All marching in one direction – Richard Gamble

Two important speeches by prominent Americans in the 19th century ended with the same few lines from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. These words come from the king’s opening address in which he lamented the fratricidal war and aimed at delivering his people through a holy crusade unite the tomb of Christ from the unbelievers:

. . . those opposite eyes
Like the meteors of a troubled sky
Everything of one nature, of a cultured substance,
Recently met in intestinal shock,
Should now in well-meaning ranks,
March all in one direction.

Both speeches left out a line after the word “shock”: “And angry conclusion of the civil butchery”. The speeches, which were later published and admired, were delivered nearly 40 years apart on either side of the “civil butchery” that tore America to pieces in the 1860s and guaranteed that the old union would never exist again.

The audience in both cases was the New England Society of New York, an elite group of emigrated sons of the Puritans. Similar bodies leaped from coast to coast as the Yankee Exodus moved west and south. The first speech was given by Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, celebrating the so-called compromise of 1850, which it was hoped would finally deal with the areas of Mexican cession and the problems of the fugitive slaves and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. For Webster, it was the Pilgrim Spirit that defined what it meant to be American. He read the entire Mayflower Compact. The spread of the hearty descendants of these ancestors across the continent marked the triumph of what was most truly American.

In 1850, her legacy of “civil and religious freedom and reverence for the Bible” had reached the Pacific Ocean. But Webster’s far-reaching, even imperial visions did not stop on the west coast: “And it will be difficult when the three hundred million people in China, provided they are intelligent enough to understand anything, one day not hear and know” too something from the Rock of Plymouth. ”Webster concluded with Shakespeare to paint a vision of Americans barely escaping the disaster of disagreement and gloriously“ marching all in one direction ”.

The second speech that ended with this affirmation that Americans “are all of one nature, bred from a single substance” was Henry Woodfin Grady’s famous “New South” speech in 1886. The Atlanta Constitution Editor, Too Young to have fought in the war presented a comprehensive vision of a modernized, industrialized South to a similar audience of prominent industrialists, financiers, railroad magnates, and liberal clergy. He promised them that the old split between Puritan and Cavalier had been combined and overcome by the new American, embodied by Abraham Lincoln. The south would retain its regional peculiarity and should solve the racial question alone, but the Sons of the Confederation would happily combine with the north and west and “all march in one direction”. To be on the safe side, Grady repeated part of Webster’s 1850 address, calling it “confirmed” prophecy: “When we stand hand in hand and clasped hands, we should remain united as we have been for sixty years, citizens of the same country, members of the same Government, all united, united now and united forever. “

These speeches, and countless others like them in the US, Europe, Latin America and beyond, told a story of exaggerated national unity. They drew straight lines from a mythical foundation to the present to make a picture of America normative for all, and insisted on unity to such an extent that the long American controversy over the meaning, purpose and identity of the nation in them Self-congratulations drowned out versions of the past. Today they sound almost desperate in their efforts to reassure themselves and their audiences that America really, really was, and always has been, a nation united by a common history, ideals, and institutions as they explore the depths of division in America’s past disguise. After all, barely 20 years after the Atlanta fire, the Georgian Grady could joke about Sherman’s inattention with the fire. The general was in the audience. But nation-builders are counting on a lot of forgetting.

History and legend

Attempts like this to achieve national unity through selective memory, mythical history, and sometimes ideological and physical coercion, propel Samuel Goldman’s After Nationalism. Goldman has the gift of taking familiar documents and supposedly canonical erudition and making them strange again. He brings them to life by asking new questions. That sounds easy, but it isn’t. He is characterized by “reducing falsehood” – to use the phrase of John Lukacs – which means that he is fulfilling the duty the historian owes his contemporaries by “correcting the records.” That can be a thankless task. But for Lukacs this is a weighty moral obligation that has been accepted by the best historians since Thucydides. In a footnote to Historical Consciousness, he cited Thucydides’ own expectation that “the lack of legend in my story, I fear, will somewhat diminish its interest.”

“Legendariness” is also missing from Goldman’s book. In fact, it exposes the legends Americans have told themselves about their own unity, legends that obscure how divided Americans have always been on the question of national identity and the persistence of which makes self-awareness difficult. The book’s handling of legends does anything but “divert attention from its interest”.

We tend to see the Nietzscheans as the ones who tear down the myths of monumental history, but it is closer to the truth to say that they are the ones who construct them and expect us all to bow to them.

I first came across Goldman’s work when I was reviewing his excellent 2018 book, God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America. He immediately won me over. He’s a political theorist with uncanny historical instincts who doesn’t get caught up in formulas. He knows that all parts of our chaotic past do not go together. In God’s land, he took what had become a flimsy subject, America’s identity as “God’s new Israel,” and transformed it. It showed that there was never anything inevitable or universal about this identity.

In After Nationalism, too, Goldman raises fundamental questions. How strong were the continuities in American national consciousness really? How straight are the lines that historians and others like to draw from colonial times to the present? How “normative” were the symbols that we now claim once defined the essence of “real” America? To what extent and for what purpose have we imposed what is called “retrospective symmetry” on our national history? To what extent has research on American nationalism, exceptionalism, and civil religion helped create, normalize, and disseminate exactly what it claims to be investigating? I think Goldman would agree that good historians need to do a lot more work in an area that has been dominated by literary professors, sociologists, political theorists, journalists, and theologians for nearly a century.

The Origin of American Myths

In his own words, Goldman asks two “animating questions”: “Have we ever shared a stable vision of national character and purpose?” And “Can we restore it?” He is skeptical on both points. Why? Because Americans cannot restore something they never had. The most frequently asked question about the health of our national community today is, “How can we restore our national unity for our well-being and future?” This is an important question, but it is based on a false premise. Goldman’s claim will provoke, if not offend, readers. And even if it is true, it can seem fatal to admit it. Nietzsche warned of this risk 150 years ago when he feared the collapse of the modern canopy and blamed the allegedly paralyzing effect of modern historical awareness. Goldman warns, however, that “it is not the job – or usually within the ability – of scholars to provide or maintain such narratives of affiliation.” Of course, this has not stopped many from writing such books. We tend to see the Nietzscheans as the ones who tear down the myths of monumental history, but it is closer to the truth to say that they are the ones who construct them and expect us all to bow to them.

Goldman reminds us of the uncomfortable truth that the pursuit of uniformity creates coercion and thereby increases the likelihood of conflict. At some point, the more we try to agree, the more we disagree. “To the extent that nationalism involves centralization and homogenization, it can exacerbate the problems it purports to solve.” Instead, “it is better to view national politics as a cautious exercise of negotiation and compromise, rather than the formation of one by belief, ancestry, or Ideology united community. ”“ Faith, lineage and ideology ”- these words reinforce Goldman’s overlapping phases in America’s search for cohesion in“ our common benevolent ranks ”: the covenant, the melting pot and the creed – three ways in which Americans use“ ours Meaning “Differences – and our similarities.” The symbol of the covenant emphasized the ethnic and religious unity of an English people on behalf of the God of Israel; the Crucible projected a hopeful vision of ethnic assimilation thanks to the fabled Crucible that is spawning new men in a new world; and the Creed turned to ideology to unite a nation threatened by two world wars and the armed doctrine of communism. All three of these symbols collapsed, the last erosion since the fall of the Berlin Wall left America without the kind of mission-defining adversaries essential to devout nationalism and activist foreign policy.

I’m afraid I’ll make the book sound darker than it is. Goldman offers hope, but he does so by lowering our expectations of the degree of unity possible, by making refreshingly humble claims about who we are (and were) and by “proposing”[ing] that we strengthen the institutions of contestation. ”“ Our problem, ”he writes,“ is not that we have forgotten how much Americans have in common, but that we have undermined or abandoned structures and organizations that express and embody differences of opinion. “Institutions are key to Goldman’s analysis and proposal. And for all their fondness for abstraction, Americans once insisted that it was primarily their institutions of self-government, counseling, and legal liberty that made them what they were and were worthy of the rest of the world To give an example. Goldman believes that “this is the only way to have a meaningful discussion” [historically informed] Specificity. “

We must honestly and intelligently consider both the benefits and the costs of our attempts to all march in one direction. Goldman enters the current national cohesion debate as a scholar and a patriot, he says. In fulfillment of his intentions, he wrote a book on intelligence, integrity and sobriety.

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