It was the Spanish part of the invention of America that liberated Western man from the fetters of a prison-like conception of his physical world, and it was the English part that liberated him from subordination to a Europe-centred conception of his historical world. In these two great liberations lies the hidden and true significance of American history.

— Edmundo O’Gorman, The Invention of America1

What exactly does it mean to be a North American? Europeans have been engaged in a long-running debate about the meaning and nature of Europe, not only in the last 50 or 60 years with the emergence of the European Union but for many centuries before. Does it make sense to engage similarly with the question of North America’s identity?

Globalization has spawned a series of continental economic blocs. The European Economic Community, from which the European Union has evolved, was the first to emerge. It has been followed by the ASEAN grouping in Southeast Asia; the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), subsequently extended to Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and Mercosur in the southern cone of South America.

The FTA and NAFTA have brought in their wake a strengthening of economic integration within North America. To be sure, American investment in both Canada and Mexico goes back to the second half of the 19th century. But capital flows – in some cases into as well as out of the United States – have grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades. The movement of population, both across the U.S.’s border with Canada and much more strikingly across its border with Mexico, has catapulted dramatically. In the Canadian case, the main original influx of settlers on the English Canadian side came from inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies fleeing the American Revolution. Subsequently, the balance of population exchange has tended to favour the United States over Canada, but with significant numbers moving in each direction. In the Mexican case, growing migration to the United States, especially in recent decades, has helped fuel American economic prosperity while simultaneously provoking a polarizing debate about the consequences of that migration for American national identity.

At the same time, 9/11 and its aftermath have raised questions of security to a continent-wide level – as manifested, for example, in the Security and Prosperity Partnership first proposed by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives in 2004 – while simultaneously provoking vigorous opposition from those concerned about both civil liberties and national sovereignty. Political leaders have paid greater symbolic attention to North America, with three-way summits and bilateral exchanges of visits (e.g., between Canadian and Mexican heads of government) happening far more frequently than before. This suggests the need to take North America seriously as a subject of reflection – and not only from the economic or security point of view.


Let me turn to the question of possible commonalities among the three North American countries. The question has been rarely posed in terms of North America per se, but it has been evoked on a number of occasions where the Americas as a whole are concerned. Back in 1932, Herbert Bolton gave his presidential address to the American Historical Association – meeting in Toronto, interestingly enough – on the topic, “Do the Americas Have a Common History?” The theme sparked a vigorous debate over the following two decades, with most commentators rejecting the argument that there was a common cultural, economic or political pattern to the development of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the Americas on the one hand and the largely English-speaking parts on the other.2

But this did not put paid to the discussion. In the 1990s, J.H. Elliott, a leading British scholar of Spain and the Spanish Empire, argued that despite obvious differences, there were certain commonalities to the New World societies that came to be created in the Americas in the aftermath of European conquest and settlement.3 I tend to agree with Elliott. But I am not interested in tackling as vast a subject as the Americas as a whole, and will confine myself instead to North America. What then might Mexico, the United States and Canada possibly have in common?

Geography is a point of departure. The most striking common characteristic of the three countries in this regard is that each spans the continent from sea to sea: Canada and the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Mexico from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The myth of western settlement and the western frontier looms large in both Canada and the United States. Mountain ranges give a common stamp to North America: the American cordillera chain, including the Rockies in Canada and the United States and the Sierra Madre in Mexico, runs down the western part of the continent, while in the east the Appalachians span the U.S.–Canada border and almost touch the mountains of the Canadian Shield.

Each country was originally populated by indigenous peoples, and in all three societies the coming of Europeans had a devastating impact on these peoples, who were wiped out or marginalized as the case might be. The colonies or states that sprang up on their soil were ruled either directly from Europe or, following the achievement of independence, by the European settlers who had been left behind. The Native presence may be particularly important in Mexico, with the notion of mestizaje and of the forging of a cosmic race, first advanced in the 1920s by José Vasconcelos, the well-known writer who was briefly Minister of Education.4 Native symbols and names may dot the landscape of North America, but in reality, indigenous peoples in all three countries have yet to come into their own.

Religion was also European in its origins – Christianity in its Protestant and Catholic variants. Yet something very peculiar has happened to Christianity in the New World, especially evident in the United States and Mexico. At the very beginning (1630) in Massachusetts, Governor John Winthrop saw America as a shining “city upon a hill,” creating the New Jerusalem that the Old World had shunned. There followed the Great Awakening of the early 18th century, the religiosity that accompanied the United States from its creation through the Civil War and beyond, the frequent innovation associated with new sects like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Mormons, and the wholesale Americanization not only of Protestantism in its various guises but of Catholicism and Judaism as well. Well might de Tocqueville observe, “I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.”5

In Mexico, the syncretism associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe, first sighted in the 16th century by an indigenous inhabitant, would bear fruit through the centuries that followed so that various political movements would wrap themselves in her name. By the end of the 20th century her cult was so powerful that she was elevated to the status of the patron saint of all the Americas by Pope John Paul II. Old World religions, much like old wines, would come to assume somewhat altered identities in New World bottles.

The same was true for languages. In Noah Webster’s Dictionary of the American Language, published a few decades after the American Revolution, the English of the old mother country gave way to a much simplified spelling and significant linguistic innovation. Canadian English, for its part, would be greatly influenced by northern American influence through the Loyalists who settled the eastern parts of the country and would be permanently marked by a combination of American and British features. Spanish in Mexico, as in the rest of Latin America, would become a more flexible language, in both vocabulary and pronunciation, than the one that had originated in Spain.

In New France, later Quebec, French also acquired a degree of informality – very North American in character – quite at odds with the spoken French of the former metropole. Gérard Bouchard, the well-known Quebec historian, writes about arriving in France for his doctoral studies in the late 1960s: “I discovered that various words and expressions that to me seemed perfectly French were only so for us Québécois. My way of speaking amused my Parisian friends. In the end, it annoyed me but I began to adopt the French accent so that they could understand me.”6 The flora, fauna and geological formations of the New World, interactions with indigenous peoples and languages, the hard realities of frontier existence far from Old World courts and the intermingling of immigrants from many different backgrounds were to alter the English, French and Spanish languages on the North American continent and give them a suppleness they had not known before.

Another common feature involves the importance of regions and regionalism in any larger sense of place. The different colonies had different histories of settlement behind them: New England as opposed to Virginia; Nova Scotia as opposed to Quebec. The frontier bred its own regional identities, in the American case first in the Appalachians, then along the Mississippi, then in the western plains and on the Pacific Coast. Regional divisions across the Mason-Dixon Line regarding slavery led to the Civil War of the early 1860s; as recently as the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the division between Democrats and Republicans could assume a regional character, so-called blue vs. red states.

Canada too has known its share of regional divisions. The most profound, of course, is that between Quebec and English-speaking Canada, taking on more the character of a national division. But the west has often felt alienated from the rest of Canada, and this alienation has found expression in support for political parties such as the Progressives, the CCF, Social Credit, the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance. Nor has Mexico been far behind. State and regional identities often trumped national ones through two centuries of Mexico’s post-independence existence. In the 2006 presidential elections, the northern half of the country, more industrialized and better integrated into NAFTA, voted for National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón, with the southern half of the country, poorer and more indigenous in character, voting for the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Then there is the role that constitutions have come to play in cementing civic identity in the three countries. This has been most striking in the United States, where the Constitution has taken on an iconic character almost since its drafting in Philadelphia in 1787. As the embodiment of the revolutionary break with Britain and a new American identity, it provided a significant part of the political glue in building a new country, as the oath of allegiance to the Constitution recited by every newly naturalized American citizen demonstrates. To challenge the American Constitution in any significant way is beyond the pale of the national consensus, and would open one to the charge of being anti-American or un-American.

In Mexico, the constitution of 1917 is also the product of a revolution. It was arguably the most progressive document of its day, with clauses regarding the inalienability of the nation’s land and resources and the rights of labour. Not all the clauses, needless to say, were honoured in practice, and there have been significant amendments to the document over time. Yet even today, the 1917 constitution retains something of an iconic character in Mexican society and political actors must respect that fact.

In Canada, born of evolution rather than revolution, the constitution until recently was not a particularly venerated document. An act of the British Parliament, lacking evocative language and even an amending formula, the British North America Act of 1867 was primarily the plaything of federal and provincial politicians, concerned about the division of powers between them. In the early 1980s, toward the end of Pierre Trudeau’s prime ministership, all this changed drastically with the patriation battle and the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Though only 25 years old, the Charter has attained a degree of iconic status – not least as a means of trying to consolidate a common civic identity in a country with important linguistic and cultural divisions. In short, in all three North American societies, written constitutions have come to play an important civic role. Is this surprising in New World societies with a great deal of population intermingling and little place for purely ethnic expressions of national identity?

One final point of commonality – a quite important one from the international relations point of view. North America, at least since the second half of the 19th century, and more especially since the second decade of the 20th, has known a Kantian peace. Kant’s dream of perpetual peace for a republican Europe would remain a pipedream until after World War II, and as the Balkan Wars of the 1990s remind us, it is still too utopian for parts of the old continent. In North America, with the signal exception of the Mexican-American War of 1848 and the short-lived American incursion into Mexico in 1914 at the height of that country’s revolution, the national borders between states have not been questioned through war.

This is not a trivial matter. North America has been a continent of international peace in a world that has been anything but peaceful. That too may help to forge a sense of a shared identity. Stéphane Roussel has made the argument for Canada,7 though it needs to be extended to Mexico. For example, Alan Riding notes that a not insignificant tradeoff for Mexico from its proximity to the United States has been the absence of a large military establishment – the bane of so many other Latin American republics in the 20th century.8


Let me highlight a few of the things that make the three states of North America so very different.

1. American exceptionalism vs. Canada’s role as a more European-influenced Atlanticist power and Mexico’s as a Latin American–oriented one

Deborah Madsen writes, “American exceptionalism permeates every period of American history and is the single most powerful agent … concerning the identity of America and Americans.” Michael Kammen asks, “How exceptional was (past tense) American exceptionalism? I will venture a one-word hunch: very.” There is no parallel notion of exceptionalism – of constituting a civilization or society apart from all others – in either Canada or Mexico. Moreover, the United States was the birthplace of Manifest Destiny, with statesmen like John Quincy Adams convinced that “the whole continent of North America was destined by Divine providence to be peopled by one nation … in one federal Union.” Though that aspiration has long since vanished, the United States has become a global and hegemonic power, with far greater influence over its two North American neighbours than the latter can ever hope to wield over it. As Carlos Fuentes put it recently, “In the world in which we live, Mexico will always have problems with the United States.”9 Most Canadians would not see things very differently.

2. The relationship between market and state

There has been a more untrammelled capitalism in the United States as opposed to a more sustained use of the state as an instrument of economic development and/or defensive nationalism in Canada and Mexico. As Alfred Chandler argued, “In the United States the base was designed, constructed, and operated almost wholly by private enterprise.” Economic individualism is deeply embedded in the American body politic, a byproduct in part of the deep religious individualism that characterizes that society. This economic individualism has historically been less characteristic of Canada, with its need to build basic infrastructure in a sparsely populated land, and of 20th-century Mexico. Governments in both countries have also been prepared to see culture as a legitimate sphere of state activity. The CBC, National Film Board and Canada Council come to mind in the Canadian case. As for Mexico, Néstor García Canclini writes, “It is logical that, among Latin American countries, Mexico, because of the nationalist orientation of its post-revolutionary policy, should be the one that has been most concerned with expanding visual culture, preserving its patrimony, and integrating it into a system of museums and archaeological and historical centers.” The same is not true for the United States, with its much more extensive system of private endowments. As Michael Kammen observed, “Why is the United States so distinctive in not having a ministry of culture? And why is that office comparatively non-controversial in some nations yet politically and ideologically problematic in others – above all, in our own?”10

3. Democratic institutions

These have been clearly embedded in the American system from the beginning. One thinks of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, of Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (“These States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality … the democratic-republican principle”11) and of Harold Laski’s mid-twentieth-century The American Democracy. In Canada, democracy has enjoyed a less mercurial development, more in the British mould, though with American features such as populist movements, especially in the west. In Mexico, democracy has proven a more uncertain characteristic, winning at moments in mid-19th century and after 1910, but going into long periods of eclipse the Porfirian dictatorship of the late 19th century and the 80 years of one-party domination by the PRI, which ended only in 2000.

4. Levels of development

Both the United States and Canada are first-world societies, members of the G-8, with high levels of GDP per capita ($41,890 in the U.S. and $33,375 in Canada in 2007–8), high levels of public education and literacy, social programs (albeit stronger in Canada than in the United States) and well-established bureaucratic and legal norms. On the negative side, racism has long undermined equal treatment where American blacks were concerned, and Native/Aboriginal peoples have been marginalized in both countries. Mexico, compared to its two North American neighbours, is a second-world society ($10,751 GDP per capita in 2007–8), with huge income gaps between the middle and upper middle classes and the lower classes, between north and south, between creoles and indigenas.12 The theme of Lesley Simpson’s book Many Mexicos,13 with its description of four or five distinct societies with gaps between them equivalent to the dimensions of India’s caste system, is almost as true today as it was 65 years ago. To this might be added the depredations of a narco-economy – the dirty money, corruption and violence it engenders.

5. A culture of exuberance vs. a culture of doubt

In the United States, a buoyant and extroverted tone has tended to dominate, exemplified in such figures as Herbert Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, in American cinema and in a good deal of American pop culture, from jazz to rock and roll. One of de Tocqueville’s more telling observations about American life notes, “They clutch everything and hold nothing fast.”14 As Max Lerner put it in arguing the case for America as a civilization,

Most Americans persisted in their image of America as an unfinished country in which history was the art of the possible, but in which the possible, by experience, seemed to stretch further than anywhere else … Since the beginning there have been two crucial images in the American mind. One is that of the self-reliant craftsman, whether pioneer, farmer, or mechanic … the second that of a vast continent to be discovered, explored, cleared … The American will not tolerate the fate of being boxed in like a trapped rat.15

In Canada, survival has been a more characteristic theme, accompanied by a degree of melancholy, especially in Quebec, reflective of the deeper ambiguity of a nationally divided country. In Mexico, there have been melancholic and self-destructive strains to its culture, reflecting in part the confused legacy of conqueror and conquered; the popular imagery of death associated with the celebration of the Día de los Muertos; and revolutionary art forms such as the mural paintings of Diego Rivera and others in the 1920s and 1930s.

The historical trajectories of the three North American countries have been different; their relative positions, both within North America and in the world at large, divergent; their physical characteristics – northern, temperate, semitropical – no less contrasting.

Long-term political implications

In an era marked by the globalization of investment and production, there has been a move to continental trading blocs. The primary motivation behind these developments has been economic, with multinational corporations and big business associations the key forces pushing governments toward freer trade. At the same time, a variety of nongovernmental actors have been engaging in activities beyond the level of the nation-state, around issues ranging from development to the environment to human rights. We may be witnessing the emergence of a more cosmopolitan type of consciousness, reinforced by the rapidity of communication in the world of the Internet. While I hold no illusions about a cosmopolitan identity coming to displace national ones, I can anticipate continental blocs constituting in time a stepping stone to a less narrowly national form of consciousness. At the normative level, this may be the most appealing feature of arrangements such as the European Union, and with time it may also come to mark developments in North America.

However, there are major differences between the EU model and anything that could happen in North America. The sheer size and power of the United States – culturally, demographically, economically, militarily, politically and technologically – make the idea of political integration a good deal less attractive to the two weaker, less populous North American states. It is one thing for the Netherlands or Denmark or Portugal to accept membership in a European Union in which no single larger power dominates. It would be quite a different story for Canadians and Mexicans to accept the prospect of North American political integration.

Nor are the Americans about to surrender sovereignty to a transcontinental political union. American public opinion is still predominantly given to thinking of the United States as a world unto itself, and American political leaders and commentators would not easily take to the notion of imitating the European Union, with its bureaucratic heaviness and recurring political disagreements. Moreover, critics would see any move to North American political integration as bypassing the American Constitution – a charge certain to doom it from the start. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, a weakening of American power in an increasingly polycentric world order may make American policymakers more open to the North American dimension of their international situation.

There may be something in earlier American history that could serve as a template for greater North American cooperation in the future. I am referring to the Articles of Confederation, which served as a de facto constitution for the Thirteen Colonies for eight years, until the current Constitution of the United States was enacted. The articles represented a confederal arrangement among the 13 states, with each retaining “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.”16 To be sure, Congress was vested with powers related to common defence and mutual and general welfare – something that would not transpire in any North American proposal. But the key analogy from my point of view lies in the confederal nature of the original Articles of Confederation.

This would come a lot closer to meeting the needs of the three North American states than a more integrated federal proposal. A loose confederal arrangement among the three North American states somewhere in the future would be building on practices of intergovernmental cooperation that have sprung up with NAFTA and might be extended from the strictly economic realm to other areas of continental concern. Any agreements would always be subject to the consent of the three governments in question. There would be no North American Political Union along EU lines.

The idea of North America is still at an embryonic stage when compared to the idea of Europe. There are multiple other identities, regional and national, to easily trump it in all three countries that make up this continent. Yet it is latent in each of them. With continental economic integration in an era of globalization a reality, and with migration and other ties among the three countries growing apace, the pressures for political collaboration at the North American level will not disappear. À suivre, as they would say in one of North America’s three official languages!


1 Edmundo O’Gorman, The Invention of America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961), p. 145.

2 See Louis Hanke, ed., Do the Americas Have a Common History? A Critique of the Bolton Thesis (New York: Knopf, 1964).

3 J.H. Elliott, Do the Americas Have a Common History? (Providence, RI: John Carter Brown Library, 1998).

4 José Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race: A Bilingual Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

5 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. 279.

6 Gérard Bouchard and Michel Lacombe, Dialogue sur les pays neufs (Montreal: Boréal, 1999), p. 16.

7 Stéphane Roussel, The North American Democratic Peace: The Absence of War and Security Institution Building in Canada–US Relations 1867–1958 (Kingston, ON: School of Public Policy/McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004).

8 Alan Riding, Distant Neighbours: A Portrait of the Mexicans (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 317.

9 Deborah Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p. 1; Michael Kammen, In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 198; John Quincy Adams cited in Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), p. 130; Carlos Fuentes in Karim Bitab and Robert Fadel, eds., Regards sur la France (Paris: Seuil, 2007), p. 212.

10 Alfred Chandler cited in Kammen, In the Past Lane, p. 189; Robert Bellah, “Is There a Common American Culture?” in Robert Bellah and Steven Tipton, eds., The Robert Bellah Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 329; Hugh Aitken, “Defensive Expansionism: The State and Economic Growth in Canada,” in W. T. Easterbrook and M.H. Watkins, eds., Approaches to Canadian Economic History (Toronto: Carleton Library, 1967), pp. 183–221; Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. 117; Kammen, In the Past Lane, p. 93.

11 Cited in Madsen, American Exceptionalism, p. 71.

12 GDP per capita figures for all three countries are from United Nations Development Programme, Statistics of the Human Development Report, retrieved May 11, 2008, from

13 Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos (1941; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

14 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, cited in Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 117.

15 Max Lerner, America as a Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), p. 501

16 Articles of Confederation, 1781 (retrieved April 23, 2008, from, Article 2.