Nationalism, until lately, has not been a subject for enlightened conversation. And even lately, it often still isn’t. Donald Trump and his fellow travelers elsewhere may have brought it decisively out of history’s closet, but others just as vehemently would cram it back in.
The central reason for this is well-known and widely assented-to. Nationalism, multiple generations in the West have been educated to believe, has a lot to answer for. It caused the “senseless” bloodletting of the First World War, which in turn caused the Second, which made the First look mild by comparison. Never mind that what seems “senseless” to us made sense aplenty to many at the time. Nationalism, according to the authorized version, makes for war; war is the worst fate that can befall us; and only by blunting its instruments—nation-states and their handmaid, armaments—can we escape a repeat of civilizational catastrophe.
Signs abounded, well before the rise of Trump and company, that nationalism was not slain but sleeping. After the Wall fell, the old Balkan tinderbox flared anew with old nationalisms. The rage for regional devolution, from Scotland to Catalonia to Kurdistan, looked like nationalism under another name. Before that, the closing-down of European empire and the decolonization process went forward across Africa and Asia under the banner of Wilsonian self-determination. Today, nationalist governments hold power in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, India, arguably in Italy, until recently in Austria, to say nothing of nationalists-in-chief Russia and China and the nationalist-accented populism roiling much of the Western world.
When future historians look back on our present frenzies, they might take a cue from one of the greatest students of the American past. Half a century ago, David M. Potter considered the subject of nationalism in an essay that deserves a much wider readership. Potter was a historian’s historian, with a bibliography that was not huge but was uniformly heavy-caliber. His Yale dissertation became his first book, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1942). People of Plenty (1954) tackled the theme of economic abundance and the American national character, at a time when America was still deemed to have such a thing. The South and the Sectional Conflict (1968) explored the tensions of sectionalism, nationalism and equalitarianism, while The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (1976) posthumously won him the Pulitzer. Potter taught at Yale and Stanford with stops in Chicago and Oxford and wrote old-order consensus history, which argued that deep continuity more than conflict best described the American past. He wrote before fixations of race, class, gender, and data deluged his profession. He was a white man born in Georgia in 1910, with short-cropped hair and usually sporting a bow tie. And his work on nationalism provides a cautionary guide to our present situation.
“The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa” first appeared in the American Historical Review, the house organ of American academic historians, in 1962. It was a long and subtle piece of work, dissecting what Potter understood as the basic bifurcation in historians’ understanding of the idea of nationalism, and then illustrating what he meant from his own field: the American South and the coming of the Civil War.
Potter wrote long before the age of identity politics and so began, easily enough, with the proposition that historians most often consider human beings in terms of national groups. This did not automatically mean that the national group coincided with a political entity. It did mean that the rise of national consciousness and political nationalism had been a central theme in the story of the modern West, where national identity had progressively come to transcend, if not crowd out, other orders of collective identity. It was why, he thought, it made sense to talk in terms of “the American people, the Russian people, the Japanese people” and so on, and why, when we ascribe distinctive characteristics to such groups, “we do not conceive of them merely in political terms as bodies who happen to be subject to a common political jurisdiction, but rather as aggregations whose common nationality imparts or reflects an integral identity.” While this admittedly made some historians even then uncomfortable, the divvying-up into national units still, Potter maintained, “is one of the dominating presuppositions of our time.” This had broad implications for how historians interpreted the past to the rest of us.
Two ways of thinking about nationalism need to be distinguished. One was largely descriptive and heavily psychological, focused on discerning the character of a group as it understood itself. As cited by Potter, historian of nationalism Hans Kohn summarized it: “Nationalism is first and foremost a state of mind, an act of consciousness.” By this theory, any group of people that claimed to believe passionately enough that they partook of common qualities might claim to be a nation. In practice, such a subjective psychological sense of national identity usually derived from certain well-known prerequisites: a common language, a common religion, a common territory that constituted some sort of defensible natural unit, a common culture, and common mores. Further, it implied a level of group loyalty, though not exclusive loyalty. National allegiance ran concurrent with similar feelings about family, church, school, region. Such national feeling in individuals thus was relative, as in shared, and as Potter put it, “modified by contingencies.” The question being addressed was how people came to feel themselves a nation, not how they behaved functionally as a nation-state.
That issue, Potter explained, brought us to the second way to think about nationalism. It centered on “the validity of a given group’s exercising autonomous powers.” Sanction to exercise such power, whether over individuals or groups of individuals (as in minorities), rested upon the validity of the community to which such groups or individuals subscribed. Of all human groupings, the nation here stood out, for “it is the one to which the power of regulation, control, coercion, punitive action, and so on, is especially assigned.” Much depended therefore on whether or not two potentially contending bodies of people belonged, in fact, to a single community or nation. If they did, the exercise of power by one over the other was valid; if they did not, it was not. Nationalism thus understood becomes something not merely descriptive, relativistic and subject to psychological analysis but objectively evaluative. “National loyalty may vary enormously, or in subtle degrees,” Potter stressed, “but national citizenship does not vary at all—a man is a citizen or he is an alien.” Potter saw this second approach as formalistic and institutional. Nations act in history as institutional things, and history would seem to show that without institutions, not all the felt-psychological unity of a people counts for much in operative terms. The power of the political state tends to co-opt the purely psychological understanding of nationalism with which it is often but not always congruent. What had been relative and shifting in the first instance becomes institutional and categorical in the second: The writ of national law either has jurisdiction in a particular place or it doesn’t; this piece of territory lies within the national boundary or it doesn’t. “None of these matters is partial, any more than sovereignty itself is partial—and sovereignty,” Potter reminded us, “is like virginity in that it cannot be surrendered in part.”
Both approaches to nationalism were true and useful. In modern democratic thought and practice, however, we can observe just how interdependent the two understandings could be. Democracies perforce vest ultimate authority in the will of the people, manifest in majority rule. This means that acceptance of that association that makes the “people” an autonomous nation is as potent as the mystical allegiance once ascribed to the divine right of kings. Here Potter, then writing at a time of remarkable national political consensus, exposed a difficulty at the interface between democracy and nationalism that fairly glares at us today:
For the major premise of democracy, that the majority shall rule, is predicated upon the assumption that there is a body of people forming a single whole of such clearly determinate number that more than half of the number may be recognized as forming a majority. Unless the minority really is identified with and part of such a whole, then decisions of the majority lack any democratic sanction.
Potter added that, powerful as it was, the valuative, institutionalized nationalism of the second sort should not be permitted to blind historians to what he saw as the generic likeness between national and other forms of loyalty. Using the 1850s run-up to the Civil War as his example, he emphasized how sectional and national loyalties can both be at work at the same time and not necessarily as “polar or antithetical forces.” National loyalty of the second sort, he believed, was most efficacious not when it smothered other loyalties but when it subsumed them to itself, creating something worth more than the sum of the parts. With a doctorate from Old Eli, Potter knew of what he spoke. Back then anyway, the phrase ran “for God, for Country, and for Yale”—not “for God, or for Country, or for Yale.”
Potter warned about historians’ strong predilection to equate nationality with culture and to see cultural identity as the central underpinning for nationalism in its second, institutional sense. Identity was not nationalism’s only source. Interest mattered too. He cited Voltaire, from the earliest days of modern nationalism, who had defined patrie as community of interest. Later, Hans Kohn referenced how nationalism derived strength from being seen as “a source of economic well-being.” Karl Deutsch, another historian summoned by Potter, observed how people typically sought practical gain in return for participation. Potter emphasized how, throughout history, political allegiance was something bestowed reciprocally, in expectation of some combination of security and welfare.
Interest, as the second pillar of nationalism, lined up with the argument that modern nationalism and democracy had advanced in tandem. Democracy gave people something of their own to protect, which, as Kohn held, had never existed, en masse anyway, before the French Revolution. With the infant United States of America for his subject, St. John de Crèvecoeur in Letters from an American Farmer (1782) made much the same point, observing how loyalty to their new American home among those who came from afar was instant and universal—and how concrete benefits of life in the new world blew past any sense of traditional community they might have felt in the old: “What attachment can a poor European emigrant have for a country where he had nothing? The knowledge of a language, the love of a few kindred as poor as himself, were the only cords that tied him: his country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection and consequence. Ubi panis, ibi patria is the motto of all emigrants.”
Potter’s analysis especially shone when testing these propositions—chiefly that the “superstructure of nationality,” as he called it, required both common culture and common interest to sustain it—on the specific historical situation he knew best, the crisis leading to the Civil War. He believed that this was the point in American history where the question of nationalism was the “most critical and complex.” In our own time, when the question of nationalism is again out in the open, his is a lesson worth heeding.
Potter focused on sectionalism and how, in a country of vast geographical extent like the United States, conflicting sectional interests expressed themselves and were mediated through the political system. In most instances of sectional rivalry, he made clear up front, nationalism never even came up. Moreover, sections themselves were hardly unitary: there were both urban/industrial areas of the North as well as provincial/rural ones. Some of the South was dominated by the plantation culture and economy, but a great deal of it was backwoods. It was because America’s “regional differentiations extended beyond a mere dualism” that, with just one exception, sectional tensions and loyalties had “not called into question the Union which they share . . . and the loyalties which they give to their own have not impinged directly upon their national loyalty to the Union.” Even during the fevered Populist Revolt of the 1890s culminating in the pivotal election of 1896, rivals sought to impose their respective visions of American society “upon one another within the Union, not to sever their ties with one another by disrupting the Union.”
The single exception, of course, was the era between 1848 and 1861. Since we know who won the Civil War, it has been tempting to interpret what happened then as northern nationalism triumphing over southern sectionalism. The South’s cause simply could not, in this reasoning (which relied on the purely institutional understanding of nationalism), have been based on nationalism because the Confederacy did not prevail and no southern nation resulted. (Potter thought apt the old riddle: “Why is treason never successful? Answer: because if it is successful it is not treason.”) Another factor, beyond hindsight, buttressed this line of thought. It was hard for most historians, then and surely now, to grant the sanction of nationalism and thus the right to autonomy and self-determination that went with it, to a cause, in this case the defense of slavery, of which historians themselves morally disapproved.
Such a dualistic view obscured what Potter saw more finely as profound sectional impulses and behavior within both the North and the South. In the antebellum years, the two sections repeatedly faced off in Congress on sectional issues like the tariff and internal improvements (infrastructure in today’s terms). So why was the North’s support of such policies, and their adoption by sectional majorities, any less sectional than the South’s resistance to them? The North wanted the proposed transcontinental railroad to have for its eastern terminus Chicago; the South wanted New Orleans. Were not both equally sectional desires? Likewise with what became the cause célèbre of the 1850s: the question of whether to permit or to prohibit extension of slavery into the western territories. “Northern determination to keep Negroes out of the territories,” Potter wrote, “was no less sectional than Southern determination to carry them there.” And so to the election of 1860 itself, which precipitated secession: it is hard to argue that the northern vote for Abraham Lincoln was not every bit as sectional as it was national, given that Lincoln “did not so much as run in most of the slave states.” Nevertheless, the North, not the South, succeeded in claiming for itself a nationalism that embraced “the people as a whole,” so masking its own sectional interests.
There was reason for this. The North was becoming the majority player, the South the minority. As such, the majority North did not have to choose between nation and section. To defend its interests, the minority South did have to choose: “If the proslavery elements seemed less nationalistic than the antislavery elements, it was not because one more than the other put peace or national harmony above the question of slavery—for neither of them did—but because the antislavery elements could expect, with the majority status, to apply the national authority to their purposes, while the proslavery forces could not.” Sectional and national loyalties suffused both sections alike. They differed only because one of them (the majority North) could keep its loyalties, in Potter’s words, “coordinated and therefore undivided.” As the 1850s wore on, the minority South could manage no such a feat.
On the other hand, a psychological rather than institutional understanding of nationalism leads to the idea that the South behaved as it did because it viewed itself as a distinct civilization, irrespective of its immediate political and economic interests. This was true to a point: conservatism, orthodox religion, social hierarchy, the cult of chivalry, hostility to commercial values, in Potter’s fine phrase “the unmachined civilization,” all made the South distinct. But did they make it wholly separate? Potter thought not—right up to 1860 wealthy southerners packed their sons off to northern colleges and universities—and warned against equating nationalism with culture alone, which risked falling into the same simplistic dualism displayed by those who recoiled from ascribing southern nationalism its due of autonomy and self-determination just because it defended slavery. Looking back, one and only one dualism—the South/North antithesis as lands of slavery and freedom—appears incontrovertible, as legally it was. But even here, the distinction between North and South was not exactly pure, at least by later standards. Freedom was one thing, equality quite another, as Lincoln and most other northern leaders understood. As the issue stood at that time, it was “less a question of whether the Negro should have status as an equal than a dispute over what form his inferior status [slavery or non-slavery] should take. For the Negro in America, chattel servitude was sectional, but caste inferiority was still national.”
In studying the coming of the Civil War, it was a too-frequent mistake to see mutual exclusiveness where instead complex overlapping historical processes were at work, and to equate dissimilarity with antagonism and turn sectional distinctiveness into “an index of deviation.” It was false history that loyalty to section presupposed disloyalty to the nation. Potter warned about the dangerous habit of “equating diversity with dissension, and of using the word ‘difference’ to mean both at the same time.” Regional identity need not subvert national unity. Catholic French Canada, he thought, contrasted culturally with Protestant Ontario more than the North and the South ever did—“yet there was no ‘irrepressible conflict’ in Canada.” And the fallacy of mutual exclusiveness was no help at all in explaining the South’s rapid return to the Union after the Civil War and Reconstruction were over. Its pursuit (however frustrated) of economic progress on the American model, and its startlingly high participation in the nation’s wars from the Spanish-American War onward both attest to what Potter deemed “the swift restoration of American nationalism” throughout the South.
To explain this required something other than a single, grand factor constant over a long period (like cultural divergence). Rather, it demanded a factor or factors more immediate and capable of prompting “bitter disagreement even among people who have much basic homogeneity.” Potter listed a series of factors that served thus to dis-equilibrate nationalism and sectionalism in 1850s America and that thus caused the Civil War. A “prolonged series of interest conflicts . . . crystallized along sectional lines” progressively alienated the minority section and convinced it that the majority section was sacrificing its economic welfare through the tariff and policies of western expansion, and indeed threatening it existentially through, in the South’s view, “condoning the activities of men [abolitionists] who would loose a slave insurrection upon them and expose them to possible butchery.” Cultural factors and interest factors of course were related, and they were in this instance. Conflicts of interest arise within the most integrated homogeneous cultures, while strong communities of interest can develop between the most diverse cultures. History, thought Potter, favored the state that both united those with natural affinity but also guarded essential interests not necessarily held in common by the larger society. History offers “extensive evidence that if a state protects the interests—either real or fancied—of culturally disparate groups in its population, it can command the nationalistic loyalty of such groups without reducing them to a homogeneous body of citizens, and that if it systematically disregards the interests of a group it alienates the group and makes cultural affinities with the majority seem irrelevant.”
But for the fact of growth—if the republic’s population and territory had remained static—Lincoln’s alleged “house divided” might have stood for considerably more time yet, just as it had stood for seven decades after the Founding. However, unstoppable and unevenly distributed growth upset the balance of interests between the sections. In that event, the “minority section lost its ability to exercise a joint control in the federal government, and with this control went the power of coordinating national with sectional objectives and thus of maintaining the image of the federal government as the guardian of the essential interest and values of Southern society.” When that happened, the South felt it had no choice but to secede.
Politics today, no less than in the run-up to the Civil War, is fraught with dualism and division. The return of nationalism to the agenda appears destined only to aggravate things. Policymakers and the citizens to whom they are responsible might learn a thing or two from David Potter’s carefulness, as he tried to unravel an earlier era when nationalism moved, or failed to move, the nation. I would like to think that if Potter were writing today (he died in 1971), he would bid those in power or seeking it—both those advancing a new American nationalism and those who recoil at the very thought of such, who in their mutual contempt are not so different from the northern abolitionists and southern fire-eaters of the 1850s—to freshen their minds with some historical reading on the subject. History has no predictive value, but it can uncover patterns and habits that continue through time and that are wise to know about. From the work of David Potter that we do have, we can at least heed the warning about how easy, and how perilous, it can be to fall into false readings of events, both at the moment and in retrospect. His efforts to correct some of those errors long ago admonish us to take equal care now.