On #BeingAmerican

My current project examines the relationships between national, social, and individual identities, and how we view ourselves as American. Identity is like the Evil Queen’s Magic Mirror: it has defined boundaries and function, but everyone approaches it with different expectations and leaves with a personalized experience. It is not surprising then to find tremendous differences in personal beliefs while observing a shared definition and purpose. This has been the theme threaded through several recent readings.

At the end of my graduate coursework I wrote a state of the field paper that included Gretchen Murphy’s Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. The book examines how the Monroe Doctrine evolved throughout the nineteenth century; specifically, Murphy uses discourse analysis to show that popular culture contained many of the concepts that politicians and thought leaders adopted in their policies. Monroe’s nascent framework was nearly stillborn: it grew slowly, branching into different interpretations, each waxing and waning as our nation’s agenda and influence changed. The relationship between American social identity and political forces is direct and powerful. Even contemporary assertions that the Monroe Doctrine is dead ignore its incorporation into American identity.

Of interest today is a problem that Murphy identified in the opening of her Introduction:

Even the name “America” bespeaks the crisis; conventionally used to designate the cultural identity of the United States, its implicit erasure of Latin America and Canada is now painfully apparent…

For Murphy, the solution is to coin the term “USAmericans.” A bit clunky at first, I quickly realized it was effective for distinguishing between the various Americas of the present day. Recognizing the contemporary hubris of USAmericans to co-opt the identity of an entire hemisphere is a first step to respecting other cultures between Ellesmere and Patagonia.

Later, historian Jonathan Wilson posted the following to Twitter. “USians” indicated a trend and, upon chatting with him, he also offered his awareness of the term “Statism.”

However, our view of the hemisphere is much different today than in the nineteenth century, and one could accuse Murphy of performing Whiggish history (although in fairness she is a professor of English.) Did we view ourselves as rightful claimants to the title in the early days of the republic? Was there competition for the title at that time? Or are we simply projecting present-day concerns into the past?

I grabbed my copy of The Federalist and examined the thirty-four uses of the string “American.” Like those of us in the present day, the term is used to identify not only the new nation but also those members who comprise the cultural and civic body. That may be less surprising when one considers the neighborhood at that time: Great Britain, Spain, and France controlled most of the remaining western hemisphere and maritime routes, providing imperial perspectives for the non-indigenous peoples.

What is interesting about The Federalist is how Madison and Hamilton employ the word. While the latter favors its use in describing a regime, dominion, and state, Madison is quite comfortable using it as a container for the members of the new nation. Neither have a problem with excluding other western hemisphere societies.

Consider Hamilton’s remark in Federalist no. 11:

They foresee the dangers that may threaten their American dominions from the neighborhood of States, which have all the dispositions, and would possess all the means, requisite to the creation of a powerful marine.

He not only uses the term to describe various dominions within a geographic region, but he elevates the new nation to the status of a significant player. This statement asserts the role of the United States as a legitimate force in the Atlantic world, and foretells the development of attitudes and policies in the nineteenth century.

Madison, however, clearly favors the term to describe individuals as members of a society. Already in 1789, he views his cohort as one body, an organism evolved to conquer the vast geography of the continent and repel external dangers, as witnessed in Federalist no. 14:

…the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.

The metaphor of the body is powerful, capturing the profound diversity of the nation’s citizenry, their interdependency on one another, and the transcendence beyond the sum of their parts. Although the brain and the liver are profoundly different and may work at cross-purposes from time to time — at least my brain regularly enjoys the alcohol that my liver must work to remove — they cannot exist without each other, and both clearly belong to something greater than themselves (at times, anyway.) By addressing this interdependency, Madison presages notions of being American. Whether deliberate or not, he is creating space for popular and civic culture to begin defining the boundaries of a national identity, a space that will be molded and kneaded by myriad factions throughout the history of the United States. This process not only shapes identity but also circumscribes the behavior of future actors.

Nearly 125 years later, the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan would focus its rebranding on notions of American identity. Dr. Kelly Baker deftly examines this process in her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. Although Baker — a historian of religion — warns us to maintain a boundary between the KKK and white, Protestant America, it is not irresponsible to place the KKK at a different point on the same continuum of American social identity. In essence, the Klan is looking into the same Magic Mirror as the rest of us.

Indeed, Baker draws the connection early:

The Klan gained a following because of its twin messages of nation and faith, and the fraternity progressed because of members’ commitment to its religious vision of America and her foundations.

Americans — USAmericans, USians, etcetera — have always expressed discomfort when facing down groups like the Klan. We tend to look at them as boils or abscesses on the body, and our social narrative regularly “others” such groups to preserve its pristine nature. Although identity is necessarily fictional by nature, such preservation is counterproductive to understanding the true capacity of it, where it originates, and how it might evolve in response to certain social pressures. It may be full of pus, but it’s our pus, and more importantly it is representative of processes within our civic body.

The space carved out by Madison et al. to debate the notion of American identity is still in use today, and still contains the momentum of that early legacy. Each iteration of cultural debate and policy depends upon the previous. Both Murphy and Baker successfully trace their subject matter through to the present, and both have their foundations in the late eighteenth century. In fact, I would argue that losing sight of Madison’s body metaphor constitutes the greatest internal threat. While it may be time to encompass other cultures in what we consider to be American, we must also strive to encompass the many factions within the body of the United States. Only through an honest assessment of what we are can we shape who we will become.

I would love to hear your thoughts. You can find me on Twitter using #BeingAmerican.