- Historic Sites
The Search For A Usable Past
A distinguished historian describes how America, suddenly thrust into nationhood without a history of its own, set out to create one. And what a splendid achievement it was!
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
The United States was the first of the “new” nations. As the American colonies were the first to rebel against a European “mother country,” so the American states were the first to create—we can use Lincoln’s term, to bring forth—a new nation. Modern nationalism was inaugurated by the American, not the French, Revolution. But the new United States faced problems unknown to the new nations of nineteenth-century Europe—and twentieth. For in the Old World the nation came before the state; in America the state came before the nation. In the Old World nations grew out of well-prepared soil, built upon a foundation of history and traditions; in America the foundations were still to be laid, the seeds still to be planted, the traditions still to be formed.
The problem which confronted the new United States then was radically different from that which confronted, let us say, Belgium, Italy, Greece, or Germany in the nineteenth century, or Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Israel in the twentieth. These “new” states were already amply equipped with history, tradition, and memory—as well as with many of the other essential ingredients of nationalism except political independence. Of them it can be said that the nation was a product of history. But with the United States, history was rather a creation of the nation, and it is suggestive that in the New World the self-made nation was as familiar as the self-made man.
It is unnecessary to emphasize anything as familiar as the importance of history, tradition, and memory to successful nationalism. On this matter statesmen, historians, and philosophers of nationalism are all agreed. It was the very core of Edmund Burke’s philosophy: the nation—society itself—is a partnership of past, present, and future; we (the English) “derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers.” It is indeed not merely the course of history but of nature itself. Thus Friedrich von Schlegel, trying to quicken a sense of nationalism in the Germans, urged that “nothing is so important as that the Germans … return to the course of their own language and poetry, and liberate from the old documents of their ancestral past that power of old, that noble spirit which … is sleeping in them.” And Mazzini, in his struggle for the unification of Italy, was ever conscious that “the most important inspiration lor nationalism is the awareness ol past glories and past siifleriiigs.”
So, too, with the philosophers of nationalism, and the historians as well. Listen to Ernest Renan. In that famous leclure ”What Is a Nation?” he emphasized “the common memories, sacrifices, glories, afflictions, and regrets,” and submitted that the worthiest of all cults was “the cull of ancestors.” So, too, with the hard-headed John Stuart Mill, across the Channel. “The strongest cause [for the feeling of nationality] is identity of political antecedents, the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections, collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret.” The moderns all agree on this—Europeans and Americans alike.
But if a historical past and a historical memory are indeed essential ingredients for a viable nationalism, what was the new United Stales to do in 1776, or in 1789, or for that matter at almost any time before the Civil War? How does a country without a past ol her own acquire one, or how does she provide a substitute for it? Where could such a nation find the stull for patriotism, for sentiment, lor pride, lor memory, lor collective character? It was a question thai came up very early, for Americans have always been somewhat uncomfortable about their lack of history and of antiquity, somewhat embarrassed about being historical nouveaux riches .
It was Henry James who put the quesiion in most memorable form. I refer to that famous passage about the historical and intellectual environment in which the young Nathaniel Hawthorne found himself in 1840. It lakes a great deal of history to make a liitle literature, said James, and how could Hawthorne make literature with a history so meager and so thin: “No slate, in lhe European sense ol the word, and indeed barely a specific: national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyally, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities, nor public schools, no Oxford nor Eton nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot!”