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

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

Colin Woodard. Viking, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-0-525-56015-9

Journalist Woodard (American Nations) chronicles the history of attempts to define America’s national identity in this ambitious and accessible narrative. Identifying two competing visions of U.S. nationhood that emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Woodard profiles U.S. Navy secretary and historian George Bancroft (1800–1891), who saw national character through the lens of a series of propositions—a belief in personal freedom, equality before the law, republican governance—and pro-slavery novelist and politician William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870), who advocated Anglo-Saxon ethnic and racial chauvinism. During the Civil War, Bancroft’s vision won a grand victory, but Simms’s ethnonationalism, according to Woodard, has continued to be a persistent component of the country’s public life, embodied by the Ku Klux Klan, the social Darwinist–inspired scholarship of Frederick Jackson Turner and Woodrow Wilson, and the “expanding churches of illiberalism” galvanized by the election of Donald Trump. Woodard oversells his argument by treating pride in the nation’s constitutional legacy as historically discrete from pride in America’s cultural heritage, but he marshals a wealth of information into a fluid narrative that manages to make abstract intellectual concepts tangible. This enlightening and character-driven account will resonate with progressive history buffs. (June)