What made Americans American, with Benjamin Park [MIPodcast #83]
When thirteen colonies declared their independence from the British government in 1776 they had no clear vision about what they would do once the apparent shackles of the British monarchy were shattered. What did it mean for them to create a new nation? It’s a complicated and fascinating story—a story that resonates all the way up to the present time—today Americans are still divided over what, exactly, this new nation.
Professor Benjamin E. Park’s new book is called American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833. We talks about competing notions of American nationalism in this episode.
Benjamin E. Park received his PhD from the University of Cambridge and is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. His scholarship focuses on the religious, political, and cultural history of America between the Revolution and Civil War, often within an Atlantic context.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
When thirteen British colonies declared their independence from the British government in 1776 they had no clear vision about what they would do once the apparent shackles of the British monarchy were shattered. What did it mean for them to create a new nation? It’s a complicated and fascinating story actually—a story that resonates all the way up to the present time, today, when Americans are still divided over what, exactly, this new nation is.
Professor Benjamin E. Park joins us in this episode to talk about competing notions of American nationalism. Dr. Park recently published a book on the subject, and now he’s working on a new project about the Latter-day Saint city of Nauvoo, Illinois, where questions of nationalism led to conflict and even bloodshed.
It’s Benjamin Park talking about American nationalisms on this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
You can send questions or comments about this and other episodes to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And stick around after the interview to hear our review of the month.
BLAIR HODGES: Benjamin Park joins us today. Welcome, Ben. It’s nice to have you here at the Institute.
BENJAMIN PARK: It’s a privilege.
HODGES: You’re here this summer. You’re working on a book about Nauvoo. Is that right?
PARK: That is correct. I have the time and space to work on a project that I hope to finish by this fall.
HODGES: We’ll talk about that a little bit towards the end of the interview because the book that you recently published, American Nationalisms, really sets the stage for, I think, what you’re going to do in the Nauvoo book. So let’s give people a sense for what American Nationalisms is about.
There’s this moment in the musical Hamilton where King George is talking to the newly free Americans and he’s telling them, “You’ll be back. You’re going to come crawling back to me. Your experiment will be a failure.” It’s this great moment…
CLIP of “You’ll Be Back,” Hamilton (2015): You’ll be back. Soon you’ll see. You’ll remember you belong to me. You’ll be back. Time will tell. You’ll remember that I served you well. Oceans rise, empires fall, we have seen each other through it all. And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.
HODGES: And King George, he gets some of the biggest laughs in the whole musical, but I think in reality the sentiment in that song is based in some things that people were actually saying at the time about whether or not this experiment would be successful. I’m thinking about people like Josiah Tucker. So after Americans won the war, what kind of doubts were people expressing?
PARK: While I’m disappointed, Blair, that you didn’t rap that opening question, drawing off of Hamilton, I will still answer it regardless. I think we, speaking from 2018, see America’s success as a pre-determined conclusion, something that of course it was going to happen. That was far from assured in 1783. In fact at Sam Houston State University where I teach, one of the courses I teach is on colonial America. Oddly enough the colonial America course ends at 1783, which is an odd date because America’s a nation then. But I love to frame it that way because in 1783—yes, America had won the American Revolution, but America’s future was less secured in 1783 than it had ever been in our history. We had wracked up international debts; we had questionable borders, the Native Americans in the west and the Spanish in the south who are pushing against where American territories were.
And American states—to get to the point in my book—these new-found American states were starting to question, “Now that we no longer have a common foe and now that we’re no longer part of this broader international empire”—that was the British empire, the most powerful empire in the world at the time—”what do we have that joins us together? What is it that makes us American?” And people were genuinely worried that, maybe we don’t have things that hold us together. I mean, we’re just thirteen former colonies of the British who, prior to 1776, the only thing we held in common was an allegiance to the same crown. Then after 1776 we just shared a common enemy and what holds us together now?
I think sometimes we forget that these thirteen colonies that seceded from Britain were just thirteen of, depending on how you count it, twenty-six British colonies in the western hemisphere. There was nothing that pre-determined these specific thirteen carving off and making a new nation. And yet here they were. And there was lots of anxiety over that. What do we hold in common? Do we trust these other states? In fact, there’s a strong sentiment from, either South Carolina or up in New York, that “you know, maybe I don’t trust these people coming from these different states.”
John Adams, when he gathered for the first Continental Congress during the American Revolution, said that the delegates coming from these different colonies interacted with each other as if they were delegates from foreign nations. They shared different interests. They had different expectations. And so there was a genuine question of, could this nation hold together? Because back then to a lot of people a “nation” meant a group of people who shared things in common.
I mean, think about how we use the term in some ways today where we talk about the Nation of Islam, or the Cherokee Nation. Groups of people who share a language, a background, a religion, a race.
Did early Americans have enough to share to comprise a nation? It was an open question.
HODGES: Yeah, you talk about how scholars have differentiated between “cultural nationalism” and “ethnic nationalism.” I think that kind of gets at some of that. So onlookers were, and people within these thirteen colonies, were looking at this experiment with really big question marks. Throughout the book you keep zooming out, sometimes, to the broader Atlantic World.
So first of all define for people who aren’t specialists what that Atlantic World was and give us a sense for how America fit into that bigger picture right at the beginning.
PARK: Yeah. Americans today, because we are often egotists—and I speak from personal experience—we think we invent a lot of things that haven’t been in existence before. We like to think that we invented the idea that we live in an international age. That we are connected to other nations. That we’re not just confined by the parochial boundaries of our nation.
That couldn’t be further from the truth because back in early America they saw themselves as connected to all these nations. So the Atlantic World is kind of this shorthand for this exchange between various nations that crisscross the Atlantic ocean, whether it be the colonies in North America, the colonies in South America—both of these colonial projects of European empires, and as well as indigenous populations pushing back against those colonial projects. Then in Europe you had the various European empires, and then you have in Africa these African nations that are participating both through the slave trade as well as free market trade. And so you get many of these people firmly understanding that our nation only exists as it relates to these foreign countries.
I mean, you think about the Declaration of Independence itself. When the Declaration of Independence was drafted in July of 1776, America had been at war for a year. That wasn’t commencing a new conflict. What it was doing was requesting foreign nations to acknowledge the conflict currently in place. So this Atlantic World, then, was kind of a validating structure. Americans, especially American politicians, recognized that our actions only mean something when it’s reflected in these foreign nations.
HODGES: There’s something that you say about nation and nationalism, the idea that a nation is an “essentially contested idea.” What do you mean by that?
PARK: So the American Revolution took place at the cusp of what’s called the dawn of nationalism, meaning people understanding nations, countries, governments, in new ways. Prior to the eighteenth century most countries or empires or nations would define a nation or a government as a divinely appointed structure that people were created to fit into.
HODGES: Like the king was literally sent by God to be the king, and so on and so forth.
PARK: Right, right. Exactly. And what is in place is what is supposed to be in place. Whereas in the eighteenth century you get a growing conception that governments and nations and unions and these political structures are man-made. They’re socially constructed. That humanity and society existed before the nation, and therefore—you can see the logic moving toward the American Revolution—if a nation or an empire is no longer respecting the natural rights that preceded it you have the power to overthrow it.
So the American Revolution was an example of us saying, “This empire is not divinely appointed. It was appointed by man and now that it’s not following our expectations we can overthrow it and create something new.” And that transforms how people view the nation because now the nation is something that’s in the sphere where humans can adapt, modify, observe. So by “nationalism,” they are projecting what the nation should mean.
HODGES: And, even within a nation, there will be contesting ideas. This is one of the biggest themes of your book, is that it’s essentially contested even within particular nations themselves, not just between nations—as you say they define themselves against and with other nations, but also within those nations there are competing ideas about what a nation is.
PARK: Right. If you’re used to a certain thing of how people govern, you are going to project those ideas onto the nation. And those aren’t going to be the only projections, there are going to be other people. So now you’re competing over what this nation really means.
And I mean, this lives on until today. If, Blair, if you and I had a severe disagreements over politics and I thought what you were saying was heretical, I wouldn’t just say your political ideas are wrong. I would say they’re un-American.
PARK: Because they don’t match the priorities and values that I think are inherent within the country.
HODGES: And that’s a great way to end an argument and not even get to discuss it, right? And many sides can do that by assuming what “American” means and then arguing from there. We see that all the way back to the very beginning when they’re trying to construct what America means.
HODGES: Do you think they were a little bit more aware that they were doing that back then, though? I mean there’s a sense, and we’ll get more into this about defining a national character, but was there any deliberate political calculation of knowing, “Okay, look, I’m going to say what America is, but I know this is sort of an act of imagination right now.”
PARK: It was, but I think we also need to note that there was what scholars call a fractured print culture, meaning that if you lived in New England there was a good chance you honestly did not know what life was like in South Carolina.
HODGES: Yeah. How could I?
PARK: Yeah. You had a better understanding of what was taking place in London than you did in Charleston, because that’s just how information flowed. Now, of course within Boston there would be differences and political differences, so people would paper over those, but there was also a genuine ignorance. So there’s both a genuine and a conscious act of ignorance here in projecting my values, my interests, my ideas onto the nation while ignoring others.
HODGES: That’s Benjamin Park. He’s assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Texas. We’re talking about his book American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions. It also spans—this is part of the title, these titles are great; there is a lot of information in all of our titles—1783-1833.
So you’re looking kind of at the beginning of the American project as a political entity and up to 1833. So you don’t get to the Civil War. You’re before that. Your book’s a really good reminder that during this period as the United States was taking shape, it was already made up of different regions with really different priorities and expectations, as you just mentioned, someone in Boston might not know what was going on south of them.
You single out three states in your book in particular. You’re talking about Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina because you want to show that there’s not a neat and tidy single story of the founding of America. Instead it was this mess of competition.
So many Americans at the time then believed that the first order of business was to define national character. We’ve talked a little bit about that already, but talk about why that is and what they were doing. I’m thinking of like Noah Webster and James Madison, people like this.
PARK: Yeah. So national character, character is what you assume the primary values of a person would be. Like think about growing up in the LDS tradition. You often hear, “What are your character traits?” “Your character traits define you.” Many people during this, just after America declares independence, becomes its own sovereign nation, declared that America’s only going to work when we share a national character.
A nation is predicated on people sharing these particular values, otherwise it’s going to fall apart. Especially given that we are now in this new experiment called a democracy where popular rule is going to rule. If popular rule is going to be the dominant factor than we’d better make sure the general population holds things in common, or else you’re going to have groups who aren’t reflected in these national decisions. So they argued that we need to install a national character.
You mentioned Noah Webster, an early American newspaper editor and more famously known for the Webster’s Dictionary—
HODGES: He’s a famous dictionariast.
PARK: Right. Dictionariast. The fact that he wrote an American dictionary showed that he believes America should hold language in common. So he’s writing frequently during the 1780s of all the problems that America’s facing, and America’s facing tons of problems in the early and mid 1780s, is because we don’t have a national character, something that holds us together.
You mentioned James Madison, the author of the Constitution, when he’s out defending the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, he’s saying that one of the great virtues of the American Constitution is it’s going to grant us a national character. What the Constitution was is going to regenerate society in such a way that everyone is going to be seeing things the same way and we’re going to have a shared character, which is going to allow us to be a successful nation.
HODGES: What kind of characteristics were people saying the American national character had?
PARK: Well for James Madison and others this character, because they supported the Constitution, means first and foremost you’re going to believe in federal sovereignty. It also means you’re going to believe in order. It means you’re going to believe in obedience. It means you’re going to believe in respect for authority figures.
So what the American Constitution did is it brought all the anarchic aspects of democracy and was able to funnel it through a structure of order. So that’s what they believed the character of America was going to be. People willing to work with one another under the auspices of this federal government.
HODGES: How about things like character traits like hard work ethic and stuff like this? How did religious ideas play into that?
PARK: Right. Exactly. They believed that all of these things needed to work in orchestra, that they needed to fit together or to mold what makes an American citizen, which in turn this American citizen is going to prop up the American government.
So the Constitution was just one aspect of that. They also pushed for a national university. This idea that we need to have the same education throughout, kind of a precursor to debates today over the common core, right? That if we’re going to be a united people we need to have a united education. We also need to have a united religion. Maybe not a denomination, but at least in religious principles that we can hold in common or else we’re not going to see ourselves reflected in each other, and therefore as a nation we’re going to crumble.
HODGES: And religion would help be sort of a glue to prevent criminal activity or sort of uphold more moral issues as well.
PARK: Exactly. So even if we don’t have an established church, we’re going to have shared religious principles that are going to drive us together.
HODGES: Your first chapter on the Articles of Confederation and the Constitutional Convention sort of shows these debates and how people believed that “when their statecraft either assumes or seeks to construct a sense of peoplehood,” is how you put it.
So in those original discussions, how did it shake out in terms of, “Okay, this group of people, what holds us together? Are we a loose confederation of local sovereigns who have power locally? Or is each state part of this central body?”
How did this debate play out in the three states you studies in this book?
PARK: Yeah. Well you see a lot of diversity. In Massachusetts, for instance, they’re used to a structure of town-based control, where at the one hand you’d think that would push for local sovereignty, but at the same time they believe it’s okay to determine specific people to make authoritative decisions, and then everyone work within that structure.
South Carolina, where they don’t have these town structures, everything’s more at the county level and the local rural communities, they have a distrust for centralizing authority. They start to worry that if too much power is correlated in one place that that’s not going to lead to a lot of support. They eventually get over this for other reasons, and the kind of state’s rights arguments that you see in the 1830s don’t crop up later, but those seed are already planted.
Then in Pennsylvania, due to Pennsylvania’s social background where they had a melting pot of different cultures and communities, they believe it makes sense that we can have lots of people under one federal umbrella and still have all our interests and rights represented because that’s what we’ve been doing in Pennsylvania for a century.
HODGES: Yeah, they felt that they were sort of setting the example that could be replicated. So as people go through this book they’re going to see how these localities are coming together to try to make an arrangement with each other, but they’re bringing expectations of different local contexts, how those local contexts play out in national debates constructing the nation.
In chapter two you say that by and large religion was what framed how Anglo-Americans in the eighteenth century, understood to be their world. Religion was the lens through which so many people saw the world. But you also say that the actual role of religion in early America is still being debated by historians. So pretty much everybody agrees religion was a big deal, but what that role of religion was is kind of up for grabs among scholars. What does the debate look like there?
PARK: Yeah. So when America becomes independent there was a genuine question: What role does religion play in this new government? There are various models at their disposal.
HODGES: England had a state church.
PARK: England had an established church. They had the Church of England, and the Church of England was the most common church in many of the colonies that became the United States. Those who wanted an established national church, and there were some who would have fought for this, quickly recognized that that would be impossible in America, because every state had a different religious tradition.
HODGES: Pluralism already existed.
PARK: That was just a reality that they’re gonna have to deal with. Alright, so that’s out of the question. The next model that we could see as maybe a more traditional model is, okay, why don’t we just establish religion at the state level? And every state can determine what their official designated church will be and we’ll tolerate other religions, this is where the idea of religious toleration, we’ll tolerate this other religions, but we’re still going to privilege one over the other.
HODGES: With taxes, or with—
PARK: Yeah, with tax exemption as well as tax support. They have roles at public functions. Several states take this option. I think we sometimes forget when we talk about America establishing religious liberty that Massachusetts has an established religion until 1833. That’s a lot later than we typically think. So Massachusetts is directing tax money to specific congregations for five decades after the American Revolution ends
Now that’s one model. Another model was religious liberty, and that’s kind of championed in more radical, as we’d say, states like Virginia, where you have both religious skeptics, like Thomas Jefferson, who doubted traditional religious beliefs and especially had distrusted religious leaders, and groups like the Baptists who were devout religionists but who did not like the Anglican church dominating.
HODGES: And they were a minority.
PARK: Yeah, they’re in the minority. They joined together and they pass a bill of religious freedom in Virginia that kind of ends up serving as a model for, first the federal government, when we get what’s now the First Amendment, and then other states eventually adopt this. Religion politics may still intermingle because everyone’s religious and they don’t know a secular sphere, what we now know as secularism was not as much of an option back then, but at least at the level of ecclesiastical leadership and political participation there needs to be a wall between those two things.
HODGES: Yeah, this is where the metaphor of this wall of separation comes in.
PARK: Right. But at the same time you get people still drawing on these previous models. I use in the book the example of Thanksgiving sermons. Now today we think of Thanksgivings as these benign holidays where family gathers together, watch football, eat turkey.
HODGES: It’s still a federal holiday, right?
PARK: Right. A federal holiday. Back then Thanksgiving days were much more haphazard. Some years would them, some wouldn’t. It would be a president who would say, “Hey, the second Thursday of February we’re going to celebrate as a day of Thanksgiving.” And the president would then give out a proclamation saying what America should be thankful for.
HODGES: What if there weren’t any football games scheduled for that day? [laughs]
PARK: There would be a lot more time to talk about politics.
HODGES: Yeah, okay. And that’s what they wanted to do, right?
PARK: Right. That’s what President Washington, the first president—
HODGES: The thing we say not to do now, don’t talk about politics!
PARK: This is what George Washington would do. He’d give out a proclamation saying what America should be grateful for, and by the way the things that they should be grateful for are his political positions, and then say, “Hey, all you local ministers, gather your congregations together, read my proclamation, and then deliver a discourse on what you’re thankful for.”
HODGES: Who could be an ingrate and not participate?
PARK: So what I did is I went through and I read a lot of these local Thanksgiving sermons that are given by these ministers to see what’s happening. What I find is, what they’re doing is they’re already using religion as their cudgel to beat their particular politics. President Washington would be quite general in his religious views because he recognized that America has lots of different religious backgrounds.
HODGES: And he’s the first president. He was kind of trying to set that as an example, right?
PARK: Exactly. So he would say like, “We need to thank the divine Father of America or the providence that guides us,” but then he’d find at the local level they were like, “We’re throwing this abstraction out the window. We know what he’s talking about.”
HODGES: Yeah, we’ll specify.
PARK: The ministers are like, “No, he’s talking about the God of the New Testament.” Just so there’s no question.
HODGES: Did deists and other people and free thinkers try to argue against that and say, “Look, he’s not using the language of the New Testament”? Because it seems like you could also argue the other side and say this is the language of some freethinkers and people like that.
PARK: They did not have a public voice yet. To be a deist or a freethinker was to be seen as a bad citizen and a threat to society. So you did not have access to the press. There are few people that did.
HODGES: But Washington still wasn’t empowered to use more specific language?
PARK: No. You’d find this anxiety at the local level.
One of my favorite Thanksgiving sermons given in 1795, and I talk about this in the book, this minister spends the first few pages of his sermons reaffirming to his congregants that Washington’s proclamation is not bad. He’s saying, “I know you have a lot of problems with this proclamation because it does not specify the God in the New Testament, because it does not specify Jesus Christ, because it does not quote the Bible. But don’t worry he’s just doing this for PR reasons. In reality we all know America’s this Christian nation. And oh, by the way, we need to be thankful for,” as an example of how they’d blend their politics and religion, “we need to be thankful for how America brings liberty through order.”
Those three words kind of don’t ring to us as much today, but those words were basically like a political campaign phrase for the Federalist Party.
HODGES: It would be like saying “Make America Great Again.”
PARK: Yeah. It would be like going to a sermon today where the minister would say, “We as great children of God need to make America great again.”
HODGES: Right. It would be that obvious.
PARK: Right. To where you wouldn’t have to specify that “Oh by the way, support this politician, or this political platform, but wink, wink, you know what I’m saying.” This is already in place in the 1790s.
HODGES: So this is why religion could really be a double-edged sword for the early American experiment because while most political theorists, philosophers, and citizens believed that a successful nation depended on some kind of national morality as fostered by religion, most people would agree we’ve got to have religion, but at the same time then religion could also cause a lot of unrest in division. What are some examples of that?
PARK: Remember these festivities are supposed to promote union, and in the end they’re kind of highlighting this disunion that’s already in place. So you’ve got some New England ministers who, 1794 we have what’s called the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania where a group of citizens are upset with the direction of federal government, especially the taxes, one of the taxes on whiskey, which is where it gets its name.
HODGES: There’s still a line in Hamilton about it. There was going to be a whole thing about it, but Lin-Manuel Miranda cut it out. Just an aside. [laughs] Go on.
PARK: So you’ll get some of these New England Thanksgiving ministers during Thanksgiving sermons of 1795 saying, “We thank God that we don’t face the same political extremism that those in western Pennsylvania face.”
HODGES: And define New England too, for people who aren’t specialists in that.
PARK: People who live in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire—
HODGES: And they have a pretty settled religious sphere, and they’re looking at other people and saying, “Thank you that we’re so peaceful here.”
PARK: In fact, to show how the language is transitioned, they would often refer to the “nation of New England,” because we share our religion together, because we share common principles and values. Now of course that papers over the fact that there was deep political division in New England and these Federalists who are in control in the 1790s are going to lose control the next decade.
HODGES: They can pretend like it’s united, they have the channels of power, they have the press.
PARK: Exactly. They’re also, these New England ministers, are casting an idea of this national covenant that America’s going to survive because we share these religious principles. But the way they frame it, you can read between the lines where they’re saying, “But those people who don’t share these principles are not part of this covenant and are therefore not true Americans.”
So these seeds of division are already in place within their religious rhetoric of what’s supposed to be a festivity celebrating American union.
HODGES: Let’s zoom in a little bit on this idea of covenant. So what were they saying that covenant looked like and how were people disagreeing with that?
PARK: Right. So they would quote from the Bible about God choosing the house of Israel and the house of Israel choosing their God and then following specific religious principles: worshiping God a certain way, reading the scriptures, following these biblical traditions, and by doing so God is going to bless us as a nation, as a country, but if we don’t live up to those promises we no longer have that support.
HODGES: And you face destruction at that point.
PARK: You face destruction. They’d also emphasize, “but if America falls under condemnation, those that are going to face the problems are those that aren’t living up to this covenant, i.e., those in western Pennsylvania who have embraced a political radicalism that do not match what we believe to be a divinely ordered system of government.”
HODGES: And how were they responding then?
PARK: So down in Pennsylvania you would get most of these Thanksgiving sermons celebrating not religious unity and religious unity, but religious freedom. That “we thank God that we have the ability to worship what we please, and practice the religion of our choice. That is what regenerates our religious society. We’re not like those in New England who are telling you, dictating you, how you’re supposed to worship. We know that the true American spirit is found in the energy of agency.”
HODGES: Did both claim allegiance to Puritans? Because a lot of people today have this idea that the Puritans came over here to escape religious persecution and to establish a nation of religious freedom. But they came here to establish a holy nation that had very strict rules and all of this. So how did these competing groups tie their heritage back?
PARK: Well New Englanders would draw on this long tradition of, “Yes, John Winthrop and the Puritans who came over believed in religious liberty, which does not mean the liberated practice of any religion, it’s the liberty to practice the true religion.” That’s what true religious liberty is in their minds.
Whereas in Pennsylvania they’re founded by a bunch of dissenters, and they’re like, “No, we’re the competing model to that. We believe that religion can only be truly experienced when you choose it on your own accord.”
HODGES: Yep. Without hypocrisy and coercion.
PARK: If you are told what to believe then you get no benefit for believing that because you’re just doing what you’re told rather the religious marketplace and this kind of capitalistic language you’d find in a lot of these Pennsylvania sermons, this religious marketplace allows us to be true Christians because we are choosing it without any pressure.
HODGES: And how did these competing religious ideas inform how they thought the government should work?
PARK: Right. So you could see that in Pennsylvania we believe in a much more localized political participation. We need to listen to the voices of these groups, and we need to carve out space for those who might have difference of belief. We believe that that can work within a federal governance.
In New England we believe because drawing from these ideas of a national covenant, we need to have people believing the same thing. We need to have these shared values. If we don’t have these shared values we don’t think this nation is going to work. The way this is going to apply into politics is we need a strong, energetic federal government that makes sure everyone is taught the right things and follows the right laws, or else our national covenant is going to fall apart and America is going to be a byword.
HODGES: So this is going to surprise I think some people who try to map these debates onto contemporary political parties and disagreements. This is an idea that the people who favored a strong central government were doing so because of their religious principles.
PARK: Right. Exactly. Because they are projecting their values on a national government and they want the national government strong enough to then in turn project those values onto all of its citizens. It’s kind of a reciprocal relationship there.
HODGES: You also show some of the differences for example between Massachusetts and South Carolina, the way that religion and religious ideas played out there. While Massachusetts was sort of forward looking and seeking moral uplift and progress, South Carolina by contrast would use religion to sort of freeze the status quo.
PARK: Right. Religion teaches you your place in society. Religion is going to—
HODGES: Including, depending on what color your skin was.
PARK: Absolutely. So you get ministers at this time prior to the eighteenth century, slave owners would rarely allow their enslaved populations hear about Christianity because slavery was not so much about race as it was about civilization, and they believed that if we taught our slaves about civilization they can’t be slaves anymore.
However, this changes in the eighteenth century with these developing notions of racial distinctions to the point of where we want to teach our slaves Christianity because that’s going to teach them to be docile.
HODGES: And obedient. “Obey your masters.”
PARK: You are to obey your masters like Christians are to obey God.
HODGES: And you’re black because there’s this curse that you have been marked with, and this is all in God’s providence.
PARK: Exactly. Meaning that religion provides a model to keep society where it’s at, rather than progressing, rather than developing the characters, religion is what keeps the masses in check.
HODGES: We’ll talk more about slavery in a minute here with Benjamin Park. He’s an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Texas. He’s doing some research here at the Maxwell Institute this summer on Nauvoo, Illinois and the Mormon experiment in that state and how Mormons felt about democracy and developing a sense of nationalism.
Okay, Ben, so America’s political experiment was off to a really rocky start here, as we’ve been talking about, and it was about to get even rockier. I’m thinking of Abijah Bigelow, who was someone that you feature in the book who was one of many people who were sounding the alarm like “We’re in trouble.” During the Fourth of July oration that he delivered in 1809 he said that the nation was under threat in two big ways. Number one, foreign influence, and number two, internal factions. What was going on?
PARK: So the first decade of the nineteenth century was not going well for New England Federalists. The election of 1800, Jefferson sweeps into office, Republican Democrats take over from the Federalists—
HODGES: And this is like party of the people, less central control, he’s kind of an outsider, yeah.
PARK: Yeah. The yeoman farmers rather than centralized authority. Federalists in New England, and it should also be noted they’re losing power within their own state as there is an upswing of Jeffersonians in New England as well, they’re starting to see our values aren’t represented at the federal level anymore. You get lots of worry that we’re never going to see another president from New England.
HODGES: Yeah, they wanted a strong central power, but now someone in central power that they disagree with, then uh-oh.
PARK: This is where ideas of like state’s rights over federal power often come from.
HODGES: In the north.
PARK: Yeah. So during this period you get the first arguments for state’s rights in New England. What really jump-starts this is the War of 1812, the second big battle with Britain just a couple of decades after the American Revolution. We’re recording this podcast on the anniversary of James Madison declaring war against Britain.
HODGES: Happy anniversary.
PARK: That’s right. So it’s a—
HODGES: Very serendipitous.
PARK: Serendipitous, exactly.
HODGES: And appropriate.
PARK: Yeah. So and to New England the War of—
HODGES: Oh and we should say it’s the eighteenth of June.
PARK: That’s right. So New England sees this new war with Britain as the epitome of their voice no longer being heard at the federal level. They like their relationship with Britain. In fact, if you get a strong connection during this affair between New England, Federalists, and Britain they’re saying we’re proud of our Anglo-American heritage, we share more in common with London than we do in Philadelphia. Their market is based on trade with Britain and—
HODGES: Follow the money.
PARK: Yeah. But the federal government is growing increasingly upset with Britain for two reasons, one, impressment, Britain is at war with France during this time, and Britain whenever they find American soldiers who have previously been British, they would impress them into the British navy because in the British system there is no process of becoming an un-citizen. If you were once a citizen then you’re always a citizen of Britain, so if we come upon you we’re going to enlist you into the British navy.
HODGES: And were there more sailors from these other areas? So they would care more because it’s affecting them?
PARK: As well as America wanted to stay neutral on the conflict, and we’re going to sell goods to both France and Britain, and Britain isn’t recognizing that. Britain is saying, “No, you need to support just us and not others.”
HODGES: Right. Don’t support the enemy.
PARK: So American leadership gets to the point where okay, we’re going to declare our war against Britain to reassert our rights of sovereignty. They’re also doing this, I mean the two public reasons are the neutral trade and the impressment.
The two private reasons is they’re also convinced that Britain is helping Native Americans in the west retard the American advances. So the Natives can’t be beating the Americans on their own, so they must be being supported by the British. Second, Americans—
HODGES: Just to be clear, that’s the racist justifications they gave and not the position of Professor Park.
PARK: Yeah, exactly. It shows the limited imagination of those early Americans. That they could not even conceive of these Native tribes forming a formidable response.
Then there’s also these Canadian territories just north of America that Americans are like, “hey, why aren’t they American?” Disregard the fact that they chose to remain British during the American Revolution. But Americans are like, “No, we are going to use this war to annex these Canadian territories.”
HODGES: Yeah, there’s land up there!
PARK: So this war kicks off. The first year was horrible. They designed three fronts to attack Canada and annex Canada. The only place they really succeeded in getting an armed force they lost, and then they couldn’t even really raise armies for the two other fronts because New England’s like, “We’re not supporting this war.”
HODGES: You also say religion was a big part of this story too, right? There were different parties that were employing biblical texts and theological arguments to favor different positions in the war. What was that looking like?
PARK: The same ministers who, just a couple decades earlier were using religious defenses for the American Revolution, were now giving sermons saying, “No, we’re pacifists now. Or at least we’re only allowed to perform war, do war-like acts, when it’s justified, and this war of 1812 is not justified. This is not a just war, and therefore we’re not giving our support.” So they get lots—
HODGES: And they would cite biblical texts and all of this.
PARK: Yeah. They’re saying “this war is detrimental for America. It does not reflect our values, so we’re not going to support it.”
So America does not get the support it needs from New England during the first few years of the war, so America is losing. They start having more victories the next year, in 1813, mostly in the west where Andrew Jackson and others are kind of just attacking Native American tribes regardless of whether they support the British or not, but then again in 1814 when Britain finally defeats France and they’re able to turn their full attention to America, America is on the run.
This is when Britain comes in and burns down Washington D.C. including the White House, and America’s in deep straits and it’s at this point that New Englanders are like, “Now’s our chance to pounce.” So they gather together in what’s called the Hartford Convention.
HODGES: Yeah, this really brought things to a head and became sort of an embarrassment.
PARK: Yeah, so they gather in December of 1814 in Hartford, Connecticut, and they come up with a series of proposed amendments to the Constitution. Basically amendments that said “if you want to have continued support from us, and we know you’re going to lose the war unless you get New England’s support, we want these amendments to the Constitution.”
And these amendments reflected their views of what the American nation should be like. Amendments like no more westward expansion, because these western territories don’t share our interests or values and they’re kind of diluting our voice in national politics.
HODGES: Right. In a democracy, if you add more people to the pool who disagree with you, you lessen your own power.
PARK: Right. They also have an amendment of limiting immigration, or at least the voting rights of immigrants, saying that “these people coming in”—who often vote Jeffersonian—”we don’t trust and we don’t see them as part of the American body so we want them excluded from voting.”
And one more example is they said, “We don’t want successive presidents from the same state.” And they say this because three of the first four presidents are from Virginia, and they say “Virginia does not reflect our interest so we don’t want any more Virginian presidents back to back.”
So these Hartford proposals kind of reflect a possible, a different direction of American nationalism. An America, not so much as an imperial empire taking in more people and trying to balance more interests, but more a nation based on shared values of the original thirteen colonies that succeeded from Britain.
Now, due to their rotten luck, their proposals arrive in Washington D.C. the very same week that word comes that Britain has decided to sign a treaty ending the war.
HODGES: War’s over. Don’t need you.
PARK: Right. But against the British generals, they’re telling the British parliament, “Hey, give us a few more months and we had this won! These American colonies might be British again if you just give us a few more months.” And parliament is like, “No, we’ve already spent too much money. We just want to get out.” So they sign a treaty that says status quo antebellum, which is Latin for “same status as before the war.” So nothing changes.
So if you remember, America went to war to kind of reaffirm “we have neutrality rights and we have impressment rights.” They get neither of these out of this document. They just get a promise to end the war. And the very next week after that—
HODGES: We’ve got a national anthem out of it!
PARK: [laughs] We’ve got a national anthem out of it. And then the next week after they get the Treaty of Paris, they get word that Andrew Jackson won the battle in New Orleans, which is their only real military victory in the War of 1812. Disregard the fact that it took place technically after the war was over, they just hadn’t received word yet. And now it seems like not only is the war over, but we won the war!
So as I frame it to my students, the War of 1812 is the war we should have lost, we technically tied, yet we celebrate like we won. [laughs]
HODGES: And we got a great song.
PARK: So out of this, the Hartford proposals instead of being seen as a compromise are seen as treasonous. “You were willing to depart us at our moment of need. We’re now victorious.” So the Federalists, that is their last gasp of power. They are on their way out from that point on. And this new American empire nationalism is triumphant. We are finally firmly planted in our independence, we are sovereign, we are going to keep expanding and the vision of America as an empire is the dominant vision that comes out of this conflict.
HODGES: So what people can take away from this part of the book is this idea that American nationalism, you say there are nationalisms, it’s plural. There were different possibilities, different visions, and different things could have taken place. It wasn’t this inevitable march to where we are today, but rather this very contextual, helter-skelter sort of give and take that was going on all along.
PARK: Right. And if British parliament in 1814 had decided to take a different path in handling that war, American nationalism might have been completely different following that year.
HODGES: That’s Ben Park. We’re talking to him about his book American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions.
Slavery receives a lot of attention in the book as well. Two big issues: What did slavery say about national character? And could the federal government intervene in local institutions? You say those were the two big pivots for this issue. Other than… the biggest pivot being enslaving other human beings.
PARK: Yes. Exactly. So it’s important to note that at the very dawn of America you get a very deep divide within the American colonies over slavery. Slavery existed in all the northern colonies prior to the American Revolution. And after the American Revolution state by state these northern states end up abolishing slavery. It’s easier for them to do because slavery is not as entrenched in the north as it is in the south.
HODGES: And put that into the Atlantic context, too. I think it’s important for people to hear, if they don’t already know, America didn’t invent the idea of doing away with slavery.
PARK: Right, exactly. This is a moment of what we call the Age of Revolutions, these last decades of the eighteenth century where democratic governance becomes a question. Different nations are upending political orders. There’s a genuine question of “what role does slavery play in this?”
The Haitian Revolution of course pushes this question, when enslaved people in the French Island of Saint-Domingue fight against their rulers and end up leading into the abolition of slavery, which France accepts. During this age you’re also seeing lots of people starting to write abolitionist texts, anti-slavery texts saying, “You know what? I don’t think slavery matches our new ideals of what politics should be and maybe we should abolish it.”
And these arguments are taking place in America at the time of the American Revolution. You have in Massachusetts during the Revolution a series of enslaved people going to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, bringing with them the text of the Declaration of Independence and saying, “Hey! This says all mankind are created equal. What’s going on here?” And the Massachusetts Supreme Court goes, “You know what? You’re right!” And they abolish slavery. And so there’s a divide within America—
HODGES: Why was it easier there? Why did it happen there and why did Britain begin abolishing it when the south didn’t? What were the differences there?
PARK: The northern economy isn’t as dependent on slave labor. They have a much more diversified marketplace.
HODGES: So you think it was somewhat self-interest.
PARK: Oh it was definitely self-interest. The context of self-interestedness can allow space for you to recognize the moral incongruity of slavery.
HODGES: Except for, like there were slaves themselves who recognized it at a fundamental level. You talk about them in the book as well.
PARK: Exactly. Then in Britain it helps that there are no slaves in England.
HODGES: Right. So it’s happening off in the colonies.
PARK: Now I don’t want that to lessen the British moves towards abolition because much of their global economy was depending on slave labor in Jamaica and other—
HODGES: So they did have something to lose.
PARK: They had a lot to lose. In fact, when they abolished slavery in 1833 their sugar production was arguably the most successful economic initiative in the world, and they decided to end slavery and that’s kind of a testament to the abolitionist’s movement and these black voices that brought it to their attention.
HODGES: Let’s talk about those black voices for a minute. Let’s talk about what African Americans themselves were saying during this period.
PARK: Equiano, a very famous freed slave during this era, publishes an interesting narrative of the life of a slave. He writes this in the 1780s and 1790s and publishes it, which is one of the first texts that kind of explicitly argues, “Hey, the experience I had as a slave does not fit with your rhetoric of democratic governance. This is wrong.”
HODGES: “Here’s my witness of what it was like.”
PARK: Yeah. So you’ve got a rise of these black voices, which is crucial. Now when I talk about “American nationalisms” I’m often asked, “Where are the voices in early America that kind of are prescient to today’s nationalism? Because America today, at least a large segment of Americans, believes that American nationalism is equality before the law—everyone has equal rights, equal opportunities. Who’s providing that voice in early America?
And almost without exception the only people who are doing that are the black voices in early America.
HODGES: The most oppressed.
PARK: I focus on James Forten, who was a free black man in Philadelphia. He fought in the American Revolution, he was a prisoner of war in the American Revolution, he became a very successful ship builder in Pennsylvania. And he had a voice! He had a great voice and he would publish his arguments and he became a national proponent of abolition, not just on the principles that “slavery is wrong,” although he certainly argued it, but that the American principles of liberty required the abolition of slaves. And not just the abolition of slaves, but a shared governance of blacks and whites living together, which was something that was rare during this time.
Because you get a growing number of people in early America recognizing that slavery is wrong. But they believe that the American nation only works with people of the same race.
HODGES: So make black people move to Africa or someplace else.
PARK: Right. For example, Thomas Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence. He knows full well slavery is wrong—
HODGES: He’s a slaveholder.
PARK: Yeah, he’s a slaveholder, and he knows slavery is wrong, and he knows that slaveholding does not fit within American ideals.
HODGES: He thinks it even corrupts individual character.
PARK: Right. But he says that a) he knows that his life is going to be a lot more difficult without slaves and b) if we free slaves, he argues, it’s going to lead to race wars, because—
HODGES: Corruption of the national character, violence, and so on.
PARK: Whites have grown so to detest black people, and black people in return are never going to be able to forgive what was done to them, and so a mixed race society isn’t going to fit.
And Thomas Jefferson is far from alone on this. You get a rise of what’s called this “colonization society,” to where “we are going to end slavery, free African Americans, but then we’re going to force them to move elsewhere because they do not fit our imagination of what an American body should be.”
HODGES: And even some African Americans would say, “Yeah, we don’t want to be around.”
PARK: Right. Especially since colonization, they though,t provided the avenue for self-rule. “As long as we remain in America our voices aren’t going to be heard,” and so some see that this colonization effort—and this is where the British efforts of colonization result in the creation of Sierra Leone, the American colonization efforts end up in the creation of Liberia.
A majority of African Americans of course reject this plan. People like James Forten, who argued that, “No, no, no, no! We bled and sweat to build this nation. It is wrong to not allow us to enjoy the fruits of it.” So “colonization is wrong because it does not allow us to reap the benefits of the work that African Americans have performed. Our vision of America, therefore, is not only emancipation, but integration.”
HODGES: So American nationalisms at this time were fracturing even further along some of the same fault lines—one of the biggest being how power is divided between states and the federal government. This is where a big switch happens between the north and the south.
PARK: Right, exactly. Because in Pennsylvania you start seeing people…Before this a lot of people will argue “slavery is a problem, but it’s a state issue. It’s something that can only be dealt with in the states.” And starting in this period you see people, especially in Pennsylvania, start arguing, “No, slavery is a national issue. Slavery is a national sin. And if we are going to have the strong imperial government that is able to preserve order and liberty, then we are hypocritical if we are not using that same power to end the oppression of slaves throughout America. That the American national interests are rooted in abolishing slavery, and if we can’t do that then that’s not really the American ideal that we supposedly espouse.”
HODGES: And federal government would have to be the thing that made that happen because the south wasn’t willing to make–
PARK: Right. And this is a transformation for a lot of politicians like in Pennsylvania, where previously Pennsylvania had served as a mediating force in American political discourse because Pennsylvania itself had been used to lots of different interest groups living within the state and “we’ll just kind of let them be as long as they share common orders.” And so they would be seen by southern states as “okay, they not as zealous as New England states, who are going to make us try to live like them, they’re more live and let be.”
Whereas now Pennsylvania is like, “No, this is an issue that we believe the federal government should solve. We’re not just going to let the South have this slavery. This is something we have to care about.”
HODGES: Things are really troublesome right now, because we’re only five decades into the American experiment at this point. It seems like everything is about to explode into pieces.
To give people an idea of the scope, they were about as far removed from the war of independence as we are today from 1970, so it’s not that long. The South was attempting at this point a complete redefinition of what the nation was. They had to present a whole new vision of what nationalism was and try to pretend like that’s what was going on all along.
PARK: Yeah. I’m glad you highlighted that this was a redefinition for them. So for example, South Carolina—one of the states I focus on throughout the book—they start out being strong nationalists, because they believe the federal government was the only thing that was going to preserve their economic interests. And as the South becomes more and more committed to the cotton economy—remember the cotton gin is invented in the 1790s and that makes slavery much more profitable and it allows the American South to become a strong economic machine on the global market. And they believe the federal government is what’s going to preserve their trade as well as protect them from pirates and make sure that they get the most money for their cotton production.
But what happens after the War of 1812 is with this spirit of nationalist fervor placing the nation over the region—because remember, we’re not like those New Englanders—they pass a series of economic tariffs, where “we need to promote Northern manufacturing.” And the way to do that is to tax incoming goods from foreign nations so that Southern states stop relying on Britain for their clothes and instead buy from New England.
Southern states hate this idea, especially South Carolina, where they’re like, “No, our vision of America is based on international trade. We don’t want to place New England commercial rights over our own, so we want to fight that.” So you get this opposition between South Carolina and the rest of the states that climaxes in what becomes known as the nullification crisis.
HODGES: Let’s talk about what that crisis was. So what were people in the South trying to say the nation was?
PARK: In trying to abolish these federal tariffs, they come up with this argument of nullification, that the states have the right to abolish federal laws if those federal laws do not respect state interest.
HODGES: So they become sovereign over the federal government.
PARK: Right. And I mean, there’s this complex mechanism that John C. Calhoun—who was the vice president for a while, then goes back to being a senator for South Carolina—devises. But at its root is the idea that the American nation is based in sovereign states. And these sovereign states are tied together through this compromise. And they use the word confederation.
PARK: We’re a confederacy. We’re not a united nation. And when they eventually have their nullification convention—
HODGES: The nullification is to say we’re opting out of the whole American thing. We’re ourselves now. Goodbye.
PARK: Well, they’re saying “we’re nullifying laws. We’re still part of America.”
HODGES: Oh, okay.
PARK: They’re not arguing for secession at this point, they’re just saying, “We could nullify federal laws when it doesn’t—”
HODGES: Right. Secession happens later. We’re pre-Civil War here. This is—
PARK: Right. This is the 1830s.
What’s fascinating is when they have their nullification convention in December of 1832 they recognize that, “we abolished these federal tariffs,” and then they raise a militia to defend their decision. Then they also—
HODGES: Like you do. [laughs]
PARK: Yeah, like one does. And they realize “we have to defend these actions to America and to the state and to others,” so they write a series of pamphlets defending their nullification steps.
In these pamphlets they make a novel argument about American nationalism where they say, “America is not a nation.” They also argue that people living in South Carolina are not Americans. “You are South Carolinians. Your nation is South Carolina, and you have attachment to these other states through a compact of states.” Here’s a direct quote, they said, “There is not now, nor has there ever been such a thing as an American nation or an American citizen. Only a citizen of South Carolina.”
HODGES: Which would come as a surprise to many in the North, and also to some people in South Carolina as well.
PARK: Right, right. And so what this is arguing is “we don’t have to privilege national interests over our own. Those are not our priorities. Our priorities are what takes place in South Carolina.” A nation, they say, “America’s not a nation because a nation means people who share things in common, and our states don’t share things in common, therefore it’s not a nation.” That leads them during the nullification crisis.
Now this ends before conflict. In early 1833, they come up with a compromise. John C. Calhoun gets together with Henry Clay and the other senators and they come up with a compromise that kind of appeases both sides for this time being. But you see the seeds placed for sectional conflict here.
In fact, one of my favorite letters from this period comes from a South Carolinian politician who writes during the midst of this crisis saying, “Look, I agree with these nullification arguments, but they’re not going to work right now. We don’t have enough power. We don’t have a support. It’s not until we get sister states who agree that this tyrannical view of nationalism is wrong. And then we will actually have enough power to get what we want.”
And that kind of predicts what happens three decades later with the Civil War.
HODGES: Which is also funny because that’s just a new sort of vision of a new federalism.
HODGES: [laughs] We have to make a centralized power.
PARK: And it needs to be added that during the Civil War the Confederate States of America act more as a strong federal power than the union does! And it just kind of shows that these arguments for state’s rights over federal authority are often just skin-deep and they’re rooted in, “the federal government does not respect our interests, therefore it needs to be state interests. But as soon as the federal government does respect our interests, I don’t care about what these other states say.”
HODGES: So this kind of gets into when people talk about what caused the Civil War later on and they can say, “Well, it wasn’t slavery, it was state’s rights.” What do historians today make of that kind of an argument?
PARK: It was slavery!
It’s also disagreements over how the nation is comprised. The first vice president, and the first and only vice president of the Confederate States of America, when he gives his corner-stone address describing what this confederate nation is he says, “The Confederacy is going to survive much better than American did because the Confederacy is based on the true idea that nations have to be rooted in a sense of racial supremacy. America failed because it did not specifically dictate white supremacy. The Confederacy is going to succeed because it does.”
HODGES: And to let people know, that story is beyond the scope of American Nationalisms, Ben’s current book, but there are a lot of other places people can tap into that discussion as well. It gets into a lot of things that are still being discussed in the United States today about monuments to the Confederacy in the South and other things like that.
But we’re talking today with Benjamin Park. He’s an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. That’s in Texas, Houston, obviously, Sam Houston himself. Ben also serves as an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review.
I wanted to talk, before we go, about identity vertigo. Ben, we’ve known each other for a while so I’ve had the opportunity to talk to you a little bit about my personal reactions to the book before we sat down here. I feel like your book shows that ever since the beginning of this American experiment—among the founders, the framers of the United State’s Constitution, the original citizens, free, enslaved, everybody, everybody throughout this entire experiment—there were always competing visions about what the nation was at that moment, and what it should be in the future. And these definitions and preferences changed over time, not only amongst the nation as a whole, but even between those individual constituencies.
So as I was reading the book and thinking about current circumstances, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of vertigo, like what is all of this standing on? Did you feel that way as you were doing research on this book?
PARK: Yeah, I definitely did. And I think one way to highlight this vertigo is the fact that I wrote a majority of this book at a time when American nationalism, at least at a national level, was focused on diversity and inclusion. America had featured its first black president, where we were seeing more diverse voices in all avenues of American culture. And then I finish this book and I do my final revisions and I write my epilogue in 2016 when you see a rise of nativist nationalism—nationalism not as an inclusive principle, but nationalism as an exclusive principle, a nationalism that puts boundaries in place, that puts walls in place, a nationalism that believes that nations only exists with barriers.
And so what this did for me is it showed that nationalism in itself is not on its own a positive good. Nationalism is a neutral principle. What you do with nationalism can be positive, it can be negative.
I’m one who, I love the fourth of July and going out and celebrating what I believe the true American principles are. But I’m also one who recognizes that I hate seeing people identify certain people as un-American, or casting images of what they believe America to be in a way that excludes a large number of people who really are American.
HODGES: And it’s usually people like immigrants or Muslims or people like this, minorities.
PARK: Right. So what really strikes me is that nationalism has always been and will always be a political issue, but one that should make us question, what are the things we value? What are the interests that we hold close to heart? What are the things that we believe above all others are what drive America to be?
And I think that’s a question that we can’t take for granted. We can’t just assume nationalism means something. We are—with every generation, with every person—re-packaging, re-imagining what our American priorities are. I think that’s something that as soon as we stop focusing on that, negative results come.
HODGES: So you’ve come full circle. I mean, you’re right back to the very beginning where political thinkers and philosophers and others were trying to define national character, thinking about what values should drive the American experiment.
HODGES: And it’s both terrifying and exhilarating, depending on how that could shake out, because what it says is those visions and those ideals can change. They can be redefined. And that can be good because it can lead to better opportunities for people, greater equality, and a healthier nation.
But it can also go the other way. It can go the other way.
PARK: Right. And it reaffirms that our rhetoric matters, that our civility—the way we think about other people has a tangible effect; that whether we in our mind include certain people into our imagined nation has a direct link to the types of policies we try to implement. And I think that’s why images of representation, that’s why our language concerning people, matter. Because it’s not just some abstract thing. It’s the foundations upon which we build our literal nation.
HODGES: What do you think’s holding it all together right now?
PARK: I don’t see anything holding it together right now. When I look at America I see a fractured nationalist culture. I see people who are disagreeing not just on policies, but on foundational principles upon which those policies are based. And I think the more that people recognize that we need to return to the basic principles and then move from there I think the better our nation will be.
HODGES: What do you think the role of the historian, like your role, what’s the role of a historian like you when it comes to contemporary concerns? You spend most of your time thinking about the past and teaching about the past and researching the past.
PARK: I see my primary job to first show that these debates aren’t new. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And to show both bad and good examples from the past, they kind of warn that, “Woah, woah, woah, let’s be careful with that direction because let me show what that led to in the past and the problems that that caused.” But to also show, “Look, here are some positive examples. Here are some things in our American past that we can be proud of, because they provide examples that we can replicate today.”
So I think showing that we have an intellectual lineage that leads to today, and that we don’t have to just try to invent something new, but that we have models in the past that could serve us well if we only turn to them, I think that’s one of the key roles of the historian.
HODGES: That’s Benjamin E. Park. He’s an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Texas. He’s also an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review and he’s the author of the book American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions.
Before we go, you’re currently working on this book about Nauvoo. It’s a city that was founded by Mormons in the 1840s. You’re talking about their views of democracy and how they fit in. Give us a really quick sneak peek. Where are you at in your research so far?
PARK: At first I thought it was kind of odd to jump from my first project to Nauvoo, but the more I dig into it the more I see the similarities. While I go really broad with my American nationalism book, addressing the question of how does diversity fit within a democratic society, the Nauvoo project allows me to zoom in on one microhistory. How does one community experiment with issues that arise with democratic order?
So with the Mormons you get a group believing that America’s democratic society had failed them. Their experience in Ohio, their experience in Missouri, had led to the thought “we as a minority faith have our rights trampled upon by a majority rule. So we need to find ways to save, to salvage, to redeem democracy.”
So in Nauvoo they come up with a number of mechanisms, whether it be through block voting, whether it be through moral reform, whether it be eventually through theocratic control and the Council of Fifty, we need to find some ways to save democracy. Whereas those outside of Nauvoo see Mormons as a threat to democratic order. Democracy is fragile enough it can shatter if you get a large enough contingent of people who don’t, in their minds, play by the rules of separation of church and state, of individual conscience.
And so you get these conflicting views inside and outside Nauvoo that eventually lead to a clash where both sides decide that “America’s democracy had failed and we need to turn to extra legal justice to save us.” So that’s in brief how the Nauvoo story, I think, builds on this larger nationalisms trajectory.
HODGES: I’m really looking forward to it. How far out do you think that is?
PARK: So I have about a chapter and a half left, depending on if that last chapter is one or two chapters. And I’m supposed to turn it in to my editor in November this year, so depending on the amount of revisions it’ll probably appear late 2019, early 2020.
HODGES: Great. Well we’ll be keeping our eyes open for it, Ben. I appreciate you coming and talking to us on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
PARK: It’s been a joy, Blair.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Up next we’ll have another great interview with Terryl Givens in his Maxwell Institute Conversations Series. Before we go let’s check out the podcast review of the month. I have a couple of them here actually, some short ones. Then I also have a couple of quick announcements for you, as well.
So the first review comes from “marvmax.” It says, “Blair is a great interviewer… The only problem with the podcast is that my reading list keeps getting longer. That’s also a good thing because many of these books I never would have heard of much less read.”
Thank you, marvmax. Another one here from “utlongbow”: “This is a great podcast. The variety of topics is fascinating, guests and host are incredibly knowledgeable, and it has expanded my understanding of my faith.”
Thank you, utlongbow. The last one here is from “notveryinsightful” [laughs] is the name of the reviewer. I don’t know why they chose that name. Maybe they chose that name when they were reviewing something else. Well, here’s what they said: “The tone and content of the dialogue here is enriching and inspiring. Thank you to the host and to the guests for your work.”
Okay, everybody remember: You can rate and review the show in iTunes yourself. It just takes a minute, but it does do a lot to help spread the show around.
Okay, a couple of announcements here. First of all, Janiece Johnson is kicking off our new lecture season this October, she’s presenting a lecture here at Brigham Young University called “Becoming a People of The Books: Early Converts and the Book of Mormon.” Dr. Johnson is a Willes Center research associate here at the Institute. Her research challenges claims that Latter-day Saints usually overlooked the Book of Mormon in the church’s first few years of existence. You might have heard that from researchers before. Her lecture is happening Tuesday, October 2 here at BYU. You can get details about that at our website, mi.byu.edu. And yes, we’ll be recording the lecture, so if you can’t make it you’ll be able to catch it on YouTube later on.
Also, if you want to stay up to date on what’s happening here at the Maxwell Institute you can subscribe to our newsletter if you haven’t done that yet. We only hit your inbox once a month, sending you news, updates, and short stories about what’s going on around here. I put that newsletter together. So you can go sign up for it at bit.ly/maxwellnews.
One other quick thing: You can also follow us on Instagram if you haven’t done that yet. We’re on Instagram. You can come see some photos that I take and post on there.
We hope to see you next time on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Thanks for listening.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)