Journal of American Studies (1998), 32:373-397. Cambridge University Press.
Copyright © 1998 Cambridge University Press

Making History and Making the United States

a1Department of History, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA


In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson became the first American to put history to work to create a nation. He blazed a path that historians have been following ever since. Consider the difficulty Jefferson faced. Different events were happening in thirteen intensely local and isolated colonies among people with different traditions, languages, religions, and circumstances. Jefferson turned these scattered events into a national narrative. Behind these individual acts by agents of the British Crown aimed at different colonies was a single menace, Jefferson insisted, that should inspire these isolated individuals to discover and act upon what they shared as bearers of the traditional liberties of Englishmen. To introduce his stunning attempt to fit isolated events into a single narrative, Jefferson began by boldly declaring that it was "necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds that have connected them with another." The colonists, Jefferson proclaimed, were "one people." Jefferson knew that the colonists were not "one people." But in order to invent one nation, Jefferson had to invent one people, and in order to invent one people Jefferson had to invent one history that might unite that "one people." It has been hard work ever since.

From 1776 until sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, it was possible to believe - indeed, it was hard to question - that nations were, or even should be, the embodiment of people's destinies - that nations could express their identities, solve their problems, and be entrusted with their dreams and fates. The modern practice of history was born a couple of centuries ago to serve this process, to invent narratives and persuade peoples to interpret their personal experiences within national terms and narratives.

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