The earliest manifestation of nationalism, as opposed to mere patriotic impulses, was the rejection of an ancien régime and the transfer of sovereignty from monarch to people. There is in this event a note of liberation of the nation from oppression, either internal or external. As Hans Kohn pointed out in 1957, "Nationalism is inconceivable without the ideas of popular sovereignty preceding." In the words of Carlton Hayes, it is a state of mind, "a modern emotional fusion of two very old phenomena; nationality and patriotism." If freedom to realize one's individual potential can be realized only in the nation-state, then nationalism becomes the antithesis of tyranny and oppression.
But this is not necessarily the totality of the nationalist experience. When the nation demands the supreme loyalty of its citizens, the freedom of the individual may be sacrificed to the welfare of the state. In this elevation of the state there is the concomitant denigration of the outsider and the temptation to advance the nation at the expense of other nations. As nationalism evolved in the nineteenth century, it assumed the ugly forms of imperialism, racism, and totalitarianism; it helped to stimulate world wars in the twentieth century.
It is these pejorative qualities that have led some American critics of nationalism to separate the American experience from the nationalism of Europe. Paul Nagel, an intellectual historian at the University of Missouri, refused even to use the term in dealing with American nationality. For him, "'Nationalism' regularly has implied a doctrine or a specific form of consciousness conveying superiority or prestige." Such glorification of country, he felt, should not be part of American loyalties because of the essentially different view of their land and themselves that distinguished Americans from other nationalities. Despite disquieting links between manifest destiny and European imperialism, most American critics find a qualitative difference in American nationalism.
One of the fundaments of nationalism is the sense of folk, of a kinship derived from a common ancestry. Where this bond is lacking or is of secondary importance, a common religion serves as a unifying force. Usually a people united in race or religion also have a clearly defined territory with which they are identified, either in the present or in the past. None of these attributes fits American history. Although England was the primary supplier of settlers, colonial Americans were also fully conscious of their Scottish and German roots at the time of the Revolution. An attenuated Calvinist heritage was as close to common religion as could be found in the eighteenth century, and this was vitiated by the fact that where there were established churches, they were more likely to be Anglican than Calvinist. It was a secularized religious spirit that was found in America. A specific territorial claim evoking national emotions was lacking among a people for whom territorial concerns were equated with an expanding frontier. America was more an idea than a geographical entity.
The "invention of America," as the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman has happily phrased it, marks a major departure from the experience of more organically developed nations. The mythic roots of Italian or Japanese peoples are nourished by a prehistory that tells of special strengths an Aeneas brought to Rome from Troy and special considerations conferred on Japan by virtue of divine descent. It is difficult to locate these qualities in a nation whose beginnings followed the invention of the printing press in western Europe by little more than a generation. The words and deeds of founders could be checked and countered, just as John Smith's tales about Virginia were examined by contemporaries who kept modern records.
Granted that every nation is a mixture of races with synoptic religious values, America is one of the very few nations the distinguishing features of which may be traced directly to the needs of other peoples at a particular period. The courage to embark on an American adventure, as well as the knowledge and skills necessary to discover and settle the New World, stemmed from a Renaissance belief in the capacity of man to achieve a new life. Such a conception was beyond the grasp of the medieval mind. The Reformation's pursuit of individual salvation outside the claims of established religions provided a moral imperative to much of the colonizing experience. Boston became a new Jerusalem when older Zions in Rome, London, and even Geneva had failed. Above all, the potential existence of vast quantities of precious metals in the New World gave a powerful impetus to the discovery and exploitation of American resources. The road to a transformation of life in a secular world, opened by the information of the Crusaders about the Levant and the Orient, led to Europe's colonizing of the Western Hemisphere. American nationalism was touched by all these forces.
The first problem, then, in defining American nationalism is to identify it. An automatic expression of nationalism did not accompany the establishment of the United States. The emotions of the American Revolution were attached to state rather than to nation, and the search for a substitute for a historic memory or a common church or a unifying ruling elite required forty years before it could bind the loyalties of Americans. It was an issue that absorbed the energies of the founders of the new republic and achieved a tentative resolution only after the War of 1812. By that time, the focus of nationalist sentiment was on the special conditions of liberty protected by a new and superior government that had no counterpart elsewhere.
The development of a national identity proceeded throughout the nineteenth century, and continued to be a preoccupation of Americans in the twentieth century. The effort to find suitable symbols to display loyalty was a lengthy process. As late as the Civil War there was more than one design of the national flag. It was not until 1942 that the ritual for its display on buildings or on platforms was completed, and the pledge of allegiance was made obligatory in many schools only a generation earlier. The insertion of "under God" in the pledge of allegiance was a product of the pieties of the post–World War II era. Even the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," was not so designated until 1931. The insecurity over identification of nationalism is equally apparent in the sensitivity over the meanings of "Americanism" and "un-Americanism."
A second, and overlapping, element in nationalism is the peculiar relationship between state and federal governments. The question had its roots in the making of the Constitution, as did the term "federal" used by its framers. It was a euphemism designed to secure support for a new basic law that implied the supremacy of a strong central government. An open affirmation of this purpose in 1787 would have meant the failure of the Constitutional Convention in a country where primary loyalties still belonged to the states and where the word "federal" suggested a fair sharing of power. The struggle between state and nation, begun with the failure of a genuine federal system under the Confederation, was a persistent theme in American life for three-quarters of a century. Although it was present in the Jeffersonian challenge to Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s and in Federalist disaffection from the Jeffersonian conflict with England in the next decade and a half, its dominance over American life coincided with southern sectionalism, culminating in the Civil War. That conflict ended not only in the triumph of the North but also in the vesting of new mystical powers in the Union and the Constitution. Nationalism after 1865 would always be equated with a nation, "one and indivisible," with the "unum" in "e pluribus unum" superior to the "pluribus."
A third strand in American nationalism, which is also as old as the Republic, is the special destiny of America. The hand of Providence as well as of man is involved. If America is a "new world," its rise must have a divine meaning; and that meaning was always translated into some form of sharing the blessings of liberty with less-favored peoples. The religious quality inherent in the image of a "chosen people" was enhanced by the secular opportunities open to Americans. Vast, empty, rich lands held insecurely by European imperialists seemed manifestly destined for American occupation. Movement into Texas and California was a fulfillment of a destiny not only to occupy the entire continent but also to help the rest of humanity see how that occupation would spread the principles of free speech, free religion, self-government, and boundless economic opportunities that were denied to the Old World. Here was a sense of mission that sharpened in clashes with Britain or with Spain, but it was a mission that was susceptible to foreign influence. The unique character of a civilization serving as a beacon to others, a model to be copied, could be (and was) compromised by the change in status from a small, vulnerable republic to a continental empire with overseas ambitions. The altruism of an earlier time was thoroughly mixed, at the end of the nineteenth century, with prevailing influences of social Darwinism and Anglo-Saxon racism.
Most of the elements making up America's self-image of a divinely favored nation still survive, even though the trauma of a great economic depression in the 1930s, the burdens of world governance in the 1950s, and increasing doubts over social injustice and corruption at home and exploitation abroad have had disillusioning effects upon the meaning of the American mission. Yet with all these doubts, the connection between God's special favor and the American way of life remains part of nationalism. And, for all its flaws, the virtues associated with the record of American nationalism suggest distinctive qualities not found in other national experiences.