What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

How New Mexico’s “Peons” Became Enslaved to Debt

A System Inherited From Colonial Spain Kept Americans in Servitude Even After the Civil War

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By William S. Kiser
November 2, 2017

Imagine a time and place where a small debt—even just a few dollars—could translate into a lifetime of servitude not only for the debtor, but also for his or her children. For much of the 19th century, the American Southwest was just such a place. There, a system commonly called debt peonage relegated thousands of men, women, and children to years of bondage to a master.

This system of unfree labor came into existence in the 1700s, when the region was …

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A Short History of the Idea of ‘Main Street’ in America

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Disneyland, the Concept Has Represented Both the Experimental and the Conventional

Disneyland exported its own Main Street USA to its Hong Kong theme park. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Miles Orvell
October 16, 2017

In the United States, Main Street has always been two things—a place and an idea. As both, Main Street has embodied the contradictions of the country itself.

It is the self-consciousness of the idea of Main Street—from its origins in a Nathaniel Hawthorne sketch of New England, to Walt Disney’s construction of a Main Street USA, to the establishment of ersatz Main Streets in today’s urban malls—that makes it so essentially American. Main Street has been used in myriad …

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How the South Recast Defeat as Victory with an Army of Stone Soldiers

Confederate Monuments to Nameless Infantrymen Were Less About Celebrating History Than Reestablishing Social Order

In Monticello, Georgia, a 1910 stone obelisk is flanked by statues of two Confederate soldiers: an officer with a saber (left), and a young private holding a rifle.  Photo by Gregory Rodriguez.

By Gaines M. Foster
September 28, 2017

Monuments to Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders have long been controversial, but monuments to nameless Confederate soldiers, those lone stone figures in public places, are far more common and have long served as an iconic symbol of the South. Understanding the origins of these stone soldiers who still loom over present-day towns and cities may help us better understand current controversies over them.

The white South began to erect soldiers’ monuments soon after the Confederacy’s defeat. In the first …

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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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