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The United States of America came into being as a contractual agreement, a means to an end for the parties involved. No one thought they had created a nation-state of the sort that Holland or Prussia or post-Revolutionary France was, and that central Europe's Romantic thinkers hoped the states of the German Confederation might one day become. Its people lacked a shared history, religion, or ethnicity. They didn't speak a unique language all their own. They hadn't occupied the continent long enough to imagine it as a mythic homeland, a place their people had dwelled in since time immemorial, and they'd killed or supplanted those people who did have the right to make such a claim. They lacked a common political heritage apart from the imperial ties against which they had just revolted, and they had no shared story of who they were and what their purpose was. In short, they had none of the practical or ideological foundations of a nation-state.

The United States was a state in search of nationhood, a country in search of a story of its origins, identity, and purpose. It needed to find these things if it was to survive.

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FOR A TIME the ad hoc remedy to this problem was to define American identity in terms of participation in the shared struggle of the American Revolution. Washington, commander in chief and founding president, was venerated almost as a monarch until his death in 1799, then promptly promoted to demigod: the father of the nation, the mythic lawgiver, a man of perfect virtue, wisdom, and morals whom "Americans" might strive to emulate. Parson Mason Weems, a hustler-cum-historian, invented stories to buttress this image and disseminated them at considerable profit in pamphlets and, later, his book-length Life of George Washington. Washington's birthday was made a public holiday. His remains were treated as sacred relics, their resting place fought over between Virginia (which held them) and the U.S. Congress, which had appropriated money to house them in a purpose-built D.C. shrine. Virginia won.

But the beatification of Washington and his wartime supporting cast—Henry Knox, Nathan Hale, Ethan Allen, the Marquis de Lafayette—only worked as a placeholder for a national narrative for as long as 1776 remained in living memory. By the 1810s the Revolutionary soldiers and Founding Fathers began dying off, leaving a growing void where the country's sense of national identity should have been. Backcountry settlers in the Appalachian uplands had rebelled against the authority of the governments of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the United States in the early 1790s. New Englanders considered seceding from the federation during the War of 1812, and the governor of Massachusetts had conspired with British officials to frustrate the federal war effort.

The federation's leaders began panicking. Senators slapped a tariff on the British books they feared were brainwashing Americans in their own schools and libraries. Noah Webster toiled away at compiling an "American" dictionary with distinctive words and spelling conventions in an effort to create a "national" language because, as he put it, "America should have her 'own', distinct from all the world." The intellectuals who wrote for the leading journal of the era, 'The North American Review', lamented that the United States couldn't produce a history of its own—a story of itself and its origins—because its component states couldn't agree on what it should say. "It will be at best but a combination of distinct histories," one lamented, "which subsequent events only show the propriety of uniting in a single narrative." If new adhesives weren't developed, if someone didn't fashion a compelling story of what America was, the young Union was expected to fall apart.

This is the story of the struggle to create that national story and, with it, an American nationhood. It is told through the eyes of the primary combatants themselves: three men born in very different circumstances at the dawn of the nineteenth century who would develop three competing answers to the United States' existential questions; and two who came of age in the aftermath of the Civil War and witnessed the triumph of one vision over the other in the second decade of a new century. It's the story of how the peoples of the United States answered those great existential questions of nationhood: Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?

I end the story at the point when a broad consensus on how to answer these questions was finally achieved. It's a struggle that takes the better part of a century, a period in which we see the federation radically transformed—geographically, technologically, economically, and philosophically—into an industrial empire capable of dominating the world. This consensus was by no means final, but its contours make this a sobering and cautionary tale for readers today.

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