What It Means to Be American
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Places

The “Little Giant” Who Thought That Backing Slavery Would Unite America

Stephen Douglas' Push to Allow Human Chattel in Nebraska Lit a Match to the Civil War

An 1856 British cartoon depicts Stephen Douglas shoving an African American slave down the throat of a gigantic anti-slavery “free soiler” being held by James Buchanan (right) and Lewis Cass (far right). Franklin Pierce is holding down the giant’s beard. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Graham A. Peck
February 15, 2018

One of the most ambitious attempts to unite America ended up dividing it, and altering it forever.

At the opening of the 33rd Congress on December 5, 1853, Stephen A. Douglas, the short, rotund U.S. Senator from Illinois, planned an ambitious legislative program of national expansion.

“The Little Giant,” as he was known, sought to establish a new territory—Nebraska Territory—fashioned from the immense tract of Indian-occupied land that stretched west to the Rockies from Missouri, and north to Canada. He desired …

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Places

The Myth of Untouched Wilderness That Gave Rise to Modern Miami

Indians, Slaves, and Spanish Missionaries Settled the Area, but Marketers and Entrepreneurs Erased Their Legacy

Julia Tuttle’s home, constructed by enslaved Africans in the 1830s and used as a military fort during the Seminole Wars. Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

By Andrew K. Frank
February 12, 2018

Miami is widely known as the “Magic City.” It earned its nickname in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shortly after the arrival of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad and the opening of his opulent Royal Palm Hotel in 1897. Visitors from across the country were lured to this extravagant five-story hotel, at the edge of the nation’s southernmost frontier. From their vantage point, South Florida was the Wild West—and Miami could only exist if incoming settlers were able …

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Journeys

The Black-Owned Alabama Plantation That Taught Me the Value of Home

After Emancipation, Ex-Slaves Took Over the Cotton Fields. Today Their Descendants Still Cherish the Land.

James Lyles, 69, one of the descendants of former slaves who bought the Alabama cotton plantation where they'd formerly toiled. Lyles and other descendants held the property in common and undivided, to be shared by all the heirs. Photo courtesy of Sydney Nathans.

By Sydney Nathans
February 8, 2018

By the time I was eight years old, in 1948, my parents, my sister, and I had lived in five different states and had moved more often than that. My grandparents had emigrated from Europe to America early in the 20th century. Somehow I took it for granted that staying in one place for a long time was, if not un-American, at least unusual.

When I became a historian in the 1960s, I gravitated to a man on the move …

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Places

When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

Before Prohibition, German Immigrants Created a "New Rhineland"

A booth for the White Tail Run Winery at a farmers' market in Overland Park, Kansas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Pete Dulin
February 5, 2018

Located in the northeastern corner of Kansas, Doniphan County’s eastern edge is shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, carved away by the flowing waters of the Missouri River. The soil is composed of deep, mineral-rich silty loess and limestone, making it ideal for farming—and, it turns out, for growing grapes and making wine.

California wasn’t always America’s winemaking leader. During the mid-19th century, that distinction went to Kansas and neighboring Missouri, where winemakers and grape-growers led the U.S. wine industry …

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Engagements

The Jewish Immigrant Philanthropist Who Didn’t Like the Word “Charity”

Julius Rosenwald Made Sears a Retail Giant and Used His Wealth to Give the Poor Tools for Upward Mobility

Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in 1918.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Hasia Diner
February 2, 2018

The biography of Julius Rosenwald, one of the most thoughtful and transformative philanthropists in American history, parallels the life experiences of many Jewish immigrant families of the mid-19th century—women and men who left German-speaking lands, relied heavily on family and community networks, and arrived in America with commercial skills that served them well.

Enjoying the benefits of whiteness, they arrived just in time for the physical expansion of the United States across the continent, referred to by patriotic orators as …

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Engagements

The Humble but Hardy Leaf That Defines Our National Character

The Collard Green, Born of Trans-Atlantic Trading, Embodies the Mix of European and African Cultures

A truck farmer selling collards in Wadesboro, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Edward H. Davis.

By Edward H. Davis
January 25, 2018

Driving the Deep South’s back roads in late fall or winter offers glimpses of a shade of green bluer and darker than most of the vegetation you’ll see, arranged in garden rows with hints of purple and yellow. The untrained viewer—just trying to keep eyes on the road, for goodness’ sake—may not realize that these verdant patches are in fact a unique marker of American history: the beloved, if at times belittled, collard green.

Collards are unknown in most of the …

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Places

How Dodge City Became the Ultimate Wild West

Fake News and Smoking Guns Made the Kansas Town a Symbol of Frontier Lawlessness

The “Dodge City Peace Commission,” June, 1883. Wyatt Earp is seated, second from left. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Robert R. Dykstra and Jo Ann Manfra
January 22, 2018

Everywhere American popular culture has penetrated, people use the phrase “Get out of Dodge” or “Gettin’ outta Dodge” when referring to some dangerous or threatening or generally unpleasant situation. The metaphor is thought to have originated among U.S. troops during the Vietnam War, but it anchors the idea that early Dodge City, Kansas, was an epic, world-class theater of interpersonal violence and civic disorder.

Consider this passage from the 2013 British crime novel, Missing in Malmö, by Torquil Macleod:

“The drive …

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Identities

The Civil War Art of Using Words to Assuage Fear and Convey Love

Soldiers and Their Families, Sometimes Barely Literate, Turned to Letters to Stay Close

Envelope for stationary packet, "Torch of Love," George W. Fisher Bookseller and Stationer, Rochester, New York. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

By Christopher Hager
January 15, 2018

Sarepta Revis was a 17-year-old newlywed when her husband left their North Carolina home to fight in the Confederate States Army. Neither had much schooling, and writing did not come easily to them. Still, they exchanged letters with some regularity, telling each other how they were doing, expressing their love and longing. Once, after Daniel had been away for more than six months, Sarepta told him in a letter that she was “as fat as a pig.” This may not …

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Ideas

Why Americans Think Managing the National Budget Is Like Balancing the Family Checkbook

The Myth That Average Citizens Hold the Reins of the Economy Stems from 18th-Century Morality Tales

Unemployed men queue outside a Chicago soup kitchen in 1931. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Joanna Cohen
December 18, 2017

Americans are forever being urged to do things that supposedly will jump-start the economy, protect jobs, and raise the fortunes of Wall Street. Politicians and pundits implore consumers to “Buy American,” so as to help U.S. workers and keep the trade deficit low. Or to hit the shopping malls—even if it means taking on more debt— while still somehow finding a way to balance the family checkbook.

What’s striking about these demands is that the responsibilities and obligations of American consumers …

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Ideas

The Slave Gardener Who Turned the Pecan Into a Cash Crop

A Louisianan Known Only as Antoine Tamed a Wild Tree and Launched an Industry

Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, LA, a national landmark. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Lenny Wells
December 14, 2017

Pecan trees, armored with scaly, gray bark and waving their green leaves in the breeze, grow in neat, uniform rows upon the Southern U.S. landscape and yield more than 300 million pounds of thumb-sized, plump, brown nuts every year. Native to the United States, they’ve become our most successful home-grown tree nut crop. Hazelnuts originated here too, but they come from a shrub, which can be trained into a tree. Almonds come from Asia. Peanuts, which aren’t actually nuts, hail …

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