The Roots of U.S. Nationalism: Professor David Waldstreicher

May 25, 2017

President Trump's emphasis on 'a new national pride' and putting 'America First' has brought heightened attention to research by Distinguished Professor David Waldstreicher (History).

President Trump's emphasis on 'a new national pride' and putting 'America First' has brought heightened attention to research by Distinguished Professor David Waldstreicher (History), featured in his book In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

The book has been praised as an innovative study of how early expressions of patriotism - through rituals and holidays such as the Fourth of July - influenced both politics and nationalism. Throughout, Waldstreicher explores the interplay of region, race, class, and gender in the development of a national identity.
In a recent conversation with the GC, Waldstreicher discussed his research and how U.S. nationalism has both changed and remained the same.
GC: How does your study of the Revolutionary War period inform our understanding of the present-day dynamics of U.S. nationalism/populism?

Waldstreicher: I'm as much struck by continuities as change. We shouldn't be at all surprised to see politicians or citizens wedding versions of nationalism to partisan appeals. For good and bad, that's our political tradition.

One of the things that's striking about President Trump is his relative lack of interest in the usual appeals to 'the founders' and their traditions of liberty and constitutionalism we've heard on the right in recent decades. I have wondered if there is a correlation between his unwillingness or more likely inability to talk about the Revolution or the founders in any specific way, and his leaning so hard on other Eurofascist and regional types of populist appeal.

Senator Sanders, by contrast, showed that it remains possible for a democratic socialist to ask for another American "political revolution."
Your book has been noted for addressing the social construction of women and how their identities also shaped the founding of America. What did you discover about the "founding mothers" who have been overlooked in much of the literature of Revolutionary War period?

Women's presence at nationalist celebrations was believed to be part of what made such events American and popular. This was partly in debt to traditions of early modern crowd action, whereby "the people," including women by definition, sometimes demonstrated (usually peacefully, though not always) their disapproval of actions by their 'betters' by appearing in the streets.
Partly because they could not vote but had responsibilities for keeping men and children in line, women could be patriots but not politicians. Their presence at politicized celebrations was in a sense a step toward full citizenship, but also a step back insofar as it highlighted their sex and limited the nature of their participation. The results may still be with us insofar as women can be symbols of the nation and yet there is a particularly strong revulsion when they seem too partisan.

What is the impact of national holidays such as the Fourth of July on U.S. nationalism and identity?

In the early republic, holidays like the Fourth of July allowed Americans to have their nationalism and their partisan politics too. It enabled them to bridge, imaginatively, local and national and international politics. It was public, embodied, event-based, yet at the same time highly mediated by the press. It breeds excitement and cynicism and a desire to depoliticize celebrations themselves.

While this became the dominant aspect in recent decades, where celebrations are defined as the opposite of politics, and Americanism the very definition of the denial of differences, this is also a reaction to the amount of real change that national popular politics has allowed. 

I worry sometimes about the tendency in some quarters to define nationalism and American identity as a retreat from politics or engagement, but in the epilogue of my book I put the emphasis on our tradition of reinvention, especially in the hands of progressives and radicals, and I am still optimistic about what's possible.