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The Intellectual Assault On Our National Identity

Jill Lepore, of Harvard and The New Yorker, has produced a provocative piece for Foreign Affairs, part of a special section to the magazine on the resurgence of nationalism. Lepore’s contribution enjoins us, as Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose puts it, “not to resist nationalism but to reappropriate it.” Indeed, Lepore calls for nothing less than “a new Americanism and a new American history.”

The problem, as Lepore sees it, is that around the 1970s, the country’s historians turned away from writing about the American nation because of an aversion to the evils of nationalism. The writing of history moved into a new era, focused on the experiences and cultures of national sub-groups and the promise of supranational globalization. But that left a big hole in the national consciousness. Lepore quotes historian Thomas Bender: “A history in common is fundamental to sustaining the affiliation that constitutes national subjects. Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future.”

And with historians abandoning the task of probing our history, Lepore asks who will provide “a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States?” Lepore’s answer: “Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants.” She elaborates:

The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence. When historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.

In other words, if the good guys abandon history, the bad guys will prevail.

Lepore displays her usual erudition and elegance of prose in promoting her liberal national narrative. But ultimately this is a flawed analysis. Like many other liberal historians today, her vision of America, past and future, centers almost exclusively on creedal elements of the American system—democratic principles, human rights, pluralism. As a result, she gives a distorted picture of the origins of the American nation.

She takes pains to debunk the notion that America was built with any sense of a shared heritage born of a common ethnic background. “The fiction that its people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face; they came from all over,” she writes. She adds that, having just won a war against the British, the last thing they wanted to celebrate was their “Britishness.”

Lepore backs this up with nothing—no crucial quotes from prominent early Americans, no demographic data. In fact, in 1700, America was 83 percent British in origin, with other Northern European peoples encompassing another 6 percent (this excludes American Indians, who were not allowed to play any role in building the civic structures of the Colonies). By 1755, after an influx of German and Dutch settlers, the continent was still 68 percent British, with another 12 percent other Northern Europeans who blended easily into the majority Anglo-Saxon modality. The other 20 percent were Africans, mostly slaves.

These Europeans brought from their homelands powerful cultural folkways, mores, and sensibilities. But the dominant culture throughout these early decades was the Anglo-Saxon one. As Edgar Allan Poe put it, “the self-same Saxon current animates the British and the American heart.” Much later, the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that “the language of the new nation, its laws, its institutions, it political ideas, its literature, its customs, its precepts, its prayers, primarily derived from Britain.”  

In other words, beyond the American governmental creed, there were strong cultural affinities among the peoples of the new nation. That gave it cohesion and force. But Lepore ignores all this. She writes: “When John Jay insisted, in the Federalist Papers, no. 2, ‘that 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,’ he was whistling in the dark.” But he wasn’t. Jay was describing a significant element of identity that pulled together the peoples of the United States at its birth, and a large part of it was a common ancestry.

Lepore also claims that Americans harbored little sense of a national destiny until the 1840s, in the wake of the European nationalism that swept the continent that decade. This is, to borrow a phrase from her, “absurd on its face.” Is she saying that Benjamin Franklin, the great diplomatic genius of the Revolution and visionary promoter of a unified nation, had no sense of national destiny? Was not the Louisiana Purchase a product of Jefferson’s vision of national destiny? What about Madison’s success in getting the British out of the Great Lakes region after the War of 1812, clearing the way for an American expansion into that area? (The accelerated rise of Ohio was particularly instructive.) What about the 1819 Adams-Onis treaty, bringing Florida into the Union?

True, the sense of national destiny gelled with particular force in the 1840s, when the issue of Texas annexation exploded on the scene during John Tyler’s presidency and James Polk subsequently drove to create a nation that stretched from ocean to ocean. And Lepore is correct in saying that the early states insisted on viewing themselves as sovereign entities within the American polity. But the sense of a national destiny was still a powerful force from the beginning. It couldn’t be otherwise, as the states sent their senators and congressmen to Washington to craft legislation with immense national impact.

Why does Lepore feel a need to distort this picture? Could it be that she doesn’t want to acknowledge that the country was built on a foundation far different from the country she wants portrayed in her “new Americanism and…new American history”? Could it be that she doesn’t want to acknowledge how the country has evolved over the decades, shedding some of its most unsavory elements (slavery in particular)?

The underlying flaw here is that Lepore sees an ongoing struggle in America between the heirs of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. Du Bois, on the one hand, and the heirs of John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, and Father Coughlin, on the other. She presents a binary view of America and its history, with two forces—good and evil—at play. If liberal historians don’t present the right version, she warns, other people will co-opt the narrative, embracing the racism of Calhoun and Douglas and Coughlin. To prevent that, she wants to obliterate the nation’s cultural heritage.

In fact, though, the struggle of today is not John C. Calhoun versus Abraham Lincoln. It is about what the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard called the country’s “mainstream Anglo-Protestant culture in which most of its people, whatever their subcultures, have shared. For almost four centuries this culture of the founding settlers has been the central and the lasting component of American identity.” Huntington argued that, yes, race and ethnicity once represented foundational elements of the American identity. But they have fallen by the wayside. That has left the cultural and creedal identities.

Now the cultural element is under assault by intellectuals such as Jill Lepore, who want America’s identity to be narrowed down to just its governing creed. That’s why she must deny the country’s early cultural cohesiveness born of the dominance of the continent’s early British settlers. And that’s why, in her essay, she equates those who wish to preserve that identity with the racism of a Calhoun or Coughlin.

America today is not about to revert back to the politics of John C. Calhoun. But it is in a struggle over whether the cultural core that Huntington identified can survive in a nation of mass immigration, porous borders, the bludgeon of political correctness, and an ongoing assault on a cultural heritage that once stirred inspiration throughout the land but now is being devoured by elite scholarship.  

Lepore’s piece is brilliantly clever but ultimately transparent. For all of her historical breadth and literary style, she presents just another assault on those “deplorables” who wish to preserve their country’s cultural core.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.

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