What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

The Shoe Salesman Whose Name Became Synonymous with Basketball

Chuck Taylor, Though a Mediocre Player, Knew How to Hustle and Perform

The Converse All Star. Photo courtesy of Marc Roberts/Flickr.

By Abe Aamidor
September 14, 2017

When Chuck Taylor, who was born in rural southern Indiana in 1901, left home at age 17 to play professional basketball, he was following an unlikely dream. The game of basketball—invented by James Naismith, a YMCA physical fitness instructor in Massachusetts in 1891—was still a minor sport in America. Few competitive leagues existed, and those that did were regional. Most organized teams were subsidized by large manufacturing concerns, such as General Electric or the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., or …

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How Universities Migrated into Cities and Democratized Higher Education

Colleges Once Thought the Countryside Bred Character. Now They Use Cities for "Hands-On Learning"

The dedication of the City College of New York campus in 1908. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Steven J. Diner
August 31, 2017

Since the end of World War II, most American college students have attended schools in cities and metropolitan areas. Mirroring the rapid urbanization of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this trend reflects the democratization of college access and the enormous growth in the numbers of commuter students who live at home while attending college.

Going to college in the city seems so normal now that it’s difficult to comprehend that it once represented a …

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How Sears Industrialized, Suburbanized, and Fractured the American Economy

The Iconic Retail Giant Turned Thrift into Profit, But Couldn’t Keep Pace with Modern Consumer Culture

A Sears Outlet Store in Downers Grove, Illinois shuttered its doors in September, 1993. Photo by Charles Bennett/Associated Press.

By Vicki Howard
July 20, 2017

The lifetime of Sears has spanned, and embodied, the rise of modern American consumer culture. The 130-year-old mass merchandiser that was once the largest retailer in the United States is part of the fabric of American society.

From its start as a 19th-century mail-order firm, to its heyday on Main Street and in suburban malls, and from its late 20th-century reorientation toward credit and financial products to its attempted return to its original retail identity, Sears has mirrored the ups …

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The Many Ways to Be a Good Citizen

From the Revolutionary Era to Today, "Doing Your Part” Has Meant Different Things for Different Americans

New Citizens

May 1, 2017

The Constitution tells us what makes a citizen of the United States, legally speaking. But over the decades, American citizenship—and the ingredients that make a good citizen in a modern Republic—has been a subject of debate. Voting and serving in the armed forces are part of the equation to be sure. But for some women, minorities, and others, who haven’t always been allowed to participate in elections or to fight, good citizenship has meant engaging in protest and agitating for …

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How the Bloodiest Mutiny in British Naval History Helped Create American Political Asylum

Outrage Over the Revolt Spurred the U.S. to Deliver on a Promise of the Revolution

British sailors boarding a Man of War to recapture of the British Hermione in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, two years after the crew had mutinied. Painting by John Augustus Atkinson; Fry & Sutherland; Edward Orme. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum.

By A. Roger Ekirch
March 24, 2017

The United States has a special history, and thus bears a unique stake, when it comes to the flight of foreign refugees, particularly those seeking sanctuary from oppression and violence. Political asylum has long been a defining element of America’s national identity, beginning most forcefully in 1776 with Thomas Paine’s pledge in Common Sense that independence from Great Britain would afford “an asylum for mankind.”

Curiously, the nation’s decision to admit asylum-seekers was not a direct consequence of our Revolutionary …

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How Abolitionists Fought—and Lost—the Battle with America’s Sweet Tooth

Before Cotton Became the Symbol of American Slavery, Cane Sugar Was the Source of Oppression and Bitter Opposition

Digging the Cane-holes—Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate II. Image by William Clark. Courtesy of the British Library/Flickr.

By Calvin Schermerhorn
March 10, 2017

Today, land developer and businessman William Cooper is best known for founding Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But back in the 1790s, Cooper was a judge and a congressman who used his power to market a different sort of pleasure—American-made maple syrup—as an ethical homegrown alternative to molasses made from cane sugar, which was at that time farmed by slaves. He took tours of the Eastern Seaboard, extolling the virtues of “free sugar,” as he …

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Television and Film Have a Role to Play in Repairing a Fractured America

Despite the Bitterness Splintering the Nation, History Shows We’re “All in the Family"

A reunion of the cast of All in the Family at O'Conner restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1991. Photo by Chris Martinez/Associated Press.

February 22, 2017

In American memory, if not always in reality, television and film once played a unifying role. During the Great Depression, decadent Hollywood productions delivered welcome diversion. At the dawn of rock n’ roll, Elvis and The Beatles landed in living rooms across America via The Ed Sullivan Show. During the upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Walter Cronkite functioned as a reassuring and trustworthy pater familias. And in the 1980s, Michael Jackson moonwalked his way onto screens large and small, …

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How Medicare Both Salved and Scarred American Healthcare

The 52-Year-Old Federal Program's Successes Reflect a Complex Legacy

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Medicare Bill into law while former President Harry S. Truman, right, observes during a ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. on July 30, 1965. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

By Julian E. Zelizer
February 17, 2017

Before Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 millions of elderly Americans lacked health insurance. They could not afford to go to the hospital, nor could they cover the cost of a physician. Medical breakthroughs ranging from antibiotics to new surgical procedures kept increasing the cost of health care, but the elderly were left out in the cold, and were unable to buy the insurance that was being given to workers in manufacturing jobs.

For them, just going to the hospital …

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How the Passport Became an Improbable Symbol of American Identity

What Began as an Informal Means of Introduction Became the Ultimate Government-Sanctioned Authenticator

Anna Karen Ramirez, 19, poses with her passport at her home in Alamo, Texas in 2009. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

By Craig Robertson
February 6, 2017

It was originally a European tradition, not ours. But in 1780, needing a more formal way to send former Continental Congressman Francis Dana from France to Holland, Benjamin Franklin used his own printing press to create a new document. The single-sheet letter, written entirely in French, politely requested that Dana and his servant be allowed to pass freely as they traveled for the next month. Franklin signed and sealed the page himself and handed it off to Dana, creating one …

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How Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse Elevated the Everyman

The Disneyfication of American History Began Long Before the Theme Parks

Souvenir Disneyland scrapbook with Frontierland’s iconic symbols from 1955. Courtesy of Bethanee Bemis.

By Bethanee Bemis
January 3, 2017

There are few symbols of pure Americana more potent than the Disney theme parks. To walk down any of the destinations’ manicured Main Streets, U.S.A.—as hundreds of thousands of visitors do each day—is to walk though a particular vision of America’s collective memory. It’s small-town values. It’s optimism. It’s energy. It’s innovation. It’s a certain kind of innocence. It is by design, the story of the “American Way”—and one that has played a dominant role in shaping the collective …

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