Is America A ‘Proposition Nation’?

Yesterday our friend Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, commented on a 2018 column by Mackubin Thomas Owens about kinds of nationalism. Mr. Owens says that American nationalism is good and necessary because it is of the right sort: an allegiance only to a set of philosophical principles.

Bill singled out this passage:

Much of today’s debate fails to distinguish between two types of nationalism: ethnic and civic. The former is based on language, blood or race. American nationalism is the latter, civic in nature, holding that the United States is a nation based on a set of beliefs — a creed — rather than race or blood. This understanding of nationalism is equivalent to “patriotism.”

Once upon a time, an ordinary understanding of nationalism embraced all of this: love for, and loyalty to, not only shared beliefs, but also for one’s people, their common heritage and traditions, and their homeland. But in these withered times, we must pry it all apart and pare away everything, no matter how common and natural and healthy, that violates our new ideological orthodoxy. We have to be content, now, with what our grandparents would surely have seen as a sad and shriveled “patriotism”: all that is left for us to love about our nation is a handful of philosophical postulates.

Bill added:

This is a good start, but it doesn’t go deep enough. I applaud the distinction between the ethnic and the civic. But American nationalism is not wholly civic. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any nation that could be wholly civic, wholly ‘propositional’ or wholly based on a set of beliefs and value. And yet the United States is a proposition nation: the propositions are in the founding documents. I don’t see how that could be reasonably denied.

I don’t either. There should be no doubt that the founding of the United States rests upon a set of propositions that articulate a theory of natural law and natural rights, chief among which is the proposition that no human being is by nature rightfully sovereign over any other. (This, and pretty much only this, is what the Founders meant when they said “created equal”.) So in that sense it is correct to call the United States a “proposition nation”.

The problem is that nowadays it is all too common to stop there: to declare the United States to be a “proposition nation” and nothing more.

Bill continues:

I also don’t see how it could be reasonably denied that the discovery and articulation and preservation of classically American principles and values was achieved by people belonging to a certain tradition.

Exactly so. The founders knew very well that for a society based on natural liberty and limited government to flourish would require civic virtue, and a sense of civic duty, and that these in turn required commonality: not just the commonality of assent to a set of political abstracta, but also the natural cohesion of a community of people who share history, culture, traditions, and a broad sense of actual kinship.

John Jay wrote about this in Federalist 2 (my emphasis):

It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together; while the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances, present them with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.

In The Political Theory of the American Founding (see more about this book in the series of posts beginning here) Thomas G. West argues, following Aristotle, that the newly founded nation depended for its existence on both its form and matter. The form, he writes, was “its principles: the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” He continues:

The matter that existed in 1776 was a brute fact, which included the universal features of human nature. But it also included the particular geography, laws, racial stock, popular sentiments, moral habits, and religion of colonial America. The form, the natural rights theory … determined, more than anything else, which traditions would continue and which would be discarded as the new regime took shape under the ruling guidance of natural rights.

The critical point is that both form and matter are essential, and both limit and determine what sort of nation they can make in combination. The American Founding could not have happened elsewhere: swap out the colonial population of 1776 with a random assortment of people from everywhere on Earth and it would quickly have failed. The particularities of the “matter” upon which the American propositions were to act were every bit as determining as the “form” — the propositions — themselves.

They still are, and we stifle this critical truth at our peril.


  1. bob sykes says

    “The American Founding could not have happened elsewhere: swap out the colonial population of 1776 with a random assortment of people from everywhere on Earth and it would quickly have failed. ”

    Precisely. The founding propositions were those of White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men. They are ethnic propositions, and the founders of America were a specific ethnic group, WASPs. Phrases like “created equal” refer to WASPs. Germans, Irish, French, et al. are not WASPs, and the mass immigration of those ethnic groups significantly changed the meaning of the Founders’ propositions.

    Posted May 27, 2019 at 8:30 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Yes, but it’s important to keep in mind that these distinctions are not binary, but more a matter of concentric circles or gradients.

    Posted May 27, 2019 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

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