Polishing America’s image in the eyes of its people

In “Union,” author Colin Woodard examines how expansionist and exceptionalist rhetoric shaped the ways Americans see their country.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood” by Colin Woodard, Viking, 432 pp.

When George Bancroft was hunched over his table at the venerable Boston Athenæum in 1832, he wasn’t merely working on the critical scaffolding of his great work, “History of the United States of America.” That was certainly his task, but, as historian Colin Woodard makes clear in his compelling new book, “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood,” there was a deeper  force driving Bancroft: He wasn’t just writing history – he was shaping mythology. 

After graduating from Harvard at the ripe old age of 16, he studied in Germany and read foreign histories of the United States while staying with his brother-in-law in Washington, and he gradually achieved an epiphany. “It was during that sojourn in the capital,” writes Woodard, “that Bancroft made the decision to write a history of his country that would help guide its people to their destiny.” The  “people” he referred to came from an “Anglo-Saxon germ,” according to Woodard, and Bancroft’s “History” portrayed “the pre-contact Americas as having been devoid of civilization.” His text helped fuel the American cultural movement known today as Manifest Destiny, the rhetoric of which “inspired the most spirited advocates of annexation and war.”

Bancroft felt compelled to use an explicitly missionary tone, and he wasn’t alone. Incantatory folklore has always been an active ingredient in American history; only 40 years before Bancroft set to work, Parson Mason Weems had written his famous “I cannot tell a lie” saint’s life of George Washington, and if hagiography could work for a man, it could work for a country. Bancroft’s “History” was an instant bestseller, and its author had the inner certitude of a saint. For him, the “Civil War had been the nation’s final struggle,” as Woodard puts it; “henceforth the United States would float down the Providential stream to a land of milk, honey, and human freedom.”

George Bancoft’s portrait is only one of many utterly gripping depictions scattered throughout “Union.” Woodard has wisely decided that a book about history must necessarily include historians, and America hasn’t exactly lacked for historians who were at least as interested in laying out an ideological agenda as they were in analyzing records.

Indeed, some of them went from writing history books to making history. One of the foremost of Woodard’s examples is future President Woodrow Wilson, who in 1893 published “Division and Reunion, 1829-1889,” in which, among other racist sentiments, he wrote that slaves in the American South “were comfortably quartered, and were kept from overwork both by their own laziness and by the slack discipline to which they were subjected.” 

Only 10 years before the appearance of “Division and Reunion,” the U.S. Supreme Court had gutted several key provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 – part of a widespread pattern of legislatures and lawmakers rolling back rights. That pattern was fought by another of Woodard’s main characters, Frederick Douglass, who thundered in speech after speech that a wrong done to one man was a wrong done to all men. “It may not be felt at the moment, and the evil may be long delayed, but so sure as there is a moral government of the universe, so sure as there is a God of the universe, so sure will the harvest of evil come.”

Wilson’s racist vision of U.S. history was infamously reflected in the first American movie ever screened at the White House: D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (originally “The Clansman”), which Wilson watched in rapt silence in 1915 and subsequently praised. When the film premiered in Boston on April 17, 1915, it drew large audiences – and large protests. “Witnesses described the scene as a near riot,” Woodard writes, “a hairbreadth from turning violent, that was barely quashed by the overwhelming police presence.” The protesters who were clubbed by police might have said that the scene was indeed violent, but in any case, as Woodard points out, “The events that evening in Boston sparked the beginning of something extraordinary: the first mass black civil rights demonstrations in U.S. history.”

These depressingly familiar notes sound throughout the book, in which Woodard describes facets of “an intellectual battle of the highest possible stakes” that raged over the rough century his book chronicles. The stakes are nothing short of determining how a nation thinks about itself, how it teaches posterity about itself. In “Union,” that battle sprawls out of the narrow confines of academia and embroils the entire country – and the fight is ongoing.

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