Published July 6, 2021
Americans celebrated their nation’s birthday this weekend with outdoor grills and fireworks galore. A new book, however, reminds us how difficult it is to precisely define the American nation itself.
Samuel Goldman’s “After Nationalism” explores competing narratives regarding American identity. While we can agree that America became independent after the Revolutionary War, we have long disagreed over what type of nation that conflict brought forth. Goldman’s lucid work describes three of the most widely held accounts, each of which reverberates in current debates.
The earliest account arose in the Puritan colonies of New England. It held that America was a covenant between God and His people, and that, as a result, the people needed to be unified in belief in a common set of principles and rules. These communities allowed full citizenship only to the believers in their religious doctrines; dissenters who persisted could be punished or, as in the case of the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, expelled.
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Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.