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What is an American?

What does it mean to be an American? Is being an American a function of blood, race, or language, or is it something else? When one asks such questions, one is really asking this: in what respect is America a “nation”? Is there an American “nationalism” and if so, what does it mean? These issues have come to the fore in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and his administration’s approach to immigration.

Nationalism is a heterogeneous concept. The term “nation” is derived from natio, a form of the Latin verb, natus est, “to be born.” Implicit in this understanding of a nation is that those who share a common birth are thus related by race or blood. In this sense, the nation is an extension of the family, the clan, or the tribe. Thus, a nation is a natural phenomenon, based on a common conception of the “love of one’s own.”

Nationalism in the modern sense of national political autonomy and self-determination, an “imagined community,” arose in reaction to the universalist- cosmopolitanism of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. The attempt by France to impose its political, legal, and cultural hegemony over Europe created a nationalist backlash. While Britain’s sense of national identity predated the rise of Napoleon, the long series of wars against France, especially those fought against Napoleon, strengthened and consolidated British nationalism.

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