What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Encounters

Inaugurations Are More Than a Hail to the (New) Chief

How This Enduring Ritual Highlights the Strengths—and Tensions—that Define the American Presidency

Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and former President George W. Bush, right, sing the national anthem at the end of the swearing-in ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2009. Photo by Ron Edmonds/Associated Press.

By Richard M. Skinner
January 10, 2017

On Jan. 20, tens of millions of people will watch the pomp and spectacle of a uniquely American tradition. The hushed politicos in the pews of prayer service, the gleaming marching band brass on parade, the holy men and women delivering solemn invocations, the tuxes and gowns dancing their way through evening balls. And, of course, the next president of the United States of America, right hand up, left hand on the Bible, being sworn in for the highest office …

Read More >

The American Revolution Story Has a Hole the Size of Spain

While the Marquis de LaFayette Gets a Share of the Glory, Names Like Gardoqui and Gálvez Are All But Forgotten

ferreira-lead

By Larrie D. Ferreiro
November 29, 2016

Americans like to think of our nation as exceptional in nature, a dramatic break from all that came before it. Being exceptional, it’s inconvenient to acknowledge that two European powers provided invaluable assistance in our struggle for independence from Britain. So we usually don’t. The American origin story thus has scrappy colonists fighting the British alone, with little outside help except for France’s Lafayette, and a cameo by General Rochambeau at the very end. But Americans could have never won …

Read More >

American Culture’s Unlikely Debt to a British Scientist

A Fortuitous Influx of Cash Launched the Smithsonian’s Earliest Art Collection

lead-image-courtesy-of-the-smithsonian

By Helena E. Wright
November 16, 2016

In 1835, through an unlikely turn of events, the young United States became the beneficiary of the estate of one James Smithson, a British scientist of considerable means who had never set foot on American soil. The gift of $500,000 (about $12 million today) carried the stipulation that it be used to create an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

How amazing—and baffling—this windfall must have seemed! The responsibility was tremendous, in terms of the amount, the perception, …

Read More >

Remembering 1876, the Year of the Inconclusive Vote

There Has Never Been Anything Like It Before or Since

The public inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes takes place in front of the U.S. Capitol on the East Portico in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 1877.   (AP Photo)

By John Copeland Nagle
October 10, 2016

We are told that this year’s presidential election is unprecedented in many ways. The American voters are faced with the choice between an unlikely candidate who has been repudiated by many within his own party, and a seasoned politician whom the head of the FBI characterized as “extremely careless.” The tumultuousness of the race makes many long for the good old days when elections were civil, thoughtful, and quickly resolved

In other words, we are not longing for 1876.

A …

Read More >

Think The Press Is Partisan? It Was Much Worse for Our Founding Fathers

A Scheming and Salacious Newspaper Reporter Targeted Hamilton and Jefferson—and Nearly Ruined Them

daly-on-callender-lead-wimtba

By Christopher B. Daly
October 10, 2016

It is a common complaint that the drive for traffic at news sites in the digital age has debased our political dialogue, turning a responsible press into a media scramble for salacious sound bites. But partisanship and scandal-mongering go way back in the American political tradition. And there was no internet to blame in 1793, the year an especially vicious and salacious newsman arrived on American shores and soon after set his sights on the founding fathers.

Despite efforts to unify …

Read More >

How Herbert Hoover Skirted Scandal to Win the White House

The Public Was Charmed by His Presentation as an Antidote to Politics, Until the Great Depression Hit

Smith

By Charles Rappleye
October 10, 2016

It was not the craziest election of the 20th Century, but it might have been the strangest.

One candidate was a natural politician, affable and gregarious, a true man-of-the-people who favored flashy suits and a trademark derby hat. Reporters loved him and admirers thronged his events.

The other contender could easily be classified a misanthrope. He was a miserable public speaker who hated crowds and disdained the campaign regimen of shaking hands and kissing babies. For months, even after secretly directing his …

Read More >

The Untold Story of the Presidential Candidate Once Named “Our Other Franklin”

Massive Rallies, an Emulated Style, and Votes From Both Democrats and Republicans Couldn’t Save This Quixotic Candidate’s Campaign—Or His Life

sautter-on-greeley-presidential-lead-cropped-wimtba

By R. Craig Sautter
October 10, 2016

A populist desire for “reform” runs deep in the psyche of American voters. Every few decades, a presidential candidate channels this rebellious spirit. Andrew Jackson was such a candidate in 1828. So were William Henry Harrison in 1840, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, William Jennings Bryan in 1896, Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Barack Obama in 2008.

But no candidate for President carried the reform banner for honesty and competence more naturally, or …

Read More >

Handle Your Presidential Debates With Care

The Institution of Multiple Meetings Between Presidential Nominees Might Seem Old and Tired, But Such Gatherings Are a New—and Fragile—Phenomenon

Democratic candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis shakes hands with Vice President and Republican candidate George Bush, left, prior to their second and final debate at Pauley Pavillion on UCLA campus, in Los Angeles, Calif., on October 13, 1988. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

By Joel Fox
October 10, 2016

Today, presidential debates between candidates are considered fixtures of our political scene. Though they generate the occasional dust-up—like Donald Trump complaining that some of this year’s debates conflict with high-profile sporting events, or third-party candidates demanding places on the stage—it’s hard to imagine election season without them.

But I can attest from personal experience that not long ago our presidential debates were fragile. During the 1988 presidential campaign I had a close-up view of the near-cancellation and 11th-hour rescue of a …

Read More >

Hawaii’s Pacific Centuries

For America's Pacific Outpost, Asian Influence is Nothing New

Landscape

By Sumner La Croix
October 6, 2016

Long before Hawaii was a U.S. state, it was a Pacific nation.

Though the U.S. has only recently embraced a shift from emphasizing its relationships across the Atlantic to those across its western shores—see the rise of China, the Pivot to Asia, the idea of a “Pacific Century”—it’s worth remembering that America’s 50th state has had close connections in the Asia-Pacific region for centuries. This long history of trans-Pacific partnerships has profoundly shaped, and continues to shape, the islands’ economy, …

Read More >

Garage Parties in Hawaii Aren’t Just Any Party

Plantation Day Roots Are The Origins For Present-Day Gatherings with Plenty of Beer, a Pig on a Spit, and Community

garage-parties-lead-wimtba

By Keala Francis
October 6, 2016

Growing up in Hawaii in the 1970s, my family and our neighbors spent New Year’s Eve roasting a pig in our driveway. We set up the spit and used corrugated tin metal sheets to block the wind and contain the fire. The ancient Hawaiians prepared much of their cooked foods in an imu, or underground oven, but we lived on one of the ridgelines overlooking Diamond Head where all the garages fronted the street and none of us wanted to …

Read More >