Would America Be the Same If It Had Been Settled by Russians or Spaniards?

Statue of George Washington in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Of course not.

The myth about America is that it has solely been defined by a set of propositions; the truth is that it has been crucially defined by its culture — from the very beginning.

In my new book, The Case for Nationalism, I discuss the distinction writers on nationalism sometimes make between civic nationalism, which they often consider roughly another term for patriotism, and ethnic nationalism.

The liberal writer Michael Ignatieff calls the civic nation “a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.” Ethnic nationalism, in contrast, entails “that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen,” and “it is the national community that defines the individual, not the individuals who define the national community.”

It is certainly true that different forms of nationalism can be more or less inclusive and democratic. But no nation has ever been entirely civic in this sense, and it’s foolish to consider the United States any different.

Our cultural nation was extremely important at the outset, and remains so today. At the time of the Revolution, the colonists were 80 percent British and almost entirely Protestant. As John Jay wrote in the Federalist No. 2, “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”

The fact is that culture is seeded with ideas. Would America be the same if its people spoke Russian — the language of a country that has never effectively supported property rights, the rule of law, or limited government — rather than English? Would our political culture as we know it have emerged if practically every home in America a couple of hundred years ago had had a Koran on the nightstand rather than a King James Bible? Of course not.

At the beginning, this was a country not necessarily for Englishmen but by Englishmen, including their notions of liberty, which defined the American experience from the outset. Tocqueville famously wrote that the American was the Englishman left alone. If the eastern seaboard had been settled by Spaniards, you could have “left them alone” for a very long time and marinated them in all the Enlightenment philosophers, and they still never would have come up with the American founding.

Even today, when America largely fulfills the standard of a civic nation, it still has a cultural basis. The English language remains a pillar of our national identity (language is often considered a foundation of exclusive ethnic nationalist states). Our rituals and holidays reflect the dominant culture. Christmas is a national holiday; Yom Kippur is not. And they reflect our national identity. Independence Day is a holiday; Cinco de Mayo is not.

Our national heroes, our ancestors, are afforded a prized place of honor in our collective life. The ascension of George Washington to a quasi-sacred status in our country began almost immediately. Today, he’s still visible in a fresco inside the U.S. Capitol dome, dressed in purple, and surrounded by the gods of mythology.

We bear the stamp of our national character wherever we go. “The Americanism of American culture,” Azar Gat writes, “is deeply felt around the world, regarded either with approval or disapproval, and Americans become very conscious of it whenever they encounter the outside world. This common American culture far transcends the political-civic culture that many theorists have posited, naively, as the exclusive binding element of the American nation.”

The devotees of the idea of civic nationalism, at the extreme, make it sound as if a country is a voluntary association of individuals who have decided to live together under a certain set of political institutions and ideas. This is a fantasy. Nations are thicker than that. They are homelands that are felt as such by the people who live there and are connected by a web of associations and memories.

If political institutions were all that mattered, Americans would be just as comfortable living in any major English-speaking country. Canada or Australia don’t have our Constitution, but they are liberal societies with ample protections for the freedom of the individual. Yet after every election, when famous people on both sides of the political divide threaten to move to Canada if the result goes the wrong way, no one actually moves.

The French intellectual Ernest Renan gave expression to the voluntarist idea of the nation in his oft-quoted 1882 lecture: “A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.” But Renan also cited the importance of “a rich legacy of memories” and thought that “the nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and devotion.”

Just so. Without these accretions, which all play a central role in our culture, America wouldn’t be as great or free as it is today.

This essay is excerpted from The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free, out Tuesday from Broadside Books.


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