U.S. nationhood was created nearly from scratch in the 19th century. Was Daniel Webster responsible?

The early United States, scholars have noted, was a country in search of nationhood. Created as an ad hoc military alliance of disparate colonies to fight off a shared political threat, the U.S. came into being without a shared history, ethnography, religious background, or even ideology. A national narrative that could lead “Virginians” and “New Englanders” and the residents of the Republic of Texas and the California Republic to genuinely think of themselves as “Americans” had to be constructed more or less from scratch, starting in the early 19th century, an effortI parsed in his most recent book, Union.

In the new print edition of Washington Monthly, I write on this struggle to create a United States nationhood and the case put forward in Joel Richard Paul’s new book, Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism. Paul, a constitutional law professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, makes the novel argument that this was largely accomplished by the Whig orator, senator, and lifelong presidential aspirant Daniel Webster during the period between 1815 and 1852. I show why Webster, for all his influence and talents as an orator, failed in this task, leaving behind a century of heavy lifting to others.

These issues are central to Nationhood Lab, a project I founded at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center, which among other things is developing and testing a revised civic national story for the 21st century United States tied to the ideals in the Declaration.