Nationalism and Ethnicity: North America

Susan-Mary Grant. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Editor: John Hartwell Moore. Volume 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008.

North American nationalism is frequently positioned as unique, and it has attracted only sporadic interest over the years. In the aftermath of World War II (1939-1945), the United States, especially, was regarded as offering an alternative to the divisive, ethnic-based European nationalisms in the proposition that Americans are unlike other peoples, that they are, in fundamental ways, exceptional (Kohn 1944, 1957; Lipset 1963, 1996). As the product of mass migrations from Europe and Africa, and absent historical ethnic and genealogical ties, North America’s nations have sometimes been adjudged lacking nationalism at all, or they are seen as “plural” national constructs shaped by their colonist-immigrant origins (Smith 1998).

The immigrant origins of the North American nation-states predisposed them to civic rather than ethnic nationalism; these are flip sides of the same nationalist coin, though hardly alter egos. For both the United States and Canada, the civic ideal was constructed on a white ethnic base, and the history of nationalism in North America as a whole can be read as an ongoing struggle between civic nationalist and ethno-cultural representations of the nation. In the United States, nationalism is perceived to be structured around an overarching civil religion, dedicated to the protection of both cultural and ethnic diversity, but compromised by its initial articulation, in English, by a dominant white Anglo-Protestant ethnic core (Higham 1955; Kaufmann 2004). In Canada, the development of a single unifying civic nationalism was compromised by the presence of two separate immigrant ethnic cores: one French Canadian (Canadien), located in New France (Queébec); the other English Canadian (Buck-ner and Francis 2006). The division of Queébec in 1791 into Upper Canada, where the majority was English-speaking, and Lower Canada, where it was French-speaking, consolidated a linguistic diversity that set Canada apart from the newly formed United States, at least as far as the language of state was concerned.

American nationalism is frequently located in the natural rights philosophy of the European Enlightenment. Prior to the American Revolution (1775-1783), there was, of course, no such thing as an American nation, and such national sentiment as the colonists expressed was grounded in their country of origin or, increasingly, in the individual states in which they resided. The dominance of the British white elites, however, meant that it was under the banner of the rights of freeborn Englishmen, as this concept was broadly understood in the eighteenth century, that colonial leaders rallied opposition to rule from London (Greenfeld 1992; Foner 1998). They sustained a protracted conflict against both the British Crown and each other to emerge from colonial rule a nation, but a nation absent the nationalism that later mythmakers would identify as the force behind the American War of Independence itself. The nation preceded nationalism in the American case. By throwing off colonial rule, the independence had been achieved to construct a new kind of civic nationalism predicated on a new form of republican government heralded by the Declaration of Independence’s (1776) assertion that “all men are created equal.”

Revolutionary Inheritances

For the colonies north of the new United States, the American Revolution instigated a perspective, still problematic to this day, of reactive or negative nationalism. Loyalists (those loyal to the British Crown) who moved into Canada defined themselves against those colonists whose nationalism, if not yet American, was no longer fully British. Not that Canadian nationalism was loyalism writ large, but later Lower Canadian attempts (1837-1838) to break away from British rule were unsuccessful, and were, as the American Revolution has also been described, as much about who should rule at home as about home rule or nationalism per se. Constitutional independence, achieved with the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, positioned Canadian nationalism between two stools: one promoting accommodation with the British world; the other, a powerful French-speaking minority, seeking the protection of a distinctive French-Canadian (les Canadiens français) culture.

In America, by contrast, revolution had created a fully separate nation and a functioning federal union, with many of the outward trappings of nationalism but not yet the imagined community (Anderson 1983) that made such nationalism a cohesive and durable force. America’s leaders, from the first president, George Washington (1732-1799), onward, frequently emphasized both the need for unity between the individual states and the voluntary nature of American nationalism. Their efforts to encourage both were grounded in the new nation’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, which asserted the rights of the colonies to be free and independent states, and the U.S. Constitution, which established the framework of government. The new nation also trumpeted its civic nationalist credentials in the Great Seal, which announced “Incipit Novus Ordo Seclorum” (a new order of the ages is born), and on the obverse side, “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one).

By the nineteenth century, a powerful national myth of origins defined American nationalism. Beginning with the religiously motivated “errand into the wilderness” of the early Puritan settlers to New England, moving through the Revolution as an expression of universal rights, and culminating in the concept of what became known as “manifest destiny,” the nation’s divinely ordained right to pursue westward expansion, this origin myth positioned America as uniquely situated among nations to provide an example to the world. This highlighted Americans’ attempts to develop a national identity separate from that of the Old World European nations, to assert their position as a “chosen people,” but in almost all respects this was a nationalism informed by the European racial and ethnic assumptions of the original dominant ethnic core.

From the colonial period through the Revolution, the idea of America as a new kind of nation, and Americans as a new kind of people was countered by American determination to be a nation in the European mold. America’s civic ambitions were, from the start, couched in distinctly ethnic language. The “We, the people” cited in the Constitution asserted the country’s nationhood on the basis of a universal right to liberty and described the colonial relationship as one of enslavement. But in drafting the Constitution, Americans excluded their own slaves from the national polity, assigning them the status of three-fifths of a person for representational purposes. Indeed, the words slave and slavery did not appear in the original Constitution at all, lest they undermine the civic idealism that the document represented (Foner 1998). Skin color proved the means to inclusion for many immigrant groups, and exclusion for both indigenous and imported nonwhite peoples. Even before the colonies broke away from Great Britain, ethnic divisions had begun to supplant class divisions in a society where racial slavery was becoming the norm (Foner 1998).

The contrived conceptualization of the new nation as, in effect, a birthright community comprising the descendants of a single immigrant (Anglo-Saxon) group was codified in the 1790 Naturalization Law, which offered citizenship only to “free white persons.” This conceptualization was reinforced in the mid-nineteenth century by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s (1777-1864) ruling in denial of black citizenship rights in the 1857 Dred Scott case. Countering this invocation of a mythical homogeneous polity, which was hardly applicable to a nation of immigrants, was a renewed emphasis, by African Americans in particular, on the voluntary nature of American nationalism and on the Declaration of Independence as symbolic of the ideals that the nation represented. This divide constituted a major fault line in American nationalism. It fomented a separate nationalist impulse in southern states where racial slavery had, by the nineteenth century, become a social as much as an economic institution. This resulted, in 1861, in the outbreak of a civil war that was, in essence, a conflict over nationalism, with one side, the Confederacy (South), seeking a separate national existence, and the other, the Union (North), asserting via its own variant of nationalism the dominance of the federal government over the American state (Grant 2000; Kohn 1957).

New Nations Versus First Nations

Nineteenth-century North America was, as far as nationalism goes, very much in flux. It can be argued, indeed, that the presence of nonwhite peoples deemed unsuitable for assimilation to the dominant ethnic core influenced the direction and nature of nationalism in North America. Certainly Native Americans or First Nation peoples (the former term is specific to the United States, the latter to Canada), in particular, occupied, and continue to occupy, an uneasy borderland, in terms of both state and status, between the United States and Canada.

The separation or assimilation of nonwhite peoples was a major point of debate throughout the nineteenth century, and impacted both Native Americans and African Americans. The American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1816, argued for the removal of free African Americans from the United States as a means of satisfying both abolitionists, who feared that free blacks would never enjoy full rights in white society, and slave owners, who simply feared free blacks. In the same year (1819) that Congress allocated funding to the ACS, it passed the Indian Civilization Act, designed to assimilate Native Americans into white society and thereby facilitate white expansion. Under the U.S. Constitution, Native Americans, as aboriginal inhabitants, were understood to hold a separate tribal sovereignty outside the white American polity, but the nation’s westward expansion impinged on tribal lands, and forced relocations of the tribes in advance of white settlement, especially in Georgia and Florida. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was designed to remove any Indian tribes still living east of the Mississippi, and over the next few years many were forcibly moved west.

Acculturation remained an ongoing process, however, in both Canada and the United States during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, but merging the native with the nation proved problematic. Paralleling the approach adopted in other British-dominated settler societies, such as Australia, residential school systems, many run by religious organizations, removed native children from their familial and social environment in an attempt to inculcate them with the religious, linguistic, and educational values of white society. This enforced acculturation, designed to assert white nationalist values over native ones, was reinforced in the United States by a series of supporting measures, such as the Dawes Act (1887), which offered citizenship to natives willing to relinquish tribal affiliations. Such measures met resistance from Native American organizations, who viewed them, with justification, as a form of ethnocide.

The Society of American Indians (founded in 1911), many of whose leaders emerged from the off-reservation educational establishments, sought to establish native claims to American civic nationalism, but did so at a time when a rising interest in the distinctiveness of “minority” cultures undermined the “melting pot” ideal of a nationalism predicated on diversity. Under the Indian Citizenship Act (1924), Native Americans were granted the right to vote, although as a right relegated to individual states this legislation was not fully implemented until 1948. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the “Indian New Deal,” achieved, at best, an uneasy compromise between settler and native society in the United States, and failed to alter in any substantial way the native role in American nationalism, which often paralleled the exclusion of other groups, including blacks and Asians, from its civic ideal. In Canada, and absent the broader civic nationalist construction of the United States, First Nation peoples remained outside the polity, as far as voting was concerned, until 1960.

Race, Ethnie, Nation

The tortuous route to full citizenship for Native Americans was paralleled by the experience of African Americans and other non-WASP groups, even though the American Civil War (1861-1865) had, with the Union victory, transformed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation into the Thirteenth Amendment and abolished slavery, leaving the way clear for the civic nationalism of America to be truly inclusive of all citizens regardless of creed or color. The persistence of de facto segregation, however, undermined both the ideal and the nationalism constructed around it. North and South had reached consensus by the dawn of the twentieth century, but it was, in many ways, a white male consensus, predicated on a combination of nostalgia for the past and deep-rooted opposition to an integrated society. What followed was a process of ideological and ethnic entrenchment, set against a background of the debate over nationalism in the context of the various immigration acts passed by Congress, several of which, notably the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, 1892, and 1902, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the National Origins Act of 1924, represented clear attempts to control the nation’s ethnic composition. In Canada, similarly, immigration restrictions in this period consolidated the British ethnic core.

Opposition to Catholicism was an act of faith—literally and figuratively—in American nationalism. It found political expression in the form of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s, and reemerged after the Civil War with a broader social Darwinist flavor that emphasized the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant as the exemplar of the republican ideal and other ethnic and religious groups as threats to it (Higham 1955). Within a decade of its inauguration in 1886, the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty had shifted: from being a welcoming Mother of Exiles, Liberty became the Guardian at the Gates, protecting America from the immigrant threat. Between then and the mid-twentieth century, American nationalism was increasingly defined against non-WASP groups; before World War II, anti-Semitism was a strong driving, and divisive, force across the United States.

In the 1960s, a new and more open immigration policy came into force in the United States. Canada, meanwhile, began a process of establishing itself as a multicultural “plural” nation as a means of balancing the competing claims of British-Canadian, Québécois, and English-speaking but not British-origin parts of its population, reinventing itself, in effect, with a new flag and a new national anthem reflective, it was hoped, of diversity and of pride in that diversity. In the United States, the civil rights movements became the most obvious outward expression of the challenge to the country’s racial order by black, native, and Mexican Americans in a period where segregation highlighted the imbalance between American ideals and the nation’s reality. When the United States sent troops not once but twice into Europe in support of a liberty that was denied its citizens at home, incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II whilst many were actually serving in the nation’s armed forces, and failed to protect its black citizens from the racial violence that exploded on the streets of Chicago, New Jersey, and the Deep South, it was, at best, sending out mixed signals about who belonged in the nation and what the American citizen might expect from the state.

The twentieth century was, perhaps, the period in which America paid most dearly for founding its nation before fully realizing its nationalism; the tension between the nation’s civic ideals and its ethnic social, political, and now linguistic constructions has consistently challenged, compromised, and, some argue, continues to define American nationalism in the twenty-first century. Non-white immigration has prompted extended debate over the linguistic lineaments of nationalism, with the political pressure group U.S. English (founded in 1983) promoting English as the language of state. Strongest in California, this movement has seen many states react against immigration by adopting English-only legislation (Schmid 2001; Huntington 2004). Fear of immigrant influence also prompted California’s Proposition 187 (1994), or the “Save Our State” initiative, to deny educational and health-care benefits to illegal immigrants, although this initiative was later ruled unconstitutional.

Although frequently perceived as more tolerant than the United States, Canada has likewise struggled with anti-immigrant sentiment, expressed prior to 2000 via the Reform Party of Canada (Parti réformiste du Canada). The clash between religious expression and the secular requirements of civic nationalism in a multicultural state, notably in the hijab controversy in 2007 and in Queébec in 2009, highlight the challenges involved in merging the competing claims of French Canadians, English Canadians, First Nation peoples, and newer immigrant minorities into a functioning civic nationalism absent the ethnic legacies that too often produce division out of diversity.