The Mystic Chords Of Memory: Reflections on American Identity I

Peter C. Myers

Disputes touching the question of national identity have arisen throughout our history. Overarching all such disputes is the fundamental question: What does it mean to be an American? The first installment of a two-part essay.


The question of American identity is much on our minds. It has been on our minds for a period well predating this latest election season, though the emergence of a bluntly assertive nationalist appeal in that election may mark a turning point. In any case, partisan divisions and animosities have deepened and intensified in the past few decades, and increasing numbers of Americans of diverging sympathies have experienced, to their common dismay, the sense of awakening in a country they do not recognize—one to which they question whether they still belong or owe allegiance. “Let America be America again,” many of us in effect say with the poet Langston Hughes, though with sharply divergent ideas of America in mind.

In truth, it may seem that the question is always on Americans’ minds. Disputes touching the question of national identity have arisen throughout our history, concerning such specific issues as, among others, constitutional federalism, slavery, political economy, religion and politics, and the country’s ethnic and racial composition. In the course of those disputes, charges were and are hurled with some regularity to the effect that one’s adversaries were not merely mistaken or partial to their own but instead positively un-American so far as they could be identified as, say, a monarchist, a communist, a theocrat, an oligarch, or, more recently, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, or even, most recently of all, a globalist. Overarching all such disputes is the fundamental question: What does it mean to be an American?

No single essay can settle the matter. The purposes of this brief one are to clarify the question and to offer some suggestions as to the substance, the sources, and the means for cultivating the sentiment of national identity. To some readers, even an appeal for guidance to the country’s greatest statesmen might seem a partisan move. Nonetheless, I turn to James Madison and Abraham Lincoln because those two, leading the country at the two moments in our history in which American unity or identity faced its gravest challenges, were compelled perhaps above all others to consider the question with great care and urgency. Amid our own divisions, we have reason to consider with renewed openness what they have to teach us.

Cicero defined the republic as a form in which the polity derives its unity and identity from a shared conception of justice among the citizens.

For those of us trained in political theory, it seems second nature to begin a consideration of American identity by considering political identity in general. I turn first, then, not to Madison but to Aristotle. In The Politics Aristotle asks, how should we judge whether a given “city,” or political society, “is the same, or not the same but different”? Is not each political society, at virtually every moment, a different society? Amid its natural and historical flux, in population, in geographic boundaries, and in innumerable other particulars, what could constitute a given polity’s identity, its sameness over time, its essence? What quality or qualities, if any, make it itself, distinct from all other political societies and yet stable over time?

Aristotle’s answer is that the identity of a given polity resides in its form of government, its constitutional order. By this he means something broader and deeper than the way it distributes its governmental offices and powers. In his understanding, the distributions of ruling offices and powers reflect and foster a broader moral and political culture, including at its core a specific conception of justice. The Roman philosophic statesman Cicero, whose works the American Founders also read and admired, provided an answer more specifically pertinent to the American case when he defined the republic as a form in which the polity derives its unity and identity from a shared conception of justice among the citizens.

For the Founders and for Lincoln, the answer rendered by these classical philosophers is the beginning of the right answer. Their sharp disagreements over constitutional specifics notwithstanding, the Founders agreed that only a republican form of government was suitable for America, and their agreement on that constitutional form reflected their deeper agreement on the first principles of justice that their constitution would be designed to effectuate.

That consensus on first principles found expression in the Declaration of Independence, in the summary argument that governments are instituted to secure the natural, unalienable rights of the governed. By the testimony of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s principal author, that doctrine represented “the common sense of the subject … an expression of the American mind.”

As the Civil War approached, Lincoln reaffirmed the identity of Americans as a creedal people whose constituents, whatever their origins, could unite in common affirmation of the Declaration’s principles “as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote [it].” The principle of human equality in natural, unalienable rights, Lincoln maintained, “is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”

It is an elevating appeal to unity, this idea of America as a distinctively creedal, rationalist republic—a “new nation,” as Lincoln would say at Gettysburg, whose moral essence consisted in its dedication to a “proposition” lately discovered by human reason and nonetheless applicable to all human beings at all times. It accords with Alexander Hamilton’s call in Federalist No. 1 for Americans to think of themselves as a distinctively rationalist society, governed by their own “reflection and choice” rather than by “accident and force.” It is also, however, an account of American identity that the Founders and Lincoln, too, found only partly satisfactory.

Political identity is a subjective no less than an objective matter, a matter of the heart no less than of the mind.

The answer only partly satisfied them because the question of national or political identity is more complicated than our initial framing of it indicates. The Aristotelian manner in which we framed it above represents its intellectual dimension, but the question has an affective dimension as well. Political identity is a subjective no less than an objective matter, a matter of the heart no less than of the mind. When we ask about American identity, we are not only asking: How should reason define what it means to be American? We are also, often primarily, asking: What ideas or sentiments bind us, make us feel not only obliged but devoted, to our common country and to one another as Americans?

Prominent Founders doubted, as other thoughtful Americans have subsequently doubted, that a common commitment to reason and to the universal principles it discovers could sustain a durably binding national identity. In part because he was impressed by the progressive character of human reason, Jefferson proposed the institution of generationally recurrent constitutional conventions. In response, his friend Madison remarked in Federalist No. 49 that such a practice was suitable only for “a nation of philosophers,” which was “as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.”

A stable and healthy American identity could not be supplied by reason or creed alone; it must appeal to the heart, to human sentiment and passion, no less than to the mind. Americans must unite in a spirit of civic or republican friendship—“We are not enemies but friends,” Lincoln declared to secessionist southerners in his First Inaugural address—and the bond of that friendship must be more and deeper than common interest or common principle. Americans must be “a band of brethren,” John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2, “knit together,” Madison added a few essays later, “by so many cords of affection.”

Madison’s peroration in No. 14 bears quoting at length. In a stirring call for Americans to reject the disintegrative logic propagated by the Constitution’s Anti-Federalist opponents, he further substantiated the sentimental sources of American unity and identity:

“Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellow-citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire….  [T]he kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies…. Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names…? To this manly spirit posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theater in favor of private rights and public happiness…. Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, (America’s leaders) pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.”

In that brief statement, Madison solicited American souls in various ways, each of which invites commentary far more extended than present space permits. In a sequel to this essay, I offer summary comments on the salient points in Madison’s statement and on the reflections on American identity that Lincoln added to them.


Peter C. Myers is Visiting Fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

The Mystic Chords Of…

by Peter C. Myers time to read: 8 min