This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity

This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity

This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity

This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity


This Violent Empire traces the origins of American violence, racism, and paranoia to the founding moments of the new nation and the initial instability of Americans' national sense of self.

Fusing cultural and political analyses to create a new form of political history, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg explores the ways the founding generation, lacking a common history, governmental infrastructures, and shared culture, solidified their national sense of self by imagining a series of "Others" (African Americans, Native Americans, women, the propertyless) whose differences from European American male founders overshadowed the differences that divided those founders. These "Others," dangerous and polluting, had to be excluded from the European American body politic. Feared, but also desired, they refused to be marginalized, incurring increasingly enraged enactments of their political and social exclusion that shaped our long history of racism, xenophobia, and sexism. Close readings of political rhetoric during the Constitutional debates reveal the genesis of this long history.


Identities are never unified… never singular but multiply constructed across different, often
intersecting and antagonistic discourses, practices and positions. They are … constantly in the
process of change and transformation…. They arise from the narrativization of the self, but
the necessarily fictional nature of this process in no way undermines its discursive, material or
political effectivity.— STUART HALL, Questions of Cultural Identity

Analysts … should seek to explain the processes and mechanisms through which what has been
called the “political fiction” of the nation … can crystallize, at certain moments, as a powerful,
compelling reality.— FREDERICK COOPER, Colonialism in Question

Though we live in a time of global capitalism and interlocking economies, our world remains organized around nation-states, their right to protect their borders against foreign invasions, unwanted immigrants, and terrorists, their responsibility for protecting—and policing—their peoples. Despite multinationals’ economic power, individuals continue to swear allegiance to their nations, patriotically promise to kill and be killed for them. Nationalism continues to pose one of the greatest threats to world peace and prosperity. It behooves us, therefore, to explore the ways nations and national identities take form and why they continue to constitute such an essential aspect of an individual’s sense of self. Most especially, we must seek to understand the tie between nationalism and violence, between the pleasures of being included within a nation and the drive to violently exclude others.

We do not usually turn to the United States when studying nationalism and violence. Yet, in many ways, American nationalism provides an ideal case study. Few nation-states or national identities are as artificially constructed. Few have been more successful in imbuing generation after generation of immigrants with a deep sense of national belonging. And few are as renowned for their . . .

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