America: Are we still a nation-state?
According to Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, one of the definitions of “nation” is “an aggregation of persons of the same ethnic family, often speaking the same language or cognate languages.” Cognate, of course, means: related or similar.
One of the definitions of “state” is “a politically unified people occupying a definite territory.” And finally, “nation-state” is defined as “a sovereign state inhabited by a relatively homogeneous group of people who share a common feeling of nationality.”
Okay, professor, what’s your point? The point is to bring attention to the terms: “territory,” “sovereign,” and “nation-state.” We’ll leave it to the reader to decide to what degree those terms still apply to the United States of today.
In the 17th Century, religious persecution in England and worsening economic conditions caused several congregations of people to set sail for this continent. But the congregation of the Reverend John Winthrop did not intend to stay on this continent forever. They intended to return to England. They considered themselves to be on an “errand into the wilderness” to establish a “city on a hill” that would show the rest of the world how people should live. See: Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness.
In 1630, in his famous speech on board the Arbella, Reverend Winthrop was using the English word “city,” in the same sense as the Greek word “polis,” from which we get “politics.” As it turned out, his congregation liked their “polis” well enough to stay here.
Then, in the late 1700s, came a wave of immigrants from Scotland. According to Dr. Thomas Sowell’s Black Red Necks and White Liberals, they were a rowdy bunch, quite different from Reverend Winthrop’s Puritans. Later, back in their homeland, the 18th Century Scots cleaned up their act. But first, they had to learn English. That done, the Scots founded some of the world’s best universities. They began to lead the world in medicine and science.
Meanwhile, in this land, the religious congregations and even the rowdy Scots had, in general, the same political Weltanschauung (a German word beloved by college professors). Indeed, that worldview held even after the European revolutions of 1848 sent the first waves of middle Europeans to our shores. They quickly embraced English and the political institutions traceable to the Magna Carta.
The late 1800s saw an influx of immigrants from southern Europe. On the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus described them as “…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Not a PC thing to say about people who would soon learn English, embrace representative democracy and, in addition to the Mafia, produce many politicians. But then, I repeat myself.
So, professor, what’s your point? The point is that masses of people came here and learned English, although often speaking their native languages at home. They bought into representative democracy. They adopted what we now call: the Judeo-Christian Ethic. In that sense, we remained linguistically and ethnically cognate while, at the same time, being multi-racial and multi-religious.
This brings us to “sovereign” and “territory” as they apply to a “state.” By definition, a sovereign state controls what is happening within its territory. In order to exercise sovereignty within its borders, it must control its outer borders. Again, we will leave it to our readers to decide if we are in control of our borders.
But is our educational system teaching the values of previous generations? Or, is it extolling places where, after thousands of years, the toilets still smell and you can’t drink water out of the tap?
Finally, are we still a nation-state? Do we still have sovereign rule over our territory? Some would argue that we know the location of every cow, calf, steer and bull but are clueless as to the people who are here and in what numbers. It will be interesting to see what happens after January 20, 2009.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today, studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Dr. Hamilton is a former assistant professor of political science and history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
©2008. William Hamilton.