The Quest for Nationalism

As these examples indicate, historians cannot agree when nationalism in America began or what it was like. Even more difficult it was for the contemporaries. The Declaration of Independence, if it did not create a nation, made it clear that although there were thirteen colonies, they were united. "Our great title is American", wrote Thomas Paine. Nor could the problems of independence and war be confronted and solved except in nationalistic terms. The Constitution of 1787 or the War of 1812 between the U.S. and England further strengthened this feeling.

By the Jacksonian era of the 1830s, the Fourth of July was the most important national holiday. Authorities in Washington were eager to develop national symbols, to encourage the nationalistic pride and confidence in a country which undoubtedly had severe sectional problems by the middle of the century: i.e. negro slavery in the South, steady movement to the West, and problems of urbanization and industrialization in the North.

In search for these symbols, it is interesting to notify, that the nation turned, not to England which it had rejected, but to Greece and Rome (particularly to Rome, "the most powerful republic in history"). Thus the Eagle furnished an equivalent for the British Lion, while the Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1776, with its slogan of "E Pluribus Unum" was directly derived from similar Roman apparatus. Roman architecture furnished patterns for American public buildings. The upper house of the Congress became a Senate. Even Horatio Greenough's statue of George Washington, done in 1841, clothed him in a Roman toga.

The official United States was very well aware of its identity, and it was fortified with an egocentric sense of mission and an idea of progress without limits. Schoolbooks taught that the U.S. is an example for 90% of the human race - for all those who have not inherited their position or wealth. Alexis de Tocqueville who visited the United States in the 1830s wrote that the frontier men in the backwoods of Michigan possessed the same kind of ideas and attitudes as the government officials in the East. According to him, "America, more than France, was one society". The sectional tension was turning to its climax only after Tocqueville's visit.

It should be noted also that the idea of nation or union was not the same in the mind of an average American - whether a lumberjack in Michigan, a farmer in Kansas, a ranch hand in Texas or a street cleaner in New York - as in the mentality and actions of a Washington congress member or a New England intellectual. For many, America was a land of opportunity, a channel to a materially better life; one's immediate, individual needs and aspirations went well beyond the theoretical or even moral speculations about the nature of the new nation.