When the Virginia Quarterly did me the honor to ask for an article for their anniversary issue the sailing directions from the Editor’s desk were only that I should write on some phase of American history which particularly interested me at present. The longitude was as illimitable as that which confronted Columbus when he sailed from Palos that third of August, 1492, to discover Cathay but unexpectedly to find America. I have been discovering America all my life and reporting my findings from time to time in all too many volumes. In this brief article I have decided to write informally about one finding which I think of importance and interest to ourselves and perhaps to all mankind. That is the essential and underlying unity of the American people.
That may sound simple but it really is not. For one thing, ten years ago I devoted a fairly large volume called “America’s Tragedy” to trying to trace all the social, economic, political, and other factors which brought about the war between our North and South. European, rather than American, book-reviewers, spoke of it as one of the comparatively few studies which had been made of how conditions which cause dislike and misunderstanding, developing into hatred and culminating in war, may develop between peoples or sections of one people. That war was the greatest “Civil War” ever fought, and I use the term advisedly, with the blessing of my friend, Douglas Southall Freeman, and other distinguished Southern historians, though I know that some Southerners object to its use as apparently giving away their case for secession and constitutional theory.
But it was a Civil War in several senses. It was fought to a finish by civilians for moral and intellectual aims; not by professional soldiers for dynastic or territorial aggrandizement. Moreover, it was fought between those “of the same household.” Let me just cite my own case here. I have not got a drop of New England blood from any direct or collateral ancestral line, though I have written much about that section and now happen to live in it. My Adams ancestors, with their intermarriages with Newtons, Stuarts, Peakes, Currys, and others, have been Maryland and Virginian since 1658. My ancestral Adams place was across Little Hunting Creek from Mount Vernon and my family were friends of the Washingtons. My mother’s family was from New York. In the “Civil War” I had close relations in the armies and navies of both the Union and the Confederacy, even brother against brother. That was a “Civil War,” as much as the old War of the Roses in England, regardless of constitutional niceties of interpretation.
The war, all that led up to it, and the horrible period of fanaticism and so-called “Reconstruction” after it left their deep scars on national unity. All that, of course, makes points against the title of my article. There are also others. For example, the jealousies of the several colonies before the Revolution and the difficulties after peace was won in 1783 are well known historically. The Annapolis Convention of 1786, which was the forerunner of the Constitutional Convention of the following year, was called primarily, and at least ostensibly, to settle trade disputes over boundaries of five or more of the then states. Certain clauses as to the freedom of interstate commerce in our Constitution were the result of the troubles which had been so keenly felt. Yet very recently and even at present there has appeared a recrudescence of this old economic statism. States do not erect tariff boundaries against other states, because to do so would be unconstitutional, but by all sorts of subterfuges, such as milk inspection laws, “usage taxes” on machinery or materials imported, highway regulations for trucks, they accomplish the same end of impeding free interstate business. One state alone has sixty “ports of entry.” This tendency to “Balkanize” the united United States is another point at the moment against my title. There are yet others, though I shall not catalogue them all.
I may mention, however, that there is one quite amazing difference between the unified United States and the varied jealous, competing, and often warring countries of the Old World, which strikes every thoughtful and observant American who has travelled or lived abroad. During the years when I was working in England I was constantly going to different continental countries. A shift of a few miles, such as crossing the Channel from England to France, or simply crossing a line on the map, as between France and Belgium or Italy, or between even Belgium and Holland, was to pass historically, culturally, linguistically, financially, architecturally, culinarily, and all the rest, from one civilization to another. Later I shall mention standardization across the American continent, but for the moment I wish to stress only one point. In each of all those countries there were social and economic strata, but in each of them their nationals did all sorts of the work involved in daily living. Everywhere rich and poor, nobles, capitalists, miners, farmers, day laborers, and servants were almost wholly of the same nationality and race, whatever race may mean now.
On the contrary, owing to our history, in the United States we have had successive layers of different and alien races to do the different sorts of hard, ill-paid, and dirty work, Negro slaves for long in the South—my South—, Irish “navvies” building railroads, Hungarians and others in the coal mines. That might be considered another slap at my title.
I could go on to discuss others, but in my opinion the fact remains, and emerges clearly from our past and present, that the United States is a united nation in spite of all sorts of differences of opinions, sectional, political, and other. We may well ask “Why?” and the question is important if the answer is true, and I believe it to be so.
There is an American, as last year I tried to point out in my book on him. He is not racial. He may be a Greek sponge diver from Tarpon Springs; a Norwegian dairy farmer from Dakota; an Irish policeman in Boston; a Russian Jew garment worker, working up, on the West Side of New York; anything. He is not sectional. He may be a Colonel Carter of Cartersville, an Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a General Lee of my ancestral state, a Henry Ford of Detroit, or a P. T. Barnum—see the 22 volumes of the “Dictionary of American Biography”—, but you would know they were American if you met them in Tibet, just as you could not mistake Henry James’ “Daisy Miller” if you had met her two generations ago in Italy.
There is a unity and an American. If it is true, it is an immensely important fact for ourselves and for all this troubled world. Of course, we have our local and sectional differences,—of dialect, pronunciation, modes of thinking, and all the rest. There is a difference between a Vermonter and a Georgian or Texan, in speech, housing, and general attitude toward life. In this New England village where I now live almost all the old houses have tiny entrance halls, New England fashion, because of climate in old days. I have a big wide hall, Virginia style, because it seems hospitable to me and, until the war, I had plenty of heat.
Those things, however, do not count much with me when trying to find whether we are a united United States, nor do all the other things which I might have mentioned. What is it which is bringing about our unity?
This is the important fact, and it seems to me very important. America, understood as the United States, appears to me to be the most powerful nation in the entire world today, on one condition, which is that we are a unified nation. What we say, think, and do, may save the whole future of free mankind in this supreme crisis of history, but only on that condition. We do not all think alike, thank God, as the last election returns showed, and I hope we never shall, but are we united on fundamentals?
In spite of all that has happened, I think we are, and for just what it is worth without being dogmatic I shall briefly try to give my reason.
America is not a race; it is a nation, with a generally realized common destiny and ideal. To be sure, owing to social and geographical conditions we are a standardized people, in gadgets, cars, magazines, movies, hotels, and the rest, to an amazing and sometimes depressing extent. Standardization has both advantages and disadvantages. In London, as I recall, there are eight different electric light districts, and once when I moved a few blocks from one to another, I had to change every bulb, toaster, vacuum cleaner, iron, et cetera, to meet the different voltage, or whatever it was. Here you can plug them in practically anywhere from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A standard railway gauge over a whole continent, a common language—disregarding pronunciation or accent—, helps unity. A standardized market in a huge, tariff-free population makes for better and cheaper goods, and so for a higher standard of material living. There are also drawbacks, intellectual and other, from the lack of variety and contrasts. I have not the space to develop those aspects of my theme, and here can point only to what I think is the fundamental fact of all.
That is that the very real unity of the United States, despite all divergencies, is due to the fact that this country was built up by people all of whom came here with much the same basic ideas and from the same motives. North, South, Quaker, Puritan, Roman Catholic, British, Poles, Italians, everyone—what you will—came to break loose from the trammels of an old society and to find the chance to be themselves and to go as far unhindered as God gave them the ability to go. Our two oldest settlements were at Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts; and the same things happened in each, as recorded by such different men as Captain John Smith and William Bradford. The settlers rebelled against the communistic plans laid down for them in the Old World; they threw off red tape and regulations; they established democracy and freedom of opportunity; and their descendants and the later newcomers have all followed those same stars in the West.
We Americans have plenty of bickerings; of old feuds; of different ideas as to this or that. The main point is that we are not a race, not a form of economic society, not a congeries of varying age-old civilizations as on the European continent, but a people who for the most part have had the same driving motives, the same ideals, the same dreams, however circumstances may have temporarily diverted them in this or that locality. The American people as a whole still dream, as they always have, the American Dream. Our unity is more than historical, religious, economic, or political. It is psychological, spiritual, and deeply rooted in almost everyone of us of every race and every section. That is why I believe in our real unity, and, for ourselves, and the world, and the future freedom of the human spirit of Man everywhere, please God that that underlying unity may forever survive unbroken!
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Americans developed a unique system of government with revolutionary ideals – never seen anywhere else before. Americans adopted representative governments with democratic principles that allowed each person to have a voice in the decisions about their country. This atmosphere of new ideas and new political rights fostered a growing sense of a unique American identity – not found anywhere else. By the eve of the American Revolution, colonists had embraced a new identity – completely different from their English roots – that helped fuel their resistance against Britain; however, plagued by petty disagreements and discouraged by the large Loyalist population, the Americans were never able to effectively unite against the British.
During the early 18th century, the British government adopted a policy of “salutary neglect” toward the colonies, which gave Americans freedom to develop their own political systems – as long as they followed the ideas of Mercantilism. When the first colonies were chartered in the 17th century, the majority adopted some sort of political institution that gave voting rights to each and every man. In the North, most citizens were able to participate in the local Town Meetings and voice their opinions. In addition, nearly every colony had a representative assembly with elected officials. These new political institutions – that the Americans had built from the ground up, and learned to cherish – caused Americans to forge a distinctive identity. However, there were other factors that contributed to the growth of a new American identity.
The American/British victory in the French and Indian War taught the Americans that they could unite in difficult times and triumph over adversity. The victory increased American morale and promoted patriotism throughout the colonies. However, when Parliament attempted to tighten control of the colonial governments and make the colonists pay for their fair share of the war, colonists were furious at the attack on their freedoms. Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, the proud colonists felt insulted that the British government would bypass their own colonial system of taxation. Americans were upset because they felt that they shouldn’t be taxed by an assembly in which they had no representation. Combined with Parliament’s other unreasonable acts like the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act, colonists became concerned about the increasingly hostile acts of Parliament which, in their eyes, were designed to limit their rights and liberties. Parliament’s aggression towards the colonies reinforced the fact that colonist’s political, economic, and social ideas varied significantly with those of the British. In addition, a large percentage of the colonists were not British in the least, but rather Dutch, or Scots-Irish, or some other race and had no loyalty to the Crown whatsoever. Why would the proud colonists listen to an assembly 3000 miles away, when they had their own representative assemblies that spoke for their interests? It is precisely this question that colonists were asking on the eve of the Revolution.
Colonists had developed a strong sense of American identity by the 18th century, however, when the time came for the colonists to unite against the British, disorganization and uncertainty ran rampant. Organizations that were meant to be unifying factors for the colonists, like the Continental Congress, were little more than debating clubs that had to work for weeks before agreeing on anything. In addition, American resistance was further hampered by a conflict of colonial interests. Many colonists, dubbed Loyalists, were still faithful to the Crown and did not want to break away from Great Britain. Furthermore, some colonists refused to support the revolution, because they felt that a break with Britain would mean economic turmoil – a fact probably not far from the truth. Loyalists fought with the American rebels, while the rebels also fought with the British troops. Some colonists aided the Patriots, while others aided the British. In one instance, Loyalists made clothes and shoes and sold them to the British soldiers (with profits of 50 to 200 percent), while George Washington’s army was freezing in nearby Valley Forge. Such was the colonial conflict of interests.
By the eve of the American Revolution, Parliament’s aggression towards the colonists had drawn a distinction between the colonist’s political, economic, and social ideas and those of the British. Colonists had embraced a new identity that helped fuel their resistance against Britain. However, disunity plagued the Americans, and it was only with the support of the French that the Americans were finally able to gain independence.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "American Identity and Unity" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/sample-essays/american-identity-and-unity/>.