What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : politics

Ideas

Why California’s Godless Governor Was Ahead of His Time

A Friend of FDR but Not of Big Business, Culbert Olson Believed Humans Had to Save Themselves

By Debra Deane Olson
May 29, 2018

Culbert Olson is one the most important men you probably never have heard of. He was the only Democrat to serve as governor of California between 1896 and 1958, and he lasted just one term—elected in 1938, and ousted in 1942. He was that rarest of birds among American politicians elected to high office, an atheist and free thinker.

He may be best known for refusing to say the words “so help me God,” substituting it with “I will affirm” …

Read More >

Places

When North Dakota Farmers Blew up Partisan Politics

By Focusing on Economic Cooperation, Early 20th-Century Small Landowners Pushed Back Against Crony Capitalism

By Michael J. Lansing
May 18, 2018

In a nation that envisions innovation as the domain of Silicon Valley start-ups, most dismiss North Dakota as flyover country. Yet the state’s history shows it deserves more credit as an innovator. A little more than 100 years ago, North Dakota’s farmers, challenged by economic hardship and indifferent politicians, invented a nonpartisan approach to elections that was as elegant and powerful as it was novel.

Today, Americans politics are partisan and polarized. But as a political movement made up of …

Read More >

Ideas

The Golden State’s Unpopular Pro-Slavery Governor

The First American Executive of California Was a Pioneering Man of the West—and the South

By R. Gregory Nokes
April 19, 2018

Peter Hardeman Burnett had probably the most impressive list of achievements of any leader in the early American West. He served on the supreme court of the Oregon Territory and became the first governor of California.

So why has he been forgotten?

Because sometimes history gets things right. Burnett’s stellar resume could not offset his blatant racism and inept leadership, which have denied him a prominent place in the region’s history.

Burnett is best remembered, if he is remembered at all, for his …

Read More >

Engagements

Can a Corrupt Politician Become a Good President?

A Mysterious Woman’s Letters Made Chester Arthur Fit for the White House

By Scott S. Greenberger
November 16, 2017

“Who you are, what you are, it doesn’t change after you occupy the Oval Office,” President Barack Obama said during the 2016 election campaign. “It magnifies who you are. It shines a spotlight on who you are.”

But at least one man was transformed by the presidency: Chester Alan Arthur. Arthur’s redemption is all the more remarkable because it was spurred, at least in part, by a mysterious young woman who implored him to rediscover his better self.

Arthur, the country’s …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

Ideas

How the Bloodiest Mutiny in British Naval History Helped Create American Political Asylum

Outrage Over the Revolt Spurred the U.S. to Deliver on a Promise of the Revolution

By A. Roger Ekirch
March 24, 2017

The United States has a special history, and thus bears a unique stake, when it comes to the flight of foreign refugees, particularly those seeking sanctuary from oppression and violence. Political asylum has long been a defining element of America’s national identity, beginning most forcefully in 1776 with Thomas Paine’s pledge in Common Sense that independence from Great Britain would afford “an asylum for mankind.”

Curiously, the nation’s decision to admit asylum-seekers was not a direct consequence of our Revolutionary …

Read More >

Ideas

How Medicare Both Salved and Scarred American Healthcare

The 52-Year-Old Federal Program's Successes Reflect a Complex Legacy

By Julian E. Zelizer
February 17, 2017

Before Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 millions of elderly Americans lacked health insurance. They could not afford to go to the hospital, nor could they cover the cost of a physician. Medical breakthroughs ranging from antibiotics to new surgical procedures kept increasing the cost of health care, but the elderly were left out in the cold, and were unable to buy the insurance that was being given to workers in manufacturing jobs.

For them, just going to the hospital …

Read More >

Encounters

Remembering 1876, the Year of the Inconclusive Vote

There Has Never Been Anything Like It Before or Since

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 >

Artifacts

The Swag—and Swagger—Behind American Presidential Campaigns

From a Coloring Book to a Painted Axe, Election Ephemera Remind Us of Hard-Fought Elections of Yore

By Megan Smith
October 10, 2016

America’s founding is rooted in the power of the people to select their own leader. Efforts to sway the vote—via gritty campaigns driven by emotion, piles of cash, and brutal, drag-out battles—are equally American.

Years, decades and even centuries later, the essence of these fights can often be glimpsed through their ephemera—the signs, slogans, and campaign buttons that both bolster true believers and aim to coax the reluctant into the fold. These objects can suggest campaign strategy as well as the …

Read More >

Ideas

1936, When “The Dictator” FDR Was Bent On Constitutional Destruction

The Fight Over the New Deal and Roosevelt's Second Term Launched a New Style of American Political Attack

By David Sehat
October 10, 2016

True or False? Franklin Delano Roosevelt claimed to be a conservative defender of the nation’s founding ideals.

If you answered “both,” you’d be correct. We don’t tend to think of FDR as a conservative today, and at certain points he would have rejected the label, but in 1936 that was how he wanted to be understood. He was three years into his first term and it was far from clear there would be a second. The mandate from his 1932 …

Read More >