IntroductionThe Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776 did not mean a sudden hiatus in social and cultural development. The trend toward a distinctive American way of life had begun during the Colonial period. Nevertheless, the creation of an independent body politic was such a concrete event that it provoked an additional stimulus to the quest for a distinctive identity.
It is no wonder then that the American historians have paid a lot of attention to the decades following the American Revolution. Many historians regard the early 19th century as the most important and crucial period in the cultural history of the United States, on the grounds that this era represented for the U.S. the opportunity to shape its political, economic, cultural and social future free from external pressure. Henry F. May, for instance, argues that if a distinct American culture can be said to exist, then it was during this period that it took shape.
The point of departure in these kinds of interpretations has continuously been the problem of national identity. Was the United States a nation or only a loose coalition of various people and landscapes? Which were the factors that shaped American nationalism and American mentality? Or, which were the factors aiming at sectionalism? I give you only two examples, which are somewhat opposite to each other.
First, Russel Blaine Nye has identified four factors in the post-independence decades which provided the basis for the evaluation of a distinctive American culture. In the 1960s and 1970s he published two influential books on early American culture and society where his ideas can be detected and which have been very useful also for this paper.
The first two factors in Nye's "system" operate in the temporal dimension. First of all, the leaders of the American republic were aware of their past: of the fact that the United States was a product of a long process of development, English in the first instance, but also, on a more general plane, European. Thomas Jefferson saw Europe as a teacher, from whose past (both in its good and bad aspects) Americans could learn to understand their own past. History was not seen as a burden, but as an aid to the new history, that is to the future.
The emergence of an original Americanism can be understood more clearly in terms of Nye's second factor, the attitude toward the future. The Americans' positive view of the future rested on the assumption that their society, and its members, were superior to the rest of the world. This thinking was based on the values of the new industrializing, embourgeoising, secularizing society in which activities were directed towards a constant improvement of the standard of living. In certain areas, however, such as intellectual culture, a temporary state of inferiority was recognized, but this was assumed to be bound to disappear in the course of time. Their superiority was seen by the Americans themselves as deriving from the dynamism of their society, which unlike the European nations had never had to endure feudalism and were free from the class boundaries. Moreover, it was believed that this way of life ought to be spread to other nations. Thus the American authorities adopted a sense of mission during the very first decades of their history as an independent nation.
The next two factors in Nye's approach operate in space: in horizontal (and geographical) terms the relationship to Europe was crucial. Naturally, the value judgment depended on the measuring rod chosen. For the majority (or, the average American) view the most common criteria included democracy, individual freedom, or moral questions, while the cultural minority emphasized intellectual achievements which could not match the long European tradition.
The fourth factor was powerfully trans-atlantic as well, but in more concrete terms. Heavy emigration in the post-Napoleonic period from Europe made America a multi-ethnic nation and contributed strongly to the nature of American nationalism. Connected to this, the frontier of settlement which was steadily moving further west was also a crucial explanatory factor both in the Americans' life and their Americanism.
Nye's analysis ends in a summary. He concludes that these four features led to a unique combination of unity and pluralism in American society: everyone was in theory equal, yet the individual, and individual freedom, also provided a counterweight to the majority. Not only the individual, but equally the group, was of importance. Both for culture and other forms of human activity, these were factors which provided the tone of the American intellectual atmosphere, and a tension between majority and minority aspirations on the direction of the American national identity.
Robert M. Crunden published his American cultural history in 1990 and looks at American history differently from Russel Blaine Nye. Crunden does not place himself in the situation of the early 19th century Americans, but makes his conclusions retrospectively. According to him, the American history can be understood from the point of view of religion, capitalism and democracy. Thus for Crunden, spirit, economy and political and social equality explain the American history in its entirety . Crunden concludes that before 1815 Americans perceived their mentality locally, in several separate centers on the Eastern seaboard. The second phase lasted until 1901 and was a time of regionalism and sectionalism (North, South, West). Nationalism was the most important ideology only during the first four decades of the 20th century, after which the Americans have belonged to the cosmopolitan, global world, Crunden writes.