As I have mentioned several times before over posts in this blog (see for example this post), I have found nationalist mythology to be the most enduring and crucial challenge I face as an historian of early America. This is one of the reasons I turned to ‘settler colonialism’ as a conceptual tool, for I found no other framework that helped me wrestle with this mythic predicament. As theorist Lorenzo Veracini noted, the U.S. is, alongside Israel, one of the “two polities” in which “the very invisibility of settler colonialism is most entrenched.” And, he added, “the more it [settler colonialism] goes without saying, the better it covers its tracks.” (1) Further complicating the situation, history as a discipline both in the U.S. and in Europe historically emerged as one of the cornerstones of this nationalist mythological project. Thus, in pursuit of the historical truth, as best as we can make it at least, as historians we face an at times almost impossible task, one that requires us to transcend the premises at the center of our own discipline.
In high hopes of rattling a bit the scaffolding upon which this deep link between nationalism and history have been constructed I have recently started examining how historians of different polities have sought to challenge their nationalist mythologies. My intuition was that since the myth of exceptionalism is so central to American national mythology, a comparative examination could prove particularly subversive. In what follows I thought to relate some impressions of a book I recently finished reading as part of this agenda, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914 (1976) by Eugen Weber. This is not a review and far from exhaustive, only some observations that I found pertinent to my comparative agenda.
“When did France become one?” asks Weber at the opening of one of his chapters. “Surely we know that. Forty kings worked hard at the task, but it was the Revolution that finished the work in the end,” or so at least the French have it. According to Weber the school books in France since the Third Republic taught French students the following motto: “one people, one country, one government, one nation, one fatherland.” He then quotes this dictum as articulated by Albert Soboul, one of the premier historians of the French Revolution: ‘“The French Revolution completed the nation which became one and indivisible.”’ (2) This, however, asserts Weber, was far from the historical reality. And when writing his study, this realization—to a large degree as a result of his findings—was still just dawning on French historians of Weber’s generation. It is quite telling how the nation in which modern nationalism was born, at least as most history courses of the modern period have it, has been blinded by its own mythology. So much so, that it regarded French nationalism as so obvious that it did not merit a comprehensive inquiry. In some ways this is the inverse reflection of American understanding of its own nationalism: supposedly so different and understated, we don’t really need any rigorous analysis of its scope ( I wrote about this in a previous post).
Weber begins Chapter One of his book with a curious reference to America. Relating a passage from Balzac’s novel Paysans (1844), in which a Parisian comments about the countryside in Burgundy, he quotes the following remark: ‘“You don’t need to go to America to see savages… Here are the Redskins of Fenimore Cooper.’” (3) Indeed, as Weber demonstrates over and over again, as late as the early twentieth century for French elites the peasants of their country were a very distinctive breed of people, essentially different from them. They were “savages,” not “civilized” and certainly not “French.” During the nineteenth century most peasants did not speak French as city folk knew it and many spoke dialects and languages very different from canonic Parisian French, comme il faut. Perhaps more fundamentally, the gap between the localist peasant epistemology to the globally oriented modern epistemology of French elites was immense. According to Weber, peasants in France—though it was for the most part city folk who entertained the idea of a polity called France—had a very limited capacity for “abstraction,” which to him is “the supreme characteristic of the modern world and mind.” (4) Therefore such abstractions as a ‘nation’ or as ‘French’ identity were utterly incomprehensible to the majority of “French” people.
In this regard France was very different from the European society American historians are most familiar with—England or Britain, which the American colonies were an extension of. “[N]owhere in England”, argues Weber, “could one find anything approaching the distance that separated the department of Nord and Seine-Inférieure, say, from Lozère and Landes. Nor, indeed could one have found the kind of tribute that the country paid to the capital, and countryside grudgingly to cities in general.” (5)
I found this difference between France and Britain and even more so between France and the U.S. to be very suggestive. If the country we often regard as the hallmark of nationalism was hardly a nation, what does that say of the U.S., which was much more culturally and ideologically integrated? Perhaps that the early U.S. was a nation to a much greater extent than France. What does it say about nationalism, though? Is nationalism a more robust phenomenon where the project is more crucial and elusive, or is it more robust where the project of nationalism has been more successful? What is clear however, is that since the U.S. was more modern and more easily framed as a nation by its citizens, nationalism looked very different.
What does this tell us about the American state when compared to the French state? The French state transformed itself to a large degree as a response to the needs of French nationalism. Education and road building in particular emerge from Weber’s study as crucial state-sponsored projects for the incorporation of France as a nation. We are often told that the early U.S. was hardly a state when compared to European states. Maybe it did not need to be.
 Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (2010), 15.
 Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914 (1976), 95.
 Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 3.
 Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 256.
 Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 10.