What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

The Marquis de Lafayette’s Great American Love Affair

Why a 19-Year-old Frenchman Traded Versailles for Valley Forge

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By Laura Auricchio
January 16, 2015

The 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette had met only a handful of Americans when he signed up to join General George Washington’s army, but he felt certain that the people of the United States were as honorable as the cause of freedom for which they fought. Their idealism was intoxicating, and its hold on Lafayette reminds us of a time when the young United States seemed to promise a brighter future for all mankind.

Lafayette was hardly the only Frenchman of his …

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Women and the Myth of the American West

The Frontier Offered Opportunities for Land Ownership and Artistic Inspiration—But Life There Wasn’t Without Struggle

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January 9, 2015

In the American imagination, the rugged, vast landscapes of the West are dotted with solitary men on horseback—cowboys, outlaws, sheriffs. But the frontier was also home to women whose stories don’t match the standard Hollywood Western script. What brought women to places like California and Wyoming, and what lives could they lead there? Did Western women experience the same freedoms and adventures as their male counterparts?

In advance of the “What It Means to Be American” launch event “The Women of the …

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Why Won’t America Go Metric?

Our Centuries-Long Ambivalence about Meters and Liters Mirrors our Ambivalence about our Place in the World

ruler, metric system, measurements, American exceptionalism

By John Bemelmans Marciano
December 16, 2014

We Americans measure things our own way. Our yardsticks are marked in feet and inches (and eighths of inches), measures that are unfathomable to foreigners, nearly all of whom have been brought up in a decimals-only environment. They tend to see our traditional weights and measures as the very embodiment of wrong-headed American exceptionalism. Why else would we stick to these cultural relics in an ever-shrinking world?

I remember that it was supposed to have been different. My generation of schoolkids …

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What’s the Deal With Canned Cranberry Sauce?

The Pilgrims’ Plates Looked Nothing Like the Holiday Meal We Eat Today

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By Susan Evans
November 27, 2014

No American holiday conjures up images and memories of food like Thanksgiving. Starting in preschool, most of us learned that Thanksgiving commemorates the moment in 1621 when Pilgrims sat down for a peaceful meal with their Indian friends. They wore funny hats and buckle shoes that are conveniently easy to replicate out of construction paper. They ate turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and stuffing … just like I ate with my family every year in Stanfordville, New York, after watching …

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The ‘Hot, Foul, Sultry Air’ of Ellis Island

What It Was Like at the Main Gateway to the U.S. in the Early 20th Century

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October 17, 2014

Immigrants arrive in the U.S. today at thousands of entry points, by plane, boat, car, and foot. But for decades at the turn of the 20th century, the harbor at Ellis Island was the main gateway to America. The recently erected Statue of Liberty welcomed these huddled masses, and the hive of activity that was New York City buzzed just beyond.

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Is Tony Soprano Quintessentially American?

Christopher Columbus Is No Longer the Iconic Italian-American. And That Might Be a Good Thing.

Christopher Columbus, parade, Columbus Day Parade, Italian-American

By Nancy Foner
October 10, 2014

It used to be that Christopher Columbus was the major iconic representative of the Italian-American community in popular culture, but he has since given way to the likes of Tony Soprano and all the Hollywood-inspired gangsters that came before him.

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America Is More of a Club Than a Family

Our Ability to Opt in—or Out—Defines Our National Character

America Is More of a Club Than a Family

By Claude S. Fischer
September 22, 2014

Over the course of the last 15 years or so, there’s been an explosion in the number of charter schools around the country. According to the latest figures (from 2012), some 2.1 million students are enrolled in schools run by private groups awarded public money.

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