In This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg traces the origins of American violence, racism, and paranoia to the founding moments of the new nation and the initial instability of Americans’ national sense of self. She explores the ways the founding generation, lacking a common history, governmental infrastructures, and shared culture, solidified their national sense of self by imagining a series of “Others” (African Americans, Native Americans, women, the propertyless) whose differences from European American male founders overshadowed the differences that divided those founders. Feared, but also desired, these “Others” refused to be marginalized, incurring increasingly enraged enactments of their political and social exclusion.
The book was a 2011 Choice Outstanding Academic Title and has just been released in paperback this month.
Following is an excerpt from This Violent Empire:
“Violence has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America. This violence . . . is not merely literal and actual but appears to be admired and lusted after, and the key to the American imagination.”
—James Baldwin, “Here Be Dragons”
Suspicion! Fear! Rage! As the twenty-first century takes form, these emotions have become pressing realities in American life. A war against terrorism ensnares the nation. Enemies from without and within menace our cities and transportation systems. Dark-visaged foreigners alarm us. Our own citizens are not above suspicion. Government agents search through immigrant communities, scrutinize private citizens’ phone calls, internet communications, fiscal records—even library visits. Nor are terrorists the only fear. Illegal immigrants penetrate our borders. English no longer stands as our unquestioned national tongue. Filled with foreign speakers, the poor, criminals, our once-heralded “melting pot” cities are now seen as sites of vulnerability and danger, alien threats to the pure American heartland. Even that most basic of institutions, marriage, is threatened as state after state legalizes gay marriage and women demand the right to abortion.
Responding in anger, our government, with great popular support, leveled preemptive strikes against regimes perceived as hostile, repudiated the Geneva Convention, set up secret prisons and torture chambers, violated citizens’ time-honored guarantees to privacy, due process, and habeas corpus. Private militias patrol our borders and scour rural villages. Even after the 2008 election promised a reversal of these policies, we remain loath to relinquish our extraconstitutional military tribunals or grant accused terrorists due process of the law. Our prisons remain filled with black and Latino youth.
Is this a unique moment in U.S. history? Emphatically, no. The fear of alien attacks, the need to violently exclude Others seen as dangerous or polluting has formed a critical component of the United States’ national identity from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s through Joseph McCarthy’s war on domestic Communists to the present. To fear and dehumanize alien Others, to ruthlessly hunt them down, is truly American. This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity traces the origin of these fears and the violent responses they provoke to the very beginnings of U.S. history—to the founding moments of the new nation and the debates over the ratification of the Constitution. The roots of American paranoia, racism, and violence lie in the instability of Americans’ national sense of self. A violent and sudden revolution gave birth to the new United States. Before—indeed, for decades after—that revolution, the states, far from united, were an uncertain amalgam of diverse peoples, religions, cultures, and languages. No common history, no governmental infrastructure, no shared culture bound them together. Certainly no shared culture welcomed social outcasts—African Americans, free and enslaved, the poor and geographically marginal. Only a history of murderous usurpation explained the presence of European settlers on the American continent. Nor did any single, unquestioned system of values and beliefs help unify the founding generation. Rather, a host of conflicting political discourses, religious beliefs, and social values further destabilized the new nation’s image of itself as a unified whole.
Seeking to constitute a sense of national collectivity for the motley array of European settlers who had gathered at the nether side of the North Atlantic, the new nation’s founding generation not only had to create a mythic heritage of bravery and love of liberty for those residing in the new republic to embrace. They had to imagine themselves arrayed against an expanding series of threatening Others whose differences from the settlers overshadowed the divisions that distinguished the settlers from one another. The creation of these Others was designed to give European Americans a sense of national coherence that the reality of their lives did not support. Difference perceived as dangerous, disdained as polluting, demanding expulsion, formed a critical component of America’s new national identity.
What was true at the nation’s beginning remains true today. As a nation, we continue to be a motley array of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, an uneasy composite drawn from every corner of the world, every language, religion, and culture. To mold this composite into a cohesive whole, those who embrace our normative national culture must not only imagine a romanticized national past; they must continue to call forth a host of Others, domestic and foreign, to represent all that we true Americans do not wish to be. Poor, dark, and disorderly, speaking foreign tongues, these Others establish the boundaries that define what it is to be an American. They constitute “a site of dreaded identification,” against which we relentlessly struggle, consolidating our uncertain sense of self. Depicting these Others as abject, deformed, and dangerous, we reaffirm the need to dehumanize them, expel them from the American body politic, guard the nation’s borders against them.
But the nation’s Others cannot be so easily expelled. They are our own fantasized creations, our discursive and psychological doubles, projections of our most feared and hated qualities. To paraphrase Pogo, they are us. At the same time, figures of the forbidden and dangerous, they fascinate and intrigue us. A tortured ambivalence thus lies at the heart of America’s relation to its Others. To keep these Others at bay, to maintain “the foreclosures . . . we prematurely call identities,” requires the increasingly enraged enactments of their exclusion, enactments that have found expression throughout the United States’ long history of racism, xenophobia, and sexism.
On the pages that follow, This Violent Empire will explore the complex processes by which a national identity first emerged on the pages of the new nation’s public print culture and the complex interaction of “us” and “them” that lies at the heart of that story. Further, This Violent Empire will examine the uncertainties, contradictions, and insecurities that characterize America’s national identity—its unsettled trajectory, its repeated production of Others who threaten our sense of national coherence and security and the frustration, rage, and violence those threats give rise to. Dread and desire, the need to exclude and the inability to exclude, lie at the heart of our national identity. They were critical at the moment of our beginning. They shadow our actions today. They are the subject of This Violent Empire.
In this preface, I use the terms “true Americans,” “the nation,” “our,” and “we” almost interchangeably. Does my doing so mean that I embrace a national identity that I have just described as paranoid, racist, and violent? No. But I do see myself as a product of that culture. While recognizing that many Americans do not see themselves as part of that culture, that large numbers of citizens have been excluded from it, and that many of both the included and excluded envision a quite different, all-inclusive America, those of us who see ourselves as its product must not simply distance ourselves by calling it “theirs.” We must acknowledge our resisted connectedness to that culture and its exclusions. As part of the problem, we have a responsibility to point out the existence of that problem and to work to unravel its mystique.
Having begun my argument with a quote from James Baldwin, let me end with one from Bob Marley: “Four hundred years / And it’s the same— / The same philosophy / I’ve said it’s four hundred years.”
Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Mary Frances Berry Collegiate Professor, Emeritus, University of Michigan, is author of numerous books, including This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity and Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America.
-  See James Baldwin, “Here Be Dragons,” in Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (New York, 1985), 677–690, esp. 678. The 2007 prison population was in excess of two million (U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Prison Statistics, Summary Findings). ↩
-  “Identity’s constitution,” Stuart Hall reminds us, “is always based on excluding something and establishing a violent hierarchy between the two resultant poles. . . . Identities can function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render ‘outside,’ abjected” (Hall, “Introduction: Who Needs ‘Identity’?” in Hall and Paul Du Gay, eds., Questions of Cultural Identity [London, 1996], 1–17, esp. 5). Susan Stanford Friedman agrees. “Identity is . . . unthinkable without some sort of imagined or literal boundary” (Friedman, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter [Princeton, N.J., 1998], 3). ↩
-  Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York, 1993), 3. ↩
-  Ibid., 22. Racial and racist concerns render national identities infinitely more complex. As Ania Loomba explains, “Ambivalence is fundamental to dominant imperial and colonial discourses that are heterogeneously composed [and] unevenly imposed” (Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama [Manchester, 1989]). See, as well, Mechal Sobel, Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era (Princeton, N.J., 2000), 5–6. ↩
-  Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, “400 Years,” Catch a Fire, Island Records, Kingston, Jamaica, 1973. ↩