Opinion: The American experiment

By PARKER POTTER

Published: 09-30-2023 6:00 AM

Parker Potter is a former archaeologist and historian, and a retired lawyer. He is currently a semi-professional dog walker who lives and works in Contoocook.

In just over a year, we will elect a new U.S. House of Representatives, a new Senate, and the next president of the United States. If the election season continues as it has started, we could see even more pyrotechnics in the culture wars, more “us” versus “them” finger-pointing, and more shrill arguments over who is and who is not a “real” American.

As much as I hate to say it, I am beginning to think that the culture wars have been baked into the American experience ever since the founding of our country nearly 250 years ago.

Consider the American Revolution and compare it with two seemingly similar historical events: the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Each revolution resulted in the creation of a new state, i.e., a new system of government. The American experiment we learned about in school was testing the viability of a government based on federalism, representative democracy, and separation of powers. That experiment continues, and while we periodically face threats to our form of government, the experiment is progressing more or less as our founders expected it to.

However, when France and Russia had their revolutions, those countries had something our founders did not have: a nation, i.e., a longstanding resident population united by ties of blood and centuries, if not millennia, of shared history and culture. Thus, those who founded the American state by framing the Constitution did not do so as representatives of an American nation, because no such thing existed.

The land that became the United States was inhabited by people who came here voluntarily, people whose ancestors came here voluntarily, people who were brought here involuntarily, people whose ancestors were brought here involuntarily, and hundreds of native nations composed of people whose ancestors had lived here for hundreds of generations before they were forced off their ancestral lands by European newcomers. Along the eastern seaboard, different cultures arose, at the very least one up north and one down south. Therefore, when the founders established the new American state, there simply was no American nation like the French or Russian nations that had existed for centuries before those countries’ revolutions.

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Consequently, and perhaps without realizing it, our founders set in motion a second experiment, one that did not have to be run in France or Russia. That experiment asks one of two questions: whether it is possible to have a state without a nation, or whether it is possible for people to quickly will a nation into existence rather than letting one develop gradually over time. Given how often I heard the term “melting pot” in school, I will presume that we are trying to answer the second question.

The idea of creating a nation brings to mind the anthropological concepts of ascribed status, which a person is born into and achieved status, which is earned. Nationality is typically an ascribed status; one is born French or born Russian. But, while one can be born an American citizen, under American law, it is not so clear that one can be born American, and the question we have been wrestling with for 250 years or more is just who is a “real” American.

When our founders framed the Constitution, full status as an American was limited to white men. On paper, but not in practice, the result of the Civil War allowed men of African descent the rights of American citizenship. Women were granted the right to vote by the 19th Amendment two decades into the twentieth century.

During the nineteenth century, when we falsely believed that the American West was a wilderness, immigrants were welcomed to settle the West and push back the frontier. But after what Frederick Jackson Turner called the closing of the frontier, when North America finally became finite, those of European descent who were already here made it increasingly difficult for those trying to follow them and become Americans.

Today, along many different lines, including national origin, race, religion, and gender identity, we still seem to be fighting over just what it means to be, and just who is, a true American entitled to the full panoply of rights, protections, and privileges that accompany that status.

Given our current situation, 250 years into our experiment, it is hardly clear that it is even possible to create a nation in the same way that we can create a state, but I do have one hope. I hope that during the upcoming election cycle, we will all be wary of those who seek to exploit our worst instincts for their own benefit by fostering division between “us” and “them,” between those they would welcome into, and those they would exclude from, the American nation.

Or how’s this for a more audacious hope? Perhaps we could start to build an American nation by doing what I talked about in my last My Turn, working collectively to try to heal the divisions that now seem poised to tear us apart.

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