‘A Doubtful Freedom’

That the United States has been a “nation” since its founding—struggling through slavery, civil conflict, labor strife, economic depressions, and deep ethnic and racial divisions but still surviving as a single polity and people—has long been an article of faith in triumphal versions of our history. “We the People” have often needed a sense of our long continuity if we wished to hold ourselves together. A story, true and false, imagined or otherwise, with remembrance and a good deal of forgetting is perhaps the only thing that can unify a nation. Before he became president, Barack Obama inspired many of us with his clarion call in 2004 that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.” In these recent polarized years we’ve seen bitter refutations of this premise, even as its noble impulse survives. Just now the idea of the American nation needs serious attention from historians.
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