What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

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Places

Why Broadway Meanders up Manhattan’s Grid

New York's Most Iconic Street Grew Organically From Colonial Cowpath Into an Allegorical Strand

Where the neon lights are bright: Broadway and Times Square. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

By Fran Leadon
April 23, 2018

I first saw Broadway from the air. It was 1990 and I was flying with my architecture class from the University of Florida up to Boston so we could learn about cities. Our silver Eastern Airlines plane flew low—alarmingly low, I thought at the time—over Manhattan and soared up the island south to north, the pilot alerting us to the view of the Big Apple below. I could clearly pick out Broadway because, as I had read, it didn’t follow …

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Identities

The Runner Who Helped Irish Americans Lose Their Hyphen

My Ancestor, "Bricklayer Bill" Kennedy, Won the 1917 Boston Marathon Wrapped in the U.S. Flag

Bill Kennedy placed second in France’s Chateau-Thierry-to-Paris relay race, in 1919. Photo courtesy of the National Library of France.

By Patrick L. Kennedy
March 26, 2018

When I was a kid, my Dad would take me to Heartbreak Hill, rain or shine, to watch the Boston Marathon. For our family, the race held special meaning, because our “Uncle Bill”—William J. Kennedy, my paternal grandfather’s uncle—had won the event in 1917.

Though he had been dead for eight years by the time I was born, we still cherished the legend of “Bricklayer Bill,” as he was known. The Kennedys had plied the mason’s trade since at least …

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Places

The ‘Messiah’ Mayor Who Believed in Cleveland When No One Else Did

Carl Stokes, the First African American to Lead a Big City, Was Both a Realist and a Showman

Cleveland Mayor Carl B. Stokes, flanked by his wife Shirley, gives the victory sign on Sept. 30, 1969, in Cleveland after winning Cleveland's Democratic mayoral primary as he sought his second term. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

By J. Mark Souther
March 22, 2018

On June 24, 1969, the mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, Carl Stokes, held a press conference on a railroad trestle, one of two bridges damaged when an oil slick caught fire on the Cuyahoga River two days earlier. The coverage in local newspapers was minimal. The fire went out soon after it started. No one bothered to snap a picture. In fact, a Cleveland Press photo of the mayor standing on the tracks with reporters is as close as we can …

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Ideas

The Chief Justice Who Elevated the Supreme Court Into a Co-Equal Branch of Government

Before John Marshall, the Court Had Been a Constitutional Afterthought

The Court is now in session: Chief Justice John Marshall. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Joel Richard Paul
March 19, 2018

No one in the founding generation left a more lasting imprint on American government and law than Chief Justice John Marshall.

We remember Washington’s leadership, Jefferson’s eloquence, and Franklin’s wit, but Marshall breathed life into the Constitution, elevated the judiciary, and defended the federal government’s power over feuding states. The power of judicial review and the corresponding principle that courts should not interfere with political judgments are just two of the many doctrines that Marshall wove into our constitution.

How …

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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

Statue of Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Treasury Building, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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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Identities

Why “Real Men” Wear Davy Crockett Caps

Even as White Frontiersmen Battled Native Americans, They Adopted Their Symbols of Masculinity

Theodore Roosevelt in deerskin hunting suit. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Jimmy L. Bryan Jr.
March 12, 2018

In recent years, fashion leaders have provoked criticism for incorporating Native American imagery in their designs. In 2011, Urban Outfitters introduced a line of Navajo-themed clothing and accessories that included the “Vintage Woolrich Navajo Jacket,” the “Ecote Navajo Wool Tote Bag,” and the “Navajo Hipster Panty.”

The Navajo Nation sued the company for copyright infringement of its name and, after a five-year court battle, the two sides settled. At a 2012 Victoria’s Secret fashion show in New York, model Karlie …

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Encounters

How White Settlers Buried the Truth About the Midwest’s Mysterious Mounds

Pioneers and Early Archeologists Preferred to Credit Distant Civilizations, Not Native Americans, With Building These Monumental Cities

View of Monks Mound from Woodhenge Circle. Photo courtesy of Sarah E. Baires.

By Sarah E. Baires
February 22, 2018

Around 1100 or 1200 A.D., the largest city north of Mexico was Cahokia, sitting in what is now southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Built around 1050 A.D. and occupied through 1400 A.D., Cahokia had a peak population of between 25,000 and 50,000 people. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cahokia was composed of three boroughs (Cahokia, East St. Louis, and St. Louis) connected to each other via waterways and walking trails that extended across the Mississippi …

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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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