Is American unity only possible when confronting a common threat? Thoughts on reading about the Revolutionary War

After completing the second of two long academic books on the Revolutionary War period and teaching about groups, organizations, and social networks recently in Introduction to Sociology, I had a thought about what can bring residents of the United States together: a common outside threat or enemy. For many groups, knowing what or who they are against is helpful in forging their own identity and connections.

Photo by Sawyer Sutton on Pexels.com

Before, during, and after the American War of Independence, the colonists on the Eastern seaboard of the United States banded together to register complaints, revolt, fight, and then form a new country. This was no easy task; different groups had immigrated to the United States, ties to particular colonies were often stronger than any sense of common cause, and regional differences mattered. During the war, not all residents in the United States supported the colonial side and a good number fought for the British. After the war, it took significant effort to develop a centralized government that could tie all of the colonies together. Ultimately, the war against Britain led to enough collective effort to form a new nation.

Arguably, these patterns have continued throughout American history. There are moments when Americans are united. After Pearl Harbor, the country was devoted to the war effort. The quest to take over the frontier from the Appalachians westward required the efforts of many. The Cold War was fairly all-encompassing. For a short period after 9/11, Americans came together.

But, the opposite tendency is also very present as well. The long presence of slavery that culminated in a bloody Civil War and insufficient efforts to address the ongoing issues afterward. Acrimonious political divides. Different actors looking out more for their own interests rather than the common good. The polarization and outrage of today.

If today the United States is in a period marked by more disunity than unity, is there a common threat that could again bring people together? Hopefully, a war is not required. There might be no shortage of suggestions from different sides about what should be unifying: fighting racism and inequality, climate change, individual freedom, reproductive rights, a commitment to capitalism, to welcome immigrants or not, religious liberty, fighting diseases, the surveillance state, and so on. Such unity has happened before and it could happen again in ways that might be difficult to foresee in the moment.

(Related earlier post: the relatively few things 90% of Americans agree on.)

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