What older societies expressed in myth, custom, and tradition, Americans established through scholarship, in a heroic effort to sustain a national character and national consciousness that were often more ephemeral and certainly more elusive than they may at first have appeared or than Americans have been wont to believe…


There is nothing new in an attempt to define America as a nation. With varying degrees of enthusiasm and success, the topic has been the focus of both scholarly and popular historical writing since at least the early nineteenth century.[*] Geographic, ethnic, racial, and to a lesser extent religious, diversity, to say nothing of ongoing debates about federalism—questions of whether the national or the state governments are primary—have complicated the discussion. Yet, notwithstanding these impediments, to say nothing of the periodic crises that the United States has endured, most notably the Civil War, Americans have asserted their national unity and affirmed their national identity, even declaring that in its origins, history, and character America is exceptional among the nations of the earth. The task I have set for myself in this and subsequent essays to be published throughout the year, or for as long as the editor of The Imaginative Conservative will put up with me, is to question (to question, not to deny) the reality of American nationalism and exceptionalism during the first half of the twentieth century.

The writing of American history has for the most part reinforced the image and status of the United States as a cohesive nation and an international power, while also bolstering the utopian promise of individual equality, opportunity, and freedom supposed to be at the core of American national life. The prevailing assumption has long been that during the twentieth century the United States was reliably unified. Victory in the First and especially in the Second World War helped to confirm this judgment. During the nineteenth century, the growth of national political parties, the expansion of the national government, and the emergence of a national market determined the contours of a modern national state that, in time, transcended regional autonomy, though historians dutifully assigned to the South and the West their roles in creating the nation. With few exceptions, these nationalist historians have tended to associate nationalism with centralization and centralization with progress. What older societies expressed in myth, custom, and tradition, Americans established through scholarship, in a heroic effort to sustain a national character and national consciousness that were often more ephemeral and certainly more elusive than they may at first have appeared or than Americans have been wont to believe.

Political debate further convinced many Americans that centralization and decentralization were the only viable options around which to organize public life. Americans had to make a choice. As a consequence, there were those who came to regard political and economic centralization as the best, if not the only, means to ensure prosperity, stability, equality, and justice. Others, by contrast, associated centralization with the rise of the managerial state, the triumph of economic globalism, and the threat of bureaucratic dictatorship. For them, decentralization alone guaranteed freedom of choice, reinforced democracy, and protected individualism. This defense of local arrangements and prerogatives may have exposed the worst inefficiencies and abuses of a centralized bureaucracy and, at its finest, ensured the triumph of liberty and independence for the states and individuals alike. But throughout the twentieth century, the converse has also just as often been true. Far from being uniformly tyrannical, the national government and its bureaucratic apparatus have restrained those who surrendered their intelligence, their conscience, and their responsibility to the madness of bigotry, the longing for vengeance, and the will to dominate.

At the same time, any discussion of American nationalism is rendered more complicated by the dilemma that lies at the heart of the American experience. Beneath the surface of this utopian Republic lurks a tragic flaw, a defect that is beyond reform, beyond repentance, beyond redemption: the stubborn and enduring commitment to autonomous individualism. Devotion to the individual has limited Americans’ ability to act from, and for, the common good. The ethos of individualism has frequently explained and justified the exploitation, carnage, and brutality attendant upon American national development, the savaging of workers, blacks, Indians, and immigrants. It has enabled those who succeeded to insist that they deserved their success, in particular that they owed all that they had accomplished to their virtue and talent alone. By implication, those who failed deserved to fail because of some unfortunate and hopeless deficiency. They were lazy, weak, stupid, indulgent, or careless. Individuals, most Americans agreed, must enjoy absolute freedom to struggle, compete, succeed, or fail according to their own individual merits.

Individualism is the American siren song. It has lured millions to these shores on a quest for freedom and wealth that proved unattainable to all but a few. Unfettered individualism is the American dream and the American curse. The continued defense of individualism has nullified the regulatory powers of the state to the extent that even prudent legislation to curtail gun violence, to provide basic health care, and to safeguard the planet now seem beyond our capacity to effect. As long as such uncritical devotion to individualism prevails, Americans will not solve these problems, or so at least I have become convinced. For individualism is also the lifeblood of American democracy. It is indispensable to the conception of government of, by, and for the people—a government that is responsive to, and that strives to meet the demands of, its citizens. Individualism is the American creed.

By the late nineteenth century, changes in the nature of American society and the status of the United States in the world required a new devotion to the nation of the sort that Americans had traditionally regarded with suspicion. Although some Americans, and not only in the South, continued to invoke state rights against the encroachments of the national government, the rise of industry, the advance of technology, and the growth of international power virtually compelled the American people to accept, or better perhaps to acquiesce in, the development of the vibrant nationalism that their leaders thought it necessary to establish and maintain. As a consequence, by the early twentieth century the United States was already coming to resemble Europe, as Americans discovered that they had to confront the problems that earlier generations had fled to the New World to escape. As the frustrations of having to adapt and adjust to the world continued to mount throughout the century, Americans tried to clarify their differences from the rest of the world, and despaired when others challenged or rejected those attitudes, purposes, and ideals, not least the vaunted American commitment to democracy.

For European liberals during the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States had been the harbinger of democracy, the model of what the future could and should be. By the end of the century, that vision of the future had changed. A younger cadre of social thinkers and activists wondered whether democracy any longer remained viable. Intractable poverty, discrimination, and injustice, apparently perpetuated by the very political and legal systems that they had once hailed as the salvation of the modern world, had encouraged their skepticism. In addition, whatever humane motives Americans may have thought guided their forays into international affairs, the United States had come to wield a power that occasioned many at home and abroad to distrust American intentions and to re-examine American values.

Even more confounding, American leaders often seemed confused, uncertain, and irresolute. They, by turns, embraced and refused power and the obligations that accompanied it. They sought at once to rule the world and to retreat from it. This indecision distinguished the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. But even the reluctant embrace of power had already foreclosed the option of withdrawal that Americans still imagined was available to them. Vacillation and hesitancy may have rendered American policy, and the American response to world crises, flexible and pragmatic but also erratic and unpredictable. As a consequence, Americans proved to be something of an enigma, difficult to understand and explain, even to themselves.

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*Interested readers will be hard pressed to find a better brief but thoughtful introduction to the subject than Wilfred M. McClay, A Student’s Guide to U.S. History (Wilmington, DE, 2000).

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Birth of Old Glory” (c. 1917) by Edward Percy Moran (1862-1935), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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