Redefining a Nation

My last article, “Secession… an American Tradition,” elicited some good questions from readers. The whole issue of secession seems to beg the larger question of what constitutes a nation anyway.

To answer this requires a brief overview of modern nationalism.

Here are a couple of definitions to start:


A large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own: The president spoke to the nation about the new tax. (


A body of people inhabiting the same country, or united under the same sovereign or government; as the English nation; the French nation. It often happens that many nations are subject to one government; in which case, the word nation usually denotes a body of people speaking the same language, or a body that has formerly been under a distinct government, but has been conquered, or incorporated with a larger nation. Thus the empire of Russia comprehends many nations, as did formerly the Roman and Persian empires… (Webster’s Dictionary, 1828 Edition)

Notice how Noah Webster defined “nation” somewhat differently than we do today. Today, we put emphasis on government and geography. But Webster put emphasis on people with a common language or heritage living in community (or covenant) together. A nation, to Webster, could easily exist within another nation. More is involved in a nation than just the political geography.

On the other hand, the best definition of modern nationalism that I’ve heard comes from author/historian Dr. George Grant. Grant defines nationalism as equating the nation with the civil government of that nation. In other words, when we think of the United States of America, we think of a flag, a bald eagle, or a white-domed capital in Washington, D.C. We don’t generally think of the English language (especially nowadays) or small towns, mom, and apple pie.

What’s difficult for us to realize is that our view of nationalism is relatively new to the West. The modern western-style nation-state is a product of the 19th century. Before the 1800s, a map of Europe looked like someone took a black-and-white map of Europe, a box of crayons, and gave them to some kindergarteners to fill in. There were literally hundreds of dukedoms, fiefdoms, cantons, bailiwicks, kingdoms, states, etc.

Europe in 1400

Europe in 1400

Lines of political geography changed all the time. Depending on who died, was deposed, or related by marriage to King XYZ, etc., you could live your life in several different “nations” and never move!


But the French Revolution changed all of this. For the first time since the glory days of the Roman Empire, Europe saw what we would recognize today as a modern nation. France liquidated its aristocracy (literally) and embraced full-blown, top-down statism (in the name of liberty, of course). The French put a million soldiers in the field, an unheard of number at the time. This forced smaller European states to amalgamate as a matter of survival.

Of course, the French flirtation with Democracy quickly led to a tyrannical dictatorship, and the Napoleonic wars destroyed what was left of Old Europe.

Europe in 1900

Europe in 1900

There was, however, one place where the old West still thrived: America. In America, the very notion of one all-powerful national government sent chills down the spines of Jefferson and Madison. Only Alexander Hamilton and a few lackeys had dreams rivaling Napoleon, but Aaron Burr had the good sense to shoot him before his views became a real threat to the Republic (tongue firmly planted in cheek).

But this new Napoleonic nationalism began to creep into America following the War of 1812, and by the 1830s, there were actually some northern U.S. Senators making speeches about “the Union” being older than the States making up the Union—a truly preposterous notion, akin to saying a son is older than his father.

This new revelation was a convenient belief, because these same Congressmen were using the Federal treasury as a personal expense account for their home states. Believing that the States were subservient to “the nation” justified this 19th-century version of wealth redistribution (for the “greater good,” don’t you know!).

To make a long story short, Abraham Lincoln’s election was the first time this new brand of nationalism took over the Executive Branch. Before Lincoln’s presidency, the United States was referred to in the plural, viz. “The United States are”—not “the United States is.” The modern American “nation” was born. This was a nation that defined itself in terms of geography and government, not in terms of people and relationships.

Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people” rhetoric was just that—fancy words. Lincoln did not believe the people were the government; he believed the government was “the people.” That is why when Barack Obama says today that “the American People want X, Y, Z,” he’s really saying, “I want X, Y, Z.” In this view, the voice of the Nation (i.e. the Government) is the voice of the people. Obama doesn’t want what we want. To him, his wants are our wants. Obama is a nationalist in true Lincoln style.

Lincoln is credited with “saving the Union.” But an honest review of American history will show that he did not save America. True, he preserved America’s political geography as of 1859. He preserved the tax revenue sources he inherited as president. But he didn’t save the American nation as Noah Webster defined nation. Jefferson’s America was all but destroyed. Madison’s America was all but destroyed. And Hamilton snickered in his grave.

One’s definition of “nation” will greatly affect his definition of patriotism. In fact, it will determine it. If you believe, as Lincoln did, that America is the same thing as the present federal government of America, then opposing that government in any way is “unpatriotic.” This explains why Lincoln imprisoned an estimated 20,000 Americans (mostly Northern political opponents)—without warrant, without trial, often without even a charge. Even Jefferson Davis, President of the “treasonous” Confederate States, was never brought to trial. Yet, he spent two years in federal prison.

I have to laugh when I hear talking heads like Keith Olbermann admiringly quote Lincoln when denouncing Texas Governor Rick Perry’s comments on secession. Given Lincoln’s own record of secret prisons and sham military trials, one would think Olbermann would at least cut some slack for another Texas governor he constantly attacked for similar offenses committed against suspected terrorists.

With our nation involved in seemingly endless wars, suffering an economic crisis not seen in three generations, doubled over in debt, beset by a bloated and predatory bureaucracy, and governed by incompetent leaders, many Americans are starting to re-question just what being an American truly is. What is true patriotism? What do we value most as Americans? And an increasing number are looking to Noah Webster’s definitions for the answer—not Napoleon’s.

America is not about political geography—and never was. America is about ideals. Really good ideals; but ideals that are increasingly being viewed as unpatriotic and even treasonous today.

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