What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

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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The Quiet Yalie Who Invented American Football

As a Player and Coach, Walter Camp Rewrote Rugby’s Rules to Create a Sport Fit for America

by Roger Tamte
January 3, 2019

American football is the all-but-official sport of the United States. But for all the media coverage it draws, the origin story of football gets missed. How did this game become compelling enough to hold the United States in its thrall? The answer lies in the career of Walter Camp, whom contemporaries called the “father of American football.”

Camp worked on the game his entire adult life, a devotion that began in the second decade after the Civil War. On November 13, …

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How It’s a Wonderful Life Seized on an Urbanizing America’s Nostalgia for the Small Town

As Mid-Century Americans Moved to Cities, Capra's Film Helped to Idealize Isolated White Communities

By Ryan Poll
December 6, 2018

It’s a Wonderful Life can be read through multiple prisms—as a Christmas movie, a family movie, a love story, an existential journey, and a celebration of the everyman. But Frank Capra’s movie invites audiences to consider it, first and foremost, as a small-town film.

The first image seen is a sign welcoming audiences: “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS.” Even if initial audiences don’t know anything about this specific town, they “know” the community they about to enter: the American small …

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What George Bailey’s Building and Loan Company Can Still Teach Us About Banking

In His Time and Ours, Big Lenders Often Get a Pass, While Small Banks and the Communities They Serve Are Left Vulnerable

By Robert E. Wright
December 6, 2018

The bank run scene in It’s a Wonderful Life always makes me cry real tears. If you care about America, you should love the scene too—and not just because it is a brilliant piece of cinematic storytelling.

The scene unfolds as George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, sets off on his honeymoon in a taxicab, only to realize that depositors have gathered outside a local bank, demanding their money. Instead of continuing on his honeymoon, George hustles to his beloved Bailey …

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