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What if there had never been one "United States of America?"

July 9, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Is this country too big to govern from a central location?

That was apparently what President Thomas Jefferson thought, according to historian Clay Jenkinson. I caught part of historian Jenkinson's radio show "The Thomas Jefferson Hour" on NPR this weekend and that was one of the factoids. Apparently Jefferson thought the continent was simply too large to be one country and favored a series of smaller republics, in friendly relations to one another but governed separately.

The ancient Greeks apparently took their concept of a republic even further and thought the ideal republic is a city-state so small that a town crier could shout the news to all and sundry and people would know their leaders on a personal level. According to Jenkinson, the idea was that a small republic could only truly be successful if the population was homogenous, with many things in common. I didn't hear the entire radio program, but I thought the beginning of the discussion was interesting.

A continent made up of small, independent republics is exceedingly unlikely to come to pass in this day and age. I suspect that the U.S. Civil War, at least in part a battle over state's rights, put an end to any possibility that the country could be governed in that fashion.

On the other hand, in 2012, this huge country is noticeably very large and sometimes very divided, with distinctive regions that seem to be growing more diverse.

Historians know that this isn't necessarily anything new. The country has always had different ideological factions and tension over new immigration. We've compensated for that with our version of civic religion: strong emphasis on patriotism, reverence for the U.S. flag and U.S. Constitution and other American myths about historical figures like George Washington and Betsy Ross. Educators try to endorse the idea that diversity is our strength, though I'm not sure that idea has always been completely accepted.

Without that unity – of ideas, of purpose, of love of country, etc. – there is risk of division and certainly that nothing will get done. That holds as true of a deadlocked Congress as it does of a fractious county commission meeting, of fights over school curriculum in Arizona and U.S. immigration policy.

Would we have been better off as a continent of small republics instead of one United States? How do you think history would have looked then?


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