nationalismI have often required my students on the first day or two of class to use the Oxford English Dictionary and define the following words: nation and state. Most do not follow my directions and submit a modern Webster’s or online distortion of the word, and those who use the Oxford often fail to provide the etymology of either word. I can’t fault them for that, because they have probably been taught since first grade in the public “school” system to submit the first definition they find. Thus, the common results of the activity are similar to the following:

Nation – noun: a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own. (from

State – noun: the territory, or one of the territories, of a government. (from

How profound, statist…and completely absurd! If both are true, than the United States should simply be the “United State.” A state is simply a “territory…of a government”? A nation is simply a large body of people that occupy a territory? That would be news to the founding generation. Of course, a careful reading of the history of both words could correct this mess and place the Union of the States within its proper historical context.

The word “nation” found its way into the English language around the 14th century. Under the old definition, a nation was a group of people who shared a similar racial, cultural, or religious background that often included elements such as a common language. A State was a sovereign political entity, not simply a “territory…of a government.” By viewing the United States through that lens it becomes clear that modern definitions of nation and state are the product of centralization and the mischaracterization of the federal government as a “national government.”

Certainly no one in the founding generation would have argued that Virginia and Massachusetts possessed the same cultural heritage. Virginia, with its strong Cavalier tradition, and Massachusetts, with its Puritan or roundhead foundations, were clearly at odds during the seventeenth century and beyond. The two colonies may have been populated by white, English Christians and who shared a common language, “English,” but as David Hackett Fischer beautifully explained in his Albion’s Seed, the two cultures were diametrically opposed in almost every conceivable way. From dress to food to speech, Virginia Cavaliers and Massachusetts Yankees were in many ways two separate nations, not simply separate cultures. The “shining city upon a hill” Puritans and their decedents never let Southerners forget their differences, nor did Southerners want to be lumped together with self-righteous Yankees. William Berkeley, the dominant figure in Virginia during the seventeenth century, despised Puritans and fought against them in the English Civil War. Later American sectionalism was little more than an explicit recognition of cultural differences and the existence of separate nations in North America dating to the early days of English settlement.

Adding to this American cultural cornucopia were the Celts, the Quakers, American Indian tribes, and African slaves, groups that had interesting and culturally significant contributions to the fabric of their respective regions as well. Thus, America in the colonial period was “multicultural” in a way that extended beyond race or religion. Western civilization and the English tradition dominated, but separate nations blotted the North American landscape. One of the most respected American historians on slavery, Eugene Genovese, wrote this about American culture in his Roll, Jordan, Roll: “Blacks and whites in America may be viewed as one nation or two, or as a nation within a nation, but their common history guarantees that, one way or another, they are both American.” This statement accentuates the point that the phrase “American nation” is a rhetorical fabrication of the last 150 years of American history.

This was not lost on the founding generation. John Adams once wrote that, “I expressly say that Congress is not a representative body but a diplomatic body, a collection of ambassadors from thirteen sovereign States….” Each state had its own political and cultural life and each was “sovereign.” Robert Yates, writing as Brutus in 1787, observed that “In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this not be the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other.” If applied to the United States, Yates concluded that:

The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the union are very variant, and their interests of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident. The laws and customs of the several states are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite; each would be in favor of its own interests and customs, and, of consequence, a legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would not only be too numerous to act with any care of decision, but would be composed of such heterogeneous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.

Of course, there were “nationalists” in the early federal period, but even they often understood that if the United States contained several nations rather than one, it would be better to separate than to consolidate. Gouverneur Morris, one of the most important “nationalists” (and womanizers) of this era, made the following statement during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, “But, to come more to the point – either this distinction [between the Northern and Southern States] is fictitious or real; if fictitious, let it be dismissed, and let us proceed with due confidence. If it be real, instead of attempting to blend incompatible things, let us at once take a friendly leave of each other. There can be no end of demands for security, if every particular interest is to be entitled to it.” And George Washington, often showcased as a fine example of the early “nationalists” and the glue that held the States together, said this about the people of Massachusetts in the early days of the War for Independence, “There is no nation under the sun that pays more adoration to money than they do.”

pig-ffStates’ rights and the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution were intended to protect this cultural distinctiveness, and secession was often seen as the only hedge against aggression from other States or sections. This is why the three most powerful States in 1788, Virginia in the South, New York in the mid-Atlantic, and Massachusetts in the North, considered an explicit recognition of States’ rights an essential condition for ratification of the Constitution. Of course, those who champion States’ rights and decentralization are often accused of preferring “Balkanization” over the blessings and security of “one nation.” If the federal government followed its limited, constituted authority, such “Balkanization” would not be necessary, but hardly anyone in the founding generation would have agreed to a system of central government that currently exists in the United States. As Morris said in 1787, it would be better to separate than to subject one nation to the cultural imperialism of another State, section, or nation. Modern Americans have never been taught that lesson.

Copyright © 2009 by Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.

Brion McClanahan

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