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.footnote1 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.footnote2 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.footnote3 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.

For some of the same reasons, however, there is a longstanding reluctance among American historians to apply the language of nationhood, associated with the rooted identities ascribed to European nations, to the United States. The country also took more seriously its status as a federation of states rather than a full-fledged nation-state in which the central government was paramount. ‘The old American Republic was federal, not centralized or national,’ writes John Lukacs. ‘The words “national” or “nation” are not to be found in the Constitution, and they were seldom used by the generation of the Founding Fathers. During the century of mass immigration, from 1820 to 1920, the currency of this word increased. As late as 1920, the judicious historian Charles A. Beard said that “national” was less of an American than a European word.’footnote4

The federalist counterweight to national identity and nationalist political action diminished rapidly in the twentieth century. By the 1920s, even the conservative President Warren Harding could remark that ‘state lines have well-nigh ceased to have more than geographical significance.’footnote5 Americans have become accustomed to see a reasonably coherent nation-state when they look at themselves, and are impatient with the federalist barriers to national action. In this analysis, shared in particular by American liberals, centralization of the state is the necessary accessory of national identity.footnote6 As it turns out, however, the path of least resistance to the growth of a centralized national state in the United States was the militarized national security state. The historian of American nationalism, then, must look outward as well as inward for its sources. Conversely, the recent vicissitudes of the us empire, characterized by Giovanni Arrighi as the ‘terminal crisis’ of the entire ‘American cycle of accumulation’, also suggest a domestic crisis in the nature of American nationalism, revealing regional divisions occluded since the original phase of that ‘cycle of accumulation’ in the period after the Civil War.footnote7

This process is obscurely present in the recent discourse—based, naturally enough, on the graphics of national tv networks—of Red State and Blue State. But further breakdown of the Federal legislative process has elicited a more sustained and more envenomed discourse of sectional divisions, reaching a fever pitch during the Federal government shutdown in October 2013, which produced a flurry of commentary on the essentially Southern ‘massive resistance’—a term revived from white Southern legislative intransigence during the Civil Rights period—to a functional Federal government.footnote8 Since the legislative support for the shutdown was not confined to the South, but rather represented the quite familiar, if radicalized, Nixon–Reagan–Bush alliance of the interior far West, lower Midwest, and South, the sectional rhetoric testifies to the continuing power of Civil War divisions under the pressure of domestic political dysfunction.

Although the American Revolution was widely thought to have created a nation from the disparate American colonies, the early Republic remained one defined by strong regional affiliations rather than ‘national’ ones. At the first Continental Congress in 1775, John Adams remarked on the differences among the leading men of the different colonies:

The Character of Gentlemen in the four New England Colonies differ[s] as much from those in others, as that of the Common People differs, that is as much as several distinct Nations almost. Gentlemen, Men of Sense, or any kind of Education in the other Colonies are much fewer in Proportion than in N. England. Gentlemen in the other Colonies have large Plantations of slaves, and the common People among them are very ignorant and very poor. These Gentlemen are accustomed, habituated to higher Notions of themselves and the distinction between them and the common People, than We are.footnote9

Adams refers to several nations, but his language actually invokes two key nations, New England and the Southern slave states.