American Character and Identity

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From the day that the United States won its independence, thoughtful Americans have attempted to define the new national identity that the Peace of Paris invited. Splendid scholars, especially in the early years of the twenty-first century, have traced the emergence of such an identity. Their ingenuity has enriched America's understanding of its nascent national character. And yet, in the end, their endeavor has been doomed. It has asked how national attachments came to supersede parochial ones when in fact they did not. It has presumed that American identity was focused when in fact it was fractured, and it has predicated the primacy of politics among a people preoccupied with social and economic issues.

American allegiances in the new nation, as ever since, were multiple and kaleidoscopic. But the most meaningful senses of selfhood and the most absorbing identity adventures, for most citizens of the early Republic, were simply not political. National identity and local identities alike were paltry parts of the personality. Other self-conceptions mattered much more.

Concerns for career and for the attainment of affluence or advancement preoccupied the citizenry of the infant nation. And such concerns were never narrowly utilitarian. Self-made men and women ventured creatively into the void, inventing themselves as they made social space for their unprecedented enterprises. Masking and its attendant risks were then, as they have been since, the business of American businessmen. Confidence men and painted women were more than mere calculating creatures. They always had to contemplate at least a little the meaning of their masks for the meaning of their existence.

Social identities similarly transcended the utilitarian, as surely as national political identities did and far more powerfully. To be a Methodist in 1790 was, in many places, to risk rejection in the family and ostracism in the community. To be a Methodist circuit-rider in 1800 was, everywhere, to court early death. And yet Methodism grew far faster, in the early Republic, than nationalism ever did, though the movement proclaimed openly its indifference to politics and its insistence that the blessings of "scriptureholiness" were "infinitely more valuable than any which the revolution of states can possibly afford" (Andrews, p. 81).

To cross the mountains in Conestoga wagons, to expect the end of the world, to ply steamboats on the western rivers, to oppose slavery, or to envision canals connecting the interior to the coastal ports was often more visionary, more ethically or spiritually charged, than to effect a continental identity or promulgate a nationalistic ideology in that era. Even to migrate to Spanish Mexico, to support the Hartford Convention, to urge nullification, or to "conspire" to detach the trans-Appalachian west from the United States was often more daring and less crassly advantageous than to espouse a mild, modest nationalism.

The discussion of identity in the new Republic has historically been carried on in two very different ways. In the one that has overwhelmingly engaged them, historians have studied the emergence of explicit sentiments vaunting American nationality. This is the ancient cosmopolitan project that still sets the terms of the national narrative. This is the saga of "the architects of the early American Republic," with its emphasis on the epic and exemplary confrontations of Federalists and anti-Federalists, of Jefferson and Hamilton, of Marbury and Madison. It is, at bottom, tautological.

In the other, historians have not taken for granted the reality of the formation they say they study. They ask more empirically about the actual identities of Americans. They address the energies and obsessions of the people as they find them—their inveterate westering, their volatile conversion to and back-sliding from the proliferous denominations of the early Republic, their rabid antipathy to Indians, Catholics, Masons, African Americans—and wonder where the thread of national identity fits amid these more limited yet perhaps more urgent identities.

To be sure, historians cannot ignore elite politics and elite political culture in this empirical inquest. There may have been ways in which a nascent national identification might have mattered for a multitude of Americans. Perhaps "an allegiance to the young republic" provided people a modicum of permanence in a world in which many of their other identities changed and churned. No matter how often they moved, abandoning one local and even one regional identity for another; no matter how often they converted, forsaking one church for another, finding faith and backsliding from it; no matter how often they changed employment or occupation, or social standing, or political party—they remained Americans. Perhaps that anchorage afforded them some sustaining reassurance that they did belong, abidingly, in a society increasingly incapable of conferring a secure sense of place.

And perhaps an emergent American attachment allowed them a comforting conviction that they could still find moral bearings in a world where solid ground seemed more and more to slip away. A disembodied imagining of a national community could carry ethical aspirations difficult to embody in everyday life. It could offset the priority on imagemanagement of the schemers and scammers who swarmed the cities and the countryside alike in the mobile young Republic. It could elevate the sordid scuffle for wealth that was exacerbated by the expansion of the market. It could redeem the quiet desperation that so many observers saw in the early nineteenth century.

But such uses of national allegiance could only provide solace. They could not provide the citizens of the new nation a dominant or decisive sense of themselves.

Political independence did, inevitably, thrust a sort of American identity on men and women who had not previously seen themselves as distinctive. It forced them to forge a sense of special peoplehood after the fact. It drove them, all unprepared, to devise a community and character worthy of the sudden, surprising fact of having a name and being a nation.

In the first fervency of independence, spokesmen expected American distinctiveness to appear automatically. They affirmed again and again their sublime faith that, once free of British fetters, an authentic republican character would manifest itself.

In the ensuing decades, nothing happened. Despite summons upon summons to an indigenous national literature, or art, or music or drama or poetry or architecture—despite plaintive exhortation upon plaintive exhortation to the cultivation of native genius in mathematics, or science, or natural history—virtually no consequential artistry or ideation came forth in the half-century after independence.

The implication grew inescapable. Contrary to the fevered rhetoric of the rebels in the last years of their quarrel with the mother country, the edicts that emanated from Whitehall had not inhibited a surging cultural creativity that waited to well up as soon as colonial constraints could be shed. A distinctive delineation of America would not bubble forth of its own accord.

If there was to be a definition of a national identity, it would have to be contrived, and its concoction would inevitably serve the purposes of people with the power to promote it. The promulgation of an American exceptionalism would be, as the scholar Michael Lind has argued, the province of Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

But Anglo-Saxon Protestant nationalism was not, as Lind thought, a natural formation, arising from a population itself preponderantly Anglo-Saxon and evangelical. Only an ever-diminishing minority of Americans in the first generations after independence were English. Only a scant tithe were evangelical Protestants, in a country in which just one adult in five affiliated himself (or, more likely, herself) with any church at all.

Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity would be an ideological imposition on an American people who were not themselves English evangelicals and who had not themselves shown any notable aptitude for fathoming their own uniqueness or indeed any apparent possession of such uniqueness. Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity would express the ideological interests of a special stratum of society. Exactly as ideology, it would be thin and abstract. It would never engage conscientiously the distinctive elements of American life that did not serve its celebratory agenda or its persuasive purposes.

Although Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity would exhibit the very disposition to extremity and excess that had always colored American experience, it would never acknowledge that disposition as a constituent of the national character. It would never face up to the new nation's racism, hedonism, violence, conformism, materialism, or amoralism. It would never grapple with the polarities, paradoxes, and horrors with which the early Republic struggled. It would never be an irresistible emanation of the masses—a vast, vague expression of their aspirations and anxieties—so much as a conscious construction of a few.

Precisely as a project of a small cadre of elite Anglo-Protestant males, the fabrication of American identity served psychic needs felt by few others in the new nation. Most men of the early Republic knew men by the work they did: the physical labor of tilling the soil, or working wood or leather, or crossing the mountains or sailing the seas. Even the planters of the old South, who consigned conventional men's work to their slaves, still marked their masculinity by riding horses, fighting duels, and scourging subalterns with the lash. But the leisured men of the North who worked with words, following the "feminine" callings of imagining and writing, needed a facade of "masculine" function to muffle their unease.

As much as the nascent nationalism afforded a muscular posture to such scribbling men, it provided even more to the richer and more powerful men in whose cultural and material interests they wrote. The "cause of America," as one publicist called this new nationalism, promoted the prerogatives of the cosmopolitan few against the parochial many. Its celebration of the political economy of Lockean liberalism recast the claims of clan and community, which had long mattered mightily in the New World, as inauthentically American. Its exaltation of entrepreneurial capitalism as the special genius of the new nation discredited tradition and the entitlements that had always attended it.

American identity as it was inscribed in the epoch after independence cannot be understood in its own words, for those words did not arise from the citizenry. They represented, rather, an enthusiasm of an elite that grasped clearly that the individualism it exhorted had indeed to be exhorted. Americans had to be taught to love the market and their own selfishness in it. They had to learn to be the Americans whom their mentors so stridently told them they were. They had to be pried loose from their very real attachments to family and to fellows, if America was to become the society that the bankers, merchants, and manufacturers envisioned.

Of course, those cosmopolitan entrepreneurial elites were prepared to use the power of the law to teach, and to teach, in truth, more compellingly than the cosmopolitan intellectuals who deployed their prose in the same tutelary campaign. But the mass of Americans remained reluctant students. Unrooted individualism and unabashed enterprise could not constitute American identity until they triumphed over contrary cultural traditions of great power and attractiveness. They did not do so in the era of the early Republic, except among those who talked among themselves.

See alsoAmerica and the World; Citizenship; Economic Development; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Founding Fathers; Individualism; Naming of the Nation; National Symbols; Nationalism; Politics: Political Culture; Press, The; Print Culture; Religion: Overview; Work: Work Ethic .


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Michael Zuckerman