Book World: How competing visions of American history shaped our national narrative

Book World: How competing visions of American history shaped our national narrative

Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood

By Colin Woodard

Viking. 417 pp. $30

All nations have origin stories and, over time, national narratives and myths, however contested. When, how and by whose pens and voices over the course of the 19th century did the United States attain its dominant story? What indeed was the United States from its inception, traversing the cataclysm of the Civil War and Reconstruction, down to the era of World War I? A "federation" of sovereign states? A "nation-state in waiting" under God's "providential" design? An "ethno-nation," rooted in the fundamental belief in white supremacy? Or a "liberal republic" based on the creeds of natural rights, pluralism, popular sovereignty? These questions drive "Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood," an unusual but engaging collective biography by Colin Woodard, a distinguished journalist and author of books on American character and regionalism.

Woodard succeeds in demonstrating the high stakes of master narratives, versions of the past that people choose as identities and stories in which they wish to live. National histories take countries to war, build and destroy empires, enslave and liberate people. This book will help readers grasp the staying power and the consequences of the idea - ingrained in generations - that American history is essentially a chronicle of progress, a saga of liberty unfolding under some illusive pattern of exceptionalism and divine design. This story has, of course, smashed full-on into several racial, political and economic reckonings that defy its very meaning. Indeed, we are now in the midst of one of those reckonings fundamentally challenging how we tell our national story.

Through five major American writers and public figures, Woodard traces the emergence of the competing visions of U.S. history. He calls his choices the "standard-bearers" and "lightning rods" in a contest to capture the historical imagination of millions of Americans. They include George Bancroft (1800-1891), a son of New England Puritanism, spokesman of profound Yankee certainty, Harvard-educated and nurtured, who became a well-traveled, highly productive popular historian (he wrote 10 volumes of his "History") of a nation and an Anglo-Saxon race chosen for a destiny of progress and greatness. Bancroft read widely in several languages, and met and conversed with nearly every intellectual and political leader in the Euro-American world, but his "research" in many libraries always sought the patterns of a predetermined outcome - "God's plan" for a favored American nation in the making.

William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), the second leading light, born the son of a Charleston, S.C., tavern owner, although quickly orphaned, would become the Old South's most prolific poet and novelist, a man of letters in a region lacking that tradition, and in time a fierce defender of slavery, states' rights and the ill-fated Confederacy. Simms became a rival of Bancroft's, sought literary fame in New York but returned to his beloved Deep South to defend and continually rewrite its story of racial and cultural distinctiveness as it collapsed in defeat.

Woodard's third figure, and in some ways his wild-card hero, is former slave Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), who spent his first 20 years on Maryland's Eastern Shore and in Baltimore, and went on to write three classic autobiographies and thousands of abolitionist speeches and editorials. Douglass became the prose poet of an egalitarian American democracy in the era of the Civil War and gives Woodard a voice of an open, pluralistic nation, refounded and reimagined during Reconstruction. Douglass shared some elements of Bancroft's providentialism about the nature of history but none of the New Englander's beliefs in racial destiny. With Simms, Douglass shared nothing except a keen interest in slavery's place in human affairs and fiercely opposite conceptions of why the American republic was fated to fall.

The final two characters in this drama are both academics of a sort, although one became president of the United States. Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), a child of Presbyterianism, the pride and prejudices of the Deep South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, became by a stumbling path a political theorist, a historian, the president of Princeton University and at least at first a remarkably successful rhetorician and politician. Wilson's white-supremacist and deeply Anglophilic vision of America and its past did not come from libraries; they came from experience, associations and the foundational belief that the races of people had fixed capacities, never fully to be altered. Given his prominence, and as leader of the American crusade for democracy in World War I, Wilson is Woodard's misguided villain, a privileged voice who could never square his vision of internationalism with his racism.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), a Midwestern son of Portage, Wis., and a historian trained in the first American graduate seminar based on the German "scientific" model at Johns Hopkins University, rose to fame largely because of a famous paper on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," delivered at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. He went on to write many essays and one book that made Americans see their history as movement across geography, by regions and sections, and by the imagination forged in and by the West. A friend of Wilson's, although no philosopher of race, Turner's saga is in Woodard's telling a tragic one of a perfectionist in search of the next source, but who could never produce the big book. Although his name is forever associated with the professionalization of history and with big interpretations, he is rarely read today, despite his extraordinary fame in his lifetime.

Woodard devotes a great deal of space to developing the fascinating biographies of each of these men in short, snappy chapters that shift back and forth between all manner of confluences and coincidences, some useful and some not. We get to know them, their habits, temperaments and health crises. Bancroft dined with Hegel, met Lord Byron, knew all the presidents and brokered his way into Democratic politics as he became a kind of unofficial national historian of a triumphant story, no matter how high the body counts at Antietam. His youthful backpack hikes across Europe are stunning.

Simms fashioned the story of a nation - the slaveholding South - where the enslaved were loyal to their virtuous masters, where race determined human nature. He experienced many tragedies in his family life and mental depressions, but his proslavery ideology formed, as for so many white Southerners, a complete worldview untrammeled by doubt.

Through extensive use of block quotes from some of his major speeches, we see Douglass's vision of a re-created second American republic that could achieve its destiny as a "composite nation" of all races and religions. We also can feel his sense of irony about American hypocrisy and his sheer mastery of language, although Woodard chops up the great Fourth of July speech of 1852 in simplistic ways. It is also not clear why Woodard uses the names "Freddy," "Fred" and, finally, "Frederick" in the course of the former slave's coming of age. Those were not Douglass's labels for himself. A message embedded in the book, though, is that Wilson and Turner hardly seemed to know that Douglass had existed.

Woodard does make visions of history into a kind of human drama. He writes with a storyteller's pace and vividness. Indeed, the idea of the American mind is back in historical thinking. The saga of how deeply connected Wilson was to Thomas Dixon's and D.W. Griffith's massively popular white-supremacist film, "The Birth of a Nation," will be a revelation to many readers who may still see the first Southern-born president since the Civil War only as a foreign policy visionary. Turner came to advocate a "melting pot" vision of America and gave lots of public lectures, but he died surrounded by his books and staring into his notes, still trying to explain America to himself.

Woodard has read deeply into each of his figures; the book is drawn largely from many published biographies and collections of letters and speeches. It could also prompt a parlor game to suggest other voices of American narratives and nationalism he might have chosen (Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, William James, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois?). But the subtext for this book, like so much else these days, is Woodard's fear that the 19th-century belief in an American ethno-state (meaning white) not only survived into our own time but is reascendant in Trumpism's assault on "liberal civic nationalism." As Woodard warns, only fools or the ignorant will think this battle will ever really end, even when President Trump and his own profane myth are banished.

Blight is a professor of American history at Yale and the author of "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom," which won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2019.