Germans, Swedes, Irish, and Poles were eager to becomenreal Americans, “hundred percenters.” While their clergymennand leaders deplored the loss of ethnic identity, thenethnics knew better. If America was going to be theirncountry, then they were going to have to become hernpeople.nBut the assimilation of so many new citizens would be anformidable task for any country. For a nation already rent byndivisions, it was almost impossible. Even before the Revolution,nthere had been profound differences between commercialnand agrarian interests, churchmen and dissenters.nNorth and South—and, even in the South itself, betweennthe civilized low country and the wild up-country. Ofncourse, each period had its apostles of unity: the highnFederalists in the founding generation, Henry Clay andnDaniel Webster in the “Silver Age.” The last of the greatnunionist statesmen was the little giant of Illinois, StephennDouglas. Douglas’ defeat in the Presidential election ofn1860 was a sure sign that the union had dissolved. Althoughnthe unionist policies have sometimes been attacked as thensubjugation of the West and South to the interests of thenNortheast, Clay, Webster, and Douglas offered a visionnof America we need to recover: a unity forged in the strugglento defend our rights as Englishmen and yet tolerant ofndiversity.nBut the beginning of the great Volkerwanderung camenjust at the time of the national bloodletting that symbolizednour disunity. In the past hundred years, it has beennincreasingly difficult to piece together a coherent Americannmosaic out of so many fragments of ethnic groups, regionalncultures, and the “forty jarring sects” of religion andnantireligion. It is North against South, East against West,nrich against poor, college-educated homosexual Taoistsnfrom Cambridge against Midwestern farm family Methodists.nThe American visage begins to dissolve in the infinitenmitosis of race, class, occupation, sex, and age groups.nThere have been attempts to recreate an Americannidentity around Walter Lippman’s “public philosophy” ornJohn Courtney Murray’s “consensus” based on natural lawnor even on the images presented by Henry Luce in Lifenmagazine. Well-intentioned as they were, such efforts arendoomed to failure. National character cannot be enforcednby a clerical aristocracy, because nationhood is not thenproduct of ideology. It is shared experiences that make anpeople, not the bloodless “common values” of natural rightsnor even natural law.nWhat defines a nation is a vexing question that cannot benanswered in a few sentences. Obviously, a homogeneousntribal people are a nation, sharing a common language,nculture, and—so they believe—descent. In the same way,npeople used to speak of the German nation, although thenGermans have never been united since the days of the HolynRoman Empire. But is Great Britain a nation? It is certainlyna state, but three nations—the English, the Scots, and thenWelsh. (To this day, whenever the London Times quotesn”There’ll always be an England,” any number of outragednScots will write in to point out there hasn’t been an Englandnsince the Act of Union.)nThe case of Britain raises an interesting point. Englandnand Scotland, after centuries of quarreling, were united innthe person of James VI & I, but it was a union of crownsnand not of nations until 1707. Still, there is something realnand palpable about a living monarch. All the publicnsymbols and ceremonies of Britain emphasize the unity innthe crown. Other attempts at union usually involve conquestnand assimilation on the Roman model.nAmerica has not been a nation in the obvious and simplensense since the 1860’s. It is closer to being a sort of empirenunder a common legal and political system. It even has anuniversal high culture spread from one end to another, butnfew Americans would write about their country with thenpassionate loyalty of French writers like Peguy or Barres.nPerhaps the best models for us to look to are the successfulnpolyglot empires of Rome, Byzantium, and the Hapsburgs,nin which the different constituents—ethnic as well asnreligious—are bound together in a mystical unity representednby the “national” symbols of the state and recollectionnof the collective history.nThe alternative is the ideological reconstruction of a newnnational identity. The greatest experiment along those linesnhas been made by the Soviet Empire. For all their attemptsnto annihilate religious and ethnic identities. Party leadersnface a rising tide of Islamic nationalism and an apparentlynindestructible intransigence in what used to be called thencaptive nations. What an American ideology could hope tonaccomplish is not at all clear.nIt is important to understand what Luce and Murray hadnon their minds. At the end of World War II, Americanemerged—almost by default—as the leader of the FreenWorld. A divided nation, a people unsure of itself, was notnlikely to play a responsible part on the world’s stage. Thenimage of America so many of us grew up with in the 40’snand 50’s was not entirely natural. As Allan Carlson hasnpointed out in a number of essays (see “Life, InterpretednLucely” in this issue), many American leaders made anconscious effort to construct a new vision of a democratic,nsuburban America.nIt was this vision—embodied in textbooks, civics classes,nand speeches of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson—thatnwe took to war with us in Korea and Vietnam. In the end, itnproved to be a dream from the gates of ivory, a will o’ thenwisp that led us on to destruction. America in the 1960’snwas a nation almost as divided as it was in the 1860’s. Ifnthere is a “lesson of Vietnam,” it should include a warningnagainst attempts to impose an artificial uniformity on thenAmerican people.nThe initial mistake lies in the perception of the Americannpeople as 200-1- million individuals. Viewed from a heightnof several thousand feet, the swarming masses spread acrossnthis continent might convey an. impression of uniformity,nand their motions might seem to make part of some grandndesign. But it is inappropriate to look at us as either anconglomerate mass or as individuals. To work out a nationalnidentity on the basis of individuals makes as much sense asnexplaining the hardness of an iron bar at the subatomic levelnor ascribing the wetness of water to the qualities of freenoxygen and free hydrogen. We don’t live as individuals—ornas members of the faceless masses portrayed by artistsnaddicted to socialist realism. We live in families, neighborhoods,nand communities. We define ourselves socially asnmembers of churches, unions, and professions, graduates ofn(continued on page 18)nnnDECEMBEK 1985 / Sn