What is Nationalism?
Let’s start by defining nationalism. It’s difficult to give a conclusive definition, because nationalism has taken different forms and the meaning has evolved over the years. In general, it is the emergence of group identity based upon a shared sense of history, cultural, ethnic, or linguistic ties. In the eyes of nationalists, loyalty to and pursuing the interests of the nation are more important than anything else.
For the United States, the roots of nationalist thought originated in the aftermath of the Seven Years War and the events leading up to the American Revolution. The imposition of taxes and other unpopular measures by the British prompted the formation of secret organizations to fight taxation and promote the rights of colonists. Early American patriots such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock led the Sons of Liberty, an underground organization based in Boston. Patriotism and nationalism are both characterized by a devotion to one’s country, the difference is that patriotism is based upon upholding values while nationalism is based upon the idea of national self-sufficiency, and sometimes, superiority over other nations.
The values which drove the patriot movements of the late 18th century were seen in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, that “all men are created equal” and have the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Essentially, American national consciousness was first built around the idea of individual liberty and equality under the law. Of course, these grandiose ideals didn’t apply to everyone; several people that signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. Their hypocrisy notwithstanding, the emphasis upon liberalism set the United States apart from other nationalist movements of the time. It also allowed a sense of political pluralism to exist within the Thirteen Colonies after independence was formally secured in 1783. Pluralism, the concept of different interests and cultures coexisting within the same state, is what allowed the Thirteen Colonies to become the United States of America.
Winning independence from Great Britain was only the first step in forming a nation. The colonies were loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation, but the long-term survival of the Union required a stronger centralized government. In 1787, the difficult task of drafting the Constitution of the United States began. After months of fraught negotiations and multiple threats of dissolution, a set of guidelines was hashed out. The elephant in the room was slavery: it was either outlawed or in the process of being outlawed in the northern states, but remained an integral part of the economies of the southern states. The infamous 3/5s Compromise was just one of the concessions made to the slave states in order to get the constitution passed and to maintain the Union. The accommodation of multiple ways of life was both a source of strength and also division. For example, throughout the early history of the U.S., it was common to refer to the states as these United States instead of the singular the United States.
One of the most powerful unifying forces in history is war; a second conflict with Great Britain allowed the United States to come of age as a nation. Militarily, the War of 1812 accomplished very little as no territory changed hands. However, the symbolic value of such victories as Andrew Jackson’s defense of New Orleans fostered a sense of unity and purpose that had been absent before. It also paved the way for continuous, relentless westward expansion.
The territory of the United States more than doubled in the first twenty years of the 19th century with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the annexation of Florida in 1819. The idea of Manifest Destiny began to take hold in the 1840s. Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States was preordained by God to extend its borders across the North American continent. This inevitably brought the US into conflict with the native populations of those lands and with Mexico.
James Polk, the 11th President of the United States, promised to extend the borders of the country as part of his 1844 campaign for the White House. He delivered on his promise with the Mexican-American War of 1846. The future Union general and 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant, served in the conflict and described it as one of the “most unjust wars ever waged.” Polk’s war was certainly controversial but did a great deal to define the modern borders of the United States. California, Nevada, and Utah and parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming were part of the more than 500,000 square miles of territory added to the United States.
The spoils of war proved to be expensive. As well as the high human cost for the peoples displaced by the aggressive expansion of manifest Destiny, the territorial gains were a factor in causing the deadliest conflict in American history, the American Civil War. More Americans died in the Civil War than in the First and Second World Wars combined.
The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 sparked a wave of secessions by southern states which culminated in the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Lincoln had previously warned in his famous ‘house divided’ speech that the internal divisions that slavery caused could not endure.
The causes of the Civil War are numerous and complex but after years of avoiding the issue, the questions over slavery and states’ rights in America were answered on the battlefield.
After the Union victory in 1865, the Reconstruction Era began as an attempt to readmit the southern states back into the Union. It was intended to be something of a second founding of the nation. Slaves were freed and granted citizenship and civil rights, at least in theory. Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 meant the task of overseeing the Reconstruction would fall to Andrew Johnson. Johnson supported state’s rights and allowed most confiscated land to return to its prewar owners. He did little to stop the southern backlash against African Americans or the passage of restrictive laws known as the Black Codes. By the time the last Union soldiers left in 1877, little had been achieved in improving the lives of African Americans.
Another outcome of the growing national consciousness in this period was the desire to exert influence far beyond the borders of the United States. Imperialism was not a new concept in the 19th century but the ability and scale of the dominance of the so-called western powers was unprecedented. Over the course of the 19th century, the capacity of the United States to project power on distant lands increased, starting with the Pacific.
In 1853, a naval expedition led by Matthew C. Perry forced the Japanese to end a lengthy period of isolation and enter into trade with the U.S. This in turn sparked a dramatic transformation in Japan from a medieval feudal society to a fully modernized industrial power in a single generation.
At the tail end of the 19th century, the United States was at war with Spain, ostensibly over the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana. A brief conflict against an ailing power ended Spanish rule in Cuba and granted the United States Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The latter drew the U.S. into a brutal conflict with Filipino nationalists which is said to have killed as many as 1 million civilians. By the turn of the 20th century, the United States was a major power on the world stage and continued to develop a sense of nationalism in different forms over the next hundred plus years.
Ok, now let’s go over a couple of review questions before we go:
1. What was the significance of the War of 1812?
- Territorial gains from Britain
- A sense of national unity
- Trade concessions
- All of these
The correct answer is B! No territory changed hands during the war, nor were there any significant trade concessions. However, the symbolic value of certain U.S. victories ignited a sense of unity and purpose that had been absent before.
2. What was the idea behind Manifest Destiny?
- All men are created equal
- Religious freedom
- A house divided cannot stand
- Territorial expansion
The correct answer is D! Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States was preordained by God to extend its borders across the North American continent.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!