Today's Reading


I have long wondered how and by whom the story of United States nationhood was created. Nearly a decade ago I wrote a book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, that argued there was never one America but several, with distinctions dating back to the differences between the various North American colonial projects and the swaths of the continent each settled in the decades and centuries that followed. I knew that these regional cultures—Greater New England, Greater Appalachia, the Tidewater, the Deep South, and so on—had their own ethnographic, religious, political, and philosophical characteristics and that most had rallied together in response to an external threat: Britain's attempt to systemize, homogenize, and consolidate its empire. At its birth, nobody seemed quite sure what the United States was. A treaty organization? A federation of sovereign nations? A nation-state in waiting? I was also aware that these questions persisted as late as the 1830s, and that the lack of answers threatened the survival of this new entity, whatever it was.

In Union I set out to write a book that would reveal how the story of a shared nationhood was devised, disseminated, and ultimately upheld. What I discovered in the course of my research was an intellectual battle of the highest possible stakes that spanned a century and ultimately helped explain a great deal about the age in which we now live. I have told this story through the lives of five people who made themselves standard-bearers as well as lightning rods in this struggle for the hearts and minds of millions.

The battle was initially fought between two vainglorious men who had been professional acquaintances and partisan allies—one a Harvard-educated New England preacher's son, the other a mostly self-educated South Carolinian torn in his loyalties between aristocratic Charleston and the crude and dangerous Deep Southern frontier. One believed we were a nation founded upon shared, God-given ideals, the other that we were an alliance of sovereign nations defined by blood and built on inequity. They were both unexpectedly challenged by a fugitive slave from the Maryland Tidewater, who denounced their arguments from the greatest stages in the land and from the pages of his immensely popular books. The conflict would not be settled until the 1910s, after terrorist campaigns and a war that killed hundreds of thousands, when a Deep Southern president vanquished his ideological opponents and united the federation under an ethnonationalist vision of the American identity. Even then, one of his closest friends, perhaps the most famous American scholar of his age, was laying the groundwork for a later revolution. This book tells their story.

At this writing our Republic faces existential dangers not unlike those of the 1820s, when the federation was sharply divided along regional lines and its members uncertain of what, if anything, held it together. The paths 'Union''s principal characters fought over remain before us, and the survival of the United States is at stake in the choices we make about which one to follow.

Freeport, Maine
December 2019


The enemy's forces were surrounded, artillery raining down on them from three sides, their backs to the river, huddled in fortifications from which there was no escape. All through the night and into the morning, French and rebel cannonballs blasted the town's hewn-log defenses, propelling wooden shrapnel through flesh and bone. Shells tore through buildings, buried men in their trenches, and scattered severed limbs across muddy streets. Within the collapsing walls, food was scarce, even though the commander had already expelled all the fugitive slaves who had sought shelter beneath his flag, the Union Jack.

Then a red-coated drummer appeared at the top of the parapet. His arms began moving rapidly as he beat on his instrument. The soldiers of the besieging armies couldn't hear the drumroll over the din of artillery, but when a British officer appeared beside him, holding a white handkerchief above his head, the meaning was clear enough. The cannon stopped firing, the last clouds of smoke slowly rose into the sky, and the beat of the drum could be heard, signaling a desire to parley. The British officer and the drummer—the latter still broadcasting the request for a truce—stepped down from the defenses and walked slowly toward the American lines. A Continental officer ran up to greet his British counterpart and fastened a handkerchief over his eyes. He sent the drummer back over the parapet to Yorktown and led the blindfolded officer to meet General George Washington.

After a solemn night beneath a clear sky "decorated with ten thousand stars," Lord Cornwallis negotiated his surrender. The day after that, October 19, 1781, his seven-thousand-man army marched out of the shattered Virginia port between rows of French and Continental troops, their regimental flags furled, the drummers playing "Welcome Brother Debtor," a tune associated with imprisonment. They laid their rifles in heaps at the rebels' feet.

The war for American independence was at an end. But what now?

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