The Pitfalls and Promise of America’s Founding Myths

Maintaining a shared sense of nationhood has always been a struggle for a country defined not by organic ties, but by a commitment to a set of ideals

Westward Course of Empire
For generations, Americans have sought to understand the sense of shared destiny—or perhaps, civic obligation—that forged the nation. Emanuel Leutze via Wikimedia Commons under Public domain

Alexander Hamilton had no illusions about what would happen to Americans if the United States collapsed.

If the newly drafted Constitution wasn’t ratified, he warned in Federalist No. 8, a “War between the States,” fought by irregular armies across unfortified borders, was imminent. Large states would overrun small ones. “Plunder and devastation” would march across the landscape, reducing the citizenry to “a state of continual danger” that would nourish authoritarian, militarized institutions.

“If we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or … thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be, in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe,” he continued. “Our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other.”

Hamilton’s 1787 plea was successful, of course, in that Americans adopted a new, stronger Constitution two years later. But they still didn't agree on why it was they had come together and what defined them as a people.

Maintaining a shared sense of nationhood has always been a special challenge for the United States, arguably the world’s first civic nation, defined not by organic ties, but by a shared commitment to a set of ideals. The U.S. came into being not as a nation, but as a contractual agreement, a means to an end for 13 disparate rebel colonies facing a common enemy. Its people lacked a shared history, religion, or ethnicity. They didn’t speak a language uniquely their own. Most hadn’t occupied the continent long enough to imagine it as their mythic homeland. They had no shared story of who they were and what their purpose was. In short, they had none of the foundations of a nation-state.

The one unifying story Americans had told themselves—that they had all participated in the shared struggle of the American Revolution—lost its strength as the Founders’ generation passed from the scene, and had been shaken by secession movements in the Appalachian backcountry of Pennsylvania and Virginia in the 1790s and in New England during the war of 1812. By the 1830s, it had become increasingly clear that this identity crisis could no longer be papered over: Americans knew they needed a story of United States nationhood, if their experiment were to survive.

The first person to package and present such a national story for the United States was the historian-statesman George Bancroft. Bancroft, the son of a famous Unitarian preacher in Massachusetts, who graduated from Harvard in 1817 and was promptly sent by that college’s president on an epic study-abroad trip to the German Confederation, another federation of states contemplating its identity. In Europe, Bancroft studied under Arnold Heeren, Georg Hegel, and other intellectuals who were developing ideas of Germanic nationhood; chummed around with Lafayette, Washington Irving, Lord Byron, and Goethe; backpacked on foot from Paris to Rome; and returned home, doctorate in hand, with his head churning with ideas about his country’s place in the world. After failing in bids to be a poet, professor, prep school master, and preacher (who memorably evoked the image of “our pelican Jesus” in a sermon), Bancroft embarked upon what would prove to be his life’s work: giving his young nation a history that would answer those great questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?

Bancroft’s vision—laid out over four decades in his massive, 10-volume History of the United States—combined his Puritan intellectual birthright with his German mentors’ notion that nations developed like organisms, following a plan that history had laid out for them. Americans, Bancroft argued, would implement the next stage of the progressive development of human liberty, equality, and freedom. This promise was open to people everywhere: “The origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine,” Bancroft told the New York Historical Society in 1854. “Of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome.”

Bancroft’s expansive notion of American identity had questionable aspects, too. He claimed that the Founders were guided by God, that Americans were a chosen people destined to spread across the continent, that success was all but preordained—notions whose hubris and imperialist implications would become clear during his lifetime. But the core of it has remained with us to this day: a civic national vision that defined an American as one devoted to the ideals set down in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence: equality, liberty, self-government, and the natural rights of all people to these things.

Bancroft’s draft of our national myth was taken up and refined by Abraham Lincoln. In the Gettysburg Address, the president presented the myth—“a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—not as our destiny, but as an ideal that had not yet been achieved and, if not fought for, could perish from the Earth. It’s no accident that the definitive copy of the Address is one Lincoln handwrote and sent to Bancroft, who months later was chosen by Congress to deliver the official eulogy for the assassinated president. One had influenced the other.

Gast destiny
George Bancroft believed that Americans were a divinely-appointed group destined to spread through the continent, a view aligning with the country's westward expansion but negatively impacting Native peoples. John Gast via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass—who like Bancroft had traveled to the White House during the war to lobby Lincoln to take a stand for the Declaration’s ideals—carried this civic nationalist torch through the dark days of the 1870s and 1880s. It was a time when Northern and Southern whites agreed to put aside America’s commitments to human equality in favor of sectional unity, even when it meant tolerating death squads in the South and the effective nullification of the 14th and 15th Amendments. “I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours,” Douglass said in an 1869 speech that summarized U.S. civic nationalism as well as anyone ever has. “We shall spread the network of our science and civilization over all who seek their shelter… [and] all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same Government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.” Douglass, who had escaped from slavery, was, unlike Bancroft, well aware that America had not implemented its ideals and that it was not at all inevitable that it ever would. That made his framing of the task and its stakes far more compelling, accurate, and ultimately inspirational than the bookish and often oblivious historian’s.

But Bancroft’s vision of American civic cohesion was not the only national narrative on offer from the 1830s onward, or even the strongest one. From the moment Bancroft articulated his ideas, they met a vigorous challenge from the political and intellectual leaders of the Deep South and Chesapeake Country, who had a narrower vision of who could be an American and what the federation’s purpose was to be. People weren’t created equal, insisted William Gilmore Simms, the Antebellum South’s leading man of letters; the continent belonged to the superior Anglo-Saxon race. “The superior people, which conquers, also educates the inferior,” Simms proclaimed in 1837, “and their reward, for this good service, is derived from the labor of the latter.”

Slavery was endorsed by God, declared the leading light of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, in 1861. It was one of many Anglo-Saxon supremacist ideas he imbued on his loyal son, Woodrow. The younger Wilson spent the 1880s and 1890s writing histories disparaging the racial fitness of Black people and Catholic immigrants. On becoming president in 1913, Wilson segregated the federal government. He screened The Birth of a Nation at the White House—a film that quoted his own history writings to celebrate the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror during Reconstruction.

Simms, the Wilsons, and Birth of a Nation producer D.W. Griffith offered a vision of a Herrenvolk democracy homeland by and for the dominant ethnic group, and in the 1910s and 1920s, this model reigned across the United States. Confederate monuments popped up across former Confederate and Union territory alike; Jim Crow laws cemented an apartheid system in Southern and border states. Directly inspired by the 1915 debut of The Birth of a Nation, a second Klan was established to restore “true Americanism” by intimidating, assaulting, or killing a wide range of non-Anglo Saxons; it grew to a million members by 1921 and possibly as many as 5 million by 1925, among them future leaders from governors to senators to big-city mayors, in addition to at least one Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black. The Immigration Act of 1924 established racial and ethnic quotas devised to maintain Anglo-Saxon numerical and cultural supremacy.

This ethno-nationalist vision of our country was dethroned in the 1960s, but it remains with us, resurgent, today. Its strength can’t be underestimated: Simms’s vision is as old and as “American” as Bancroft’s, and it was the dominant paradigm in this country for nearly as many decades. It will not just slink off into the night. It must be smothered by a more compelling alternative.

The civic nationalist story of America that Bancroft envisioned still has the potential to unify the country. Its essential covenant is to ensure freedom and equality of opportunity for everyone: for African Americans and Native Americans—inheritors of the legacies of slavery and genocide—to be sure, but also for Americans with ancestors from Asia and Latin America, India and China, Poland, France, or Ireland. For rural and urban people; evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and atheists; men, women, nonbinary people, and, most certainly, children.

It’s a coalition for Americans, a people defined by this quest, tasked by the preamble of the Constitution to promote the common good and individual liberty across generations. Over the past century, cultural, judicial and demographic changes have strengthened its hand, ending white Christian control over the electorate in all the large states, not a few of the small ones, and in the federation as a whole. It’s not an off-the-shelf product, however. Its biggest failings—arrogance, messianic hubris, a self-regard so bright as to blind one to shortcomings—stem from the Puritan legacy Bancroft was so steeped in. The Puritans thought they had been chosen by God to build a New Zion. Bancroft believed the product of their mission was the United States, and that it was destined to spread its ideals across a continent and the world. This notion of American Exceptionalism—that the U.S. can walk on water when other nations cannot—needs to be jettisoned and replaced by the humility that comes with being mere mortals, able to recognize the failures of our past and the fragility of our present and future.

It’s a task that will take a generation, but could bring Americans together again, from one shining sea to the other.

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