[Historian George] Bancroft’s vision—laid out over four decades in his massive, 10-volume History of the United States—combined his Puritan intellectual birthright with his German mentors’ notion that nations developed like organisms, following a plan that history had laid out for them. Americans, Bancroft argued, would implement the next stage of the progressive development of human liberty, equality, and freedom. This promise was open to people everywhere: “The origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine,” Bancroft told the New York Historical Society in 1854. “Of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome.”
...But Bancroft’s vision of American civic cohesion was not the only national narrative on offer from the 1830s onward, or even the strongest one. From the moment Bancroft articulated his ideas, they met a vigorous challenge from the political and intellectual leaders of the Deep South and Chesapeake Country, who had a narrower vision of who could be an American and what the federation’s purpose was to be. People weren’t created equal, insisted William Gilmore Simms, the Antebellum South’s leading man of letters; the continent belonged to the superior Anglo-Saxon race. “The superior people, which conquers, also educates the inferior,” Simms proclaimed in 1837, “and their reward, for this good service, is derived from the labor of the latter.”
Slavery was endorsed by God, declared the leading light of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, in 1861. It was one of many Anglo-Saxon supremacist ideas he imbued on his loyal son, Woodrow. The younger Wilson spent the 1880s and 1890s writing histories disparaging the racial fitness of Black people and Catholic immigrants. On becoming president in 1913, Wilson segregated the federal government. He screened The Birth of a Nation at the White House—a film that quoted his own history writings to celebrate the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror during Reconstruction.
Simms, the Wilsons, and Birth of a Nation producer D.W. Griffith offered a vision of a Herrenvolk democracy homeland by and for the dominant ethnic group, and in the 1910s and 1920s, this model reigned across the United States. Confederate monuments popped up across former Confederate and Union territory alike; Jim Crow laws cemented an apartheid system in Southern and border states. Directly inspired by the 1915 debut of The Birth of a Nation, a second Klan was established to restore “true Americanism” by intimidating, assaulting, or killing a wide range of non-Anglo Saxons; it grew to a million members by 1921 and possibly as many as 5 million by 1925, among them future leaders from governors to senators to big-city mayors, in addition to at least one Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black. The Immigration Act of 1924 established racial and ethnic quotas devised to maintain Anglo-Saxon numerical and cultural supremacy.