What It Means to Be American
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Explore : American History

Identities

What Benjamin Franklin Ate When He Was Homesick

Living Abroad, the Founder From Philadelphia Saw America's Essence in Turkeys, Succotash, and Cranberries

By Rae Katherine Eighmey
February 19, 2018

In the midst of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin envisioned the turkey as an exemplar of the ideal American citizen. In a 1783 letter home to his daughter Sally, written while Franklin was serving as chief diplomat to France, he wrote about the “ribbons and medals” presented to the French by grateful Americans in thanks for significant military and financial support. The tokens bore an image of an eagle—but, Franklin explained, some recipients complained that the workmanship was not up …

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Identities

Why We French Canadians Are Neither French nor Canadian

An Intimate Family History of New England's Franco-Americans

By Robert B. Perreault
December 7, 2017

Whenever my family visits Québec, people other than our relatives are surprised to hear Americans—even our grandchildren, ages five and six—speak fluent French. They’re amazed to learn that French is our mother tongue and that we also speak English without a French accent. Likewise, if we leave our native New Hampshire to travel elsewhere in the United States, we get blank stares upon mentioning that we’re Franco-Americans from New England.

“Franco-American, as in canned spaghetti?” some ask.

I roll my eyes and …

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Identities

Why Americans Love Diners

For 135 Years, the Iconic Eateries Have Been Our Home Away From Home

By Richard J. S. Gutman
November 27, 2017

Driving north on Route 95 through Connecticut, I noticed a billboard advertising a local diner. Its immense letters spelled out: “Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free and Diner Classics.” I knew a seismic shift had occurred when Blue Plate Specials—hands-down favorites for nearly a century such as meat loaf, hot turkey sandwiches, and spaghetti and meatballs—were last on a list of diner offerings.

Over their long history, diners have been a subtle part of our built environment and also our inner landscapes. They …

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Places

When Variety Theaters Tantalized the Frontier West

In 19th-Century Spokane, Risqué Performances Set off a Battle Over Civil Morality

By Holly George
November 6, 2017

In the spring of 1897, Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review published an exposé of its city’s thriving red light district—known as Howard Street. The newspaper lingered on distasteful scenes in variety theaters with names like the Comique or the Coeur d’Alene: Places where a man could pick up a game of keno, watch a show, and—for the cost of a drink—enjoy the flirtations of “waiter girls” in short skirts. The most controversial and profitable feature of the Howard Street varieties were their …

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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

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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Identities

When Halloween Mischief Turned to Mayhem

Nineteenth-Century Urbanization Unleashed the Nation's Anarchic Spirits

By Lesley Bannatyne
October 26, 2017

Imagine. Pre-electricity, no moon. It’s late October, and the people whisper: This is the season for witchery, the night the spirits of the dead rise from their graves and hover behind the hedges.

The wind kicks up, and branches click like skeletal finger bones. You make it home, run inside, wedge a chair against the door, and strain to listen. There’s a sharp rap at the window and when you turn, terrified, it’s there leering at you—a glowing, disembodied head …

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Identities

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Positive Symbol of American Power!

Rarely an Agent of the Government, Superman Defended the 'American Way' Through Simple Decency and Acts of Charity

By Ian Gordon
October 23, 2017

I can’t really remember when I first encountered Superman. It might have been through the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman, or it might have been in a Superman comic book—not an American comic book, but a black and white reprint, by the Australian publisher K. G. Murray.

Growing up in Australia, I learned the basic stories of American history from the pages of these Superman comics. I read about the Boston Tea Party; Nathan Hale’s patriotism; Washington crossing …

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Identities

Why Sheep Started So Many Wars in the American West

Each Year, an Idaho Festival Honors the Shepherds Who Sought to Keep the Peace

By Adam M. Sowards
October 5, 2017

In early October, when the leaves turn golden and the shadows of the Sawtooth Mountains lengthen, the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival moves through south central Idaho. The festival, complete with a sheep parade, sheepdog trials, and a wool fest, celebrates the long relationship between sheep and their human companions. 

Sun Valley, Idaho, is synonymous with New West wealth, but it sits in the Wood River Valley, where more humble ranchers and farmers have long made their living. In the …

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Ideas

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

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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Places

The 1938 Hurricane That Revived New England’s Fall Colors

An Epic Natural Disaster Restored the Forest of an Earlier America

By Stephen Long
September 21, 2017

This morning, while driving in central Vermont, listening to the latest news about hurricanes in Florida and Texas, I caught up with my first leaf peeper of the season. Poking along at about 20 mph in his rental car, the tourist was peering at our hills of orange and crimson and gold leaves while simultaneously looking for a place to pull over to snap a photo.

Fall foliage and hurricane season go hand in hand in New England. But what …

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