The question, 'When is the nation?', ranks second in importance only to the related query, 'Why is the nation?' in the contemporary social science and humanities literature on nationalism. This issue is confronted by this essay, which considers Anthony Smith's important perennialist-modernist dichotomy through the lens of the American experience. Along the way, it will address the related but independent question of whether nations are 'top-down' artefacts constructed by the modern state, or 'bottom-up' social formations generated by ethnic groups within civil society. The importance of this theoretical question lies not merely with the antiquarian interest in how our world system of nations emerged, but with the more pressing question of why it is persistently re-created, and, for idealists, how it may be superseded
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