What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

Americans Have Always Celebrated Hacks and Swindlers

In 19th-Century New England, Rule-Breaking Yankees Were a Source of National Pride

by Hugh McIntosh
September 15, 2019

Grab a burger at the James Dean diner in Prague, pay homage to the Miles Davis monument in Kielce, Poland, or stop by the Elvis fan club of Malaysia, and you’ll see how a certain brand of 1950s “cool” still shapes perceptions of America abroad. What people mean by cool can be hard to pin down, but cultural historians tend to agree on some basics: defiance, self-control, individualism, and creativity—ideals epitomized by the jazz and beat movements of the early …

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The Hard-Drinking 19th-Century Naturalists Who Aspired to Find and Classify Everything on Earth

At the Smithsonian, William Stimpson Created a New American Scientific Culture Around the Megatherium Club

by Ron Vasile
September 4, 2019

In some respects, Washington, D.C., in the 1850s was an unlikely place to usher in a golden age of American natural history. Philadelphia and Boston had long been the traditional centers of American science, with the founding of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812 and the Boston Society of Natural History in 1830. The nation’s capital was still viewed as a provincial Southern town. The Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1846 after a bequest by British chemist and …

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When Police Clamped Down on Southern California’s Japanese-American Bicycling Craze

In 1905, Cycling Brought Riverside Together but a Backlash Quickly Followed

by Genevieve Carpio
August 26, 2019

In 1905, cyclists gathered in Riverside, California, for an inaugural meet on a new racing track. About 60 miles inland from Los Angeles, Riverside was a heralded cycling center, home to one of the largest leagues of bicyclists in the state and to frequent regional cycling competitions, but this race looked unlike any other previously promoted in the region because the new track had been funded by the Riverside Japanese Association.

The association’s brand-new Adam’s Track was supposed to promote commerce …

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Why Americans Love Andy Griffith’s Toothy Grin

In the Post-Civil Rights Era, Images of Southerners as ‘Slow-Witted Rubes’ Soothed White Anxieties

by Sara K. Eskridge
August 22, 2019

Today, when many Americans think of the “good old days”—when neighbors knew each other and the world seemed safer and simpler—they often conjure visions of the 1950s and early 1960s, as expressed in old TV comedies like The Andy Griffith Show.

But those times were not really simple: Americans were then gripped by Cold War fears and the Red Scare, and buffeted by new economic pressures. The entertainers who most successfully created sunny visions for anxious Americans of that era—our …

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Can the North Acknowledge Its Own Role in American Slavery?

Historians and Activists Pushed Philadelphia and New York to Commemorate Places Where Enslaved People Lived and Died

by Marc Howard Ross
May 30, 2019

Soon after the American Revolution, Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the United States. From 1790-97, President George Washington lived in a large house a block from Independence Hall, in what is now Independence National Historical Park. The house was torn down in 1832. Most modern-day Philadelphians knew nothing about it until recently.

That changed in 2002, when Independence National Historical Park was undergoing renovations, and a freelance historian named Edward Lawler Jr. published an article about the house and its …

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The Consumer Age Turned Americans Into Gamblers

When the Economy Shifted From Production to Consumption, How You Spent Money Mattered More Than How You Earned It

by David G. Schwartz
May 2, 2019

Today legal gambling in the United States is widely accepted and more prevalent than ever. But as recently as the 1950s, gambling was seen as a fundamentally un-American way to make a living. This shift in attitudes towards gambling—which took about a half-century to achieve—spoke to generational shifts in American beliefs about morality and capitalism.

While Americans have always loved to gamble, the 19th century saw a strong pushback against the lottery promoters and bookmakers who had made gambling possible. The …

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When American Politicos First Weaponized Conspiracy Theories

Outlandish Rumors Helped Elect Presidents Jackson and Van Buren and Have Been With Us Ever Since

by Mark R. Cheathem
March 28, 2019

From claims that NASA faked the moon landing to suspicions about the U.S. government’s complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans love conspiracy theories. Conspiratorial rhetoric in presidential campaigns and its distracting impact on the body politic have been a fixture in American elections from the beginning. But the period when conspiracies really flourished was the 1820s and 1830s, when modern-day American political parties developed, and the expansion of white male suffrage increased the nation’s voting base. These …

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The ‘Color-Blind’ Golf Tournament That Brought Joe Louis, Bing Crosby, and Charlie Sifford to the Same Greens

After Being Excluded From Professional Golf Tours in 1913, Elite Black Players Founded the United Golfers Association

by Lane Demas
March 7, 2019

In 1951, as a renewed civil rights movement dawned in America, African-Americans from around the country gathered in Atlanta for the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). There they heard from important black leaders of the period, including Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Benjamin Mays.

But then some of the delegates did something curious. They boarded busses, headed to the New Lincoln Country Club, Atlanta’s black golf course, and watched the …

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The Public Relations Strategy That Made Andrew Jackson President

Long Before His Campaign Launched, Old Hickory's Supporters Were Scrubbing His Image

by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
January 31, 2019

Sixty-five years ago, historian John William Ward had the insight that for better or worse, Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans on January 8, 1815, made him the “Symbol for an Age.” There are those who would argue that the battle also made him president fourteen years later; but Jackson’s rise was more complicated—and far more calculated—than these narratives suggest.

New Orleans was the culmination of Jackson’s already impressive military career, and it established the man in …

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Why Color TV Was the Quintessential Cold War Machine

The Technological Innovation Transformed How Americans Saw the World, and How the World Viewed America

by Susan Murray
January 24, 2019

In 1959, at the height of the space race, Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev stood together, surrounded by reporters, in the middle of RCA’s color television display at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Nixon, speaking to Krushchev through a translator, pointed proudly to the television camera before them and addressed the technological competition between the two nations that the leaders had just been debating. “There are some instances where you may be ahead of us, …

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