I used to say that if I had to recommend one book to understand America, it probably would be Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. Unfortunately, it’s one book that happens to be about 930 pages long, so the likelihood of my recommendation being taken up by anyone was, unlike that tome, pretty slim. But now, thanks to Samuel Goldman’s After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, I can recommend a much more digestible volume. Goldman’s book can easily be finished in a single day by an enthusiastic reader, clocking in at a mere 153 pages, but he accomplishes much in that short span: nothing less than a compelling reflection on the meaning of our country’s existence.
I choose the word “reflection” deliberately: After Nationalism is not a polemic or a manifesto, and Goldman’s arguments are no less penetrating for the lightness of touch and charitable readings of interlocutors on display. His writing is measured and fair, even courtly—an adjective that fittingly suggests both decorum and judiciousness. The book is clearly the result of a great deal of thought and erudition that he’s elegantly refined to essentials. Goldman is a conservative in the best sense of the word—a sense very few others have a right to claim today—and his work is helping to keep alive a kind of humanistic writing that is in danger of being lost, but whose continued value his book makes abundantly clear.
After Nationalism can be understood as a response to the current interest on the American Right in “nationalism” as a panacea: the idea that if we just doubled down on a sense of shared national identity we’d have fewer troubles as a country. Goldman gently demonstrates how, even at its most benign, such a notion ends up being woefully abstract and facile when applied to a country like the United States, which contains multitudes. Unsurprisingly, then, he does not find a single, unifying symbol of American nationhood that’s persisted across time, but three recurring attempts to provide one: “covenant,” “creed,” and “crucible.”
Modeled on the Israelites of the Bible, the covenant was the chosen symbol of the Puritan settlers in New England, emphasizing as it does a particular people’s relationship with God. Where the God of the Old Testament made a covenant with the Jews, the God of America was thought to have made a covenant with the WASPs—a covenant that was then extended, with the War of Independence, from the new Canaan of the Northeast to the whole of the thirteen colonies. “Recasting Puritan analogies,” Goldman writes, “Yankee patriots presented the thirteen states as counterparts to the tribes of Israel, destined for freedom in their own land.” God guided these new children of Israel and demanded from them moral probity, individual industriousness, and communal dedication. But this symbol proved ill-suited to a country that was rapidly expanding its territory and absorbing great influxes of immigrants: the covenant required an ethnic and religious homogeneity that was impossible to maintain. Still, Goldman points out that elements of the covenant have lingered to the present day, such as the persistent efforts to explain the American character in terms of “Anglo-Protestant” values. The Biblical phrase, “a city on a hill,” first used in reference to the Puritan colonies by John Winthrop in 1630, still resounds in our political rhetoric, employed by both conservatives and liberals—Kennedy, Reagan, Obama, and Romney have all used it.