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The Ultimate Social Capital: A Story to Save the Union

The Social Breakdown

November 1, 2023

The American Republic is on the brink; a revived civic national story can help us all come together to pull ourselves back from the abyss

That the bonds holding the United States have been weakening has been obvious for more than a decade now, a phenomenon this research series has been probing in regards to social capital and societal impoverishment, revealing that many of the problems vary dramatically between regions. One big picture manifestation of these patterns is our inability to agree on the fundamental terms of our national purpose in a way that can transcend differences that are geographic even as they are ideological. How did we get to this point and what can bring us back from the brink?

There are a lot of things that need doing across society to foster comity, and they will necessarily involve everything from schools and workplaces to churches, bowling leagues, and families. But none of it will matter if we are not also able to restore our lost sense of shared belonging and common purpose by dint of being Americans. Without this sentiment, the federation will fall apart and Lincoln’s dream of the “last best hope of Earth” will finally perish. To understand and remedy our current predicament it’s essential to understand how we got here and why our union is much more delicate than most people realize.

Maintaining a shared sense of nationhood has always been a special challenge for the United States. We’re arguably the world’s first civic nation, a polity 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 in the 1770s. 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.

Making matters worse, for generations the colonies had been rivals – for land, settlers, trade, and capital — and even enemies, taking opposing sides in the English Civil War of the 1640s, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, and the American Revolution itself. One of the biggest arguments against leaving the Empire was that British identity was one of the few things keeping the colonies at peace with one another. Founding Father John Dickinson of Pennsylvania warned independence would result in “a multitude of Commonwealths, Crimes, and Calamities – centuries of mutual Jealousies, Hatreds, Wars and Devastations, until at last the exhausted Provinces shall sink into Slavery under the yoke of some fortunate conqueror.”[1] After the war, Alexander Hamilton warned that without a strengthened federal union there would be a “War between the States” in which the larger ones would overrun their neighbors in a “desultory and predatory” campaign of “plunder and devastation.”[2] Even after the Constitution was ratified, there were secession movements in the Appalachian, Scots-Irish dominated sections of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia (the so-called Whiskey Rebellion) and New England (during the War of 1812).

The underlying problem was that the eastern seaboard had been settled by rival colonial projects with distinct and often incompatible political cultures and ideologies, creating rifts between and within states that have never gone away.[3] The Dutch-founded area around what is now New York City has never seen eye-to-eye with Upstate New York, which was effectively colonized by Yankee New Englanders after the Dutch defeat in the 1670s. The Scots-Irish-dominated uplands clashed – culturally, politically, and economically – with lowland power structures that controlled state governments from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. The northernmost part of Delaware – colonized from the north by people from the Quaker-founded region around Delaware Bay – clashed with the rest of the state, whose southern colonizers brought with them the Tidewater system of genteel slave manors. And, most polarizing of all, the Deep South and Chesapeake country weren’t just societies-with-slaves, like southern New York and northern New Jersey, but slave societies where the entire economy and power structure was based on human bondage.

By the 1830s, the federation’s identity crisis had reached a tipping point. The stopgap remedy – to celebrate the shared struggle of the American Revolution – had lost its strength as the Founders’ generation passed from the scene, leaving a gaping void. Slavery, rather than withering as the Founders had assumed, was ascendant, a frontal assault on the values that had been articulated in the Declaration. Americans knew they needed a story of U.S. nationhood if their experiment were to survive. Instead, they wound up with two rival narratives. We’ve been fighting over them ever since, a story I told in a recent book, Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood.[4]

The first was a civic national vision – packaged and popularized by the 19th century New England intellectual George Bancroft – 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 ideals. It’s this national myth – originally articulated, in line with the Yankee Puritan tradition, as a divinely sanctioned mission – that was championed by Frederick Douglass, taken up by Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address, and which became our consensus story of national purpose with the triumph of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. We may not have a shared history or ethnicity, it argued, but we share a devotion to those principles and to be an American is to join in a covenant to strive toward them. This vision, put forth in Bancroft’s wildly popular History of the United States of America and the orations and essays it inspired, found especially fertile ground in the Yankee northeast, New England and the parts of the Great Lakes states and territories first colonized by New England settlement stream, where ideas of mission, covenant, and utopia-building were lodged deep in the cultural DNA.

It’s worth stopping for a moment and stating what those ideals in the Declaration mean: that, as Americans, we believe all humans are created with equal and unalienable rights to survive, to not be tyrannized, to pursue our happiness as we understand it, and to access the representative self-government that makes it all possible. And we’re in a covenant to protect one another’s innate or God-given rights to these things. That’s our shared identity, beyond all the other identities we all have as individuals. That’s our purpose, the American Experiment, and the pledge we make to each of our fellow Americans, the American Promise. It’s what’s behind the moments in our history that we have the most pride in and that which others have respected about us through our admittedly short history.

But it has always been contested by forces drawing on older, uglier aspects of human nature.

From the moment of its popularization in the mid-1830s, our civic national narrative met a vigorous challenge initiated by 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; rather, the continent and the promises in the Declaration belonged to the allegedly superior Anglo-Saxon race. The U.S., they argued, was a federation of Anglo-Saxon ethnostates, and slavery was its foundation, just as it had been for the republics of Classical antiquity. Needless to say, this view found special favor in the plantation south it was created to defend, and indeed was used as the national narrative of the Confederate States of America during its brief existence.

This vision of a herrenvolk democracy – a place where only a chosen subset of the native-born population is allowed the benefits of citizenship – was by no means a fringe idea. It was every bit the match of its civic national rival. Its adherents drove the nation into a cataclysmic civil war and, in its aftermath, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by fighting a successful terrorist campaign to roll back the political emancipation of African Americans in the former Confederacy. Their followers had sufficient power in Congress and the Supreme Court to effectively annul the 14th and 15th amendments that had been promulgated while Confederate southerners were absent from Congress. And in 1913 they captured the White House itself when majorities outside the Yankee northeast elected the first Deep Southern president in our history, Woodrow Wilson. The son of a leading white supremacist thought leader and scion of the Confederate Presbyterian Church, Wilson was raised in Augusta, Georgia during the Civil War and in Columbia, South Carolina during the brief period when African Americans – nearly 60 percent of that state’s population at the time — controlled the legislature.

For a period from the 1910s through the 1930s, white Protestant supremacism prevailed across the federation, becoming the first dominant, and nationwide consensus narrative in U.S. history. This effort saw the segregation of the federal government, the triumph of Jim Crow in the South, the erection of most of the Confederate monuments Americans of the early 2020s were tearing down[5], the passage of the 1924 immigration act (to explicitly protect the country’s “Anglo-Saxon character”) and the explosive success of the film that literally created Hollywood. The Birth of a Nation celebrated the first Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist campaign and inspired the creation of the second Klan, which extended its terrorism to also target Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christian Slavs and Greeks and others deemed contagions on the national body. Supposedly undiluted Anglo-Saxons were celebrated as “pure Americans.” This was not the best of times.

This ethno-nationalist model was itself overthrown in the 1960s, when the liberal nationalist conceptions returned to the fore aided, in no small part, by the American experience in confronting and defeating the Nazis’ horrifying ethnonationalist regime. The formal racial caste system of the South was shattered by the civil rights movement. The racial quotas and north European biases in the 1924 Immigration Act were replaced. Previously marginalized groups – women, Native Americans, Catholics, gays and lesbians, the disabled — demanded recognition, the rights promised in the Declaration, and a place in the American story. The United States had finally become, for the first time in its history, a liberal democracy as a political scientist would understand it.

But an unfortunate thing happened during this long overdue reckoning. Out of the growing recognition it had been ignoring or excluding so many people, our national story was disassembled. Scholars focused on the neglected parts – the stories, contributions, and perspectives of social, cultural, and ethnic groups — or on trans-national phenomenon like the Atlantic slave trade or the rise, clash, or collapse of civilizations. If the nation-state was on its way to extinction, replaced by capital flows, multinational corporations and technocratic trade regimes why bother crafting the national stories needed to bond its inhabitants together? A coherent story of United States nationhood taking advantage of all this new and valuable scholarship was never reassembled. Post-Cold War America had no story at all. A void opened up and demagogues and charlatans stepped into the breach. In November 2016, a man appealing to ethno-nationalism, “America First,”[6] and a return to an unspecified, less inclusive time of American greatness won an Electoral College majority, refashioned a major political party in his image, and embarked on a crude and ongoing assault of our civic national ideals.

An ethnonationalist vision cannot hold together a diverse federation of distinct regional cultures comprised of people from multiple religious traditions and every imaginable ethnic and racial background except through some form of dictatorship. American civic nationalism has had its failings – arrogance, messianic hubris, a self-regard so bright as to blind one to shortcomings – but at its core are unifying, inspirational, and genuinely good ideals that a supermajority of Americans can get behind, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, or something in between. That’s a kind of social capital we desperately need.

Colin Woodard, author of American Nations, American Character, and Union, is the director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, a project that is developing and testing a revised U.S. national narrative for the 21st century

[1] John Dickinson to William Pitt, 21 December 1765 in Jack P. Greene, “The Continuing Legacy of the Articles of Confederation,” Publius 12:4 (1982), pp. 15-44.

[2] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 8,” New-York Packet, 20 November 1787.

[3] This is the subject of Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, New York: Viking, 2011.

[4] Much of what follows in this essay is adapted from material in Colin Woodard, Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood, New York: Viking, 2020.

[5] Gaines M. Foster, “How the South recast defeat as victory with an army of stone soldiers,” Zocalo Public Square, 28 September 2017.

[6] Melvyn P. Leffler and William Hitchcock, eds., “America First: The Past and Future of an Idea,” Passport, September 2018, pp. 33-51.