Guest Review: Benjamin Park, American Nationalisms

Skye Montgomery is a historian of the nineteenth-century United States, specializing in Anglo-American relations and the transformation of American national identity. She is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Skye earned her DPhil in History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and is revising a book manuscript entitled, Imagined Families: Anglo-American Kinship and the Formation of Southern Identity, 1830-1890.

Benjamin E. Park, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

nationalisms

In his seminal 1882 lecture, Ernest Renan posed the deceptively straightforward question, “What is a Nation?” Although recent historiography is generally more concerned with answering the adjacent questions of how and why nations come to be, scholars of European history have produced myriad reflections on Renan’s question in the decades since the Second World War. In contrast, however, histories of early America taking nationalism as their primary category of analysis have been relatively few and focused primarily upon understandings of nationalism yoked to the nation-state. Benjamin Park’s new volume, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833, offers a convincing explanation for this omission and makes commendable strides towards rectifying it.

Park departs from previous analyses of nationalism in the early republic with his contention that it functioned less as a “set of static, self-dependent principles that were agreed upon by a majority of citizens” than a pluralistic theoretical construct “tethered to personal backgrounds, regional cultures, parochial concerns, and localized political systems.”[1] Concentrating his analysis on Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, Park brings a keen eye for detail to bear on the different meanings that nation and nationalism held in these states at specific moments during the early years of the United States. The divergence between the views of nation that individuals within these states held owes in part to the capaciousness of the term during this early period. Nation could refer to a particular state or region, but it could simultaneously convey a sense of belonging or a group of individuals committed to sharing a common way of life. Theorists of nationalism drew upon these various strands to advance their political agendas or to assuage the particular anxieties of their respective sections as circumstances demanded.

The ambiguity inherent in Americans’ understandings of nation transformed the invocation of union into a versatile rhetorical tactic. Even those critical of the exercise of federal power might couch their objections in nationalist terms, as did the delegates to both the Hartford Convention in 1814 and the Nullification Convention in 1832. New England Federalists who feared that westward expansion would culminate in the marginalization of their region appealed to an understanding of nation that privileged homogeneity and social cohesion, qualities seemingly incompatible with the pursuit of a continental empire. Similarly, John C. Calhoun and the South Carolinians who gathered in Charleston to protest the Tariff of Abominations and the ominous encroachment of federalism it appeared to augur, predicated their grievances on the “dissimilarity of interests” that existed between the states. Neither movement advocated jettisoning the American national project entirely. Rather, they offered ways in which the national government might better navigate between the clashing interests of its constituent parts. Even these sectionalist movements drew authority and coherence from the persistent ideal of nation. Despite the commonalities undergirding their visions of nation during these moments of sectionalist crisis, however, the people of Massachusetts and South Carolina ultimately arrived at vastly different understandings of the nation and the role of their respective states within it. Whereas Northerners increasingly viewed nationalism as an attachment to the federal institutions that bound the states together, Southerners cultivated an understanding of nationalism grounded in the sense of themselves as the legitimate heirs to a Revolutionary tradition of heroic resistance to tyranny. As Park notes, these competing visions of national belonging placed the two sections on a collision course that culminated with the Civil War.

While his work takes seriously the importance of region in the formation of American national identities, Park himself avoids losing sight of the forest amidst the parochial trees by situating the changing concept of nationhood in a broader transnational context. Americans struggling to incorporate minority populations into their national family confronted the same concerns over the cohesiveness of their national character as their transatlantic rivals. At times, developments in European nationalism directly informed Americans’ calculations of their own national belonging. Great Britain’s decision to embrace a new identity as an abolitionist nation spurred Southerners to question whether their own federal institutions afforded sufficient security should similar developments arise in the United States—a credible threat in the minds of many slaveholders who viewed the rise of anti-slavery agitation in the years after 1810 with growing apprehension. Park’s effort to link the changes in American nationalism to the broader transformation the concept underwent in the era of the Napoleonic Wars suggests several fruitful new avenues of research.

In its seamless movement from global to local contexts, American Nationalisms demonstrates its author’s deft handling of scale. Park’s utilization of individual case studies is no less skilled. In the tradition of Benedict Anderson, Park recognizes the importance of the written word to the process of imagining American nationalism. Drawing upon the writings of individuals as varied as the abolitionist Thomas Branagan, whose essays on slavery and morality reached thousands of readers, and Algernon Sidney Johnston, whose satirical novel Memoirs of a Nullifier went largely unread, Park provides insight into the processes by which Americans across the nation wrote themselves into the national family. Several of the individuals whose contributions to the creative work of nation-building find recognition in Park’s work will undoubtedly be familiar to most readers, yet the author still manages to find something new to say of them. The figures selected for this study illuminate the myriad ways in which the denizens of the various sections might imagine the boundaries of their nation, but American Nationalisms has relatively little to say about how gender, race, and class shaped this process.

The principal exception to this omission is the extended discussion of James Forten, the African-American abolitionist and businessman whose views on the American nation and the debts that it owed its citizens of color presaged the nationalism of Frederick Douglass. Understanding how Forten and his fellow antislavery activists mobilized the ideology of nationalism to press their claims to an equal share of the boons of American citizenship helps explain the South’s growing feeling of alienation from their national family. Park’s study suggests that even those on the margins of the nation nevertheless had a role to play in formulating the boundaries of belonging. How might our understanding of the processes by which Americans imagined union change when we incorporate these perspectives? This is less a criticism of the approach taken in American Nationalisms than a desire to see the clarity of Park’s analysis of the changing understandings of nationalism in the early republic applied more broadly.

As A.G. Hopkins recently asserted in his history of American empire, “Every generation gets the history it needs.”[2] Park’s volume appears especially timely given the resurgence of nativism as a potent force in American politics and the subsequent hardening lines of citizenship. As Americans continue to debate the contours of the nation in 2018, Park’s book stands as an important reminder that the trajectory of American nationalism has always been contested, convoluted, and contingent. For the Americans of today, just as for those of the early republic, the first step towards affecting lasting change is imagining an alternative.


[1] Benjamin E. Park, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 6.

[2] A. G. Hopkins, American Empire: A Global History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 10.

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