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New Left Review 88, July-August 2014

kevin pask


If nationalism is an essentially modern phenomenon, American nationalism is by now both venerable and formidable, arriving on the scene before most European nations could fully emerge from the chrysalis of the dynastic states that hosted them. Benedict Anderson gives pride of place to the experiences of the New World in the initial framing of imagined communities in specifically nationalist terms. [1] See in particular Anderson’s illuminating discussion of the differences between North and South American nationalisms that allowed the United States to become a continental state, including the geographical cohesion of the Thirteen Colonies, an area smaller than Venezuela, and the absence of ‘national’ rivals: ‘Had a sizeable English-speaking community existed in California in the eighteenth century, is it not likely that an independent state would have arisen there, to play Argentina to the Thirteen Colonies’ Peru?’ Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. edn, London and New York 1991, pp. 63–4. American nationalism shares with the French variety a claim to universality, an ‘empire of liberty’, as the Francophile Jefferson termed the American republic; but, unlike France, it has also often claimed a special relationship with Divine Providence. [2] For the ‘universalistic nationalism’ of the United States, see Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, New York 2006, pp. 42–3. It has never hesitated to assert ‘American’ identity as pre-eminently its own, regardless of the americanismo of the rest of the hemisphere. Like other New World nationalisms, it inherited a mother tongue from a distant European imperial power; but, in contrast to a declining Spain and Portugal, the imperial homeland of most early Americans played a leading role in the global system of accumulation at the moment of the Thirteen Colonies’ independence. [3] The continuities between British and American forms of empire have been stressed by both William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament, Along with a Few Thoughts About an Alternative, New York 1980, pp. 16–23, and Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, New York 2007. Giovanni Arrighi, however, underlines the crucial differences between the British and American modes of territorialism and capital accumulation: the American development of an internal territorial empire and the related development of the vertically-integrated corporation: The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, London and New York 1994, esp. pp. 287–95. Unlike Canada, another continental state, derived from the conjunction of English and French colonizations as a bulwark against us expansion, American identity did not encompass two European languages and cultures in one state, a fact that has prevented the production of a single Canadian nationalism. Possessed of such strong advantages, along with a hinterland ripe for conquest, American nationalism looks like an almost effortless experiment in continuous self-invention and expansion.

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Kevin Pask, ‘Mosaics of American Nationalism’, NLR 88: £3

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