by Akim Reinhardt
To study American history is to chart the paradox of e pluribus unum.
From the outset, it is a story of conflict and compromise, of disparate and increasingly antagonistic regions that somehow formed the wealthiest and most powerful empire in human history. For even as North and South grew further apart, their yawning divide was bridged by a dynamic symbiosis that fed U.S. independence, enrichment, and expansion. The new empire at once grew rapaciously and tore itself apart. It strode from ocean to ocean and nearly consumed itself completely in the Civil War, which all these years later, remains the deadliest chapter in American history by far, two world wars not withstanding.
After the bloody crucible, a series of historical forces began to homogenize the American people, slowly drawing them together and developing a more cohesive national culture. As has been pointed out before, Americans began to say “the United States is” instead of “the United States are.”
But now, in the second decade of the 21st century, America is possibly coming apart once more. That hard won but ever tenuous inclusion and oneness is beginning to disintegrate. Yet there is no fear of returning to a bygone era of balkanized sectional divides, of North versus South. Instead, the increasingly polarized nation now seems to be fracturing along ideological lines.
In this essay I would like to briefly explore the history of how Americans came together under a common definition “America,” and how they may be coming apart again. I don’t wish to examine the rise and fall of an empire, but rather its citizens’ ever-shifting sense of who they are and what their nation should be.