Benjamin Park is Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. This interview is based on his new book, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write American Nationalisms?
BP: As I was beginning my graduate education in 2010, I was struck by how the Tea Party appropriated ideas of the nation in their attempt to “take back” the country. I became interested in dissecting how conceptions of a national body fed into political action and partisan movements. American Nationalisms was my chance to trace how national imaginations and parochial conflicts were tethered together since the country’s founding.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Nationalisms?
BP: Today we assume that the term “nation” is directly correlated to a federal government, but that has not always been the case. American Nationalisms demonstrates how the first five decades of our country’s existence witnessed a plethora of competing forms of “national” definitions—including regional, ethnic, and religious bodies—that in turn drew from both local contexts and transnational debates.
JF: Why do we need to read American Nationalisms?
BP: We like to think that, in moments of cultural division, our national values can hold us together, that the very notion that we’re all American can bridge unfathomable chasms. Yet my book shows that the very definition of what our “nation” means, let alone what our national values include, have been contested ever since our political independence from Britain. How we define “America,” and even how we define one’s national belonging, reveals a lot about our own biases, interests, and priorities. Our very understanding of togetherness, then, is itself a tool for division.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BP: I was raised in the Mormon faith and, as a college student, became interested in my religion’s past. My interest in Mormon history, however, soon became a Pandora’s Box as I then became fascinated with religious history writ large and, eventually, American history in general. Along the way, I had a series of teachers who demonstrated that a proper understanding of the past can help us better understand the present.
JF: What is your next project?
BP: I am currently working on a history of the Mormon city of Nauvoo, an 1840s settlement on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River that featured 20,000 converts, bloc voting, clandestine polygamous arrangements, and secret political bodies. I aim to use the story as a microcosm of democratic angst during the antebellum period, as Americans feared the nation’s commitment to self-rule left them vulnerable to cultural oppression. The book is under contract with W. W. Norton/Liveright, and a full manuscript is due in November. I offer more of an overview here.
JF: Thanks, Ben!