- American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783–1833 by Benjamin E. Park
Nationalism, Federalism, National identity, Political culture
With American Nationalisms, Benjamin E. Park has set himself an extremely ambitious task—tracing the relationship between nationalism and federalism across the first half-century of the young United States. To do so properly, he explains, one must recognize that the meanings of both nationalism and federalism changed over time and space, that their articulation even in a single time and place varied among groups and even individuals and was shaped by an evolving print culture, and that the various formulations of nationalism and federalism in the United States emerged amidst an equally fluid discussion of these concepts in the revolutionary Atlantic world. By incorporating such a rich perspective, Park shows nationalism as the fruit of “local cultivation”—a striking and useful construction that embeds it in an immense array of already existing and newly emerging identities (xi). As a result, there were multiple “American nationalisms” in any given period, each of which explained one group’s understanding of the new nation and undergirded its identification with it (6). But the mere existence of so many nationalisms and “the very impulse to define and deploy diverging visions of national union” sowed the seeds for eventual disunion (xi).
To make sense of this complex process, Park draws primarily from three important states—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Collectively, they provide him with regional variation; individually, they also played critical roles in such key developments as the constitutional convention, the Hartford Convention, the colonization movement, and the Nullification Crisis. While things might have happened a bit differently in other states, as Park acknowledges, these are solid choices, though one might wish that they had included a western state as well. It is the next level of choices—the individual authors in each state whom Park calls “case studies”—that raises more questions (8). Some are obvious fits, such as Benjamin Rush, leading figures of the Hartford Convention, John C. Calhoun, and even James Forten. Other choices are harder to justify, such as those who delivered sermons on national days of thanksgiving during the 1790s as the anchor for one chapter. But Park [End Page 365] is clear at the outset that “none of [these authors] were fully representative of their local affiliations, let alone their respective states” (9).
Park divides his book into two parts of unequal length—“Imagining Union” and “Imagining Disunion”—which unfold in a strong chronological flow. Some chapters incorporate two or three of Park’s states on fairly equal terms; others focus on a single state with limited material from elsewhere. Some highlight just a couple of writers; others incorporate a much greater number of voices. All make a solid effort to link the contests over nationalism and federalism in the United States to discussions elsewhere in the Atlantic world. It is a structure that works well for his argument, though the imbalance between the parts tends to short-change the first half of his fifty-year period and, thus, the process of “imagining union.”
Park’s ambition is the source of this book’s strengths and of most of its shortcomings. He tosses a lot of balls into the air in the introduction— nationalism and federalism; change over time and variation by region, state, and locale; print culture and postcoloniality; differences due to ethnicity, religion, race, and party and influences from Great Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere. In doing so, he positions himself to see relationships between different “balls,” some well known, such as the diverging trajectories of Massachusetts and South Carolina nationalism between the War of 1812 and the Nullification Crisis, and others not, such as the similarities between German and New England nationalism in the early nineteenth century. Park also makes evident the improbability of a truly shared American nationalism in these decades and the likelihood of an eventual disunion that would separate people who never questioned that they...