We are in the midst of the history wars. Is American history inextricable from the history of white supremacy? As the Rutgers historian Katherine Epstein points out in a recent essay for American Purpose, those on the Left who critique racial injustices in our nation’s past, like the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, say yes, unwittingly adopting the interpretive frame shared by white supremacists themselves. Today’s conservatives, who reject this claim and emphasize America’s 1776-centered classical-liberal inheritance, have picked up where past left-wing historians left off.
Reckoning with these heated historical debates requires perspective—something that the study of history itself should grant us. To make sense of our fights over our past and its meaning, histories of our history wars might help. Enter Colin Woodard’s Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood.
Woodard sets out to explain “how and by whom the story of United States nationhood was created.” In telling his story about our story, Woodard, a journalist with the Portland Press Herald and a contributing editor at Politico, treats readers to a fast-paced, character-centered narrative instead of a textbook-style exposition. He persuasively argues at the outset that the roots of America’s history wars lie with our diversity. Building off his 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, he explains that even after the successful close of the revolution, Americans weren’t, well, Americans:
These new states’ citizens didn’t think of themselves as ‘Americans,’ except in the sense that French, German, and Spanish people might have considered themselves ‘Europeans.’ If asked what country they were from, the soldiers who now occupied Yorktown would have said ‘Massachusetts’ or ‘Virginia,’ ‘Pennsylvania’ or ‘South Carolina.’
And even after these states came together to replace their loose association under the Articles of Confederation with a more robust national Constitution, they still lacked an organic sense of nationhood. As Woodard writes, “If a nation can be described as a people with a sense of common culture, history, and belonging, there were, in effect, a half dozen of them within these ‘United States.’” In the early nineteenth century, then, the United States “was 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.”
Into this void steps Woodard’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cast of characters, such as Frederick Douglass, historians like George Bancroft, and racist Southern intellectuals and statesmen like William Gilmore Simms and Woodrow Wilson. Some posited a vision of egalitarian, multiracial democracy grounded in the Declaration’s ideals; others put forth a similar vision, but with subtle racism lurking beneath the surface; while others pushed for, in Woodard’s characterization, a full-bore “ethnonationalist” American state and conception of the American past. Each of these perspectives had its own moment of prominence in American discourse, and Woodard explores both the personal lives and the theories of these figures to understand why their versions of the American narrative gained a supportive audience.
Take the character of George Bancroft. Woodard recounts Bancroft’s graduate studies in Germany. Having studied under Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Bancroft returned to the United States in 1822 with an understanding of history as “the unfolding of God’s plan for the world, and that plan was the progressive development of liberty, equality, and freedom.” Bancroft proceeded to write a multi-volume, award-winning series of books entitled, History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent. There, he explained how the ideals of democratic liberty had passed down from the German Teutons, to the Anglo-Saxons, to New Englanders, and were now destined to span the entirety of the American continent. In the antebellum period, as American democracy forcefully expanded its continental reach and Europe remained mired in monarchy, readers greeted Bancroft’s vision of America with widespread acclaim. As Woodard writes, “His History was fast becoming the national narrative. And to the west, Bancroft was convinced he could see America’s sun rising high above the Earth.”