What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

What Lincoln Was Thinking When He Freed the Slaves

The President Grappled for Months Over Whether Signing the Emancipation Proclamation Was ‘American’

Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation

By Todd Brewster
February 16, 2015

The American Civil War was, among other things, an epic inheritance quarrel, with both sides claiming to be the legitimate heirs to the nation’s founding principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The Confederacy, of course, saw itself beating back the forces of tyranny much as Washington and Jefferson had asserted the sovereignty of the individual states from that of an “undemocratic” distant power. The Union, meanwhile, sought to preserve the republic forged by independence and fulfill the Declaration’s …

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Was Rock ’n’ Roll America’s Greatest Revolution?

How Rock Music Has Been Raising Hell Since It Was Born

February 6, 2015

At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar live for the first time—and an audience expecting acoustic folk songs booed through “Like a Rolling Stone.” Rock already had changed Dylan, and Dylan would go on to change rock ’n’ roll. But Dylan’s break from tradition was neither the first nor the last in rock history. In fact, Dylan’s musical revolution drew on an already long-established history of trailblazers and innovations in rock, which have made …

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My Country ’Tis a Book

Are We Still Searching for ‘The Great American Novel’?

By Lawrence Buell
February 3, 2015

Most credentialed literary critics disdain it as a grandiose hyperbole, and creative writers tend to speak of it in jest. But for almost 150 years, all of us—writers, readers, cultural trend-watchers—have been obsessed with the idea of “The Great American Novel,” a piece of literature that somehow captures the gestalt of the whirling multitudes that make up our ambitious country at a crucial or defining moment.

Why this unkillable mantra about the preeminent American novel? The Russians, the French, and …

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The Marquis de Lafayette’s Great American Love Affair

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

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

Montana, cowgirl, American West

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

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

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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