What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

The 1900 World’s Fair Produced Dazzling Dynamos, Great Art, and Our Current Conversation About Technology

Henry Adams’ Influential but Largely Forgotten Warning About Science Superseding Soul is Especially Relevant Today

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By Art Molella
August 30, 2016

Debates rage today about the risks and benefits of modern technology. Driverless cars, the use of drones in warfare and commerce, the deployment of robots in place of human soldiers, surgery by robotic rather than human hands. The Internet of Things that puts digital devices in just about everything. Artificial intelligence not only assisting but superseding the human brain. Genetic manipulation of food, organisms, and human parts. Human cloning—even the manufacture of human beings.

The National Institutes of Health recently …

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NASA’s Other Moonshot Helped Revolutionize Marketing

The Apollo Moon Landing Wasn't Supposed to Be Broadcast, Until a Team of Ex-Reporters Pushed for Live TV

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By Richard Jurek
August 16, 2016

On July 20, 1969, an estimated 600 million people watched and listened in real time as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the surface of the moon.

With the drama unfolding on their television screens, the attention of millions was focused on a single event—a single step, really—for the first time. It was one of the first grand, extended global social media events of our modern era, much bigger than a Super Bowl Sunday.

But landing on …

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Before Donald Trump, Wendell L. Willkie Upended the GOP Primary in 1940

The Populist Businessman Known as “The Barefoot Wall Street Lawyer” Took Over His Party’s Convention in Philadelphia

Wendell Willkie, Republican presidential candidate, parades through his hometown, Elwood, Ind., Aug. 17, 1940.  He was en route to a local park where he delivered his acceptance speech as the party's nominee.  (AP Photo/John D. Collins)

By R. Craig Sautter
July 26, 2016

Later this week, the historic nomination of the first female candidate for president by a major political party at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia is sure to generate considerable hoopla. But, as with all U.S. presidential conventions in recent decades, the outcome is already certain.

Such predictability was not always the case. In fact, three-quarters of a century ago, the City of Brotherly Love played host to a very different convention—one whose outcome was so unexpected it became known as …

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Why Do Americans Put Pets, Not Their Owners, on Trial?

The Bizarre History Behind Our Current Canine Legal System Is Full of Rats, Pigs, and Moles

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By David Grimm
July 12, 2016

When a Japanese Akita named Taro bit the lip of a 10-year-old New Jersey girl in 1991, police seized the dog and a judge ordered him destroyed. Taro’s owners appealed to a higher court, while the canine, incarcerated at a county sheriff’s office, awaited execution. Newspapers dubbed him the “death row dog.”

A few years later, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire judge, in a modern version of excommunication, ordered a Labrador mix named Prince to vacate the city after killing a rooster. …

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With Free State of Jones, Hollywood’s Civil War Comes Closer to History’s

Pop Culture May Finally Be Ready to Surrender the Myth of a Noble, Confederate Lost Cause

At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote.

By Victoria Bynum
June 23, 2016

The setting is the piney woods of Civil War Jones County, Mississippi. The white farmer Newt Knight leads a band of deserters against Confederate forces. An enslaved woman, Rachel, lends invaluable aid to this Knight Band. After gaining her freedom, she spends the rest of her life as Newt’s partner.

These events are a great story—and even better history. This summer, Free State of Jones will bring to movie theaters across the country a thrilling and relatively unknown tale of …

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What Do Readers Want From the Lives of American Women?

Over the Decades, the Expectations of Female Biography Subjects Have Changed, but Not as Much as We Might Think

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By Elaine Showalter
June 21, 2016

A hundred years ago, in March 1916, the first biography of Julia Ward Howe was published to general acclaim. Written by Howe’s three daughters, Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 was the first major biography of an American woman, and set a high standard. In 1917, it received the first Pulitzer Prize for biography; not until 1986 would another biography of an American woman by a woman (Louise Bogan by Elizabeth Frank) win the award. Writing my own study of Howe’s life, …

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Herbert Hoover’s Hidden Economic Acumen

What an Awful President's Secret Strength Could Teach Today's Financial Leaders About Capitalism

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By Charles Rappleye
May 31, 2016

From our nation’s inception, Americans have been a forward-looking people— youthful, optimistic, even revolutionary. Progress has been our byword, and the past has often been dismissed as stodgy, if not rudimentary. Few phrases are so thoroughly dismissive as to pronounce, of a person, a trend, or an idea, as, that, or they, are “history.”

This inclination is rooted in a sense of optimism, and the confidence that we learn as we go. But it can also reflect a degree of hubris, …

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The Surprisingly Modest Start to McMansion Sprawl

Builders Like the Campanelli Brothers Helped Fuel Midcentury Suburban Desire, from Massachusetts to Moscow

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By Barbara Miller Lane
May 24, 2016

After V-J Day—August 14, 1945—millions of World War II veterans came home and began to look for a place to live. New highways, cars, and government-sponsored mortgages encouraged them to dream big. Up until that point, Americans, especially immigrant Americans, had thought of the Land of Opportunity as the place where discipline and hard work would guarantee prosperity and upward social mobility. After the War, they believed they could have more. The American Dream now meant home ownership and spatial …

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How Ronald Reagan Peddled Laundry Detergent

Borax Promised Americans a Ticket to the Middle Class and a Mythic Piece of the Western Frontier

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By Kim Stringfellow
May 16, 2016

One fall evening in 1881, a prospector named Henry Spiller knocked on the door of Aaron and Rosie Winters’ modest stone cabin about 40 miles due east of Death Valley and asked to stay the night.

After dinner Spiller exuberantly showed off a sample of “cotton ball,” a weird, semi-translucent rock formation containing borax. Spiller suggested to his hosts that fortunes awaited those lucky enough to find a generous deposit of the stuff. He showed them how to test for …

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What Does ‘Natural-Born’ American Even Mean?

The Seemingly Rigid Requirement for the Presidency Didn't Disqualify the Nation's British-Born Founders

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By Don H. Doyle
May 10, 2016

When choosing among presidential candidates, Americans find plenty to debate about their fitness for office, experience, and economic and foreign policies. But the framers of the Constitution made no mention of such qualifications; they were primarily concerned that the president be truly American. And one of the ways that a president counted as truly American was to be, in the Constitution’s phrase, a “natural-born citizen.”

In the modern era, this phrase has been particularly contentious. There was the clamor over whether …

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