What is an American?

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Editor’s Note: The following article will appear in the Editor’s Corner of the Spring 2017 issue of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs.


What does it mean to be an American? Is being an American a function of blood, race, or language, or is it something else? When one asks such questions, one is really asking this: in what respect is America a “nation”? Is there an American “nationalism” and if so, what does it mean? These issues have come to the fore in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and his administration’s approach to immigration.

Nationalism is a heterogeneous concept. The term “nation” is derived from natio, a form of the Latin verb, natus est, “to be born.” Implicit in this understanding of a nation is that those who share a common birth are thus related by race or blood. In this sense, the nation is an extension of the family, the clan, or the tribe. Thus, a nation is a natural phenomenon, based on a common conception of the “love of one’s own.”

Nationalism in the modern sense of national political autonomy and self-determination, an “imagined community,” arose in reaction to the universalist- cosmopolitanism of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. The attempt by France to impose its political, legal, and cultural hegemony over Europe created a nationalist backlash. While Britain’s sense of national identity predated the rise of Napoleon, the long series of wars against France, especially those fought against Napoleon, strengthened and consolidated British nationalism.

But the reaction was strongest in Prussia. While Johann Herder had originated the term “nationalism,” before Napoleon’s rise, the true stimulus for German nationalism was Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806. In the view of a trio of Prussian historians, Johann Droysen, Heinrich von Sybel, and Heinrich von Treitschke, it was Prussia that was destined to transmit the German spirit (geist).

In the mid-nineteenth century, a similar understanding of nationalism took root in Italy as nationalists such as Garibaldi sought to unify Italia irredenta, “unredeemed Italy.” The implication of this conception of nationalism was that the best way to ensure peace was for each nation to have its own territorial state. Otherwise, the threat of irredentism would constantly disturb the international order.

Head over to the FPRI Website to finish reading! 

Mackubin (Mac) T. Owens is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and editor of Orbis, FPRI’s quarterly journal. He is also Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. His most recent work on civil-military relations appears in “Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military” published in 2016 by the Hoover Institution Press and edited by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Hoover Institute research scholar, Kori Schake.


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