What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

How It’s a Wonderful Life Seized on an Urbanizing America’s Nostalgia for the Small Town

As Mid-Century Americans Moved to Cities, Capra's Film Helped to Idealize Isolated White Communities

By Ryan Poll
December 6, 2018

It’s a Wonderful Life can be read through multiple prisms—as a Christmas movie, a family movie, a love story, an existential journey, and a celebration of the everyman. But Frank Capra’s movie invites audiences to consider it, first and foremost, as a small-town film.

The first image seen is a sign welcoming audiences: “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS.” Even if initial audiences don’t know anything about this specific town, they “know” the community they about to enter: the American small …

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What George Bailey’s Building and Loan Company Can Still Teach Us About Banking

In His Time and Ours, Big Lenders Often Get a Pass, While Small Banks and the Communities They Serve Are Left Vulnerable

By Robert E. Wright
December 6, 2018

The bank run scene in It’s a Wonderful Life always makes me cry real tears. If you care about America, you should love the scene too—and not just because it is a brilliant piece of cinematic storytelling.

The scene unfolds as George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, sets off on his honeymoon in a taxicab, only to realize that depositors have gathered outside a local bank, demanding their money. Instead of continuing on his honeymoon, George hustles to his beloved Bailey …

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Our Favorite Christmas Classic Is Really a Study in American Suicide

It’s a Wonderful Life Delivers a Haunting Treatise on the Religious, Legal, and Economic Implications of Taking One’s Life

By Richard Bell
December 6, 2018

Isn’t it a little odd that our most cherished Christmas film is about a man seeking to end his life by jumping off a bridge? Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is full of traditional holiday themes like romance, friendship, and family. It’s unabashedly sentimental too—“Capra-corn” in its purest form. But it’s also a film about suicide—its causes, costs, and consequences.

The movie’s dramatic arc is built around 40-year-old George Bailey’s attempt to kill himself. The film opens with prayers offered …

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Why George Bailey Is the American Jesus

Reflecting a Postwar Religious Revival, the Long-Suffering Hero Played by Jimmy Stewart Lives a Life of Self-Sacrifice and Resists Temptation

By Patrick Allitt
December 6, 2018

In the 15 years after World War II, a religious revival swept through America. Records were set for church attendance and new church construction, a succession of religious books made the best-seller list, and religious leaders like Billy Graham became prominent figures in public life. Looking back, the 1940s and 1950s resemble other great revivals or “awakenings” that have punctuated American history.

In part, this particular awakening was a response to the war and its aftermath. America’s Protestants, Catholics, …

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Frank Capra’s Formula for Taming American Capitalism

It’s a Wonderful Life Prescribed Community and Empathy as the Remedy to a Callous Economic System

By Maribel Morey
December 6, 2018

From the Gilded Age and until well into the Great Depression, Americans engaged in one of the most consequential debates in the country’s history: how best to address the economic inequities and societal problems stemming from industrialization, and relatedly, wealth maximization in the private sector.

For some, a bureaucratic state was the answer. As was argued first by the Socialist Party of America in the early 20th century, the state could equalize wealth inequalities. Later, with the Depression, a great …

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The Pioneering Cornell Anatomist Who Sought to Bring ‘Honor’ and ‘Duty’ to College Life

At the Turn of the 20th Century, Burton Green Wilder Railed Against Frivolous Activities and Thought Privileged Students Should Hold Each Other to Higher Standards

By Richard M. Reid
November 8, 2018

In 1901, Cornell University students created a new holiday on campus, called “Spring Day.”

Many faculty members objected to the holiday, but few were as visible and vocal as professor Burt Green Wilder, who would go on to become a defining, if little-known, figure in American higher education.

Spring Day built upon a relatively new tradition: During the 1890s students began holding a dance and fundraiser, the Navy Ball, prior to major fall regattas. Not surprisingly, on the day of the regatta, …

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The Union Army Regiment That Survived Andersonville

Defeated and Humbled in Battle, the 16th Connecticut Volunteers Gained a Measure of Redemption by Enduring a Year in a Brutal Confederate Stockade

By Lesley J. Gordon
November 1, 2018

More than 40 years after the Civil War ended, machinist George Q. Whitney, formerly a private in the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, helped to dedicate a monument to his state’s prisoners of war. The statue, nicknamed “Andersonville Boy,” was a duplicate; the original had been erected at the site of the former Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia in October 1907. Whitney told a crowd assembled in Hartford that, “many of you know nothing of the Men whom I represent, so …

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How the South Made Hubert Humphrey Care About Race

The Minnesota Liberal's Louisiana School Years Turned His 'Abstract Commitment' to Civil Rights Into 'Flesh and Blood'

By Arnold A. Offner
July 26, 2018

It is one of the great ironies of 20th-century American history: Hubert Humphrey, the foremost proponent of civil rights among American politicians, had little contact with African Americans until age 28.

Humphrey’s distance from people who would benefit from his legislative prowess was a result of biography and history. He was born in 1911 in the tiny prairie hamlet of Wallace, South Dakota, which had no African Americans. In 1919, he moved with his family 50 miles southwest to slightly larger …

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The South Carolina Aristocrat Who Became a Feminist Abolitionist

After Moving to Philadelphia and Joining the Quakers, Angelina Grimké Rededicated Her Life to Fighting for Racial Equality

By Louise W. Knight
July 23, 2018

Angelina Grimké’s future seemed clear the day she entered the world. Born a Southern aristocrat in Charleston, South Carolina in 1805, she was destined to become an enslaver; born female, she was destined to receive little formal education, have no profession, and pursue a life of domestic obscurity. Instead, she broke free. She left the South for Philadelphia in 1829 and by 1837 had become a famous lecturer and published author advocating for the end of slavery and for women’s …

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The 41-Volume Government Report That Turned Immigration Into a Problem

In 1911, the Dillingham Commission Set a Half-Century Precedent for Screening Out 'Undesirable' Newcomers

By Robert F. Zeidel
July 16, 2018

The Dillingham Commission is today little known. But a century ago, it stood at the center of a transformation in immigration policy, exemplifying Americans’ simultaneous feelings of fascination and fear toward the millions of migrants who have made the United States their home.

In 1911, the Dillingham Commission produced perhaps the most extensive investigation of immigration in the history of the country, an exhaustive 41-volume study that demonstrated just how vital 19th-century and early-20th-century immigrants were to the U.S. economy. But …

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