Is Nationalism Natural?

A Note from America’s Past

The predominant view across party lines seems to be that nationalist attachments—at least, anything beyond an enervated appreciation for veterans of foreign wars and the pluralist ideal of America, which is to say, not America as she is but as acceptable opinion imagines she should be—are not only undesirable but unnatural, especially for Christians. “Healthy” patriotism—always so qualified—is tolerable in controlled quantities, but nationalism is the ever-looming dark side of patriotism (usually, connotations of racism and theocratic bigotry are smuggled into the definition without demonstration or explanation).

“Experts” know that it fueled whatever it was the buffalo shaman was doing in the Senate chambers on January 6, 2021. Outside of a preexisting national context, we are told, that man would not possess such loyalties.They are not necessary and Christians should opt for identification with the global church over fellow citizens. Love of neighbor should be extended to those outside the nation as much as those within, and so on. Like marriage, citizenship is just a piece of paper, after all. Man is not naturally a nationalist, we are told. He must be led there by a hateful, socially cultivated desire to exclude, either racist or patriarchal. It doesn’t matter which it is, really. Behind this position is the presumption, proliferated seemingly everywhere, that nationalist fervor can only be, and always is, drummed up for nefarious ends by demagogic persons. Query whether the cart is driving the horse here.

In any case, this was not always so. Nathaniel Chipman (1752-1843), a representative of older American thought, can help redirect our own thoughts on the nature of society, the nation, and man’s natural fitness (and love) for both. For Chipman, nationalism was wholly and unavoidably natural, endemic in human nature, and the driving force of every civilization.

Chipman is a now forgotten, but once prominent, figure of the early republic. He graduated from Yale and promptly enlisted in the Continental army. Thereafter, he practiced law in what was then the Vermont republic, serving as its solicitor, and was instrumental in the territory’s achieving statehood. A member of the Vermont statehouse and then its supreme court, Chipman eventually did a stint in the U.S. Senate, taught at Middlebury College, and became the first federal district court judge in the state he had helped birth. But it was after his retirement from the bench that, for our purposes, Chipman produced the most lasting achievement of his storied life, Sketches of the Principles of Government (1833), which was published the same year as Joseph Story’s more famous Commentaries

Chipman’s text is an exposition of the American constitutional order, but it is also more than that. As William Novak aptly observes, eighteenth and early nineteenth century legal and political commentaries began where they should: with fundamentals, viz., the nature of man and relations between men. Anthropology and metaphysics were the starting point for any thorough treatment of politics and law. Accordingly, after introducing his subject, Chipman dedicates the first two sections (“sketches”) of Principles to contemplating these prolegomena. Among other things, one of his primary aims was to push back against the then predominant view that man begins in a pure state of nature detached from any preexisting associations. Hobbes, Locke, and later Rousseau all operated with some version of that theory. In its best form, the state of nature idea can be a useful hypothetical for considering natural human equality and the nature of societal formation. Zephaniah Swift (1759-1823), in his System of the Laws of Connecticut (1795)—the first legal text published in the new republic—acknowledged that no state of nature ever actually existed. The point of the exercise was to consider the relationship between man, social hierarchy, and government, as well as the development of human positive law as instantiations of natural law in context—and to demonstrate how miserable man would have been without them.  

Most such discourses—Swift excepted—lapsed from thought exercises about the good of socio-political order into a utilitarian conception of society and government wherein man was driven to association by raw necessity of survival, a conclusion that set up in society an artificial tension between rights and authority. According to such theories, if the individual is forced by the material conditions of his fallen nature into association, thereby abandoning his natural (i.e., boundless) freedom—if he is everywhere in chains—then everything in those associations should be optimized to preserve as much of his prior freedom as possible whilst protecting his ability to exercise the same. This denied the older belief that even in paradise civil society and accompanying laws would have developed. Thus, in the early modern period, the connection between rights and duties began to dwindle. Eventually, rights were no longer socially contingent and lacked any inherent telos apart from the individual asserting them.

So much for the state of nature. Even considering the more defensible and useful version of the theory, Chipman was unimpressed (“Happily, such a state of nature does not exist”) for the Aristotelian reason that man as man is born sociable. He is made for relations, for associations. First and foremost, he is made to flourish and reproduce. And so, he is made for domestic or family life—the family, not the individual, is the most basic unit of society. Man finds his fulfillment and purpose, his happiness, in these associations. It is not good that man should be alone.  

Chipman struck at the true root of the inquiry: “The question is not, whether a rude, unpolished state, be ever a natural state to man,” insofar as this refers to development of civilizations. The fact of technological and cultural development tells us little about the character of society. That all civilizations, all nations begin as subsistence farmers, herdsmen, or what have you is uninteresting (and not the point of the state of nature idea). It is obvious to Chipman that civilizational beginnings are invariably humble, unconsolidated, and “savage.”

The real question is whether this “rude” and “unpolished” beginning is as far as man should go or, alternatively, he was made to transcend it. Are society and government natural features of man’s life or an imposition (even if a necessary one) on his natural freedom? That is, whether the rude state is “in the original constitution of his nature, he is so formed for happiness in this state, as to exclude any general benefit to be derived from progressive improvement.” Is man, by his very nature, intended to progress beyond his rugged, unformed starting point? Does his true happiness lie in that unbridled state? 

Chipman answers in the negative—man has an “appetite for society… man desires to associate with man,” and to make “social improvements”—and musters data to support his position. No doubt, at one time, the indigenous people of Northern Europe, as in Northern America, were less civilized—less culturally, technologically, and politically advanced—though Chipman denies that at any point any people were totally atomized and debased beyond socialization. But what is noteworthy is the trajectory of each civilization, which is always toward association and consolidation by way of natural impulse. This is true because man possesses “an appetite for the approbation of others” which, in turn, produces a “sense of accountability” to the them. “The sense of accountability is a very principal ingredient in the moral nature of man. When he has done well, he is conscious that he is deserving of approbation; when ill, of punishment.” It could be said that this is the operation of the conscience manifest, worked out in society, and it is the germ of all social attachments and earthly justice.

Chipman identifies, within this natural impulse for the “social state”, a natural nationalism. All peoples, all civilizations eventually conceive of themselves in national terms in route to the identification of a shared, national character:

Patriotism, or love of country, makes an illustrious figure in civil institutions. It is indispensably necessary to any degree of security, or prosperity in a nation. The whole community is the object of this passion. In its effects, it unites the individual members, in the pursuit of public measures, and on necessary occasions, gives a common preference of public to private good. To the common interest, in the defence and prosperity of the nation.

It was questioned by certain Enlightenment figures—Chipman singles out Guillaume Thomas Raynal (1713-1796)—whether the aforementioned impulse or desire was “among the natural passions of man.” Raynal’s examination of early Brazilian tribes alleged that no nationalism, no attachment to place or people, was discernible therein. For Chipman, this was gross conjecture. “If we rely on facts, history has not recorded, or modern researches [sic] discovered, a single people, in this state of nature, a state, in which the love of country, an attachment to the community, does not make a conspicuous figure.” Even the “barbarians of the north, from whom the modern inhabitants of Europe are, mostly descended, furnish everywhere, proofs of the existence of this passion; of vigorous national attachments.”

It was not true that societies occupying earlier stages of development (however measured) lacked attachment to the place of their birth, their ancestors, or the borders of the territory they occupied. Here Chipman embarks on a brief historical survey. The Scythians may have been a transient “nation of herdsmen” living in “tents of easy construction,” but their “national attachments were strong, and they were attached to the soil of their country, not so much because it afforded them subsistence by cultivation, as because it contained the tombs of their ancestors.” (Chipman might easily have begun with Abraham himself here; the first patriarch owned only a burial plot in Canaan, and yet it was the object of great desire and promise for his descendants).

Along the same lines, Chipman criticizes European opinion on native American tribes vis-a-vis nationalist sentiment. Whereas foreign writers—he has the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) in mind—assumed that such peoples were void of “paternal love, and filial affection” and “national union,” Chipman knew better. An example, provided by Buffon himself, “militates” against his own position, per Chipman. Buffon had claimed that like the early Brazilians, amongst the native American tribes “the love of country is unknown.” To contradict that claim, Chipman references a speech by “Logan, a Mingo Chief,” in response to French pressure to “remove at a distance from their native soil.” (He is referring to the Cayuga leader of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy who only later joined the Mingo tribe, a conglomerate of displaced peoples; he took part in the Yellow Creek Massacre to which his speech refers).

First, as a group, native chiefs in response to French urging to emigrate had said, “We were born… on this ground. Our fathers lie buried in it. Shall we say to the bones of our fathers, Arise, and come with us into a foreign land?” Commenting, Chipman asked, “Is this the language of a people who are almost void of parental and filial affection, who have no national attachments?” The implied answer to the rhetorical question was, “No.” Second, Chipman recounts a “beautiful passage” from Logan’s speech from 1774—a chief then without his native tribe, for war had eviscerated it:  

There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have fought. I have killed many. I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace—But do not harbour a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He would not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.

In response, Chipman notes, contra Buffon:

Where shall we find the love of country more emphatically, more beautifully expressed? The people of the United States, who have had frequent occasion to transact business with the American natives, both as individuals, and in their national councils, know the strength of their national attachments.

And he concludes the section thus:

The farther we go back, with men, towards the state, so fondly, and partially, deemed the only true state of nature, the more vigorous we find that passion, which attaches them to their little communities. What then is the result? Why, clearly, that the author of existence, to fit men for society and civil government, has strongly incorporated this passion in nature.

Every well-ordered society, no matter how materially primitive, possesses this natural sentiment of nationalism. Chipman’s invocation of Logan and other unnamed chiefs of the Ohio valley is not an accident. For Logan expressed in his lament the bookends, so to speak, of nationalist passions: what binds a people to a particular place in conjunction with what the late Roger Scruton often called the first-person plural, viz., the interests of those past and future amongst those present collectively who comprise the political “we.”

To Chipman, and most early American commentators, this is a natural outgrowth of anthropology, of man’s sociable nature. Attachments formed by a man with his place of birth and the tombs of his ancestors are an inevitable expression of his associative, sociable instincts. These instincts, rather than pure necessity, encourage the formation of society. They orient his devotion to one social group over the (hypothetical) other, and thereby constructively direct his affections beyond himself to the common good. Social tranquility and stability is impossible apart from the presence of this natural drive.

Chipman located the same impulse in Brazilians, the Mingos, and Americans alike as a perennial and inescapable fact of human life. Fearmongering over “nationalism,” therefore, is misplaced for two reasons. First, the historical consciousness of such hand-wringing is almost invariably limited to twentieth century images of facist genocide. The simplest retort is abusus non tollit usum (abuse does not nullify use). Further, ethno-imperialist ambitions are clearly not what moved people like Chipman. Washington’s Farewell Address (1796), for instance, exhorts the American people to preserve the nation with “jealous anxiety.” Yet, Washington warned against expansionist foreign policy. To boot, “Religion, Manners, Habits & political Principles,” were the source of national unity, not race or ethnicity as such.   

Second, as demonstrated, contemporary dismissal of nationalism is ignorant of human nature. The human social impulse does not represent an alien incursion into a human polity but rather a natural impulse that must be rightly harnessed and directed. Indeed, Chipman and many of our forebears could not have imagined a society that actively quashed nationalist sentiments and sympathies, the root of a good, republican public spirit whereby the private interest is subjected to the common good, which can tolerate neither tyranny nor licentiousness. It is in society and service thereto that man finds his natural fulfillment. The individual is not erased by society but properly situated within it.   

In 1776, John Adams wrote to Mercy Warren that republic governments require not only “pure Religion, or Austere Morals,” but also public virtue. That is, 

There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or else there can be no Republic Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superiour to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they Stand in Competition with the Rights of society.

Self-government, that terribly misunderstood term, was to the founding generation an idea far more demanding than any alternative. 

There is much talk of the common good today (and many false notions of the same). How can it possibly be invoked intelligibly apart from a definite, concrete conception of the community to which it should be directed and applied, that is, to the nation? If law is an ordinance of reason for the good of the community the question is, which community? And how can a public spirit unto the common good be generated around porous borders and a self-deprecating national image? These are burning questions for contemporary evangelical critics of nationalism. From whence will come their answer? Not from early American sources like Nathaniel Chipman, that much is clear.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

2 thoughts on “Is Nationalism Natural?

  1. This is a very good analysis and we need more of this kind of talk. I’d note one thing more: what Chipman and you are calling nationalism is pietas as applied to one’s native land and people. And for all of Western thought from the beginning until about two minutes ago, pietas was considered a virtue, a species of justice, and thus part of the natural law and a necessary attribute to be cultivated if it not already a part of one’s moral development. So, to answer the question of your title, yes, absolutely, without doubt.

  2. Might want to check out Thomas Berkeley’s_ Whole Duty of Nations (late 17th c. & contemporary to Baxter). Meanwhile, seems like ‘tombs and soil’ supplys a fine definition for nations, implying a degree of common ancestry. Yet, the following appears to beg the question, ‘To boot, “Religion, Manners, Habits & political Principles,” were the source of national unity, not race or ethnicity as such.’ Doesn’t race (older sense of it, say, the Anglos as a ‘race’) or a common / majoritarian ethnic pop supply & are necessary for a great part of maintaining these habits and customs? Wondering when NatCons (et al.) will go to bat for what P Buchannan once had no trouble articulating– a historic-majority ethnic stock for America. Why must a historic people and their actual culture always be torn apart in US discourse?

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