- Many Identities, One Nation: The Revolution and its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic
Many Identities, One Nation opens with the author’s personal reflection of cultural and national identity. While cultural customs and events fill Riordan’s memories, it has become his heritage, no longer his family’s culture. While he may cling to the label of Irish-American, even his own brother opts for “just American.” This modern reflection invites contemplation on the proverbial “melting pot” many Americans believe their country to be and further analysis of the Latin motto found on the Seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum; Out of Many, One. How diverse cultures view themselves in America, how these cultural identities evolved, and the consequences of that evolution are important questions that Riordan skillfully answers. In doing so, Riordan tells us how this process emerged during the Revolution and continued to develop in the Early Republic.
To accomplish this study, Riordan analyzes three communities along the Delaware River valley during the Revolutionary era. While these communities shared many similarities such as population, economic activity, and role as regional political hubs, their differences allowed Riordan to examine the evolution of diverse cultural identities in similar environments. The Middle Colonies provide fertile ground for researching multicultural identities [End Page 363] and this is reflected in his choice of communities: New Castle, Delaware; Burlington, New Jersey; and Easton, Pennsylvania. The port city of New Castle was home to large numbers of Scots-Irish, African-Americans (both free and enslaved), Anglicans, and Presbyterians as well as possessing a strong tie to the Atlantic world. While no longer exclusively Quaker, Burlington demonstrated its strength by dominating local affairs. Easton became home to many recently-arrived German immigrants to Pennsylvania. While alienated by many of their eastern neighbors, Germans found common ground and unity with each other through their religion and their fight against Native Americans.
Riordan’s intense investigation of how local affairs shaped identity allows the reader to visualize the inner workings of the social fabric of these three societies. Religion, race, politics, economics, and personal identities merge to create a larger collective identity. Riordan develops a picture which expands from the local level. Beginning with the conflicting political identities of the three towns during the Revolution, Many Identities, One Nation proceeds chronologically, and explores the growing influence of religion in shaping identity. Ultimately, the role of cultural identity unfolds in the formation of political identity in the Jacksonian era while reflecting the dominance of local interests. Interestingly, the Revolution was not a universal unifying factor, but in many cases, the opposite. Additionally, the war had forced choices that were addressed “through the logic of local circumstances” (81). However, the pre-war existence of these towns had been disrupted by the war and would yield new factors in shaping their identity.
Following the Revolution, “cosmopolitan evangelicalism” and partisan politics emerged as “key thrusts” to reshape “resurgent local diversity into American unity” (12). Just as race had become central to “American-ness,” so too did Christianity become a desirable American trait. Evangelical reformers sought to overcome differences and form a common American Christianity. In this capacity, Riordan emphasizes the work of several Bible societies and their goals of putting a Bible in every home, but also their desire for a closer relationship between Protestant faiths. While they met with some success and some resistance, “cosmopolitan evangelicals had made organized religion more central to public life in the early national United States than it had been at the start of the American Revolution” (207). Just as the Revolution had done, the emergence of permanent political parties thrust national events into communities, however, “localist traditions persisted and continued to shape politics” (247). This is evident in the transformation of Pennsylvania Germans. [End Page 364] Just as their service in the Revolution had forged their identity from “colonial outsiders to full-fledged Americans,” they used this experience to resort to arms to “defend local practices against...