Everyone for Everything
The issue of the historic identity of the American people, and whether it depended on the exclusion of nonwhites and in particular blacks. Suggests that to the extent concrete ethnicity became less important during the course of history a sort of constructed pseudo-ethnicity based on the exclusion of the nonwhite Other grew in importance, and also claimed that Westward expansion was racist in the sense that Indians as Indians had to be defined as unworthy for it to seem legitimate to occupy their land.
“Identity” is normally some mixture of the evolved and the constructed, with less of the constructed in earlier times since the possibilities or maybe fantasies of social engineering were less developed. Social order had less to do with formal structures and more to do with elective affinities and local habits, attitudes and informal connections. It seems that American society has mostly been a congeries of local societies and preparations, mainly British in origin but with local developments and modifications, rather than something that was conjured into existence by drawing a line that excluded the black Other. Blacks and other nonwhite others were excluded in various connections, as were various white others in some settings, but thinking those exclusions constituted a sort of artificial glue holding American society together, as it suggests. Rather they were mostly a result of the natural history of the glue that was already doing the job—existing informal and largely inherited principles of cohesion. The exclusions reflected a recognition that blacks and others were different people with different habits, attitudes, loyalties, memories and other qualities, and they did not fit in an easy, informal and productive way into much of the network of mutual recognition and dealings that constituted the local version of American society. Like people say, “diversity is a challenge,” and rather than remodel everything from above to meet that challenge people did what came naturally and networked with people with whom they felt a connection.
Later on, when identity constructed from above did become more important, it was constructed mostly on the basis of an American public philosophy that tended toward the individualistic and universalistic and so had increasing difficulty justifying a color line that in earlier times and settled rural regions was not seen as needing any particular justification but was simply an aspect of how people naturally and habitually acted. That constructed identity, which eventually turned radically antiracist, corresponded to more formalized, urban and industrial forms of social organization. It is true that in earlier days “white” was part of being “American.” Nonetheless, it was Protestant British identity that played the most important role in defining what is needed really to be an American. There were local identities that mattered as well. In 1861 they trumped American identity for many...