From the 2004 Abbeville Institute Summer School
My first lecture is going to be a bit of a story, but this story is not going to be one where there’s a hero at the center of it. Instead this is gonna be a story about nationalism, what nationalism is and the categories of nationalism that were present during the early American republic. Please bear with me. This is not, I hope, as convoluted as economics, but it just might be, especially since I’m gonna talk about economics throughout the lecture as well. The term “nationalism” did not surface in the English language as a political term until 1844, so when we talk about “nationalism” of the 18th century, we’re imposing a term, a rubric, upon the past which people at the time had no understanding of. They did not think of themselves as nationalists. We can look back and try and claim that they were nationalists, but please bear in mind that we’re already being a little bit anachronistic with this. Before it was used as a political term, “nationalism” was originally a theological term to describe the Great Commission of Christ delivered at the end of the book of Matthew, where Jesus commands His followers to go into the world and preach the Gospel to all nations. Originally nationalism was used to describe the church bringing all nations into itself; it was participating in a process of nationalism where the Gospel was being spread to all nations.
In 1844-1845, the term entered the English language and was considered to be a positive thing. Scholars throughout the 19th century were very, very much in favour of nationalism. They thought nationalism was the way to go, because, as we’ll see here in just a moment, they thought nationalism was the direction all history was headed, and if you were not a nationalist, history would pass you by. That was their thinking up until World War I, which was probably the peak of the optimism associated with nationalism. People assumed both in Europe and in the United States that nationalism was so good that it had been restricted to only the big powers. Germany had nationalism, Italy had nationalism, the United States had nationalism. But what about the Estonians? What about the Bulgarians? What about these little cultural groups in central and eastern Europe? Perhaps they could enjoy the benefits of nationalism as well. You see, by the early 20th century, nationalism was associated with things such as industry, national pride, and economic prosperity. So, if we want to bring industry, pride, economic prosperity, even international influence to the Estonians, Bulgarians, etc., they’ve gotta have nationalism. For this reason, one of the most important planks of Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen-point plan immediately following World War I involved the self-determination of peoples. Now, we might see this as a good thing. Self-determination of peoples? Isn’t that the consent of the governed? Wasn’t that what the whole point of the American Revolution? But that’s not what Woodrow Wilson was aiming at. Woodrow Wilson had an ideological understanding of nationalism. In his view, the self-determination of peoples was a way by which Wilson and other world leaders could bring order to international politics. So, this was not really a beneficial thing. Now, as I said, most intellectuals and scholars thought nationalism was beneficial. Then World War II broke out. Sanity also broke out with regard to nationalism as a result of World War II. People realized nationalism can be destructive. The Germans were doing awful things and using nationalism to justify their actions. So, whether it was the German Holocaust, whether it was the previous Bolshevik Revolution (which in itself was a form of nationalism), or whether it was the Allied bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, all these things were done and justified by nationalism. The world began to reject nationalism as a result, except in two places: Great Britain and the United States, where nationalism continued to be seen in a positive light until about the 1960’s, when the New Left in the United States and Great Britain began endorsing some of the ideas floating out of Germany that maybe nationalism was bad.
So that’s where we are today, where nationalism is seen in a critical light. Very few people are going to publicly stand up in academia and defend nationalism. Some of you have probably run into that in your own brief collegiate lives, when you said something like, “Well, maybe the United States really does possess the best government in the world,” and immediately a frown emanated from the front of the classroom. How dare you insinuate something like that! There is a problem with the main ways in which nationalism is currently being described in academia. And I want you to bear with me on this, because if you can understand this problem, I think you might understand why the critiques being offered today about nationalism really aren’t very satisfying. The problem is these critiques define nationalism as an ideology which honours one’s own ethnic identity or culture above all the rest. It is a belief that one’s own ethnicity is superior to those ethnic groups in the rest of the world. So, they define nationalism racially. Well, there’s a problem with this. You cannot have nationalism unless you have the modern state. In other words, you can’t have nationalism unless you have centralized political power. You don’t have it in any other way. Every nationalist movement, all of them, have one goal: To gain control of the central political power. And once they have that political power, then they begin implementing various other reforms to solidify their nationalist ideals. You can’t have nationalism without politics because it is a political term and a political issue.
One of the other things we need to understand about nationalism is that nationalism is not the same thing as patriotism. In 1945, the eminent British novelist and political essayist, George Orwell penned an important essay entitled Notes on Nationalism. This was written in May of 1945, just as World War II was finally coming to an end. Here is how he defines nationalism and patriotism:
By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
So, patriotism’s not aggressive. Patriotism is natural. Patriotism is something that almost all human beings will exhibit at some point or other, by protecting those things that you love – your family, your home, your property, or by protecting your culture from the assault of other cultures which are antithetical to your own. Nationalism, however, is different. It’s not natural. Nationalism is an ideology, and as an ideology, it is a closed system of thought which attempts to rationalize one’s beliefs at the expense of all other systems. In other words, nationalism is about abstract ideas. Very, very dangerous abstract ideas, because even if those abstract ideas don’t conform to reality, even if they don’t conform to the kind of society in which you presently live, what is an abstract idea? What can you do? You force reality to conform to those ideas. That’s what an ideology does. And in many ways, an ideology is very similar to religion. There’s no toleration of any other viewpoint. There’s no openness, and no matter what reality might look like, you have to conform your life to the ideology, not the traditions, customs, and habits of your surroundings. Before I get into a more substantial definition of what nationalism is, I want to talk to you a little bit about some ground rules that we need to understand in discussing nationalism in early America, and one of those I’ve already given to you. First, “nationalism” is a term that’s absent. It’s not there. As scholars we are imposing a term that occurred afterward on a previous event, and we must be careful as a result. Second, you can have the centralization of political power and not have nationalism. The two do not necessarily go hand in hand. Now, you’ve gotta have centralized political power in order to have nationalism, but you can have centralized political power and not have this overarching ideology running the show. Third (and this I think is the most important), you can have a nationalist language and the people who use the language may themselves not be true nationalists. In other words, they may just be using the language because they know everyone else might say: “Oh yeah, nationalism, that’s a great thing. Let’s do it.” Whereas all they are doing is using the ideological language to achieve their own particular interests. So, we have to be careful about this when we read the language of the the founding generation or the, the generation in the early republic or the antebellum generation. You’ve gotta read between the lines. Was Henry Clay a true nationalist? Well, we can say a lot of things about Henry Clay. He was a true gambler. He was a true womanizer. He was a true drunk. But whether or not he was a true nationalist is another question, one with an unclear answer.
What are some characteristics of nationalism that we need to be familiar with? There are, I think, five such characteristics. The first is an unrelenting insistence that unity is better than diversity. Nationalists hold to this as a fundamental truth of their position and they will not tolerate any argument to the contrary. Try it with a nationalist. I do this with my students all the time. If you’re in a conversation with someone who exhibits nationalistic tendencies, ask why “we” have to be unified. Unified how? By whom? To what degree? Does he argue with you? Does he entertain the possibility that what you’re saying might be true? No, his ears grow red and steam begins to emanate from the back of his neck. Nationalists will not accept any challenge to their concept of unity, because unity is their key overarching idea. Now, I’ll explain as we go forward a little bit in the lecture why they hold to unity so tenaciously. The second characteristic is that nationalists believe that the state and civil society must be focused on achieving this unity. That is the overarching concern that everyone has got to have. And again, there is no toleration for any dissent. Think of gas stations in a time of a national emergency. Should gas station operators try to make a profit off of their gas if everyone’s trying to get in their cars and leave the area? No, that’s working against our unity. Should we have any dissent in a time of war? No, that’s working against our unity. Should religious denominations refuse to allow their parishioners to participate in a war? No, you can’t be a Quaker. That that’s against our unity. You’re challenging the nature of our society. Dissent is the enemy of unity.
Thirdly, nationalists hold to a dialectical view of history. They see history as a struggle between at least two diametrically opposite forces, forces of nationalism and forces of provincialism. They also believe that history is inevitable. The march of history is going somewhere, and for a nationalist, it’s going toward ever-increasing unity. There’s no hope. You can’t oppose this. I’m sorry, folks. You shouldn’t have come to the conference, because nothing you learn here will make a difference. We’re moving towards centralization. We’re moving toward nationalism and that’s the end of it, because if you oppose this march of history toward nationalism, you’re gonna be considered one of two things. You’re either provincial, backward, uneducated, perhaps kooky or mentally unstable, or you’re treacherous. You’re betraying your society. You’re betraying your community. You’re betraying your nation. Nationalists view opponents the way my mother viewed mad dogs and drunks – the former is crazy and the latter has a warped character. Opponents are either provincial (meaning there’s something wrong with them), or they’re treacherous and they can’t be trusted. Now, if they’re treacherous, they’ve committed a crime and the power of the state must be used to punish these people for their opposition.
The fourth and final characteristic of nationalist thought is the belief that if we don’t have unity, we will have no civilization. This is where I would like to take just a moment to explain why nationalists believe unity is so important, and this has to do with the way nationalists view society. There are two ways a person can look at society and the dynamics that take place within a society and the different components and units within a society. You can see the components and units of a society naturally coming to the center, you see consolidation as the natural description or pattern of all social activity. We’re all coming together. Human beings are naturally social animals. We want to have companionship. We want to have children. We want to work together either. Or, as in the case of nationalists, you see society always on the verge of dissolution. You see people naturally wanting to flee from each other. In other words, nationalists see people naturally as hermits. If left alone, we won’t work together. If left alone, we won’t love one another. If left alone, we will all go our separate ways and give no attention whatsoever to the needs of our fellow human beings. Well, if that’s the way you see society, you’ve got to have a regulative force to rein in these various components. In other words, for a nationalist, we must have unity because it won’t come about naturally, and if we’re going to have unity, we must have the power of the state to impose it upon society. Society will not naturally order itself. It’s gotta have a government to do that for it.
Let me very briefly give some descriptions of some things that centralizers (I won’t call ’em nationalists yet), said at the time of the early republic. This is at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. The man who really wrote the U.S. Constitution was Gouverneur Morris. Here’s what had to say about the distinction between a federal and national supreme government, “the former being a mere compact resting on the good faith of the parties, the latter having a complete and compulsive operation. He contended that in all communities, there must be one supreme power, and one only.” Only one power, and that power has to be strong enough to rein in all those centrifugal forces. “If we don’t have that, bad things are gonna happen,” said Morris. (By the way, these are from James Madison’s notes, so let’s hope he took notes on himself properly). In early July, Madison said: “This prerogative of the general government is the great pervading principle that must control the centrifugal tendencies of the states, which without it, the states will continually fly out of their proper orbits and destroy the order and harmony of the political system.” In this view Morris and Madison essentially concurred with James Wilson’s reading on the Articles of Confederation and the situation in 1787. Wilson essentially thought: “We have all this unity coming out of the American Revolution, we are one united people, but these squirrely States, they start putting their own interests above the national good, and as a result of this, our unity begins to collapse. If we don’t do something very quickly, all these centrifugal forces are gonna sweep us aside.” Charles Pinckney is another example of this strain of thought. Here is Pinckney’s description of American society in the time of the Revolution and the 1780s: “The people of the United States are perhaps the most singular of any we are acquainted with. Among them there are fewer distinctions of fortune and less of rank than among the inhabitants of any other nation. Every freeman has a right to the same protection and security and a very moderate share of property entitles them to the possession of all the honours and privileges the public can bestow.” What Pinckney is getting at is this, and you see this is very common among centralizers at the Philadelphia Convention, you see it at the time of the Revolution, you see it actually before the Revolution, and you see it through the early republic for centralizers and people we might call true nationalists: They didn’t think America was a diverse place. They didn’t see the United States as a diverse place. They saw Americans as having more things in common than apart, and it’s not a coincidence that the people who had the strongest centralizing attitudes were not born in the United States. They were not from here. Alexander Hamilton was from Nevis. James Wilson was from Scotland. Charles Pinckney was educated and spent his formative years in Great Britain. So when these people from the outside come in, it’s very easy for them to say, “Well, you know, it looks like there might be a few things that separate us, but overall you Americans, you have far more in common than you do with say, the French, right?” They disregarded the different interests, needs, and concerns of the States.
There are four categories of nationalism that we can find present in the early republic. Now, remember they want unity, that’s their goal, but there is a little bit of a problem. Upon what are we going to build this unity? What is it that’s actually going to unify us? Will it be our behaviour? Will it be our political ideals? Will it be the economy? Or will it be something else? There are four types. I’m going to briefly describe the four, and then I’m going to talk in more detail about the first two, and then spend a little bit of time concluding on the Philadelphia Convention and how this played out at Philadelphia. In the next lecture, I’m going to talk about the conflict between the third and the fourth. Moral nationalism is the assumption that morality is what’s going to unite us. We need as a country, common moral standards. We need to behave the same way. Now, this is going to be closely tied with Christianity, and the most articulate promoters of this form of nationalism were usually ministers, especially New England clergymen, but also a lot of clergymen in Pennsylvania. Benjamin Rush was by far the best example of this. Benjamin Rush didn’t even like the fact that that American soldiers were growing their hair long. He didn’t like ponytails. Men all need to have short hair. So, this notion that we have to have common moral standards is a very, very powerful idea in American history. We see it throughout the antebellum period. We see it today as very much a part of the family values coalition and the family values ideas that became prevalent in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Why can’t we all do the same thing? A nationalist would say, “Sure, we should all go to church on Sunday. We should all worship the same God. we should. All the men should have short hair, and the women should have long hair. So, moral nationalism’s very important.
Economic nationalism was probably the most successful, and economic nationalism is the belief that if we’re going to have a powerful national economy, we must first have a centralized government that is capable of regulating that economy. Economic nationalists had a goal. Their goal was to have a strong government that would regulate the economy and thereby create peace and prosperity. Here is the conclusion to an article Alexander Hamilton wrote for the New York Packet and The American Advertiser on 4 July 1782:
There is something noble and magnificent in the perspective of a great Federal Republic, closely linked in the pursuit of a common interest, tranquil and prosperous at home, respectable abroad; but there is something proportionably diminutive and contemptible in the prospect of a number of petty states, with the appearance only of union, jarring, jealous and perverse, without any determined direction, fluctuating and unhappy at home, weak and insignificant by their dissentions, in the eyes of other nations. Happy America! if those, to whom thou hast entrusted the guardianship of thy infancy, know how to provide for thy future repose; but miserable and undone, if their negligence or ignorance permits the spirit of discord to erect her banners on the ruins of thy tranquility!
That’s economic nationalism – we’ve gotta have all of this stuff in place in order to create economic prosperity. I’ll talk more about this in just a second, but let me briefly mention the other two categories. The third is cultural centralization, cultural nationalism. Now, this is not the same thing as moral nationalism. It’s not a desire to create common moral behaviour. Instead, cultural nationalists aimed to create a common American culture, common cultural artifacts, a common literature, a common architecture, common experiences, in which all Americans could participate. I’m not exactly sure what to call the fourth form of nationalism. Federalism is in many ways a form of nationalism, as we’ll see here in a moment. A good friend of mine likes to call this fourth form “federative nationalism,” as opposed to just federalism. Now listen carefully, because this is what the Jeffersonians say. This is the Southern tradition. Federative nationalism is the belief that if we don’t have a strong central government, the natural components of the society will come to the center and will crush each other in a violent consolidation or civil war. In other words, for federative nationalists, we’ve got to have some kind of centralized power strong enough not to bring people together. We’ve gotta have a central government strong enough that can keep people apart, one that can drive a wedge between the various interests of society and stall that consolidation. Now, this is why every Jeffersonian who talked about secession mentioned civil war in the same sentence. Whether they may have been wrong about this is not the question. Whether it was Thomas Jefferson himself, or John Taylor of Caroline, or John Randolph of Roanoke, or a series of Jeffersonians in the 1820s, whenever any of them mentioned secession, they mentioned civil war in the same sentence. They did not believe it was possible to have peaceful secession. Their assumption was that if you secede from a union initially, then you’re going to have some kind of violent conflict with these various forces coming together. Now, it’s true that Jefferson envisioned a series of confederacies scattered across North America. But these were confederacies that grew up within their own traditions later on. In other words, if you are initially a part of a union, chances are you’re going to have some kind of violent separation, unless you move out of that union. If you immigrate out of it, set up shop on the frontier, and build your own institutions, that might be successful.
Okay, let me speak in detail about moral centralization or nationalism and economic centralization or nationalism. Moral nationalism is the belief that the various interests of a society should not exist. They’re there, but we’ve gotta wipe them out. We’ve gotta get rid of them. Prior to the 1790’s, moral nationalism was largely limited to matters of personal behaviour. You know, how should a proper American act, how should he behave? Some argued that good Americans should be unified by sacrificing for their country. If you want to be a true American, you have to sacrifice. This is when the Nathan Hale myth really began to surface. Nathan Hale was a Patriot spy who was hanged by the British. Before he was hanged, he allegedly said, “I only regret I have but one life to give for my country.” Another way that Americans might behave properly is by always obeying your superiors. That’s what being a true American really is. George Washington liked this kind of moral nationalism. Always obey those who have greater authority than you (especially if that person is George Washington). Obey those people who are of a higher class than you. Obey those people who married rich women like Martha Dandridge Custis. This never really worked, even if we go back to the beginning of English colonization in Virginia. Sure, you’ve got these people who want to set up this gentrified ruling class under the direction of Governor Berkeley. But lo and behold, they start sending over Scotch-Irish, all these people coming to the back country, who didn’t give a flip about the deferential order that people in the low country of Virginia wanted to have. So, this idea of obeying your superiors just didn’t really work very well.
There is one idea of moral centralization that did seem to succeed in some ways, and that is that you don’t ever question the authority of the government, and because you don’t question the authority of the government, you use the power of the government to create those common standards of morality. The best person to illustrate this is Benjamin Rush. Benjamin Rush was a doctor in Philadelphia, he was born in Pennsylvania, and he was a very close friend of virtually every major American leader at the time of the American Revolution. One biographer labeled Benjamin Rush “a religious virtuoso” because he was into all sorts of different activities. He was one of the first to campaign for the abolition of slavery. He also owned slaves and apparently did not free them, but he at least campaigned for the abolition of slavery. He was one of the first advocates of temperance of prohibiting the consumption hard liquors. Now, apparently Benjamin Rush really liked ale, which he was very fond of, but he despised distilled liquors. Rush was a staunch Federalist who campaigned heavily in Pennsylvania for the ratification of the Constitution, and he is famous for creating this poster which was plastered all across the city of Philadelphia. To modernize the language, the poster said, “Federalists drink ale, Anti-federalists drink whiskey.” Benjamin Rush was a member of the Continental Congress. He was a signer to the Declaration of Independence. He was a strong proponent of the original plan for the Articles of Confederation, which would have created a much more centralized government than the Articles ever became. But Rush was very concerned about the moral climate of the country. In 1788 he had this to say:
What is the present moral character of the people of the United States? I need not describe it. It proves too plainly that the people are as much disposed to vice as their rulers, and that nothing but a vigorous and efficient government can prevent their degenerating into savages or devouring each other like beasts of prey.
Rush had a number of other important things to say, because Rush lived for a very long time. He lived past the War of 1812, and was always complaining about these moral problems. Rush was part of a religious movement, which I will describe later. Rush believed that God punishes nations for national sins. He believed in a concept of national sin, that sin is not just limited to the things individual people do, but it’s also something that the country can do as well. Right before the War of 1812 broke out, he was very upset about the situation, and he wrote to former President John Adams:
The American states consist of three districts, the Northern, Southern, and Western, all of which are divided by different interests, habits, manners, and principles. In the midst of them is a gas more powerful than steam in its repulsive nature. A despotic stopper might keep it from exploding, but kept together as those districts are by voluntary association, the gas must operate and a separation of them must take place unless a conformity to mutual interest should speedily prevent it.
What Rush wanted to do was whatever was necessary to create that common sense of morality. And this is the reason why Rush was so active in engaging in things like abolitionism and the consumption of distilled alcohol. Rush campaigned about all sorts of things. He was one of the first to campaign against the death penalty. He also campaigned heavily for the humane treatment of the insane. Now, this is perhaps because he was campaigning against the consumption of alcohol and was fearful that if people tried to label him a criminal or insane for doing so, he would still be treated humanely. Rush was also the first major proponent of state education systems. He argued that until the state saw as its responsibility the need to craft true moral republican citizens, the prospect of future republican government in the United States would be bleak. So, we have to make people unified and we have to use state education in order to do that. Rush said that what we must do with our education system is to create “republican machines,” so that everyone would fit properly together. Machines. So, forget about them being different human beings and different human beings wanting to do different things. You have to make them into machines.
All right, the second group I want talk about very, very quickly are the economic nationalists like Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton. The economic nationalists see economic exchange as a zero-sum game. There are winners and there are losers, and you want to be the winner. You don’t want to be the loser. And because it’s an either-or, if we don’t do something to ensure that we get the upper hand in all of our economic exchanges or all of our economic relationships with other countries, then we’re going to lose and our civilization is going to collapse. So, this is the thing to keep in mind about the economic nationalists. They’re also heavily into 18th-century British mercantilism, which of course also rested on the belief that economic exchange has either winners or losers that there’s no way that both people can benefit in exchange. These nationalists want a central bank, because in their view, prosperity is impossible without one. Robert Morris, who was superintendent of finance under the Articles of Confederation was also the wealthiest American at the time of the American Revolution. In fact, he was the principal contractor for the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and it just so happened that the contracts went to his own business, but, you know, we’re fighting the war, so anything goes in that situation. Robert Morris proposed the first central bank in American history, the Bank of North America. His chief protege was Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury under the present Constitution, who proposed the second central bank in American history, the Bank of the United States. For Morrison and Hamilton, you could not have a stable, prosperous economy, without a central regulating institution. It won’t happen. They could not think of it happening any other way.
Well, let me conclude briefly by looking at the Philadelphia Convention and how this is going to work out. This will end on a happy note, I promise. You do have various types of nationalism exhibited at the Philadelphia Convention. Benjamin Rush is there. Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson, and James Wilson are all there promoting various types of nationalism. And yet they fail. They don’t get what they want. Madison didn’t get a Congressional veto on State legislatures. They did not get a unicameral legislative body. James Wilson did not get the direct election of the presidency that he wanted. They did not get an explicit clause that said you can have protective tariffs. They did not get so many of the things that they might have wanted. They did not get the abolition of slavery. And I always tell students, no slavery, no constitution. It wouldn’t have happened. Instead, what wins out at the Philadelphia Convention is the various interests that were at work in the country. When they start hammering out a final plan, Virginia planters don’t want an export tariff. South Carolina and Georgia planters don’t want a prohibition on the slave trade. New Englanders don’t want restrictions on commercial treaties. Time and time again, Pennsylvanians wanted protection. Well, maybe you’ll get it. We see all these various interest groups came to play, and that ultimately is what’s going to produce the United States Constitution. Is there an underlying political philosophy? Yes. And that underlying political philosophy is federalism. We’ve gotta create a framework of government whereby the various interests of our society are going to be protected and preserved. As Alexander Hamilton said, “happy America,” because in many ways what comes out of the Philadelphia Convention (even though many of the nationalists would have us think otherwise) is a rejection of ideology. It’s a rejection of this notion that we can impose abstract ideas upon our society. And when it goes to the ratifying conventions, the United States Constitution is not sold to the ratifying conventions as this wonderful pristine institution that’s going to make us all glorious, happy, and wonderful. It’s sold because, “Hey, you, South Carolinians, you’re gonna get to get more slaves. You Georgians, we’re gonna protect you from the Indians. North Carolinians, we will actually recognize you. Virginians, you are not going to have that sport tariffs, Pennsylvanians. You’re going to have some kind of protection for your industry, maybe subsidies, maybe a protective tariff. New Englanders, we’re going to protect your religious establishments.” In other words, the Constitution was ratified because people appeal to interests, to those things that divided Americans, and not to nationalism.
The typical portrait of the United States following the Philadelphia Convention and the ratification of the Constitution is, to borrow from Alexander Hamilton again, “happy America.” The way we normally receive this is that everybody’s pretty much in agreement. Everyone’s united, everybody’s getting along, holding hands, everybody likes Washington. I think the most dangerous aspect of this common portrait of the post-ratification United States is the belief that somehow the United States in the 1790s was a more harmonious, less contentious place than it was in the 1780’s. After all, was that not why we ratified the Constitution, to make ourselves wealthier, to placate all the various conflicts and tensions within our society? Sure. That’s very much a part of it. But if that is the main criteria for judging its success, the United States Constitution was a failure, because there has rarely been a decade filled with more political violence, unrest, threats of disunion and civil war than the 1790’s. There were calls for another constitutional convention in 1789 and 1790 by both Virginia and New York. You have the first stock market crash in American history in 1792. You have some of the steepest inflation rates in American history in 1793 and 1794, inflation rates in excess of 20% in those two years. You have the Whiskey Rebellion, which is by far one of the most fun and enjoyable of all rebellions to study. Alexander Hamilton couldn’t wait for a chance to lead an army and finally talked Washington into actually taking the army out to Pennsylvania. Washington got tired. He was ready to go home. It was hot. So he said, “Okay, Alex, you can lead the army against the whiskey rebellion for me.” Hamilton was just delighted. He thanks Washington. He borrows a white horse. He leads the army to Western Pennsylvania to put down the rebels and the rebels, like Washington, had also gone home. So, there’s Fries’s Rebellion in New York. There’s the Quasi-War with France. There’s threats of, and the carrying out of, State nullification of federal laws, such as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in 1798. Georgia had nullified federal law in 1793-94, which is what caused us to have the 11th Amendment. Worst of all, perhaps, was the very real chance of civil war following the deadlock of the 1800 Presidential election. Governor James Monroe of Virginia, exchanged a series of letters with Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McCain in which both pledged their support of the other in the case of war. They start stockpiling guns. They’re not wanting to actually go and fight to make sure Thomas Jefferson is President, but they’re worried that the Federalists will wage war to prevent Thomas Jefferson from being President.
What we see here, then, is that in the 1790’s Americans disagree. There is no unity. Whether it’s any of these four kinds of unity that nationalists wanted, it did not appear in the 1790’s. In fact, perhaps the best illustration of the absence of national unity in the 1790’s is that nationalists disagreed with each other. The very people who wanted to unify the country couldn’t figure it out. Are we gonna unify the country through economic policies? Are we gonna unify the country through moral policies? Are we gonna unify it through cultural policies? Now, remember the four categories of nationalism in the early republic. There’s moral nationalism, which essentially says, you get rid of interests, interests are bad, they’re deplorable. We have to stamp them out using a strong central government. The second form of nationalism is economic nationalism. We accept interests. We accept the fact that the country is diverse economically. But what we need to do is have a strong government to harmonize those interests. We’ve got to bring these interests together in such a way that, that they will work in accordance with each other. Alexander Hamilton is the best at this. Hamilton knew how to build political coalitions, but he knew how to build those political coalitions around economic things. There’s a problem with that, as we’ll see in just a moment. For the third kind of nationalism, cultural nationalism, you have to create new interests. You’ve gotta come up with something new, and that’s mainly what we’re gonna talk about this hour. And finally, the fourth kind of nationalism, federalism or federated nationalism. You have to accept that interests exist, but you wanna separate ’em. You want to keep ’em apart and prevent them from consolidating upon each other.
In 1790 and 1791, Alexander Hamilton pushed through his infamous financial plan. Now, there is no question that at heart, this is an economic issue. There’s no question about that whatsoever, but there is one other little tangential thing we need to keep in mind. American political leaders had one question they wished to answer during the 1790’s. In light of all of these various forms of dissent, in light of all the conflict, they have one major problem. How do you grant authority and legitimacy to this new federal government? How do you get people to accept it? Americans were not quiet, content folks. As I said earlier, both Virginia and New York were calling for a new constitutional convention. And they did this because Madison was dragging his feet on submitting the various proposals for amendments to the Constitution to the States. Madison said, “Well, maybe not this session.” The Virginia legislature replied, “Maybe it’s time for a new constitutional convention.” So, Madison said, “Well, okay, maybe this session we’ll do it,” and we eventually end up with the Bill of Rights. So, we’ve got to give some kind of legitimacy to the new federal government. For Hamilton, he’s going to do it through economic means. If we can just get all the economic interests of the country harmonized, we’ll have prosperity and the prosperity and the riches and the wealth of foreign trade and domestic trade will make us all happy to live with each other. Even New Englanders would want to live with Virginians if it meant they could make money off of Virginia, right? So, Hamilton presents his financial plans and almost everybody got something out of Hamilton’s proposals. Commercial elites got a workable credit system and a central bank. Manufacturers got protective tariffs, as did cotton planters, they got some degree of tariff protection, and also some federal subsidies as well. We like to think that it’s the cotton gin that makes cotton planting worthwhile, but you already have steps toward protection of cotton in the 1790s. It only lasts for a little while. Not Tobacco planters got the prospect of better commercial treaties. Southern conservatives at least got a commodity-based currency, specie-based currency. Moral nationalists got prohibitory taxes on hard liquor. Advocates of state power got a steady credit rating, which they could then use to issue more government debt. And it was hoped that everyone would benefit from the inevitable economic prosperity that would come as a result of all this. Almost everybody got something. There’s only one major group that didn’t get anything out of Hamilton’s financial plan, and that was the back country, which is partially the reason why they rebelled in the Whiskey Rebellion.
All of Hamilton’s success was predicated on one thing: You’ve gotta get economic prosperity. If the plan doesn’t work, then you’re not going to be able to unify the country and give legitimacy to the government. Hamilton was trying to lubricate, if you will, the sectional differences via economic prosperity. We’re gonna control the economy. We’re going to regulate the economy. And because we’re gonna control and regulate the economy, we’ll have prosperity from it, and that will make everyone happy to live together. It’s all predicated on these things, but by 1794, Hamilton’s financial plans had both succeeded and failed. Now, we don’t normally hear about the failure of Hamiltonian finance, but there were some legitimate successes. For example, he did stabilize the country’s credit rating and the federal government’s ability to issue debt, but his policies did not enhance the country’s prosperity. Inflation rates peaked by 1794. In reaction to this, the Bank of the United States finally became a true hard money bank. In fact, the Bank of the United States in the second half of the 1790’s, is not a fractional reserve bank. Their credit issues were pretty much one-hundred percent of what their deposits were. It’s these other banks that had cropped up in the early 1790’s that kept issuing a great deal more than what they had on hand. Tariff rates were creeping up. You do have the first protective tariff in 1789, not 1816, and the 1789 tariff was mildly protective. There were also some pretty steep protections on salt, and that was a major blow for people in the South because they relied heavily upon salt imports. So, the financial burdens placed upon salt consumers was pretty steep. Now, I could go on and on detailing some of the other problems associated with Hamilton’s financial program.
Well, Hamilton was quite happy. He ignored all these problems. He left town around 1795 or so thinking that he thinking that he deserved a place on an American bill of credit (perhaps his face), but he was quite happy. He thought he had accomplished everything that he had set out to do, and in many ways he had, but as we all know, it takes time for economic policies to start having their real effects. And so, by the latter half of the 1790’s, the American economy is in big trouble. Economic prosperity did not materialize. You have the first party system that is aggravating this. You’ve got John Taylor throwing forward all these different pamphlets looking at the problems of Hamiltonian finance. Albert Gallatin goes to the floor of the United States Congress and says the same thing. “We’ve got these problems. Hamilton you’ve cooked the books. It’s really not nearly as good as what you said.”
So, for the Federalist party, they are in a bind. Most of their policies aimed at strengthening the legitimacy and authority of the federal government are now under direct assault. If they can’t give prosperity to the people, they had better come up with something else to unite Americans. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, economic nationalists are losing yet again by the mid-1790’s. Moral nationalists were also in a lot of disfavour. Jefferson and the Jeffersonians absolutely hated New England clergymen. Jefferson called the period in which he was writing in the late 1790’s a season of witchery. But the worst label Jefferson could think of was to call them Platonists. He said in a letter, “All of these Platonists are controlling New England society.” Why would he say that? We’ll talk about that in just a moment. So, the Federalists have gotta come up with something and they’re going to begin relying upon cultural nationalism. “Let’s create something new. Let’s give Americans a new kind of interest which they can show their allegiance to. Let’s create let’s create a common national experience.” So, the Federalists focused on experience. It’s sort of an experiential form of nationalism. What are some examples of this? Well, one of the things they’re going to do since Washington hadn’t left office yet, they relied heavily upon the image, authority, and power of George Washington as a person and also as a President. Now, George Washington was a remarkable man. Not only was he an incredible military leader, but coming out of the Revolution, everybody loved Washington. One of the main reasons everybody loved Washington is because Washington went home. That’s what gave Washington so much credibility. When he surrendered his commission to the Continental Congress, tears flowed down. Soldiers in the Continental Army were not necessarily happy with George Washington, since he lost most of his battles and he brought in this this fraud, Baron von Steuben (who was not a Baron at all), but was a rigid task master who tried to impose Prussian order upon the Continental Army and they didn’t like that. But Washington had a lot of things going for him. If you could imagine some cartoon caricature of George Washington, he really looked like that. He stood at attention all the time. He was a very tall man. Washington stood six-foot-three. The average height of a man at this period of time was about five-foot-two. Washington was lean. Washington already thought of himself as the father of his country and he cultivated that image.
So, what could unite Americans? George Washington could unite Americans, and in an effort to promote this, George Washington took a tour of both the Northeastern part of the United States and a tour of the Southern United States. If you tour Charleston today you will see an example of this, as there’s a building there that literally says on the sign, “George Washington slept here.” Even the places the man slept were respected by the American population, and George Washington had a talent for this. He could entertain people. He carried himself in a dignified manner. He knew how to get people drunk. That would make them even happier with him. George Washington refused to be paid for his services as President. Instead he said to Congress, “Okay, gentlemen, just pay for my expenses.” His liquor bill was larger than all military expenditures. He was the only man who could drink more than Luther Martin and still maintain his sobriety. But anyway, Washington cultivated this image and he needed little help in doing this, folks, little help at all. But there was an attempt by the Federalists toward the end of his Presidency to further this image along a little bit in their effort to create and surround the Presidency with regal ceremonial rituals associated with the Presidency of the United States. In fact, that’s ultimately what the Federalists were trying to do in creating these new cultural interests. “We will cause people to love the government because it’s fun to love the government.” It’s chilling. You’re in a state of awe. You get to go about with all these various little experiences and it’s enjoyable. This is why Thomas Jefferson called the Federalists monarchists. This is the main reason. Yes, he thought they were centralizing the power of the federal government, but it was very easy to call them monarchists when they surrounded the President of the United States with an entourage. They would take little slaves and dress them up. It looked like some Indian prince was into coming into the chamber, followed by Washington.
Here’s a little story I thought was pretty good. Even Hamilton agreed with Jefferson on this. In 1793 Washington was re-elected President. They’ve got to inaugurate him for the second time, so Washington, as he often did (because he delighted in seeing his cabinet members bicker with each other), asked for their opinions. He asked them: “How should I be inaugurated?” Jefferson and Hamilton wanted Washington to simply go to a private room, get a judge, and have the judge administer of the oath. A few members of Congress might wish to see this as well, and then we’ll go on and carry out our business for the day. Well, to their chagrin, Washington followed the advice of other cabinet members and opted for a public ceremony and other types of ritual. Jefferson wrote later that Secretary of War Henry Knox, who was one of the great advisors of Washington, was always stickling for a parade. Any chance he could have a parade, he’d have a parade. “Everybody will love the government. Let’s just have some more parades.” Well, poor John Adams, bless his heart, just didn’t fit the mold very well. John Adams didn’t command respect very naturally. He was short. He was plump. He had a terrible whiny accent. He was also difficult around other people. Washington was very likeable, and you would really be enamoured if you were in Washington’s presence. If you were in the presence of John Adams, you would ask, “Was that a man? What was that?” We couldn’t quite figure him out. So Federalist officials had to start forcing the ceremony a little bit. They decided they wanted to start passing laws such as when John Adams’s carriage goes through town, all citizens must stand at attention. Men must take off their hats. Women must curtsy as the carriage goes by. It was also insisted that John Adams deliver his both his inaugural address and the State of the Union addresses before Congress. Now, Washington had done this as well, but Federalist officials insisted that Adams do it, because what could you do if you had a State of the Union address, you could create a regal atmosphere. It was the perfect excuse for royal pomp and ceremony. So, John Adams would go before Congress. Then a band would play. Adams had an entourage in tow. Everyone had to stand at attention as the President of the United States walked into the room, and then no one could see the President of the United States because they had to look down and they couldn’t look around. Adams would deliver his speech and everyone would clap and then move on. By the way, Thomas Jefferson ended that tradition. Jefferson’s method of delivering his State of the Union addresses was to just send Congress a letter. That policy that continued throughout the 19th century and was not changed until Woodrow Wilson.
So, this didn’t really work very well for the Federalists and when they lost it was obvious. They had to come up with some other way of creating a national cultural interest to survive politically. now I’m going to stop there because I wanna go back and talk about the Jeffersonians, because as I’ve already said, the Jeffersonians were centralizers in their own way. The Jeffersonians insisted that if we’re going to avoid having some kind of civil war, if we’re going to avoid having any kind of terrible conflict in the United States, we’ve gotta have a central government. We don’t want it to be very strong, but we’ve got to have one, and it be strong enough to keep the various interests of our society apart. Let’s just leave each other alone, keep each other separated from each other, and we’ll all go on our merry way. But they have to ask the question, how do you go about create creating a national culture? How do you do this? And for the Jeffersonians, it was quite literally a monumental task because what Jefferson decided to create a national culture through architecture. Jefferson loved architecture. In fact, he bankrupted himself and his children because he loved architecture so much and he spent so much on his dang house (which is admittedly quite beautiful). Now this cultural formation could go in one of two ways. Either we can create cultural institutions, which are old. We can rely on something old and just sort of reshape it to suit our fashion. And a good example of a cultural institution. It really is an institution that was old, that was reshaped is history, and we’ll see this in a moment as the Federalists began rewriting history in order to create this new common national experience. The other option for cultural formation was the creation of something new, and that’s what the Jeffersonians dd. They wanted to create something new. Everybody recognized now that we were going to have a new national capital. What do you gotta do? You gotta create new national buildings. So, let’s make certain that whatever these buildings do, they symbolize the kind of government we wish to create. Now the Jeffersonians, as well as even some of the Federalists, they all wanted to separate themselves from British cultural forms. There was a very strong anti-British streak running through the Jeffersonian movement, and you can see it even in some Federalist circles. We’ve gotta get away from all these British forms. We’ve gotta get away from British literature. We don’t want to read British writers anymore. We want to read American writers. Let’s get away from British poetry and read American poetry. Let’s sing American songs. Let’s paint pictures of American scenes. Stop painting pictures of the Thames River, for goodness sakes.
So, by the by, did Karl Marx.
Morris to the Phil. Conv., 30 May 1787. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_530.asp
Pinckney to the Phil Conv., 25 June 1787. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_625.asp
See, for example, his letter of 29 Jan. 1804 to Joseph Priestley: https://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jefl161.php
Rush to John Adams, 17 November, 1812. Quoted in L.H. Butterfield, Letters of Benjamin Rush, Vol. II (Princeton Univ. Press, 1951), 1166. https://archive.org/details/lettersofbenjami0002lhbu/page/1166/mode/2up
For Thomas Jefferson’s criticism of the Bank as unconstitutional, see: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/bank-tj.asp
For the intent and purpose of the Bill of Rights, see: https://drexel.edu/ogcr/resources/constitution/amendments/preamble/
Jefferson to John Taylor of Caroline, 4 June 1798. “A little patience and we shall see the reign of witches pass over.” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-30-02-0280