Maine Author: Cultural Schism At America's Founding Set Off Ongoing Struggle Over Nation's Soul

Jun 15, 2020

Credit Courtesy Colin Woodard

In his book, "American Nations," Colin Woodard wrote about the cultural differences that have endured between parts of the U.S. throughout its history. In his new work, "Union," Woodard describes how Americans, despite those differences, came to agree on a single historical narrative that defines their country. Woodard spoke with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

Gratz: And Colin joins me now. You created this seeming paradox. Why don't you explain how these peoples actually reached this single historical narrative?

Woodard: It began in the 1830s, when the memory of the revolution was disappearing with the generation who fought it. And there was a real vacuum, a real lack of sense as to what it meant to be from the United States, or citizens of the United States. People thought of their country as I'm a Massachussetsian, and I'm a South Carolinian. And the answer that came forward was that what holds us together is a shared commitment to a set of ideals, the ones in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence about liberty and self-government and human equality, and the idea that, you know, people everywhere are born with certain inalienable rights, and that our country is somehow tasked with promoting this throughout the world. Maybe even God is involved, right? - this idea that there's a divine force at work. But what was really remarkable to me is that, at the same time, starting right at the beginning, there was an immediate counter reaction that said, "No, we're the ethno-state of the allegedly superior Anglo Saxon race." So that argument between us, sort of what we today might call the white supremacist division of the country, and a civic national tradition, has been with us since the beginning of the conversation about United States nationhood.

In the book you write about the principles that competed for this narrative, and the individuals who carried them. Who were some of the key figures in this debate?

It was George Bancroft who created the initial version of the American civic national myth. He became the most famous historian of the 19th century. He was born in 1800 and died in the 1890s, so he saw almost all of it. And he is responsible for creating that idea that America is a sort of exceptional place tasked by Providence to carry these ideas of human freedom forward. But the counter was from a guy William Gilmore Sims, who Bancroft knew, who was South Carolina's - and later the Confederacy's -  leading man of letters, who argued just the opposite - that human equality was a sham and that the Anglo Saxons and their brilliance had led the United States to its greatness. And then subsequently, we meet Frederick Douglass, Woodrow Wilson and Frederick Jackson Turner as the story evolves and the battle over those ideas continue.

Was it any one of them who eventually wins out?

When there's finally a consensus in the 1910s and 1920s, it's the consensus around, essentially, we're an ethno-nationalist nation under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who segregates the federal government, champions "Birth of a Nation," a film celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, and helps the film sort of triumph over mass demonstrations against the film being screened that have many parallels to today's events, and Black Lives Matter. So, obviously, that victory was not long-lived. But it shows, you know, those ideas were never completely vanquished and are still part of our culture today, as we're seeing in events playing out right now.

Does this look to you like a moment in which this national narrative could shift once again?

This is definitely a watershed moment. I think the the civic national narrative that we share, these ideals -  and among them is human equality as an ideal - we don't always achieve it. But that had been a sentence - and basically the consensus narrative - from the 1960s forward. And I think we've seen a challenge to that. And now we're seeing a counter reaction to that challenge. So I think it's maybe a renewed defense of our civic national tradition, which is indeed the only tradition that can hold our disparate federation together. Now, the ethno-national one, beyond its immorality, is also a practical impossibility. In a country with our current demographics, it can lead only down to dissolution, and worse.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

Colin Woodard will be a guest on Monday's Maine Calling, beginning at 1 p.m.