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

Union tells the story of the struggle to create a national myth for the United States, one that could hold its rival regional cultures together and forge an American nationhood. On one hand, a small group of individuals—historians, political leaders, and novelists—fashioned and promoted the idea of America as nation that had a God-given mission to lead humanity toward freedom, equality, and self-government. But this emerging narrative was swiftly contested by another set of intellectuals and firebrands who argued that the United States was instead the homeland of the allegedly superior “Anglo-Saxon” race, upon whom divine and Darwinian favor shined.

Colin Woodard tells the story of the genesis and epic confrontations between these visions of our nation’s path and purpose through the lives of the key figures who created them, a cast of characters whose personal quirks and virtues, gifts and demons shaped the destiny of millions.

“A very insightful guide to understanding much of what we are reading in the news today.”

— Derek Chollet, executive vice president, German Marshall Fund of the United States


“Woodard traces a gradual, emerging consensus of American unity. It’s a dark tale. This country purchased its sense of itself as a unified whole at a high price, he writes: that of racial equality. . . . In Woodard’s hands, [history] leaps to life. He shows just how powerful a form popular nonfiction can be in the hands of a disciplined writer who won’t tolerate generality or abstraction. . . . The writing is relentlessly accessible. . . . This is that rare history that tells what influential thinkers failed to think, what famous writers left unwritten. . . . Woodard demonstrates that something more complicated than reason is always afoot, some swirl of politics, events, and wordless popular sentiment that sweeps the hapless thinker in its wake.”

Jill Leovy, The American Scholar

“Compelling. . . . George Bancroft’s portrait is only one of many utterly gripping depictions scattered throughout Union. . . . The stakes are nothing short of determining how a nation thinks about itself, how it teaches posterity about itself. In Union, that battle sprawls out of the narrow confines of academia and embroils the entire country – and the fight is ongoing.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“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. . . . 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. . . . Woodard does make visions of history into a kind of human drama. He writes with a storyteller’s pace and vividness.”

David Blight, The Washington Post

“A fascinating journey through history. . . . Union is timely and thought-provoking.”


“Overall, Woodard effectively shows how the country struggled to create a national myth, and an international image of unity. . . . Woodard is a gifted historiographer, and this excellent work will be appreciated by anyone interested in American history and how it came to be written.”

Library Journal (starred review)

“Ambitious and accessible. . . . This enlightening and character-driven account will resonate with progressive history buffs.”

Publishers Weekly

“Sturdy American history.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Union is detailed and unflashy, and it contains many valuable historical lessons modern readers will find useful.”