The United States Is Not a Nation!

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I have often
required my students on the first day or two of class to use the
Oxford English Dictionary and define the following words:
nation and state. Most do not follow my directions and submit
a modern Webster's or online distortion of the word, and
those who use the Oxford often fail to provide the etymology
of either word. I can't fault them for that, because they have
probably been taught since first grade in the public "school"
system to submit the first definition they find. Thus, the common
results of the activity are similar to the following:

— noun: a large body of people, associated with a particular territory,
that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess
a government peculiarly its own.

— noun: the territory, or one of the territories, of a government.


How profound,
statist…and completely absurd! If both are true, than the United
States should simply be the "United State." A state
is simply a "territory…of a government"? A nation is
simply a large body of people that occupy a territory? That would
be news to the founding generation. Of course, a careful reading
of the history of both words could correct this mess and place
the Union of the States within its proper historical context.

The word
"nation" found its way into the English language around
the 14th century. Under the old definition, a nation
was a group of people who shared a similar racial, cultural, or
religious background that often included elements such as a common
language. A State was a sovereign political entity, not simply
a "territory…of a government." By viewing the United
States through that lens it becomes clear that modern definitions
of nation and state are the product of centralization and the
mischaracterization of the federal government as a "national

no one in the founding generation would have argued that Virginia
and Massachusetts possessed the same cultural heritage. Virginia,
with its strong Cavalier tradition, and Massachusetts, with its
Puritan or roundhead foundations, were clearly at odds during
the seventeenth century and beyond. The two colonies may have
been populated by white, English Christians and who shared a common
language, "English," but as David Hackett Fischer beautifully
explained in his Albion's
, the two cultures were diametrically opposed in almost
every conceivable way. From dress to food to speech, Virginia
Cavaliers and Massachusetts Yankees were in many ways two separate
nations, not simply separate cultures. The "shining city
upon a hill" Puritans and their decedents never let Southerners
forget their differences, nor did Southerners want to be lumped
together with self-righteous Yankees. William Berkeley, the dominant
figure in Virginia during the seventeenth century, despised Puritans
and fought against them in the English Civil War. Later American
sectionalism was little more than an explicit recognition of cultural
differences and the existence of separate nations in North America
dating to the early days of English settlement.

Adding to
this American cultural cornucopia were the Celts, the Quakers,
American Indian tribes, and African slaves, groups that had interesting
and culturally significant contributions to the fabric of their
respective regions as well. Thus, America in the colonial period
was "multicultural" in a way that extended beyond race
or religion. Western civilization and the English tradition dominated,
but separate nations blotted the North American landscape. One
of the most respected American historians on slavery, Eugene Genovese,
wrote this about American culture in his Roll,
Jordan, Roll
: "Blacks and whites in America may be
viewed as one nation or two, or as a nation within a nation, but
their common history guarantees that, one way or another, they
are both American." This statement accentuates the point
that the phrase "American nation" is a rhetorical fabrication
of the last 150 years of American history.

This was
not lost on the founding generation. John Adams once wrote that,
"I expressly say that Congress is not a representative
body but a diplomatic body, a collection of ambassadors from thirteen
sovereign States…." Each state had its own political and
cultural life and each was "sovereign." Robert Yates,
writing as Brutus in 1787, observed that "In a republic,
the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be
similar. If this not be the case, there will be a constant clashing
of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually
striving against those of the other." If applied to the United
States, Yates concluded that:

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