American Identity: Uncle Sam, George Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt welcome the Great White Fleet home in 1909.
American Identity: A 1909 cartoon depicts Uncle Sam, George Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt welcoming the Great White Fleet home.

Sebastian Conrad stated in the introduction of his book, Globalization and the Nation in Imperial Germany, that it is generally assumed that nation states existed before there were interconnections between peoples of different nations. The issue with this assumption though is that it is a limiting and narrow perspective upon history, one which cannot answer the question of the origins of nation-states. Humanity long predates the concept of the nation-state: fossil remains and Stonehenge will attest to that. These people who lived in the days before the nation-state was born engaged frequently in several activities- commercial, diplomatic, and martial- that would have brought them into contact with people from different areas and regions. One does not have to go back very far to find these connections: medieval Europe had frequent trade contact with China and the Far East and often found themselves at odds with the Islamic world. Thus, by the time the concept of the nation-state had been conceived (Ian Tyrrell cites the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia as the emergence of the nation-state), there existed several interconnections between peoples living on different continents, as well as those living in different areas of the same continent.

Another issue with this narrow assumption is that it fails to explain the history of a country like the United States. The first European settlers had been on the continent for almost two centuries before the Revolutionary War (not to mention the Native Americans who well predated even Ancient Rome), and by 1776 the descendants of the first settlers and new immigrants had built up impressive trade networks that went well beyond the future borders of the United States. These connections would continue to grow as the nation began its search for identity in the 1800s, and by the time a distinct American identity had emerged, the country had trade links all across the globe. Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, commonly thought of in American history as the ‘debut’ of America as a global power and certainly a great indicator America’s ‘distinctive empire’ (to borrow Tyrrell’s phrase), would not have been possible without the vast trade network that American merchants had been exploiting for decades before the Fleet set sail.

Therefore, as Conrad argues, globalization and the interconnections between peoples led to ideas about distinct national identity. They are, in a way, a prerequisite for nations to emerge: if there are no connections between various peoples, then is there even a need for them to distinguish between themselves and form ideas of national identity in the first place? Conrad’s example of Germany at the beginning of the 20th Century and Tyrrell’s of the development of a national ethos in the United States both support this claim, and so it should be recognized that the interconnectedness of peoples played a significant role in developing nations in the course of history.


Conrad, S. Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany (Cambridge; New York: 2010)

Tyrrell, I. Transnational Nation, United States History in Global Perspective since 1789 (Basingstoke: 2007)

For more information on the Great White Fleet:

National Identities and Interconnectedness
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