Land of Liberty

Myth-making in the early American republic

Alex Zakaras July 8, 2024

The need for a set of unifying myths was urgently felt in the young American republic. In the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, political elites struggled to articulate the terms of a shared American nationality. They were well aware of the obstacles they faced: until recently, Americans had proudly identified as British subjects, inheritors of a unique slate of English liberties; they were also divided by state and regional loyalties that were often stronger than their allegiance to the nation. In many places, moreover, the population was a patchwork of immigrant groups separated by cultural, religious and ethnic differences. For these reasons and others, the Constitution’s framers had worried that interstate conflict and other centrifugal pressures might yet rip the United States apart. Famously, the Constitution’s opening words—“We the people of the United States”—reflected a self-conscious attempt to construct or imagine a unified national public and relocate sovereign authority in its will, rather than in the separate states. The framers were struggling to tell a cohesive story of national unity, and this struggle only intensified in the ensuing decades, as national elites tried to defuse the recurrent sectional crises that threatened to permanently divide North from South.

The dominant myths they deployed to meet these challenges told a story of liberation and rebirth. In countless Fourth of July orations, sermons, newspaper editorials and campaign speeches, Americans were told that their nation was born out of an epochal struggle for liberty. It was much larger than a battle between the British crown and its restive colonies; it was a struggle between the Old World and the New. The Old World stood for oppression and hierarchy, which arose out of long-standing corruption and decadence. Its once-promising ideals had grown frail and tarnished through centuries of misrule. The New World, on the other hand, held out a once-in-history opportunity for Western civilization to shed its accumulated infirmities, to rise again in the strength and purity of its youth, and to set out on a new, free trajectory.

This narrative of rebirth appeared in several different forms, as the restoration of a truer Christianity, of a long-lost Saxon freedom or of the republican ideals of Greek and Roman antiquity. It was almost always clothed in religious significance: the West had squandered its God-given opportunity to realized freedom on earth, and the New World was its (only) second chance. It was here, in America, that human freedom would either reach its zenith or wither and die. “We cannot admit the thought, that this country is to be only a repetition of the old world,” wrote William Ellery Channing, a leading Unitarian preacher and theologian, in 1830. “We delight to believe that God, in the fullness of time, has brought a new continent to light, in order that the human mind should move here with a new freedom, should frame new social institutions, should explore new paths, and reap new harvests.” His view was typical: over and over, Americans celebrated their country as the land of the free, the refuge for the oppressed, the place where people could—at long last—lay claim to the liberties that were their natural birthright. Over and over, they presented it as an exceptional nation, not just different than any other place on earth but destined to lead or redeem humankind.

If governing elites often deployed this mythology for their own purposes, however, it also escaped their control. In the wide-open, decentralized media environment of the early American republic, a broad range of dissenting politicians, factions and movements laid claim to it for themselves. These included workingmen’s advocates condemning wage labor as a violation of American freedom; Anti-Masons assailing Freemasonry as a secretive, aristocratic cabal that stood deeply at odds with America’s republican principles; free-soil activists decrying the expanding reach of slavery in national politics; and evangelical reformers lamenting drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking and unrepentant materialism as fundamental threats to free society. All accused governing elites of endangering or betraying America’s exceptional freedom; all positioned themselves as its natural defenders. In the most radical instances—in certain abolitionist circles, for example—America’s foundational myths were inverted and thrown back against the American Constitution itself as challenges to its very legitimacy.

These foundational myths are best understood, therefore, as offering a shared grammar of political argument and counterargument, a reservoir of key values, symbols and imagery that anyone bidding for power and influence had to harness. They supplied the key symbolic and narrative tools that could, if skillfully wielded, reshape public opinion and mobilize the electorate. And yet their versatility was not limitless. Even as they generated diverse and contested interpretations, they also constrained the range of plausible alternatives. They provided avenues for challenge to the status quo and at the same time limited the range of political goals and strategies that reformers could embrace without alienating their political audiences.

Excerpted from The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson. Copyright © 2022 by Alex Zakaras. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

Alex Zakaras

Alex Zakaras is associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont and the author of The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson and Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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