“WE THE PEOPLE”

NATIONAL IDENTITY

The colonial population had been divided by ethnicity, religion, class, and status and united largely by virtue of their allegiance to Britain. The Revolution created not only a new nation but also a new collective body, the American people, whose members were to enjoy freedom as citizens in a new political community. Since government in the United States rested on the will of the people, it was all the more important to identify who the people were.

The Constitution opens with the words, “We the People,” describing those who, among other things, are to possess “the Blessings of Liberty” as a birthright and pass them on to “Posterity.” (Abraham Lincoln would later cite these words to argue that since the nation had been created by the people, not the states, the states could not dissolve it.) Although one might assume that the “people” of the United States included all those living within the nation’s borders, the text made clear that this was not the case. The Constitution identifies three populations inhabiting the United States: Indians, treated as members of independent tribes and not part of the American body politic; “other persons”—that is, slaves; and the “people.” Only the third were entitled to American freedom.

Every nation confronts the task of defining its identity. Historians have traditionally distinguished between “civic nationalism,” which envisions the nation as a community open to all those devoted to its political institutions and social values, and “ethnic nationalism,” which defines the nation as a community of descent based on a shared ethnic heritage, language, and culture. At first glance, the United States appears to conform to the civic model. It lacked a clear ethnic identity or long-established national boundaries—the political principles of the Revolution held Americans together. To be an American, all one had to do was commit oneself to an ideology of liberty, equality, and democracy. From the outset, however, American nationality combined both civic and ethnic definitions. For most of our history, American citizenship has been defined by blood as well as by political allegiance.

A medal issued to Red Jacket, a Seneca chief, during his visit to Philadelphia (then the national capital) in 1792. It depicts George Washington offering an Indian a peace pipe. The agricultural scene in the background was intended to suggest that Indians should take up farming.

The signing of the Treaty of Greenville of 1795, painted by an unknown member of General Anthony Wayne’s staff. In the treaty, a group of tribes ceded most of the area of the current state of Ohio, along with the site that became the city of Chicago, to the United States.

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