American nationalism, or United States nationalism, is a form of civic nationalism, ethnic nationalism, cultural nationalism or economic nationalism found in the United States. Essentially, it indicates the aspects that characterize and distinguish the United States as an autonomous political community. The term often serves to explain efforts to reinforce its national identity and self-determination within their national and international affairs.
All four forms of nationalism have found expression throughout the United States' history, depending on the historical period. The first Naturalization Act of 1790 passed by Congress and President George Washington defined American identity and citizenship on racial lines, declaring that only "free white men of good character" could become citizens, and denying citizenship to black slaves and anyone of non-European stock; thus it was a form of ethnic nationalism. American scholars such as Hans Kohn however argue that the United States government institutionalized a civic nationalism founded upon legal and rational concepts of citizenship, being based on common language and cultural traditions and that the Founding Fathers of the United States established the country upon classical liberal and individualist principles. However the exclusionary racial concept of America as a purely white nation was also promulgated by the same Founding Fathers, and continues to influence far-right politics in the United States today.
The United States traces its origins to the Thirteen Colonies founded by Britain in the 17th and early 18th century. Residents identified with Britain until the mid-18th century when the first sense of being "American" emerged. The Albany Plan proposed a union between the colonies in 1754. Although unsuccessful, it served as a reference for future discussions of independence.
Soon afterward, the colonies faced several common grievances over acts passed by the British Parliament, including taxation without representation. Americans were in general agreement that only their own colonial legislatures—and not Parliament in London—could pass internal taxes. Parliament vigorously insisted otherwise and no compromise was found. The London government punished Boston for the Boston Tea Party and the Thirteen Colonies united and formed the Continental Congress, which lasted from 1774 to 1789. Fighting broke out in 1775 and the sentiment swung to independence in early 1776, influenced especially by the appeal to American nationalism by Thomas Paine. His pamphlet Common Sense was a runaway best seller in 1776, read aloud in taverns and coffee houses. Congress unanimously issued a Declaration of Independence announcing a new nation of independent states had formed, the United States of America. American Patriots won the American Revolutionary War and received generous peace terms from Britain in 1783. The minority of Loyalists (loyal to King George III) could remain or leave, but about 80% remained and became full American citizens. Frequent parades along with new rituals and ceremonies—and a new flag—provided popular occasions for expressing a spirit of American nationalism.
The new nation operated under the very weak national government set up by the Articles of Confederation and most Americans put loyalty to their state ahead of loyalty to the nation. Nationalists led by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison had Congress call a constitutional convention in 1787. It produced the Constitution for a strong national government which was debated in every state and unanimously adopted. It went into effect in 1789 as the first modern constitutional liberal democracy based on the consent of the governed, with Washington as the first President.
In an 1858 speech, future President Abraham Lincoln alluded to a form of American civic nationalism originating from the tenets of the Declaration of Independence as a force for national unity in the United States, stating that it was a method for uniting diverse peoples of different ethnic ancestries into a common nationality:
If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal", and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
White Southerners increasingly felt alienated—they saw themselves as becoming second-class citizens as aggressive anti-slavery Northerners tried to end their ability to take slaves to the fast-growing western territories. They questioned whether their loyalty to the nation trumped their loyalty to their state and their way of life since it was so intimately bound up with slavery, whether they owned any slaves or not. A sense of Southern nationalism was starting to emerge, though it was inchoate as late as 1860 when the election of Lincoln was a signal for most of the slave states in the South to secede and form their own new nation. The Confederate government insisted the nationalism was real and imposed increasing burdens on the population in the name of independence and nationalism. The fierce combat record of the Confederates demonstrates their commitment to the death for independence. The government and army refused to compromise and were militarily overwhelmed in 1865. By the 1890s, the white South felt vindicated through its belief in the newly constructed memory of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The North came to accept or at least tolerate racial segregation and disfranchisement of black voters in the South. The spirit of American nationalism had returned to Dixie.
The North's triumph in the American Civil War marked a significant transition in American national identity. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment settled the basic question of national identity, such as the criteria for becoming a citizen of the United States. Everyone born in the territorial boundaries of the United States or those areas and subject to its jurisdiction was an American citizen, regardless of ethnicity or social status (indigenous people on reservations became citizens in 1924 while indigenous people off reservations had always been citizens).
With a very fast growing industrial economy, immigrants were welcome from Europe, Canada, Mexico and Cuba and millions came. Becoming a full citizen was an easy process of filling out paperwork over a five-year span.
However, new Asian arrivals were not welcome. Restrictions were imposed on most Chinese immigrants in the 1880s and informal restrictions on most Japanese in 1907. By 1924, it was difficult for any Asian to enter the United States, but children born in the United States to Asian parents were full citizens. The restrictions were ended on the Chinese in the 1940s and on other Asians in 1965.
After the United States entered World War I, nationalism surged. Americans enlisted in the military en masse, motivated by propaganda and war films. There was very little resistance to conscription.
World War II led to an unprecedented level of nationalism in the United States. After the 1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor, massive numbers of Americans enlisted into the military. During the war, much of American life centered on contributing to the war effort, mainly through volunteer efforts, entry into the labor force, rationing, price controls, and income saving. Citizens willingly accepted these sacrifices out of a sense of nationalism, feeling that they were for the greater good. Even members of anti-war groups like the pacifist churches, anti-war movement, and conscientious objectors abandoned their pacifism for the sake of the war, feeling that World War II was a just war.
Following World War II and beginning with the Cold War, the United States emerged as a world superpower and abandoned its traditional policy of isolationism in favor of interventionism. With this, nationalism took on a new form in the US, as Americans began to view their country as a world police with the ultimate goal of eradicating communism from the world. This nationalist fervor was fueled by US involvement in the Korean War, Vietnam War, Bay of Pigs Invasion, and many other conflicts.
The September 11 attacks of 2001 led to a wave of nationalist expression in the United States. The start of the war on terror was accompanied by a rise in military enlistment that included not only lower-income Americans, but also middle-class and upper-class citizens. This nationalism continued long into the War in Afghanistan and Iraq War.
Nationalism and Americanism remain topics in the modern United States. Political scientist Paul McCartney, for instance, argues that as a nation defined by a creed and sense of mission Americans tend to equate their interests with those of humanity, which in turn informs their global posture. In certain cases, it may be considered a form of ethnocentrism and American exceptionalism.
Due to the distinctive circumstances involved throughout history in American politics, its nationalism has developed in regards to both loyalty to a set of liberal, universal political ideals and a perceived accountability to propagate those principles globally. Acknowledging the conception of the United States as accountable for spreading liberal change and promoting democracy throughout the world's politics and governance has defined practically all of American foreign policy. Therefore, democracy promotion is not just another measure of foreign policy, but it is rather the fundamental characteristic of their national identity and political determination.
In a paper in the American Sociological Review, "Varieties of American Popular Nationalism", sociologists Bart Bonikowski and Paul DiMaggio report on research findings supporting the existence of at least four kinds of American nationalists, including, groups which range from the smallest to the largest: (1) the disengaged, (2) creedal or civic nationalists, (3) ardent nationalists, and (4) restrictive nationalists.
Bonikowski and Dimaggio's analysis of these four groups found that ardent nationalists made up about 24% of their study, and they comprised the largest of the two groups which Bonikowski and Dimaggio consider "extreme". Members of this group closely identified with the United States, were very proud of their country, and strongly associated themselves with factors of national hubris. They felt that a "true American" must speak English, and live in the U.S. for most of his or her life. Fewer, but nonetheless 75%, believe that a "true American" must be a Christian and 86% believe a "true American" must be born in the country. Further, ardent nationalists believed that Jews, Muslims, agnostics and naturalized citizens were something less than truly American. The second class which Bonikowski and DiMaggio considered "extreme" was the smallest of the four classes, because its members made up 17% of their respondents. The disengaged showed low levels of pride in the institutions of government and they did not fully identify themselves with the United States. Their lack of pride extended to American democracy, American history, the political equality in the U.S., and the country's political influence in the world. This group was the least nationalistic of all of the four groups which they identified.
The two remaining classes were less homogeneous in their responses than the ardent nationalists and disengaged were. Restrictive nationalists had low levels of pride in America and its institutions, but they defined a "true American" in ways that were markedly "exclusionary". This group was the largest of the four, because its members made up 38% of the study's respondents. While their levels of national identification and pride were moderate, they espoused beliefs which caused them to hold restrictive definitions of who "true Americans" were, for instance, their definitions excluded non-Christians."
The final group to be identified were creedal nationalists (also known as civic nationalists), whose members made up 22% of the study's respondents who were studied. This group believed in liberal values, was proud of the United States, and its members held the fewest restrictions on who could be considered a true American. They closely identified with their country, which they felt "very close" to, and were proud of its achievements. Bonikowski and Dimaggio dubbed the group "creedal" because their beliefs most closely approximated the precepts of what is widely considered the American creed.
As part of their findings, the authors report that the connection between big money, religious belief, and national identity is a significant one. The belief that being a Christian is an important part of what it means to be a "true American" is the most significant factor which separates the creedal nationalists and the disengaged from the restrictive and ardent nationalists. They also determined that their groupings cut across partisan boundaries, and they also help to explain what they perceive is the recent success of populist, nativist and racist rhetoric in American politics.
According to a 2021 American Journal of Sociology study by Bart Bonikowski, Yuval Feinstein, and Sean Bock, competing understandings of American nationhood had emerged in the United States in the last two decades. They find, "nationalism has become sorted by party, as Republican identifiers have come to define America in more exclusionary and critical terms and Democrats have increasingly endorsed inclusive and positive conceptions of nationhood."
Cultural nationalism has historically been an integral element of American nationalism. Such cultural nationalists form group allegiances based on a common cultural heritage rather than race or political party. This heritage may include culture (Culture of the United States), language (English language, religion (Christianity), history (History of the United States), ideology (Democracy), and symbols (National symbols of the United States). Cultural nationalism is distinct from ethnic nationalism, in which race and ethnicity are emphasized over culture and language.
Nationalism gained a cultural character beginning in the late 18th century. Multiple historical ideas have shaped modern cultural nationalism in the US, including the concept of the nation state, the fusion of nationalism and religion into religious nationalism, and identity politics.
American nationalism sometimes takes the form of Civic nationalism, a liberal form of nationalism based on values such as freedom, equality, and individual rights. Civic nationalists view nationhood as a political identity. They argue that a civic nation is defined by liberal democratic principles and loyalty. Membership is open to every citizen, regardless of culture, ethnicity, or language, as long as they believe in these values.
President Donald Trump was described as a nationalist and he embraced the term himself. Several officials within his administration, including former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller, Director of the National Trade Council Peter Navarro, former Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, Special Assistant to the President Julia Hahn, former Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications Michael Anton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, former National Security Advisor John R. Bolton and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn were described as representing a "nationalist wing" within the federal government.
In a February 2017 article in The Atlantic, journalist Uri Friedman described "populist economic nationalist" as a new nationalist movement "modeled on the 'populism' of the 19th-century U.S. President Andrew Jackson" which was introduced in Trump's remarks to the Republican National Convention in a speech written by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Miller had adopted Senator Jeff Sessions' form of "nation-state populism" while working as his aide. By September 2017, The Washington Post journalist Greg Sargent observed that "Trump's nationalism" as "defined" by Bannon, Breitbart, Miller and "the rest of the 'populist economic nationalist' contingent around Trump" was beginning to have wavering support among Trump voters. Some Republican members of Congress were also described as nationalists during the Trump era, such as Representative Steve King, Representative Matt Gaetz, Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Josh Hawley.
During the Trump era, commonly identified American nationalist political commentators included Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Lou Dobbs, Alex Jones,Charlie Kirk,Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Tucker Carlson, and Mike Cernovich.
Who Is An American? Native-born and naturalized citizens
But it also expresses a myth of American nationality that remains vital in our political and cultural life: the idealized self-image of a multiethnic, multiracial democracy, hospitable to differences but united by a common sense of national belonging.
In inter-state relations, the American nation state presents its members as a monistic political body-despite ethnic and national groups in the interior.
To be or to become an American, a person did not have to be of any particular national, linguistic, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism. Thus the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American.
The first, and central, way involves the view that Americans are all those persons born within the boundaries of the United States or admitted to citizenship by the government.