American flag

The Three Americas: Nation, State, Idea


On July 4, 1776 (actually a few days earlier), a delegation of British colonists codified the United States of America. There was still a war to fight, an initial government to fail, a new Constitution to ratify, and 37 states to add, but we generally agree on July 4, 1776 as the day America began. However, which America is that?

Lately, I have come to think of America as three separate entities braided together: America the nation, America the state, and America the idea. The idea is one of the most noble things ever attempted by a population so large. The state is a constant work-in-progress capable of great good, great evil, and great mediocrity. The nation is a thing we’ve been fighting to define for 400 years. 

America The Nation

A nation is a group of people bound together by common culture and usually occupying a contiguous piece of land. Culture can include religious practices, language, history, art, food, and so on. That’s how Las Vegas Raiders fans can call themselves “Raider Nation,” or Kurds can be a nation spread across four different countries. 

America the Nation has been a source of debate, war, and contest since the first European settlers arrived. On July 4, 1776, the nation of America was conceived as thirteen sovereign states along the east coast of North America consisting primarily of Anglo-Europeans who practiced protestant Christianity or a deism responding to that protestantism. Even in that early stage, Alexander Hamilton feared, “The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit[…]” 

He feared that immigrants from non-Anglo countries would bring ideas and customs that would irrevocably harm the nation. How could the nation remain whole if Germans brought their food and history, if the Irish brought a centuries-long feud with England, if Caribbeans came with brown skin and indigenous religions? 

This has been the fear among native-born Americans, and immigrants such as Hamilton, for hundreds of years. The Know-Nothings in the 1850s feared Catholics would destroy the nation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was supposed to protect the nation from Chinese immigrants. On and on the pattern goes. Throughout history, many Americans (sometimes a majority) fear that the nation is in danger from immigrants from without and diverse thinkers from within. For 400 years, these frightened Americans have been wrong. They have been wrong because America is not a nation of circumstance or a state of happenstance. America is a nation forged from an idea. 

America The Idea

Historically, Germany was the part of Europe where people shared similar cultures. It extended from the edge of the Roman Empire to the edge of the Slavic world. France is roughly the area controlled by the Franks in the 700s. China is as much as the Qing Dynasty could conquer. Many European and Asian nations were developed this way. Many African and Middle Eastern nations formed similarly, or they were drawn arbitrarily by colonizer governments. These places have lines on a map, bloodlines, and lines in history books that define their nation. America has an idea. 

America is a nation “conceived in liberty.” “All men are created equal” is written on America’s birth certificate. The idea grows and expands. Initially, it only included white Anglo men. Then it included more men of European descent, then Black men, then women, and so on. The nation and the state don’t always live up to the idea, and the idea is often ahead of us, but the idea binds Americans. 

Patriotic Americans believe a more perfect union is just over the next hill, past the next struggle, through the next gauntlet. That is why immigrants, from anywhere in the world and bringing any culture, have never done true harm to America the nation. You become a member of America the nation simply by adopting America the idea. The idea is undefeated. 

America The State

A state is a political organization designed to govern a nation or a territory. America the state changes more and faster than America the nation. The state has a new Congress every two years, a new president at least every eight years, and new Supreme Court justices almost every presidential term. The elected officials running the state are constantly in flux. The career administrators only last a few decades, at most.

The average Congressional term, House or Senate, is nine years. The longest-serving House and Senate members have served for almost fifty years. While incredibly long tenures, that means that the federal government of 1971 was completely different to a person than the one today. Not a single man or woman working in elected federal office in 1971 is still there. That’s a completely new government within 50 years. 

That’s an incredible amount of personnel change. In addition to changing personnel, the state changes through legislation, typically hundreds of new laws. The 112th Congress, which served in 2011 and 2012, was the least productive Congress on record. That unproductive Congress passed 283 new laws in those two years. The 80th Congress, which President Truman called the “Do Nothing Congress” passed 906 new laws in 1947 and 1948. Recently, Congresses have been passing 300 to 400 bills in their two years. So, even in unproductive years, the federal state is still constantly changing. Furthermore, the President and his/her subordinates have the power to redirect elements of the executive branch at a moment’s notice. 

That flexibility is supposed to allow the state to respond quickly to new circumstances. When the American experiment is functioning properly, the state exists to help the nation better realize the idea. America is at its best when the three Americas achieve that harmony. World War II is an obvious example of that harmony. So are the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Affordable Care Act, and the Covid stimulus bills. They all were actions by the state to allow the American people to live more freely. Free to speak. Free to worship. Free from want. Free from fear. 

When you see someone kneeling during the national anthem, flying American flags from their pickup trucks, pledging allegiance, or going to work with an American flag patch on their uniform, you should ask yourself to which America are they referring. Is it all three?