What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : Government

Encounters

When the President’s Best and Brightest Were Also the Richest

The Practice of Tapping the Moneyed Elite Began with WWI—and Was Surprisingly Scandal-Free

Bernard Baruch, a financier and speculator known in his day as “the lone wolf of Wall Street,” was one of the first so-called “dollar-a-year men” appointed by President Woodrow Wilson. Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

By Charles Rappleye
February 10, 2017

From our earliest days we Americans have embraced leaders from among the ranks of the nation’s moneyed elite. Voters set the tone when they chose George Washington, the wealthiest man on the continent at the time, as the first president.

But that choice was accompanied by a healthy skepticism of the role of money in the halls of government. As the years went by, recurrent scandals prompted rounds of reform, fostering an intricate system of rules to promote ethical conduct.

The result …

Read More >

Ideas

How the Passport Became an Improbable Symbol of American Identity

What Began as an Informal Means of Introduction Became the Ultimate Government-Sanctioned Authenticator

Anna Karen Ramirez, 19, poses with her passport at her home in Alamo, Texas in 2009. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

By Craig Robertson
February 6, 2017

It was originally a European tradition, not ours. But in 1780, needing a more formal way to send former Continental Congressman Francis Dana from France to Holland, Benjamin Franklin used his own printing press to create a new document. The single-sheet letter, written entirely in French, politely requested that Dana and his servant be allowed to pass freely as they traveled for the next month. Franklin signed and sealed the page himself and handed it off to Dana, creating one …

Read More >

Encounters

Remembering 1876, the Year of the Inconclusive Vote

There Has Never Been Anything Like It Before or Since

The public inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes takes place in front of the U.S. Capitol on the East Portico in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 1877.   (AP Photo)

By John Copeland Nagle
October 10, 2016

We are told that this year’s presidential election is unprecedented in many ways. The American voters are faced with the choice between an unlikely candidate who has been repudiated by many within his own party, and a seasoned politician whom the head of the FBI characterized as “extremely careless.” The tumultuousness of the race makes many long for the good old days when elections were civil, thoughtful, and quickly resolved

In other words, we are not longing for 1876.

A …

Read More >

Identities

What the First First Couple Bequeathed America

George and Martha Washington’s Close Partnership Helped Them Through Rebellion, War, and Even the Presidency

Fraser ART

By Flora Fraser
January 12, 2016

One of the most revealing spaces at Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home in Virginia, is a bare attic bedroom. Martha retreated here after George’s death in 1799. Without him, she would not occupy the elegant bedchamber they had so long shared. Grief made this tough, capable woman give up her will to live. She died, still in that attic retreat, a few years later.

Standing at the threshold of that little room, 10 years ago, I wondered at the …

Read More >