bloc, conflicting nationalist interests created acute tensions among the Soviet Union, communist China, Yugoslavia, and Albania. The imperialist trends of traditional Russian and Chinese national policies reasserted themselves, modified and rejuvenated by communist ideology. As early as 1948, communist Yugoslavia affirmed and maintained her independence from communist Russia. Moreover, nationalist territorial claims hindered friendly cooperation between Yugoslavia and her two communist neighbors, Albania and Bulgaria. In the early 1960s the monolithic character of international communism was merely an ideological specter, not a political reality; the communist nations were even farther from a supranational federative union than were the democracies. Even within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics there were centrifugal nationalist trends which had been especially marked during the crises of World War II.

Although nationalism remained the idée-force after 1945, there were unmistakable trends toward supranational forms of cooperation and political organization. Earlier experiments at integration of closely related nations had not been promising. In the nineteenth century, a strong Pan-Scandinavian movement existed; yet these countries jealously preserved their national sovereignty, policy, and personality, achieving separation (Norway from Sweden; Iceland from Denmark), not integration. The small Central American republics, apparently united by language, religion, and history, tried in vain to federate. After World War II, however, the agitations for a union of the democracies, for European unity, for an Atlantic community, for African unity seemed more promising. Numerous conferences were held; organizations were created whose strength was greater on paper than in reality; and limited progress was achieved, especially in concrete economic and social legislation and in organized cultural exchange. But even the smaller projects, like Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) or the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), ran into difficulties once the discussion of desirabilities was to be abandoned for the realization of concrete possibilities. Traditional nationalism and continuing or newly emerging hegemonial claims, coupled with the clashing ambitions of national leaders and the staying power of existing governmental frameworks, strengthened the centrifugal trends among the nations, highly developed and less developed, “old” and “new.”

Role and prospects

The comparative study of nationalism will not reveal any fundamental differences between “old” and “new” forms of nationalism or between nationalism in the Western and non-Western worlds. Significant discrepancies exist everywhere, but they are more specific and individual than generic. On the whole, the “new” nations show trends and problems similar to those shown by the “new” nations of central Europe in the nineteenth century and of east-central Europe in the early twentieth century. Some of these “Western” nations in central-eastern and southern Europe were at the time of their rise to nationhood, and for decades thereafter, economically and socially underdeveloped, preserving much of their premodern “feudal” or medieval character. The Latin American nations are “old” as far as the history of national statehood goes, but in their social backwardness many resemble the “new” nations of the middle of the twentieth century. All these nations bear witness to the profound transformation that is being brought about by world-wide trends: the possibilities of, and desire for, rapid technological change; the experience of such radical and violent movements as communism and fascism; the demand for social equality and for the active participation of the masses in national life; the “population explosion” and the growth of giant cities. In this transformation, which increases global uniformity, nationalism acts as an accelerating factor because the policies of the newer or less developed nationstates have often been guided by the desire to catch up with the older and more highly developed nationstates. Nationalism can, however, also act as a force preserving older forms of societal life and stressing the diversity within a world community that is based on the acceptance of the nationstate as the basic form of political and cultural organization.

Nationalism and the nation-state form the recognized foundation of the international organizations of the mid-twentieth century. The United Nations reflects in its growth the dynamic changes brought about by nationalism in the years after World War II. It has successfully smoothed the transition of many colonies to national statehood, a transition that had, in the past, frequently been accompanied by violent civil wars and protracted unrest. The United Nations accepted the principle of the legal equality of small and great nations and provided each with a voice in world affairs, thereby contradicting the attitude of the nineteenth-century Concert of Great Powers and rejecting the twentiethcentury fascist disregard for the rights of “weak” or “small” states. The clashing interests of nations found in the United Nations a forum in which, for the first time in history, all peoples, civilizations, and ideologies could meet and discuss their differences according to the procedures developed by Western parliamentary traditions. The United Nations represents a hope of divesting clashing nationalist aspirations of their extremist character while recognizing their intrinsic validity. It also helps to intensify the peaceful intercourse among nations by creating and maintaining the outward forms of equality of status.

It is difficult to foresee the future of nationalism. It is a divisive force in a world growing more and more interdependent, a force capable of producing bitter tensions and one-sided, self-righteous judgments that threaten the rational solution of international conflicts. On the other hand, nationalism is an important factor in preventing any one or two of the strongest powers from establishing their hegemony over the whole globe or over a large part of it. In that respect, nationalism is a form of resistance to imposed uniformity, a bulwark of the beneficial diversity, individuality, and liberty of collective groups. It may be that in the future an attitude of tolerance and coexistence will divest the various forms of nationalism of the aggressive political power drive that has characterized the age of nationalism. The growing fear of the consequences of an armed conflict may help to bring about such a change of attitude. In the 1960s the fear of war is powerful in all European nations, even those which welcomed previous wars. Incidents that in the nineteenth century would have led to war no longer play such a decisive role.

The beginning of a general change of public temper in respect to the role of nationalism and the nation-state in international relations has been noticeable. Some historians have compared this change with the change, brought about by the Enlightenment and the rise of tolerance, that replaced the age of religious wars in Europe with a period of uneasy and distrustful but generally peaceful coexistence of conflicting religions. A long process of change, beginning in the late seventeenth century and taking at least two hundred years, was necessary before this fundamental attitude was generally accepted in the Western world. With the greater acceleration characteristic of the twentieth century, a similar process may transform the age of nationalism and of warring nationstates with different civilizations and ideologies into an age of coexistence of free and equal nationalities.

Hans Kohn

[See alsoColonialism; Nation; National Socialism; Pan movements; Socialism; State. Other relevant material may be found inInternational politics.]


Acton, John E. E. D. (1862) 1907 Nationality. Essay No. 9 in John E. E. D. Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays. Edited by John N. Figgis and Reginald V. Laurence. London: Macmillan.

Deutsch, Karl W. 1953 Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry Into the Foundations of Nationality. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.

Deutsch, Karl W. 1956 Interdisciplinary Bibliography on Nationalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Hayes, Carlton J. H. (1931) 1948 The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism. New York: Macmillan.

Hertz, Friedrich O. 1944 Nationality in History and Politics: A Study of the Psychology and Sociology of National Sentiment and Character. Oxford: Clarendon.

Kann, Robert A. 1950 The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1848-1918. 2 vols. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Kohn, Hans 1944 The Idea of Nationalism: A Study of Its Origins and Background. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1961.

Kohn, Hans 1962 The Age of Nationalism: The First Era of Global History. New York: Harper.

Lemberg, Eugen 1951 Geschichte des Nationalismus in Europa. Stuttgart (Germany): Schwab.

Lemberg, Eugen 1964 Nationalismus. 2 vols. Hamburg: Rowohlt. → Volume 1: Psychologie und Geschichte.Volume 2: Soziologie und politische Pedagogik.

Mancini, Pasquale Stanislao 1851 Delia nazionalitd come fondamento del diritto delle genti: Prelezione.Turin (Italy): Botta. → Excerpts in text were translated by Hans Kohn.

Meinecke, Friedrich (1908)1962 Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat: Studien zur Genesis des deutschen Nationalstaates. Edited with an introduction by Hans Herzfeld. Munich: Oldenbourg. → Published in 1962 as Volume 5 of Meinecke’s collected works.

Mill, John Stuart (1849) 1865 Vindication of the French Revolution of February, 1848. Volume 3, pages 5-81 in John Stuart Mill, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical. Boston: Spencer.

Mitscherlich, Waldemar (1912) 1929 Nationalismus: Die Geschichte einer Idee. 2d ed. Leipzig: Hirschfeld.

Pinson, Koppel S. 1935 A Bibliographical Introduction to Nationalism. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Renan, Ernest 1882 Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? Paris: Levy. → Excerpts in text were translated by Hans Kohn.

Royal Institute of International Affairs 1939 Nationalism. Oxford Univ. Press.

Shafer, Boyd C. 1955 Nationalism: Myth and Reality. New York: Harcourt.

Snyder, Louis L. 1954 The Meaning of Nationalism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.

Snyder, Louis L. (editor) 1964 The Dynamics of Nationalism. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Webster, Noah (1785) 1937 Sketches of American Policy. Edited by H. R. Warfel. New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints.

Weill, Georges J. 1938 UEurope du XIXe siècle et ‘idée de nationalité. Paris: Michel.

Wittram, Reinhard 1954 Das Nationale als europäisches Problem: Beiträge zur Geschichte des Nationalitätsprinzips vornehmlich im 19. Jahrhunderf. Gottingen (Germany): Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nationalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. 24 May. 2016 <>.

"Nationalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. (May 24, 2016).

"Nationalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from


Nationalism is a loyalty to an “imagined community.” It creates a sense of common identity even among people who have never met one another and probably never will. In large part, that is its function. We speak of American or German nationalism, but not the national identity of Luxembourg or Liechtenstein, where a far higher percentage of the people do in fact know one another. Even in large nations, the issues of who is imagined to be part of the community and who is entitled to do the imagining have often been fiercely contested. Beginning with the Revolutionary War, African Americans have tried to use their participation in major wars to win acceptance of their membership in the national community, while those who founded and sustained that community have tried to exclude them or restrict their participation. By contrast, some white reformers were trying to turn Indians into American citizens at a time when most Indians preferred to be left alone as distinct peoples on enough land to sustain their ancestral ways. The American quest for national identity has shown a pattern toward greater inclusiveness over time, but the stages of that struggle have been marked by some of the most violent confrontations in the history of the country.

In the great age of European nationalism from the French Revolution to World War II, peoples who spoke the same language or shared a common ethnicity fought to build their own nation‐states. The unification of Germany and Italy, and later the achievement of independence by Poland and other East European states, also meant the weakening and eventual destruction of the polyglot Habsburg and Ottoman empires. German nationalism took shape in sharp reaction against Napoleonic France, while Italian unity required the repudiation of rule from Vienna. Most historians—always with a nervous glance at Germany from the 1860s to 1945—have assumed that the stronger the nationalism, the greater its ability to prevail.

These nineteenth‐century European models do not help much in trying to understand nationalism in the Americas. The thirteen colonies won independence from Britain without claiming a preexisting common identity distinct from that of the mother country. They certainly had no quarrel with the English language. That pattern recurred a generation later in the Latin American struggles for independence. The Latin revolutionaries, like those in North America, accepted most of the geographical boundaries that had been laid out by the imperial states of Spain and Portugal and continued to use the old imperial languages after independence. In North America in the nineteenth century, only one major nationalist movement failed: the attempt to establish the Confederate States of America. Ironically, at least by European norms, the Confederacy was the most militantly nationalist movement to appear in the Americas. In North America, unlike Europe, the gentler and weaker nationalisms of the United States and Canada have survived, but the Confederacy was crushed.

The United States of America emerged as a separate nation before its citizens had any firm sense of a distinct national identity. In England's mainland colonies in the seventeenth century, most settlers assumed that they belonged to the English “nation,” the first European society to define itself in these terms. An Englishman's identity involved a strong commitment to liberty, property, and “no popery,” although the English quarreled fiercely and sometimes violently over how Protestant, or Puritan, England should be. These quarrels crossed the ocean, but the rival positions tended to take hold in different colonies, which were also founded for different purposes. Moderate Anglicans always controlled Virginia, and over time these values took hold throughout the southern colonies, where the pursuit of wealth energized the settlers far more than the demands of piety. By contrast, Puritanism largely defined what was most distinctive about the New England colonies. In the middle colonies, the competition among denominations in New York and New Jersey, and the Quakers' idealism in Pennsylvania, together guaranteed a regional victory for religious liberty by about 1720. But in this region ethnic and religious pluralism made even a sense of English identity problematic.

Many seventeenth‐century colonists believed that they could create overseas a better society than England was ever likely to become. Then England's Glorious Revolution of 1688 guaranteed a Protestant succession to the throne, annual meetings of Parliament, and toleration for Protestant dissenters. Over the next twenty‐five years, England (which united with Scotland to form the kingdom of Great Britain in 1707) emerged quite unexpectedly as one of Europe's great powers, the one usually best positioned to prevent France, or any other power, from establishing hegemony over the rest. Britons began to celebrate their “mixed and balanced constitution” of king, Lords, and Commons as the great wonder of the age, the foundation for the liberty, property, and Protestantism that made the nation distinct. Colonists joined in this celebration, and in the process of embracing a British national identity also seemed quietly to abandon any ambitions of creating a more just society than Britain's. This trend became most visible during Britain's mid‐eighteenth‐century wars with Catholic Spain and France. Colonial spokesmen proudly proclaimed their loyalty to the world's most successful empire, which by 1763 had expelled France from Canada and Spain from Florida and had taken control of everything east of the Mississippi River except New Orleans.

In one of history's most astonishing reversals, triumphant Britain then alienated the colonists so totally over the next twelve years that war broke out between the two sides in April 1775. Britain's policies included two major attempts to tax the settlers without their consent—the Sugar and Stamp Acts of 1764–65, and the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767. At first the revenue was to be used only to pay part of the costs of North America's military establishment; but by 1767, some of it was designed to make royal governors and judges independent of the financial support of the colonies' elective assemblies. To North American settlers, the insistence on “no taxation without representation” marked a demand for traditional English property rights, not a quest for something distinctively “American.”

For decades British spokesmen had predicted that eventually the American colonies would be strong enough to throw off all subjection to Britain. The reforms of 1763–67 were designed, at least in part, to postpone that terrible day. Colonists found this fear misconceived and even dangerous. Acutely aware of how different the colonies were from one another, they repeatedly affirmed their loyalty to Britain and their admiration for the British constitution. They denied that they harbored any desire for independence, and many of them doubted that any viable union of such disparate colonies was even possible. In short, “America” began as Britain's idea. Into the 1770s, almost nobody on either side of the Atlantic actively favored the creation of a separate American nation.

Fifteen months of terrible warfare, beginning at Lexington in April 1775, changed these sensibilities. The Second Continental Congress long insisted that it was fighting only to restore English rights to the settlers under the traditional government of the empire. But when George III refused even to receive Congress's very moderate Olive Branch Petition and instead proclaimed the colonists rebels in August 1775, sentiment began to shift, more obviously at first in private correspondence than in public statements. In January 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, a call for both independence and American union. An English immigrant who had been in Philadelphia for only fourteen months, Paine saw an “American” nation around him, where other settlers were able to perceive only separate colonies. His eloquence was infectious, however, and Common Sense persuaded many colonists that both independence and union were attainable. In July 1776 Congress concluded that independence was necessary, but union remained another matter.

Many things seemed self‐evident to the patriots of 1776, but the benefits of a unified nation‐state were not among them. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania believed that the colonies were strong enough to resist even Britain's military might, but the prospect of success terrified him. Where “shall we find another Britain, to supply our loss?” he asked. “Torn from the body to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language, and commerce, we must bleed at every vein.” Even though he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, he did become the principal draftsman of the Articles of Confederation, which Congress did not send to the states until late 1777, and which failed to win ratification by all thirteen states until March 1781. Charles Thomson, secretary to Congress from 1774 until 1789, doubted that the American Union could long outlast the war. Even though Congress prevailed in the long struggle for independence, scored two diplomatic triumphs in the French alliance of 1778 and the Peace of Paris in 1783, and designed an imaginative and expansionist western policy culminating in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, it provided little focus for popular loyalty and won little respect, even among its own members. By 1786–87, with Daniel Shays's Rebellion disrupting rural Massachusetts and with Congress itself ominously divided over the proposed Jay‐Gardoquí Treaty, which would have surrendered the navigation of the Mississippi for twenty‐five years in exchange for commercial privileges within the Spanish empire, talk of disunion became serious and even erupted into the newspapers. Southern states blocked the treaty because it would have privileged northeastern merchants at the expense of southern planters.

In May 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and, by September, produced a charter for a radically new form of federal government, one that lodged sovereignty in the people themselves while permitting them to delegate sovereign powers to both their state and national governments. One of the most thoughtful delegates, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, declared that the United States was not yet a nation, but that the Constitution would create a framework to make that transition possible. “As we shall become a nation, I trust that we shall also form a national character; and that this character will be adapted to the principles and genius of our system of government.” He based that expectation, not upon the shared memories of a largely mythical past (the kind of thing that shaped English nationalism), but upon popular expectations for a glorious and prosperous future in a vast continent with enormous resources.

Without the Constitution, the Union would probably not have survived the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. American national identity would have died in infancy. But the Constitution by itself could not guarantee the success of the Union, or even define the form that American political culture would assume.

The struggles between the Federalists and the Democratic‐Republicans after 1790 reshaped American political culture and, indeed, American identity. “A nation without a national government is, in my view, an awful spectacle,” proclaimed Alexander Hamilton in the last of The Federalist Papers. He and other Federalists believed that creating a national government capable of holding its own against the great powers of the Atlantic world required funding the Revolutionary War debt at par, collecting sufficient revenue to meet other national objectives, empowering a vigorous executive, creating an efficient army and navy, and establishing an activist federal court system—measures that made the United States resemble a transplanted Britain, lacking only a royal court and an hereditary aristocracy. His opponents insisted that Americans had fought Britain to become something quite different. Once they captured power in 1801, they began to define what such a nation could become.

Jeffersonians set out to pay off the national debt as soon as possible, reduced the army and navy to token forces, repealed all internal taxes, and did their best to tame the federal judiciary. Especially after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, they began to seek a combination of goals that no other movement or nation, anywhere else in the world, had yet put together. Under their leadership, the United States would repudiate the balance‐of‐power politics that prevailed in Europe. Within the Atlantic world, Jeffersonians favored trade with all of Europe's maritime powers but alliances with none. They believed that American commerce was so important that a mere threat of withholding it could force the great powers to respect American rights without resort to war, a policy that revealed its limitations when the United States finally declared war on Britain in the War of 1812. But on this side of the ocean, the new republic would achieve hegemony within the western hemisphere—that is, it would be stronger than any combination of enemies that could be aligned against it—without the need to create standing armies or impose heavy taxes. The energy of the people, especially their determination to settle ever more western lands, would achieve this hegemonic goal with little more than mild supervision from Washington, while avoiding the class conflicts of Europe. The Jacksonian era saw this process become the ideology of “manifest destiny,” whose apologists saw almost no limit to how large the United States might become (some even favored the annexation of Ireland!), provided that most governmental activities remained decentralized to the state level.

Liberty and empire remained compatible so long as the free and slave states could agree on how to share the spoils of western lands. By the 1830s, the Jeffersonian formula for hemispheric hegemony had won wide acceptance. As Abraham Lincoln argued in one of his earliest speeches, “All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined … could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” Any threat to the Union, he insisted in 1838, “cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

When Lincoln wrote, the “imagined community” of the United States was still restricted to white men. Its success depended on the republic's ability to deprive Indians of nearly all of their land, usually without significant compensation or any willingness to incorporate Indians into the polity. Enslaved African Americans were not part of the polity either. During the Revolution, most blacks south of New England in a position to choose sided with the British, not the American republic. Partly because Federalists pushed harder for abolition in northern states than did their opponents, the Jeffersonian triumph magnified these trends. In 1807, when the Democratic‐Republicans took control of New Jersey (the only state that permitted some women to vote), they righteously disfranchised women, Indians, and free blacks, thus announcing to the world that their brand of democracy applied to white men only.

The early 1830s largely defined the extremes that would shape American politics and national identity for the next three decades. Northern evangelical Protestants launched a vigorous abolitionist movement that increasingly alarmed the South. South Carolina nullified the tariff in 1832 and threatened secession if President Andrew Jackson resorted to force. Jackson pushed a “Force Act” through Congress but also agreed with Congress's decision to lower the tariff by stages over the next decade. Disillusioned nullifiers began to envision an independent southern nation taking shape, united in the defense of slavery. Jackson's supporters, for the first time in the history of the republic, insisted that the Constitution had created a “perpetual union,” one that could not be destroyed. Many of Jackson's northern opponents agreed. As Daniel Webster put it in 1830, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” But after the Mexican War, North and South could not agree on how to digest America's enormous conquest, nor even on how to divide between them the remaining unsettled portion of the Louisiana Purchase. Expansionism, instead of solving the nation's problems, was tearing it apart. The two ideas, of a southern nation and an indestructible union, finally clashed when the Civil War erupted in April 1861.

Both sides did their best to appropriate the principles of 1776. Confederate apologists insisted that they were the true heirs of the Revolution, much as the patriots of that era had claimed to be defending English liberty against a government bent on destroying it. Lincoln insisted well into 1862 that he was fighting only to preserve the Union that the founding fathers had created.

Despite these similarities between the Revolution and the Civil War, the differences are even more compelling. In 1775–76, the colonists went to war and fought for fifteen months before Congress finally proclaimed American independence. In 1860–61, seven Southern states seceded from the Union, created the Confederate States of America and then began a war against the United States by firing upon Fort Sumter. When President Lincoln responded with a summons to arms, four more states seceded and joined the Confederacy. In other words, the Revolutionary War preceded the creation of an American nation, but the Confederate nation preceded the Civil War. Some “fire‐eaters” had been agitating for a southern nation for nearly three decades by then, a movement without parallel in the colonies before 1776. The Confederacy was, in short, very much the product of an active and aggressive nationalism in a way that the original American Union had not been.

At first, both sides tried not to interfere with the constricted sense of American identity that Jeffersonians had bequeathed to them. But the Emancipation Proclamation, followed by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, boldly offered freedom, citizenship, the duty to bear arms, and suffrage to black males while ignoring the demands of the early women's suffrage movement. This mobilization of blacks contributed immensely to Union victory by 1865. But the failure of Radical Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow legislation throughout the former Confederate and border states deprived nearly all black men of the ability to vote by the early twentieth century. Blacks were free but not equal. The warring sections of the republic achieved reconciliation around principles of liberty, union—and white supremacy. While disfranchising blacks, they enfranchised white women, beginning in several western states near the end of the nineteenth century and culminating in the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution during World War I.

World War II marked the next watershed. The Pacific War became a merciless contest between two racial ideologies—Japan's determination to make the divine Yamato race prevail throughout Asia and the Pacific versus the white supremacy of the Western powers, led by the United States. By contrast, the United States fought to destroy Nazi racism in the European theater; and in the aftermath of the war and during the onset of the Cold War, the attack on racism became a major force in domestic politics as well. President Harry S. Truman began the desegregation of American armed forces on the eve of the Korean War. Over the next two decades, the American defense establishment (along with the world of professional and intercollegiate sports) led all other sectors of American society in the quest for equal opportunity regardless of race. Ironically, while the rest of the world largely condemned American intervention in Vietnam as a ruthless manifestation of arrogant racial supremacy, the United States fought the Vietnam War with the most completely integrated military establishment the nation had ever possessed. Colin Powell, an African American who fought in Vietnam as a junior officer, would become by the 1990s the most powerful military officer in the land, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By then, women had also won far broader opportunities for military careers than had ever been available to them before.

What it means to belong to the American nation is still hotly contested, but at the end of the twentieth century that identity has become far more inclusive than ever before.
[See also Culture, War, and the Military; Internationalism; Militarism and Antimilitarism; Patriotism; Religion and War; Women in the Military.]


Frederick Merk , Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, 1963.
David M. Potter , The Historian's Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa, in his The South and the Sectional Conflict, 1968, pp. 34–83.
Lance Banning , Republican Ideology and the Triumph of the Constitution, 1789 to 1793, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 31 (1974), pp. 167–88.
J. M. Bumsted , ‘Things in the Womb of Time’: Ideas of American Independence, 1633 to 1763, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 31 (1974), pp. 533–64.
Paul D. Escott , After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism, 1978.
Kenneth M. Stampp , The Concept of a Perpetual Union, in his The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War, 1980, pp. 3–36.
John M. Murrin , A Roof Without Walls: The Dilemma of American National Identity, in Richard Beeman, Stephen Botein, and Edward C. Carter II, eds., Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, 1987, pp. 333–48.
Benedict Anderson , Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed., 1991.
Liah Greenfeld , Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, 1992.
Linda Colley , Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837, 1992.
David Waldstreicher , In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820, 1997.
Gary W. Gallagher , The Confederate War, 1997.

John M. Murrin

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

John Whiteclay Chambers II. "Nationalism." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. 2000. 24 May. 2016 <>.

John Whiteclay Chambers II. "Nationalism." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. 2000. (May 24, 2016).

John Whiteclay Chambers II. "Nationalism." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. 2000. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from



NATIONALISM is the ideological apparatus by which citizens and the nation-state find common loyalties and identification. While citizens may discern a generalized vision of government, nationalism spurs them to identify with a particular country. Because the United States is a secular, free society, the components of nationalism arise from rituals and symbolic images that change in meaning over time and are relentlessly politicized. Rituals such as those performed on the Fourth of July and personalities such as George Washington originated with the founding of the United States in 1776, but have values and uses that rise and fall and change according to the era and the section of the country in which they are celebrated. This essay combines the creation of American nationalism with attention to the time and place of the use of imagery and ritual.

Roots of Nationalism

Nationalism may have been born in Europe with the modern nation-state, but it reached its broadest flowering in the multicultural United States. The American Revolution transformed loyal colonialists into patriotic Americans. It also changed monarchial identification into love for the first president, George Washington, and charged ritual commemoration of revolutionary events and figures with quasi-religious passion. In 1783, after the peace treaty legitimized the boundaries of the new nation, Americans had the requisite qualities to establish their own ideology. Americans were highly literate and had a burgeoning number of newspapers and book publishers. The desire to commemorate the American Revolution inspired fledgling historians to write chronicles of the conflict and create a hagiography of heroes. Most literature was written in English, which became the predominate language after the Revolution. Building upon monarchial and religious holidays, Americans celebrated the great events and accomplishments of the Revolution to instill patriotism. Americans high and low adopted Europeans' conceptions of republicanism to inscribe a self-sacrificing love for the new nation and the responsibilities of citizenship.

The Constitutional Procession of 1788 is a good example of how these values coalesced across the classes. After a spirited national debate in newspapers, pamphlets, and public orations over the contours of the new Constitution, American white male freeholders voted to adopt it. In city after city, Americans celebrated the adoption of the Constitution with orderly marches replete with occupational banners praising the agreement and the financial plans of the "Good Ship Hamilton." In the New York City procession, butchers participated by herding two oxen down Broadway. One ox had a banner with the word "Anarchy" between its horns; the other was emblazoned with "Confusion." The butchers themselves held a banner that proclaimed, "The Death of Anarchy and Confusion Shall Feed the Poor." After the parade, the butchers slaughtered the oxen and fed them to the poor. The butchers were making a point about their daily contribution to the health of the new nation, showing the importance of their productive labor, and demonstrating their political clout. In the same procession over 1,000 cart men demonstrated their loyalty to the Constitution, a number no politician could ignore. In Philadelphia, organizers conducted a "temperance" march as an alternative to the inebriated parades elsewhere as a demonstration that clear-minded citizens were free of the diabolical powers of rum. Among all, the process emphasized civic responsibility for the "middling class" of people. Women may have watched these proceedings from the sidelines but soon learned to claim the mantle of virtue as their own. Similarly, African Americans instilled holidays with their own frustrated claims for citizenship, creating alternative political festivals.

America's Founding Fathers and the Birth of the Hero

As American white males gained universal suffrage by the early 1820s, they coalesced a variety of symbols into a nationalism based upon revolutionary unity. The United States became personified by eidolons, or ideal figures in human form. As Americans softened their memories of the violence of the American Revolution and saw their liberty as fragile and in need of protection, Miss Liberty stood for such values. Brother Jonathan, who stood for the country bumpkin whose crudeness disguised a cunning and ambitious mentality, had a brief popularity. Uncle Sam, whose red, white, and blue top hat shaded shrewd eyes, replaced Brother Jonathan in the 1840s. As Wilbur Zelinksy observes in his book Nation into State: The Shifting Symbolic Foundations of American Nationalism (1988), Uncle Sam came to personify the American state, a concept that transcends the bureaucratic apparatus of government. Uncle Sam's lanky body resembles President Abraham Lincoln, who was both the savior of the American nation and the formulator of the modern American state.

The revolutionary era inspired national heroes. George Washington personified all that was good about America. The first president and hero of the Revolution, Washington became a charismatic hero who, as Zelinsky notes, inspired devotion through his physical bearing, character, and mind. Washington is credited with tying together the fractious thirteen colonies-turned-states and surviving military defeats to best the hated British. As the name of the national capital indicates, Washington's memory is imprinted upon the national landscape in the decades after his death; scores of counties and towns adopted his name. His image became ubiquitous on currency, statues, newspapers, and an infinite variety of media. Although some scholars comment about Washington's loss of place in contemporary society, the plethora of commemorations ensure at least memory of him. His freeing of his slaves also gives him a cachet denied to the more intellectual founding father Thomas Jefferson, whose popularity seems in decline. Benjamin Franklin soon joined Washington in the pantheon. Franklin's humble visage inspired a generation of clubs devoted to the meaning of his memory. Franklin stood for wisdom, thrift, humility, and a restless, striving intellect. Alexander Hamilton personifies the commercial, political American, especially in those decades when businessmen are in charge of government.

Americans perceived the French statesman and officer Lafayette as an example of the American mission and the spread of republican principles throughout the world. When Lafayette made his triumphal return to the United States in 1824, he made special contact with African Americans, as if to emphasize the incomplete nature of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson is among the most controversial of the early national heroes. Viewed grudgingly as the "sage of Monticello," he held little meaning for antebellum Americans. His standing fell sharply in the Gilded Age. When Franklin D. Roosevelt enshrined Jefferson to push his New Deal in the decades after the 1930s, Jefferson became a national hero, with emphasis on his sharp intellect and philosophic probing. Jefferson's writings have gotten him into trouble, however. Antebellum racists sized upon his allegations on the intellectual inferiority of African Americans as proof of the need for slavery. In a twenty-first-century multicultural society, they seem mean-spirited. Combined with the proof of his paternity of a child with Sally Hemmings, his black servant, Jefferson's writings have sent his reputation downward again.

The antebellum period gave birth to fewer American saints. Davy Crockett, though a real person and congressman, became closer to an eidolon that stood for frontiersmen who maintained an unsteady relationship, often through women, with civilization. Crockett's image, together with Daniel Boone and, later, Buffalo Bill, is tailor-made for popular American literature, film, and television. More substantial an image is that of Andrew Jackson, who redirected the American presidency from the neo-colonial Virginia dynasty into a modern, political machine replete with patronage. Jackson's presidency combines the support of the common (white) man with the fierce, combative individual vision of the imperial presidency. A link between Washington and Lincoln, Jackson was profoundly popular after Word War II because of the connection between a strong president and popular support. However, Jackson's popularity has taken a dive because of his race prejudices. As some scholars have shown, Jackson's administration did not open economic doors for the common man; reconsideration of the frontier myth has had a side effect emphasizing Jackson as an irrational, murderous Indian-hater.

Holidays, National Events, and Conflicts

Americans celebrated their heroes and the memory of the American Revolution on the Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day. A day of parades and barbecues, the Fourth of July remains the paramount American political holiday. While Americans enjoyed fireworks and food for generations, they listened carefully to commemorative orations and to a ritualized, moving reading of the Declaration of Independence. In the twenty-first century, the Fourth of July is more of a holiday for workers and a time for eating hot dogs; however, the Declaration is still printed in full in most American newspapers. Other American holidays from the first decades of the nation have not fared as well. Evacuation Day, when the British troops turned over New York City on 25 November 1783, was marked by a festival for about a century, but finally fell into disuse after the United States and England became allies in the 1880s.

American nationalism was not restricted to drums and barbecues. The completion of the stalemated War of 1812 with England saw an upsurge of nationalism. Despite the sour memory of the New England Federalists who endorsed secession, Americans such as Albert Gallatin viewed their fellow citizens as "more American, they feel and act more like a nation; and I hope the permanency of the Union is better secured," as the statesman wrote to his friend Matthew Lyon in 1816. Other observers were more cautious. George Templeton Strong, the New York diarist, concluded that Americans "are so young a people that we feel the want of nationality."

There were sizable obstacles to a national consensus. Federal power was relatively weak. From the 1830s on, controversies over slavery wracked the nation. North and South found support in religious arguments. Northerners determined that it was impossible to be a slaveholder and a good Christian; southerners found justification for chattel bondage in the Bible. That split played out in Manifest Destiny, by which the United States extended political and military authority over much of North America. As God's chosen people, Americans had a divinely inspired right to expand across the continent. Southerners in turn viewed expansion, as Susan-Mary Grant argues in her book, The American Civil War: Explorations and Reconsiderations (2000), as an insurance policy to sustain slavery and combat the encroachments of centralized power. Americans increasingly saw an inevitable conflict. Southerners in particular came to see their section as "The South," a kind of "southern nationalism." These divergent conceptions of national purpose yawned wider after the bloody clashes in Kansas-Nebraska and the Supreme Court's disastrous Dred Scott decision of 1857.

The watershed event was the Civil War. The last major conflict fought solely in the territorial United States, the Civil War cost more lives than any other American war. Out of its ashes came a new American saint, Abraham Lincoln, and retirement of the American Revolution as the engine of nationalism in favor of a new understanding of American nationalism based upon a disciplined, organized nation-state with immense power and capabilities. A brilliant orator, whose speeches encapsulated the need for a Union at a time of treasonous rebellion by the South, Lincoln became the symbol of this new nationalism. Aside from Franklin and Washington, Lincoln remains paramount among American heroes. Lincoln rose from Davy Crockett's frontier to take on the imperial power of Washington, the sagacity of Franklin, and the racial ambivalence of Jefferson (Lincoln favored colonization, or repatriation of blacks to Africa). Lincoln guided the North through the bloody years of the Civil War, rose to the occasion by stating the Emancipation Proclamation, and enrolled thousands of black troops and sent them into the South to vanquish their former oppressors. His deification was completed by his assassination on Good Friday after the Union had been redeemed by great blood sacrifice. At each stop, tens of thousands of Americans viewed his funeral procession up through the northern states and out to the Midwest for burial. Zelinsky refers aptly to this event as a "religious catharsis."

After his death, Lincoln was commemorated in every conceivable way. As with Washington, his birthday became a national holiday; every genre of literature dealt with his manifold meaning. Even more than Jackson, Lincoln is credited with the creation of the ennobling of the presidency and the placing of the national trust in the nation's chief executive. Lincoln's death joined him with the tens of thousands of other men who gave their lives for the Union. Constitutionally, Lincoln's legacy was stamped into the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments that ended slavery, gave the vote to African American males, and endorsed a new concept of national citizenship. No longer was it permissible to say that one was a South Carolinian or New Yorker first. Now, the term "American" became foremost. The Civil War also saw the stars and stripes become the true national flag.

Lincoln's and the Civil War's legacy was evident in the decades that followed. Politicians of every stripe tried to identify themselves with Lincoln and "waved the bloody shirt," to pair their candidacy or program with the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers. Contesting the meaning of the Civil War and citizenship sharpened in late nineteenth century. As southerners used terrorism and northern indifference to reaffix African Americans into a form of bondage through sharecropping and the rapid construction of penal institutions, they took away the citizenship rights of blacks and left a legacy of racial and sectional bitterness that continues to divide the American landscape.

Nationalism in the Twentieth Century

Notwithstanding the politicized conflicts over nationalism, Americans at the onset of the twentieth century adapted its multiple symbols. The flag became mandatory; the Great Seal was everywhere. Organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic commemorated the Civil War. The new media of film and recorded popular music permitted widespread and rapid nationalist messages. In 1915 D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation combined a new southern view of the Civil War and American destiny with a racial view of the conflict.

At the same time, Americans began to shift their gaze from political to business heroes. Theodore Roosevelt combined intellectual activism with physical fitness to become the archetype of twentieth-century presidents. Roosevelt's devotion to fitness gave sports a national heritage. Baseball became the "national pastime," and its championship round is called the "World Series," though no teams from Japan, Korea, Mexico, or Latin America, all hotbeds of baseball, are eligible to take part. Teddy's fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, became the "Lincoln" of the Great Depression era by devising Hamiltonian programs to lift the nation out of economic despair. But more and more, Americans found equal meaning in inventors such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The publisher Henry Luce attempted to persuade Americans of his brand of nationalism through his widespread newsmagazines, including the ever-popular Time. Franklin D. Roosevelt may have epitomized the strong presidency, but after him the office took a great fall. Able if ruthless politicians such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon became villains in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, Ronald Reagan and George Bush campaigned against the office of the presidency, even if their actual policies further extended the reach of government power.

As human heroes proved vulnerable, the imprint of nationalism spread across the country. Beginning with the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, the federal government spawned post offices in every town. The Tennessee Valley Authority became the first federal utility. Physical representation of the national government became evident everywhere in bland, mammoth regional offices of federal bureaucracies. Federal prisons and military bases dotted the landscape. In front of each was the requisite American flag.

The Twenty-First Century

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, historical American nationalism was represented by pageantry and the rise of a heritage industry. Re-creations of colonial days in Williamsburg, Virginia, were matched by the huge popularity of Civil War reenactments in which men and boys in copycat uniforms mimicked the battles fought in the mid-1800s. Their enthusiasm for such representation of American nationalism was a reflection of a stronger military comprehension of nationalism. The American military presence was felt globally as American soldiers resided on bases around the world. The war on terrorism ensured that, if anything, the American military presence globally would increase rather than decline. The acts of terrorism committed on 11 September 2001 were followed by a huge upswing in nationalist sentiment, symbolized by the ubiquity of American flags and the swoop of a bald eagle at the start of nearly every major sporting event.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso Books, 1993.

Fousek, John. To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Grant, Susan-Mary. "From Union to Nation? The Civil War and the Development of American Nationalism." In The American Civil War: Explorations and Reconsiderations. Edited by Susan-Mary Grant and Brian Holden Reid. London: Longman, 2000.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Zelinsky, Wilbur. Nation into State: The Shifting Symbolic Foundations of American Nationalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Graham RussellHodges

See alsoBlack Nationalism ; Nativism ; New Nationalism ; andvol. 9:Chicano Nationalism: The Key to Unity for La Raza .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nationalism." Dictionary of American History. 2003. 24 May. 2016 <>.

"Nationalism." Dictionary of American History. 2003. (May 24, 2016).

"Nationalism." Dictionary of American History. 2003. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from



a people's sense of its political identity or a movement to achieve such identity.

The word nationalism refers to the feeling of political unity or of identity and patriotic sympathy that a people usually focuses on its own language or culture or on a land that it regards as its own. It also refers to that component of various political ideologies according to which this feeling is held to be essential to the existence of a state or to a political movement's aspirations to statehood. Finally, it is used in the arguments advanced by historians, ideologues, and politicians to justify actual or proposed actions on behalf of the people they see as embodying the nation.

Evidence of nationalism, in any of these related senses, is difficult to discern in the Middle East prior to the nineteenth century. Individuals often felt affinity with their coreligionists, but it was assumed that whatever the religion of the ruler might be, the state was not exclusively defined by religion. Tolerance of religious plurality was the norm, even though the ruler's coreligionists usually enjoyed greater official favor than people of a different religion. Language similarly served as a bond between people and as a dividing line between groups, but no state was linguistically homogeneous or disposed to regard language as the defining quality of a ruler's subjects. As for territory, strong feelings of identity with places of origin, particularly cities and their environs, were much in evidence in such guises as folk sayings, humor, and local traditions, but they were seldom accorded a political valuation.

As in most other parts of the world, the appearance of elements of national feeling in the Middle East preceded formal nationalist statements or political manifestos. Historians have debated the degree of indebtedness (certainly heavy) that various Middle Eastern nationalist writers and political leaders owed to European models in seeking to express their nationalism, but it would be an over-simplification to consider these models the sole source of nationalism in the region.

Greek Nationalism

The earliest nationalist movement manifested itself in the Greeks' war to obtain independence from the Ottoman Empire (between 1821 and 1832). The earlier revolt of the south Slavs (between 1804 and 1830) that culminated in the creation of an autonomous principality of Serbia had been a manifestation of widespread discontent with Ottoman maladministration and military disorder. Its leaders did not articulate nationalist positions, however, and the Slavs would presumably have been content with a return to competent Ottoman rule.

In Greece, however, despite a patchwork leadership ranging from bandit chiefs to Greek intellectuals educated in western Europe, a distinctly nationalist ideology came in time to be accepted as the best expression of the people's will. This ideology, however, was associated with a revolutionary organization called the Philike Hetairia that was based in Greek communities outside Greece (the most important one was in Odessa). Nationalist ideology followed rather than preceded the Greek rebellion, and many Greeks fought to escape Ottoman rule without being aware of any ideology. Many of the ideologues were more familiar with conditions and ideas in western Europe than in the Peloponnesus. Rhigas Pheraios, for example (who wrote in his immensely popular "War Hymn": "How long, my heroes, shall we live in bondage,/alone like lions on ridges, on peaks?/ . . . Better an hour of life that is free/than forty years in slavery!"), had a personal history of involvement with numerous revolutionary groups in western Europe dedicated to the ideals of the French Revolution.

Independent Greece not only fostered a revival of classical language and a glorification of ancient greatnessboth common practices in later examples of Middle Eastern nationalismbut also developed the Megali Idea, an ideology that harked back to the Byzantine Empire and whose proponents visualized a broad Balkan realm extending to Istanbul (then Constantinople) in which people of various languages and ethnic groups would be led by Greeks. This approach to nationalism, manifesting a vision of the Greek people as a political entity rather than a geographical entity, reflects the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other French ideologues rather than the German vision of complete identity of people and land. The concept of one people dominating others within a specified territory later becomes commonplace in Middle Eastern nationalism.

Turkish and Arab Nationalism

Although other nationalist stirrings in the nineteenth century were not consciously patterned on the Greek example, they had some common features. Many advocates of Turkish and Arab political and linguistic distinctiveness, for example, were educated in Europe or were familiar with European ideas. Namik Kemal, whose Turkish drama Vatan (Fatherland) helped establish that word (watan in Arabic) as an element of nationalism, spent three years in exile in Europe; and the Lebanese Christian Butrus al-Bustani, one of the most industrious advocates of a revived Arabic literary language, worked closely with American Protestant missionaries. Like the Greeks, the Turks and Arabs encountered difficulty in harmonizing their particularist views with a history of pluralistic empire. Just as adherents to the Megali Idea could visualize, on the Byzantine model, an ethnically plural state dominated by Greeks, the Arabs and Turks aspired mostly to a revival or assertion of ethno-linguistic identity within the pluralistic Ottoman Empire.

One difference between Greeks and other nineteenth-century nationalists was the association of religion with a people's identity. All Greeks were orthodox Christians, even though not all orthodox Christians were Greek, nor all Greek clergy nationalist in sympathy. By contrast, Christian Arabs were prominent in the protonationalist Arab literary revival, and the Turkish protonationalists supported the religiously plural Ottoman system. Therefore, even though the great majority of Turks and Arabs were Muslims, Islam did not from the outset become an integral element of nationalist thought.

Written expressions of nationalist views among Turks and Arabs circulated during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Religion, however, remained a problem. The foremost Turkish ideologue, Ziya Gökalp, concentrated his analysis of Turkish identity on language and folk customs and dismissed Islam as a transitory civilizational attribute that should not stand in the way of the adoption of European customs. The Arab Abd al-Rahman alKawakibi, on the other hand, called for a revival of the caliphate under an Arab of the prophet Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh, instead of under the despotic Ottoman sultan Abdülhamit II.

Rise of Nationalism

The Committee for Union and Progress, a group of military officers that took control of the Ottoman Empire through a coup d'état in 1908, espoused Turkish nationalism and mandated the use of the Turkish language in certain administrative offices that had previously used local languages. Resentment against such Turkizing measures contributed to the formation of small Arab nationalist groups in Syria and Istanbul. Most of these Arab nationalists remained wedded to the concept of an Ottoman Empire, however, until the outbreak of World War I.

Ottoman defeat and the publicizing of Woodrow Wilson's advocacy of self-determination of peoples encouraged an outpouring of nationalist expressions throughout the Middle East. Kurds and Armenians, as well as Arabs whom Britain had encouraged in a nationalist revolt against the Ottomans during the war, tried to influence the peace negotiations in their favor. The most successful nationalist movement of the period, however, was that of an Ottoman army officer, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who established a Turkish republic that was ideologically rooted in the ideas of Gökalp. The new Turkish state expelled a Greek expeditionary force from western Anatolia; it also abolished the offices of sultan and caliph, and legislated the most strenuously secular form of nationalism known in the region.

Nationalism dominated Middle East politics from the end of World War II until the Iranian revolution of 1979. Arab nationalism flourished once the collapse of the Ottoman Empire resolved the question of whether or not to remain loyal to an ethnically plural state. Although some Muslims pushed for reestablishment of the caliphate, most nationalists were caught up in the tide of secularism, actually anticlericalism, that had engulfed Turkey. The Baʿth Party was founded in 1947 on a platform of Arab national unity and separation of religion from public affairs. Some other groups, such as the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, espoused an Arab nationalism based on a single country. The Arabic term qawmiyya (from qawm, group of people) distinguishes this type of nationalism from wataniyya, which calls for political unity of all the Arab peoples. Gamal Abdel Nasser, considered by many the most popular and effective Arab nationalist leader, strove for Arab unity but also inspired Egyptians with the feeling that Egypt was the center of the Arab world.

Zionism, a Jewish nationalist movement that originated in Europe and embodied many European ideas, came into bitter conflict with Arab nationalism, whose leaders viewed the Zionist community in Palestine as a manifestation of European colonialism. The basic elements important to Zionismlanguage, religion, land, and identity as a peoplediffered little from those that are important to Arab nationalism.

Being farther removed geographically from European cultural influence, Iran did not manifest a strong nationalist identity until the postWorld War I period. Earlier anti-imperialist actions, such as the Tobacco Revolt of 1891 to 1893, engaged religious feelings as much as they did patriotic feelings. When the military commander Reza Khan assumed the throne as Reza Shah in 1925, he took the surname Pahlavi to indicate continuity with the pre-Islamic imperial past, since the word is normally used to designate the form of the Persian language spoken at that time. The Pahlavi dynasty promoted a nationalist ideology focused on the person of the ruler and the historical sequence of imperial Iranian dynasties. It emphasized the dominant role of Persians and of the Persian language in a multiethnic kingdom.

In 1950, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh became the focus of a strong nonroyal nationalist movement. Suppression of this movement on the shah's behalf by U.S. and British intelligence agencies detoured nationalist feelings in an antiroyal revolutionary direction. Thus the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1979 had a strong nationalist coloring along with its dominant religious ideology.

Some modern Muslim theorists maintain that nationalism can have no place in Islam because of the seamless unity of the umma, the community of Muslims. Observers of Middle Eastern politics often use the term religious nationalism to describe politically active Islamic movements. Proponents of current theories of nationalism often speak of the "peoples" for whom nationalist movements speak and act as "imagined communities." Rather than accepting nationalist myths proclaiming the unity of a particular tribal, ethnic, linguistic, or territorial group of people from time immemorial, these theorists emphasize that each factor adduced to explain or describe a group's national character is partly an invention of ideologues, a deliberate emphasis upon one or another characteristic that had not previously been considered so important. A new nationalism can thus develop whenever a community imagines itself as a unified entity deserving of special recognition. From this perspective, nationalism appears less as an immutable division of the human population into natural units than it does as an instrument for shaping and reshaping community identities and politics along varying lines. Consequently, the frequently posed question as to whether the new Middle Eastern states created after World War I would ever become genuine national communities (a question often answered in the affirmative in light of the loyal participation of Iraqi Shiʿa in Iraq's war with Shiʿite Iran) may be of little relevance in an unsettled region where communities of people may well reimagine their identities in future decades.

see also abdÜlhamit ii; arab nationalism; atatÜrk, mustafa kemal; baʿth, al-; committee for union and progress; gÖkalp, ziya; greek war of independence; iranian revolution (1979); kawakibi, abd al-rahman al-; mossadegh, mohammad; namik kemal; nasser, gamal abdel; pahlavi, reza; pan-turkism; syrian social nationalist party; tobacco revolt; wilson, woodrow; zionism.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Cottam, Richard. Nationalism in Iran: Updated through 1978, revised edition. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979.

Dawn, C. Ernest. From Ottomanism to Arabism: Essays on the Origins of Arab Nationalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Gökalp, Ziya. The Principles of Turkism, translated by Robert Devereux. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1968.

Haim, Sylvia, ed. Arab Nationalism: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17981939. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Khalidi, R., et al., eds. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Mardin, Serif. The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.

richard w. bulliet

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

Bulliet, Richard W.. "Nationalism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. 2004. 24 May. 2016 <>.

Bulliet, Richard W.. "Nationalism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. 2004. (May 24, 2016).

Bulliet, Richard W.. "Nationalism." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. 2004. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from


nationalism, political or social philosophy in which the welfare of the nation-state as an entity is considered paramount. Nationalism is basically a collective state of mind or consciousness in which people believe their primary duty and loyalty is to the nation-state. Often nationalism implies national superiority and glorifies various national virtues. Thus love of nation may be overemphasized; concern with national self-interest to the exclusion of the rights of other nations may lead to international conflict.

Nationalism is a comparatively recent phenomenon, probably born with the French Revolution, but despite its short history, it has been extremely important in forming the bonds that hold modern nations together. Today it operates alongside the legal structure and supplements the formal institutions of society in providing much of the cohesiveness and order necessary for the existence of the modern nation-state.

Necessary Conditions for Its Development

For people to express nationalism it is first necessary for them to identify themselves as belonging to a nation, that is, a large group of people who have something in common. The rise of centralized monarchies, which placed people under one rule and eliminated feudalism, made this possible. The realization that they might possess a common history, religion, language, or race also aided people in forming a national identity. When both a common identity and a formal authority structure over a large territory (i.e., the state) exist, then nationalism becomes possible.

In its first powerful manifestation in the French Revolution, nationalism carried with it the notion of popular sovereignty, from which some have inferred that nationalism can occur only in democratic nations. However, this thesis is belied by the intense nationalism that characterized the German Empire and later Nazi Germany. Where nationalism arises, its specific form is the product of each particular nation's history.


Early Developments

Although nationalism is unique to the modern world, some of its elements can be traced throughout history. The first roots of nationalism are probably to be found in the ancient Hebrews, who conceived of themselves as both a chosen people, that is, a people as a whole superior to all other peoples, and a people with a common cultural history. The ancient Greeks also felt superior to all other peoples and moreover felt a sense of great loyalty to the political community. These feelings of cultural superiority (ethnocentrism), which are similar to nationalism, gave way to much more universal identifications under the Roman Empire and with the Christian Church through its teaching of the oneness of humanity.

As strong centralized monarchies were built from petty feudal states, as regional languages and art forms were evolved, and as local economies widened, popular identification with these developments became increasingly strong. In areas such as Italy, which were not yet single nations, recurring invasions led such thinkers as Niccolò Machiavelli to advocate national political federation. The religious wars of the Reformation set nation against nation, though the strongest loyalty continued to adhere to the sovereign. In the 16th and 17th cent. the nationalistic economic doctrine of mercantilism appeared.

The growth of the middle classes, their desire for political power, and the consequent development of democratic political theory were closely connected with the emergence of modern nationalism. The theorists of the French Revolution held that people should establish governments of equality and liberty for everyone. To them the nation was inseparable from the people, and for the first time in history a people could create a government in accordance with the nation's general will. Although their aims were universal, they glorified the nation that would establish their aims, and nationalism found its first political expression.

The Nineteenth Century

It was in the 19th cent. that nationalism became a widespread and powerful force. During this time nationalism expressed itself in many areas as a drive for national unification or independence. The spirit of nationalism took an especially strong hold in Germany, where thinkers such as Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte had developed the idea of Volk. However, the nationalism that inspired the German people to rise against the empire of Napoleon I was conservative, tradition-bound, and narrow rather than liberal, progressive, and universal. And when the fragmented Germany was finally unified as the German Empire in 1871, it was a highly authoritarian and militarist state. After many years of fighting, Italy also achieved national unification and freedom from foreign domination, but certain areas inhabited by Italians (e.g., Trieste) were not included in the new state, and this gave rise to the problem of irredentism. In the United States, where nationalism had evinced itself in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, national unity was maintained at the cost of the Civil War.

In the latter half of the 19th cent., there were strong nationalist movements among the peoples subject to the supranational Austrian and Ottoman empires, as there were in Ireland under British rule, and in Poland under Russian rule. At the same time, however, with the emergence in Europe of strong, integrated nation-states, nationalism became increasingly a sentiment of conservatives. It was turned against such international movements as socialism, and it found outlet in pursuit of glory and empire (see imperialism). Nationalist conflicts had much to do with bringing on World War I.

The Twentieth Century

The early 20th cent., with the breakup of Austria-Hungary and of the Ottoman Empire, saw the establishment of many independent nations, especially through the peace treaties ending World War I. The Paris Peace Conference established the principle of national self-determination, upheld by the League of Nations and later by the United Nations. While self-determination is a nationalist principle, it also recognizes the basic equality of all nations, large or small, and therefore transcends a narrow nationalism that claims superiority for itself.

It was exactly this latter type of nationalism, however, that arose in Nazi Germany, preaching the superiority of the so-called Aryan race and the need for the extermination of the Jews and the enslavement of Slavic peoples in their "living space" (see National Socialism). Italian fascism was in a similar manner based on extreme nationalist sentiments. At the same time, Asian and African colonial territories, seeking to cast off imperial bonds, were developing nationalist movements. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Indian National Congress, which struggled for Indian independence for over 60 years. After World War II nationalism in Asia and Africa spread at such a fast pace that dozens of new "nations" were created from former colonial territorial holdings.

Although interdependence and global communications interconnected all nations by the 1990s, nationalism appears to have grown more extreme with the breakup of the Soviet empire, the growth of Muslim fundamentalism, and the collapse of Yugoslavia. Xenophobic, separatist movements are not necessarily confined to newly independent states; they appear in many European nations and Canada, as well as India, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and many others. International organizations, such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Organization for African Unity, represent attempts to curb extreme nationalism, stressing cooperation among nations.


See H. Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism (1944, repr. 1967) and Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (rev. ed. 1965); E. H. Carr, Nationalism and After (1945); L. L. Snyder, The Meaning of Nationalism (1954, repr. 1968); A. Smith, Theories of Nationalism (1971); A. D. Smith, Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (1979); B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983); E. A. Tiryakian and R. Rogowski, ed., New Nationalisms of the Developed West (1985); J. Breuilly, Nationalism and the State (1985); L. L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of Nationalism (1990).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"nationalism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. 24 May. 2016 <>.

"nationalism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. (May 24, 2016).

"nationalism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from


nationalism Sentiment, aspiration, and consciousness are all terms applied to what constitutes nationalism, or the valuation of the nation-state above all else. However, it also entails certain assumptions about the will to self-determination, the existence and indeed desirability of diversity, the superiority of the sovereign state over other forms of rule, and the centrality of national loyalty to political power as a basic form of legitimation. Authors as diverse as Émile Durkheim and Lenin have argued that the prerequisite of genuine, solidaristic internationalism is mature nationalism, which alone recognizes the commonalities of diversity. However, others maintain the concept involves spurious notions of natural boundaries, and merely provides a convenient political epithet for both Left and Right alike (see A. D. Smith , Theories of Nationalism, 2nd edn., 1983, and National Identity, 1991

Variants of nationalism have tended to move away from the German version associated with the writings of J. G. Herder, which stressed the organic unity and ties of a nation, emphasizing subordination to the whole (in this case the state), a sense of mission, national purity, and the soul of a nation. This form of organic nationalism was more affectual than other West European rational associational nationalisms. There were also differences between German and Slav nationalisms, the latter tied to liberationist mobilization rather than irredentism, and to a nationalist intelligentsia rather than the whole people or Volk.

In his classic book on The Idea of Nationalism (1945), Hans Kohn distinguishes ‘Western’ type nationalism of the kind that emerged in England and France during the period 1600–1800 from the ‘Eastern’ type of nationalism which appeared in later centuries. In the former case, the nation is identified with the masses and with popular forms of politics, and thus serves to provide a cultural justification for an already existing political structure. In the latter, nationalism is used to justify the creation of nation-states in economically and politically less-developed parts of the world, by redrawing political boundaries in conformity with ethnographic demands—in other words it provides a justification for the invention of states and political processes. This distinction, like most other subsequent typologies of nationalism, serves descriptive and normative purposes; that is, it both classifies the types of nationalism found in the modern world, and simultaneously declares these to be politically valuable or dangerous forms. The Western variant is authentic, liberal, democratic, and good, while the Eastern is alien, ethnic, racist, and generally bad.

A similar, subsequent, and currently controversial typology distinguishes between ‘civic nationalism’ and ‘ethnic nationalism’ (see for example Liah Greenfeld , Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, 1992
). The former equates nationality with citizenship; is defined primarily in political or legal terms; implies a commitment (embraced voluntarily) to certain duties and rights; and can therefore be acquired and lost. The concept of civic nationalism means that some individuals can be without a nationality at all. Ethnic nationality, on the other hand, is rooted in biological necessity rather than individual choice. It runs in families and is believed to be an inherited characteristic. People are born into a particular nationality, which then determines their interests, sentiments, and sense of attachment to a particular nation. This distinction is appealing to many Western and liberal observers, because it allows them to differentiate between the idea of a freely chosen, politically decent nationalism (such as one might find in the civic pride of Americans), and the nationalism that celebrates inherited cultural identity (of the type that is found in, and causes conflict within, many East European countries).

Many of the typologies of nationalism have been accused of being Eurocentric, and of failing to address Latin American and emerging African post-colonial nationalisms, and the artificiality of imperially imposed boundaries upon tribal lands which were more fluid than the nation-states which followed.

Some writers have suggested that nationalism is itself a modern religion—or is at least akin to what elsewhere in sociology has been called a civil (or civic) religion. Indeed, there are specifically ‘religious nationalisms’, associated mainly with Islam and Judaism but evident also in, for example, the recent histories of Poland and Ireland (where Roman Catholicism has formed a central element in the national—secular—identity). Others maintain that nationalism is an essentially secular form of consciousness, so that the most which can be claimed is a functional equivalence between religion and nationalism.

Some accounts of nationalism appear deterministic. For example, Ernest Gellner's writings (see Nations and Nationalism, 1983
) suggest that history can be seen as a succession of changing technologies, each of which generates the need for a specific socio-political order, and that nationalism is the style of politics that is best suited to the current (industrial) technology (because industrial societies, unlike agrarian ones, need homogeneous languages and culture in order to work efficiently). According to Gellner, ‘a man without a nation … provokes revulsion’, so where nationalism does not exist it is (as it were) necessary to invent it. In Gellner's account, emphasis is placed less on spontaneous collective aspirations (of the ‘civic’ kind) or culture (‘ethnic’ considerations), than upon the deliberate (and necessary) nation-building policies of government élites (or aspirant governments), pursued by means of public education and the culture industries. Perhaps not surprisingly Gellner's account has been criticized as materialist and functionalist. In social psychology, the social identity theory (SIT) of Henri Tajfel (see Human Groups and Social Categories, 1981
) and his associates traces nationalism to (possibly innate) human tendencies to affiliate in social groups, and then act in furtherance of these groups. Within this particular research paradigm, social identities are viewed as integral aspects of an overall sense of self; those rooted in racial or national groups are found to be particularly important for self-esteem; and so it is difficult for people not to think nationalistically, to feel loyalties to their given (even if ‘imagined’) national community, and to pursue its particular interests against those of other nation-states. (For a summary of SIT research in European social psychology see Michael A. Hogg and and Dominic Abrams , Group Identifications, 1988

The post-communist transformations in Russia and Central Europe raise the possibility of examining hypotheses about the relationships between nation-building, in terms of the search for new sources of social identification, and the advent of capitalism. In particular, the ‘value vacuum’ created by the collapse of official Marxism-Leninism has provided for a burgeoning of nationalist and populist ideologies, although these often refer to the nationalism of ‘small nations’ which do not possess the attributes necessary for full-blown nationalism.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

GORDON MARSHALL. "nationalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. 24 May. 2016 <>.

GORDON MARSHALL. "nationalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. (May 24, 2016).

GORDON MARSHALL. "nationalism." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from


nationalism is a sense of shared identity and loyalty, based upon common history, language, culture, and traditions. Though it has much in common with religious and local loyalties, it may be distinguished since it almost invariably aims to be the basis of government. Its origins and development have been much disputed, since different attributes may appear at different times, and progress towards national self-determination is unlikely to be regular and uneventful. Within the same nation there often exist severe disagreements and deep enmities. To separate nationalism from regionalism or particularism is difficult and often depends upon the eye of the observer. Yorkshire is clearly not a nation, though it has 5 million people and well-defined characteristics: Denmark and Catalonia, with 5 and 6 million, clearly are nations.

The tendency of recent scholarship has been to see the roots of European nationalisms deep in the past rather than regarding them as essentially 19th-cent. phenomena. A sense of English nationalism seems to have developed in the 9th cent. during the campaigns to drive back the Danes, though for centuries mistrust between Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia persisted. English nationalism was reinforced after 1066 by resentment of Norman-French domination. But ironically the Normans did much to create a powerful state, which the English succeeded in recapturing in the 13th and 14th cents. The thrust of Norman advance into other regions of the British Isles stimulated rival nationalisms in turn. The military campaigns led by Wallace and Robert I Bruce, culminating in the declaration of Arbroath (1320), and those in Wales led by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and Glyndŵr gained wide popular support because they convinced many people that they fought to liberate Scotsmen and Welshmen from English oppression.

From the personal union of England and Scotland in 1603, and more particularly from the governmental union in 1707, efforts were made to encourage a sense of British nationalism. While accompanied by military success, imperial achievement, and economic growth, it flourished. In the 20th cent., and especially after 1945, as economic and political problems multiplied, the concept of British nationalism faltered and Celtic nationalist parties began to have success. Ironically, the Conservative Party, which has always drawn most of its support from England, strongly endorsed British nationalism, with its identification with the monarchy and its use of the Union Jack. Conversely, a completely independent Scotland and Wales (without representation at Westminster) could well be a fatal blow to the electoral chances of the Labour Party.

Ireland always presented problems for the idea of a British people to parallel a British state. The link between protestantism and Britishness made governments reluctant to let the catholic majority in Ireland share the rights upon which popular Britishness became based, while the willingness of some catholics to look to Spain, France, or Germany for assistance encouraged the English to regard them as potential traitors. In addition, many members of the protestant ascendancy developed an Irish identity of their own and campaigns for increased powers for the Irish Parliament were led in the 18th cent. by protestants like Grattan and Wolfe Tone. They were inhibited however from playing the Irish card too strongly by their ambivalence towards the catholic Irish and by their need for English assistance should there be another catholic revolt.

Concessions to the Irish catholics after the Act of Union of 1801 (‘too little, too late’ is the easy cliché) failed to prevent the growth of a more militant Irish nationalism, which in turn led to the development of protestant resistance to Home Rule (‘loyalism’) and ultimately to the partition of Ireland in 1921. In Northern Ireland, the existence of a large catholic minority, with powerful friends, meant that ethnic nationalism remained the basis of politics, the protestant majority justifying discrimination on the grounds that the catholics were dangerous aliens. But since the claims of Ulster protestants to be British were based on views of religion and history that had waning appeal on the mainland, they were frequently disappointed in the support they could expect and constantly haunted by fear of a British betrayal.

In Wales, the survival of the Welsh language gave a cultural focus to nationalism. In the 19th cent. dissatisfaction with the power of Anglicized landlords and the privileged position of the Anglican church was used by the Liberal Party to mobilize a Welsh-speaking population, already undergoing a cultural revival. The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, inhibited at first by the predominance of English-speaking in south Wales, made considerable inroads in the 1990s, returning four MPs to Westminster at the general election of 1997, and claiming seventeen seats in the 60-strong Welsh Assembly in 1999.

Nationalism in modern Scotland emerged as the autonomy of civil society and local government obtained by the Act of Union of 1707 began to be eroded by the increased speed of communications, the integration of the British economy, and the expansion of the Westminster government's powers of intervention. The resentment of Whitehall, found in many regions, could take a nationalist form in Scotland. But although agitation secured the re-establishment of a Scottish secretary in the cabinet (1885) and led to the foundation of a Scottish Home Rule Association (1886), Scottish nationalism did not mobilize the masses. Scotland in the early 20th cent. turned increasingly to Labour, which had powerful reasons for not pursuing Scottish nationalism à l'outrance. Conservative and Labour lack of interest in Home Rule led to the foundation of the National Party of Scotland (1928), which metamorphosed into the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1934.

Increasing dislike of economic and political centralization, and optimism that North Sea oil could provide a rosy future, led the SNP to shock by-election victories at Hamilton (1967) and Govan (1973). At the October 1974 general election, the SNP took 30 per cent of the Scottish vote and eleven seats. Although the SNP's challenge declined after the inconclusive devolution referendum in 1979, the Thatcher years were widely seen in Scotland as government by an English nationalist, and the Conservatives struggled to retain a single Scottish seat. The SNP gained six seats at Westminster in the general election of 1997, and 35 seats out of 129 in the Scottish Parliament, elected in 1999.

In the 21st cent. the effect of devolution upon nationalism remains unresolved. In eastern Europe and the Balkans small nations continue to assert their right to independence, while many economic forces throughout the world appear to make national boundaries increasingly irrelevant. English nationalists are faced with a war on two fronts. While their influence on the Celtic fringes is being challenged, the impact upon their own sovereignty of Brussels and the European Community increases.

Christopher N. Lanigan/ and Professor J. A. Cannon

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

JOHN CANNON. "nationalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. 24 May. 2016 <>.

JOHN CANNON. "nationalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. (May 24, 2016).

JOHN CANNON. "nationalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from


289. Nationalism

See also 10. ALLEGIANCE .

a belief in the innate superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race.
a zealous and belligerent patriotism. chauvinist, n. chauvinistic, adj.
1. the attitudes and behavior of a good citizen.
2. Obsolete, devotion to the cause of the French Revolution.
a fanaticism favoring ethnic or racial autonomy. ethnomaniac, n., adj.
the characteristic of being Gaelic.
extreme or eccentric national loyalty that is hostile to the interests of any other nation. jingo, jingoist, n. jingoistic, adj.
the militaristic, authoritarian spirit or character of the East Prussian aristocracy. Junker, n., adj.
devotion to ones mother country.
1. the spirit or aspirations of a country.
2. a devotion to the interests of ones own country.
3. a desire for national advancement.
4. the policy of asserting the interest of ones own nation, as separate from the interest of another nation and the common interest of all nations. nationalist, n., adj. nationalistic, adj.
the custom or policy of favoring nativeborn citizens over immigrants, as in the awarding of government jobs. See also 312. PHILOSOPHY . nativist, n. nativistic, adj.
excessive patriotism.
the idea that all Teutonic peoples should be joined in a union. Pan-Teutonist, n. Pan-Teutonic, adj.
a devoted love, support, and defense of ones country; national loyalty. patriot, n. patriotic, adj.
excessive patriotism. superpatriot, n. superpatriotic, adj.
excessive or extreme nationalism. ultranationalist, n. ultranationalist ie, adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nationalism." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. 24 May. 2016 <>.

"Nationalism." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. (May 24, 2016).

"Nationalism." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from



Nationalism is a movement in which the citizens of a nation-state demonstrate a clear loyalty and devotion to the specific social, economic, and cultural interests of their nation, often to the exclusion of international interests. The predominant characteristic of nationalism is a sense of community among citizens of a nation based on a shared descent, language, and religion. Nationalism is also closely associated with the desire for national independence in a country that is under foreign domination. It was not until the eighteenth century that nationalism emerged as a distinctive movement. Before then, loyalty was usually pledged to either a ruling family or a religion.

Nationalism evolved through advances in technology, culture, politics, and economic circumstances. An increase in the education of the lower classes provided them with knowledge of their common history and culture beyond their villages and enabled them to identify themselves as members of a larger nation. With the development of industry and trade, cities and provinces were able to extend their economies outside of previous local geographic boundaries. By the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution helped spread economic development, which increased the middle class and lead to a desire for representative government at the national level. Nationalistic symbols such as holidays commemorating national events of historical significance also arose. In the United States, nationalism is essentially based on representative government and the concept of individual liberty as put forth in the Declaration of Independence.

See also: American Revolution, Imperialism

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nationalism." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. 2000. 24 May. 2016 <>.

"Nationalism." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. 2000. (May 24, 2016).

"Nationalism." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. 2000. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from


nationalism Ideology according to which all people owe a supreme loyalty to their nation and which holds that each nation should be embodied in a separate state. Nationalist sentiment, drawing upon and extolling a common culture, language and history, can be a powerful unifying force. With the possible exception of national independence movements against colonialism and imperialism, nationalism is essentially conservative.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"nationalism." World Encyclopedia. 2005. 24 May. 2016 <>.

"nationalism." World Encyclopedia. 2005. (May 24, 2016).

"nationalism." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from


na·tion·al·ism / ˈnashənəˌlizəm/ • n. patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts. ∎  an extreme form of this, esp. marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries. ∎  advocacy of political independence for a particular country: Palestinian nationalism.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"nationalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. 24 May. 2016 <>.

"nationalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. (May 24, 2016).

"nationalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from



This entry includes five subentries:

Cultural Nationalism
Middle East
Nationalism in Music, Europe and the United States

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nationalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. 24 May. 2016 <>.

"Nationalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. (May 24, 2016).

"Nationalism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. Retrieved May 24, 2016 from

Facts and information from other sites