What It Means to Be American
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Explore : democracy

Engagements

Suppressing Voting Rights Is as Old as the Republic—But the Tactics Keep Changing 

Discriminatory State Constitutions, Poll and Literacy Taxes, and Now Photo ID Laws All Have Been Used to Keep Ballots From the Less Powerful 

By Allan J. Lichtman
October 8, 2018

The more that efforts to suppress voting rights in America change, the more they remain the same.

From the earliest days of the republic to the present, politicians have sought to limit the ability of non-whites to vote. What has changed is the nature of suppression—either the addition of regulations, or the deregulation of parts of the process—as well as the degree to which would-be vote suppressors reveal their intentions.

The American problem with voter suppression started with a void in the …

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Identities

Why Do So Many Public Buildings in the U.S. Look Like Greek Temples?

In the Architectural Void of a New Nation, William Strickland Borrowed from Ancient Athens to Express America's Democratic Ethos

By Robert Russell
September 20, 2018

President Andrew Jackson took a keen interest in the construction of the federal mint in Philadelphia, a grand, columned edifice, inspired by the temples of ancient Greece, that opened in 1833. Jackson was not a man known for his appreciation of cultural and artistic pursuits. A populist who famously railed against the elites, he had initially wanted to construct a simple building for minting money quickly, because there was a severe shortage of specie—coins—in the country at the time.

Gradually, though, he came around to the idea of a grander mint, and became personally involved in many aspects …

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Ideas

How Alexander Hamilton Fought the Tyranny of the Majority

By Shielding British Loyalists From Persecution, the Founder Elevated Principles Over Prejudice

By Kate Elizabeth Brown
March 15, 2018

The struggles of America’s cultural outsiders to be included in the country—in the face of disparagement, exclusion, or punishment—are as old as the nation. And, as Alexander Hamilton discovered in the 1770s and 1780s, they cut to the core of what it means to be American.

Before Hamilton reached his political apotheosis in George Washington’s cabinet, he immigrated to the mainland North American colonies from Nevis, an island in the British West Indies. Like his contemporaries Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton …

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Engagements

How the Suffragists Used a Few Good Men to Help Get the Vote

Lampooned as Hen-Pecked Wimps, Male Supporters of Crusading Women Reinvented Themselves as Dashing Trophy Spouses

By Brooke Kroeger
March 5, 2018

The early rap on men who found themselves married to hard-working, hard-core suffragists must have been downright humiliating. Cartoonists portrayed them as gents in tie-and-starched-collared misery, shirtsleeves up, infants in tow, forced to scrub clothes at a washtub or toe-rock a cradle while they flattened dough with a rolling pin. That changed completely in the 1910s, as American men who had been roped to the votes-for-women movement by wedlock reinvented themselves with dashing post-chivalrous aplomb.

Gone were the hen-pecked, emasculated …

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Ideas

Do Beautiful Parks Strengthen Democracy?

To Frederick Law Olmsted, Designer of Many of America’s Most Iconic Landscapes, Common Spaces Are Key to Getting Beyond Our Own Narrow Individualism

By Garrett Dash Nelson
December 17, 2015

In 1846, shortly after his 24th birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote to a friend, full of dismay about the prospect of finding a purpose in life. “I want to make myself useful to the world—to make happy—to help to advance the condition of Society and hasten the preparation for the Millennium—as well as other things too numerous to mention,” he fretted. “Now, how shall I prepare myself to exercise the greatest and best influence in the situation of life I …

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Engagements

George Washington’s Deep Self-Doubt

The First President Was Indispensable to Our Early Democracy, Precisely Because He Didn’t See Himself as Indispensable

By Robert Middlekauff
May 18, 2015

Revolutions tend to get hijacked, going from being about the people to being about the triumphant revolutionary leaders. And so the French Revolution begat Napoleon, and the Russian Revolution begat Lenin and Stalin.

It’s appropriate, therefore, that one of the more enduring, and endearing, aspects of our national reverence for George Washington is the fact that once he had militarily won independence for the American colonies—at a time when he had achieved global fame for this feat—he appeared perfectly content to …

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Engagements

The Greatest Native American Intellectual You’ve Never Heard Of

The Short Life and Long Legacy of the 19th-Century Reformer William Apess

William Apess, Native American, reformer

By Philip F. Gura
April 17, 2015

On April 1, 1839, a New York City medical examiner performed an autopsy on a man at a boardinghouse in a working-class neighborhood of lower Manhattan. He had performed scores of such examinations each month, but this one was especially significant though he did not recognize the person: 41-year-old William Apess had written more than any Native American writer before the 20th century, and had attained fame and notoriety in his short life for championing native peoples’ rights.

Still largely forgotten …

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Engagements

I Do the Math That Keeps Elections Honest

It May Not Be Glamorous, But I Travel Around the Country Counting Votes

election, voting booths, vote, Election Day

By Bev Harris
November 4, 2014

I was standing outside a metal warehouse building that was part of the Volusia County, Florida elections department on November 16, 2004, worried that I might leave empty-handed.

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Imperfect Union

Want to Save Newspapers?

Then Journalists Need to Grow Up. Being America’s Watchdog Is Critical, But It Isn’t the Press’s Most Important Obligation

Want to Save Newspapers

By Gregory Rodriguez
June 9, 2014

Newspapers are in trouble. Not just because of the Internet and advertising and subscriptions. But because, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, only 28 percent of Americans think that journalists contribute a lot to society’s well-being.

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Imperfect Union

Does America Need a Tahrir Square?

The U.S. Has Let the Public Square Become a Metaphor. That Can’t Be Good for Our Democracy.

People gather in Tahrir square to celebrate the anniversary of an attack on Israeli forces during the 1973 war, in Cairo

By Gregory Rodriguez
April 14, 2014

Maidan Square in Kiev. Taksim Square in Istanbul. Tahrir Square in Cairo. Recent democratic movements around the globe have risen, or crashed and burned, on the hard pavement of vast urban public squares. The media largely has focused on the role of social media technology in these movements.

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