What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Engagements

How Bikes Helped Invent American Highways

Urban Elites With a Fancy Hobby Teamed up With Rural Farmers in a Movement That Transformed the Country

By Margaret Guroff
September 6, 2016

Before there were cars, America’s country roads were unpaved, and they were abysmal. Back then, roads were so unreliable for travelers that most state maps didn’t even show them. This all started to change when early cyclists came together to transform some U.S. travel routes, and lay the groundwork for the interstate highways we use today.

Through the 1880s, spring and fall rains routinely turned dirt lanes into impassable mud pits that brought rural life to a standstill, stranding farmers …

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The New Deal Origins of Homeland Security

During FDR’s Administration, the First Lady and the Mayor of New York Clashed Over Guns, Butter, and American Liberalism

By Matthew Dallek
August 25, 2016

Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have faced a set of seemingly unprecedented national security challenges and anxieties. Our society has been consumed with debates about government surveillance programs, overseas counter-terrorism campaigns, border security, and extreme proposals to bar foreign Muslims from America—debates that are all, at bottom, focused on finding the proper balance between keeping people safe versus protecting civil liberties.

This debate is not a new one in American history. Even before the Cold War …

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Coming of Age Under a Flying Fortress

Being a Teenager in L.A. During World War II Meant Blackouts, Rations, and B-17 Bombers

By Manuel H. Rodriguez
August 11, 2016

That Sunday, as on most Sundays, the family was gathered around the kitchen table listening to the radio. It was too early in the day for drama and comedy programs so we listened to a music show. The date was December 7, 1941. I was 11 years old.

“We interrupt this program to bring you this important news bulletin, ‘The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor by air, the White House announces!’”

The world war that followed was …

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The Epic Bar Fight That Sums Up the Problem with Memorial Day

A Depression-era Story of Mourning, Motherhood, and Grandiosity

By Lisa M. Budreau
May 26, 2016

On Memorial Day, 1930, Mrs. Mathilda Burling of New York stood before the headstone of her son, Private George B. Burling, Jr. at grave 17, row 29, at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery in Thiaucourt, France. Burling, an imposing matriarch in a cloche hat and glasses, savored the realization that her decade-long struggle to persuade the government to ensure the right of Gold Star mothers to stand before the graves of their sons had indeed succeeded beyond all expectations. She …

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How World War II Turned Soldiers Into Bookworms

American GIs Devoured Paperbacks on the Front Lines, Spawning a New Generation of Readers

By Molly Guptill Manning
April 8, 2016

In January 1942, thousands of New Yorkers gathered on the steps of the legendary New York Public Library, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, wearing their Sunday best and warmest coats. When standing room became scarce, crowds formed across the street. Nearly everyone had at least one book in hand. These were not overdue, nor did they need to be returned to the library; instead they were “Victory Books,” bound for soldiers overseas.

It may be difficult to appreciate the …

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Why Early 20th-Century Muckraker Lincoln Steffens Is a Man For Our Times

The New York Political Reporter Understood Political Corruption Was About a Warped System, Not Just Immoral Politicians

By Jon Grinspan
October 28, 2015

Voters are in a bad mood. Again. We are routinely (and justifiably) frustrated with our politicians, but “throwing the bums out” doesn’t seem to change much. And we are all bracing for another anger-pageant that will stomp through American life for the next 13 months until election day.

A forgotten moment in our history suggests that the way out of a bad political mood is not more rage, but a new political perspective. Around 1900, after years of anger at …

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George Washington’s Deep Self-Doubt

The First President Was Indispensable to Our Early Democracy, Precisely Because He Didn’t See Himself as Indispensable

By Robert Middlekauff
May 18, 2015

Revolutions tend to get hijacked, going from being about the people to being about the triumphant revolutionary leaders. And so the French Revolution begat Napoleon, and the Russian Revolution begat Lenin and Stalin.

It’s appropriate, therefore, that one of the more enduring, and endearing, aspects of our national reverence for George Washington is the fact that once he had militarily won independence for the American colonies—at a time when he had achieved global fame for this feat—he appeared perfectly content to …

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The Greatest Native American Intellectual You’ve Never Heard Of

The Short Life and Long Legacy of the 19th-Century Reformer William Apess

William Apess, Native American, reformer

By Philip F. Gura
April 17, 2015

On April 1, 1839, a New York City medical examiner performed an autopsy on a man at a boardinghouse in a working-class neighborhood of lower Manhattan. He had performed scores of such examinations each month, but this one was especially significant though he did not recognize the person: 41-year-old William Apess had written more than any Native American writer before the 20th century, and had attained fame and notoriety in his short life for championing native peoples’ rights.

Still largely forgotten …

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When Homework Is a Matter of Life and Death

My Parents Fled Iran Because They Were Forbidden From Getting an Education There. I’ve Spent Over One-Third of My Life on a University Campus.

By Roxana Daneshjou
March 6, 2015

The first hint of sunlight glows off the horizon as I rush toward Stanford Hospital from the parking garage, white coat in hand, stethoscope bouncing against my chest. Every few steps, the diaphragm of my stethoscope ricochets off the silver pendant my mother gave me—a nine-pointed star etched with a symbol of my Bahá’í faith. My mother escaped Iran at 17 as the country was on the cusp of revolution—a revolution that would create a society where, to this day, …

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Selma’s Best Supporting Role

The Film May Have Focused on Martin Luther King, But Diane Nash Was the Reason He Was There in the First Place

By Christopher Wilson
February 12, 2015

If you watched the film Selma, you met Diane Nash when you saw her driving with Martin Luther King, Jr., into the Alabama town early in 1965. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had just begun to stage demonstrations to illustrate the need for federal forces to protect African-Americans exercising their right to vote in Selma, and throughout the former Confederacy.

Nash, somewhat surprisingly, stays in the background throughout much of the film—though an FBI field report excerpt flashed on …

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