Carroll Smith-Rosenberg: National Violence

Roundup: Talking About History

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg is the Mary Frances Berry Collegiate Professor of History, Women's Studies and American Culture, University of Michigan, Emerita. The author of several books and more than 40 essays on American history and culture and women's history, she has twice received the Binkley-Stephenson Award for best article in the Journal of American History. Her most recent book is This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity (2010).

"Violence," James Baldwin tells us, (and who would know better than he?) "has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America. This violence is not merely literal and actual," Baldwin continues, "but appears to be admired and lusted after and is key to the American imagination." History supports Baldwin's vision. From the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the 1790s, through the Civil War Draft Riots, frontier and Klan violence, the Red Scare, the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, Joseph McCarthy's war on domestic radicals to our current war on terrorism, fear of all who differ from an idealized vision of the "True American" has driven our public policies and colored our popular culture.

But why? Why did a nation of immigrants, a people who see themselves as a model for democracies around the world, embrace a culture of violence? In This Violent Empire I traced the history of this violence to the origins of the United States, to the very processes by which the founding generation struggled to create a coherent national identity in the face of deep-seated ethnic, racial, religious, and regional divisions. Their efforts, I argue, have left us with a national identity riven with uncertainty, contradiction and conflicts. America's paranoia, racism and violence lie in the instability of our national sense of self.

That our sense of national cohesion was hard come by and unstable should not surprise us. The new United States was born of a violent and sudden revolution. For decades after that revolution, the states, far from united, were an uncertain amalgam of diverse peoples, religions, and languages. No common history, no government infrastructures bound them together. Nor did any single, unquestioned system of values and beliefs help unify the founding generation. Rather a host of conflicting political discourses, religious beliefs, and social values destabilized the new nation's self-image.

As did three deeply incompatible ideological positions that form the core of our national self image. First and foremost is our commitment to the Declaration of Independence's celebration of the freedom and equality of all men, the universality of unalienable rights. This commitment constitutes the bedrock of our claims to national legitimacy and moral standing. It makes us "the land of the free," a model for democracies around the world. But two other deeply held beliefs dramatically contradict this self image. Having committed themselves to a universal vision of equality, the founding generation simultaneously envisioned their infant republic as "the greatest empire the hand of time had ever raised up to view," in the words of patriot and Congregationalist minister Timothy Dwight. Such a vision justified European Americans' determined march across the American continent, a vision their new Constitution upheld by declaring Native Americans "wards" of a white American state and depriving them of political agency, equality and unalienable rights. But of course the Constitution does far more. Through its Three-fifths and Fugitive Slave clauses, it made the United States the land, not of the free, but of slaves and slave owners. What ideological disconnects and contradictions! What an unstable bedrock upon which to construct a new national identity!

Seeking to efface these discordant discourses as well as constitute a sense of national collectivity for the motley array of European settlers who had gathered on the nether side of the North Atlantic, the new nation's founding generation had to imagine a New American whom citizens as diverse as Georgia planters (who owned slaves and wanted Cherokee lands), Vermont hard-scrabble farmers (who were committed to the abolition of slavery), and Quaker merchants (who were ardent defenders of Native American rights) could identify with, wish to become, boast that they were.

On the pages of the new republic's rapidly expanding popular print culture—the newspapers, political magazines and tracts, novels, plays, poetry, sermons, press that proliferated in the 1780s and '90s—the image of a New American gradually took form. How was he initially envisioned? First and foremost, he was a virile and manly republican citizen, endowed with unalienable rights and devoted to liberty and the independence of his country. Secondly, descended from European stock, he was white; no trace of racial mixture darkened his skin. Lastly, he was educated, propertied, industrious and respectable—in short, bourgeois, or at the very least, of the middling classes. Of course, the majority of those residing in the new republic failed to meet these criteria....

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