Woden Teachout

Harvard University


"An Early  'Spirit of Americanism':  The DAR, the SAR, and their Lost Inclusionary Nationalism"

This paper looks at the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution in the last quarter of the 19th century.  The DAR and SAR epitomized the hereditary and patriotic groups that sprung up during the period.  It was in their hands that the first conceptions of Americanism were molded; it was they who introduced it as a critical cultural indicator.  The paper argues that the DAR and SAR’s “spirit of Americanism” was originally an inclusionary credo rather than a principle of ethnic discrimination.  Scholars have usually interpreted the DAR and SAR as exclusive, ethnically-based groups which defined their own “native” identity in response to massive immigration.  This characterization holds true for the latter part of the 1890s, but it ignores a much more inclusive version of Americanism which had its seeds in the centennial celebrations of 1876 and grew in force until the early 1890s.  This paper recovers that earlier version of national identity.

 The early DAR and SAR societies envisioned an Americanism that would achieve two spiritual goals.  First, they wanted to heal the wounds and divisions of the Civil War and unite the country; in this they appealed to a shared Revolutionary history, in which “Massachusetts fought shoulder to shoulder with South Carolina.”  Second, they viewed the greed and materialism of the Gilded Age with hostility; they hoped to return the country to its true foundation on “principle.”  They said little or nothing about immigration.  While the DAR and SAR themselves were formed on a hereditary basis, their credo was strongly inclusive.  It was a kind of civil evangelism based on ideological and shared-history nationalisms, which aimed to inspire all citizens of the United States with a broad and inclusive Americanism. 

To this end, the groups resisted defining Americanism.  Instead, they invoked it through a set of symbols, many drawn from the country’s history.  It was these groups who instituted Flag Day, who bough the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, who spearheaded the effort to put George Washington’s portrait in every school, who struggled with the questions of a national anthem and even a national flower.  Their attitude is best articulated by SAR founder William McDowell, who delighted in a symbolic national bell because it “might speak aloud without saying anything, and yet at the same time say everything.”  As McDowell indicated, these rituals and symbols were both highly stylized and relatively empty of modern political content.  Their use allowed the DAR and SAR not to define Americanism with any degree of specificity; they shaped it as a cluster of emotions rather than a well-defined political platform.  This emotional appeal did, however, have one central tenet which spoke directly to the late 19th century:  Americanism was based on a glorious heritage of self-sacrifice and a rejection of self-interest.  It thus functioned as an important means of social criticism in the Gilded Age.

 The terrible Depression of 1893 marked the end of this earlier, self-critical vision of Americanism. It deepened the suspicion with which native-born viewed anarchists and by association foreigners, and it caused a shift in the focus of Americanism.  Instead of a positively envisioned national ethos based on a shared Revolutionary heritage, Americanism began to be defined by what it was not: it was not foreign, it was not radical, it was not interested in economic reform.  The balance of the credo shifted from an ideological and shared-history nationalism to an ethnic nationalism.  In this process, it redefined the country’s divisions: the major axis of difference was no longer North/South but native-born/foreign-born.  The native-born nation was able to unite itself against a perceived external threat, and the exclusionary nationalism described by historians was born.  In this hostile atmosphere, the earlier and more inclusive vision of Americanism was lost.