What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

Why George Bailey Is the American Jesus

Reflecting a Postwar Religious Revival, the Long-Suffering Hero Played by Jimmy Stewart Lives a Life of Self-Sacrifice and Resists Temptation

By Patrick Allitt
December 6, 2018

In the 15 years after World War II, a religious revival swept through America. Records were set for church attendance and new church construction, a succession of religious books made the best-seller list, and religious leaders like Billy Graham became prominent figures in public life. Looking back, the 1940s and 1950s resemble other great revivals or “awakenings” that have punctuated American history.

In part, this particular awakening was a response to the war and its aftermath. America’s Protestants, Catholics, …

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Frank Capra’s Formula for Taming American Capitalism

It’s a Wonderful Life Prescribed Community and Empathy as the Remedy to a Callous Economic System

By Maribel Morey
December 6, 2018

From the Gilded Age and until well into the Great Depression, Americans engaged in one of the most consequential debates in the country’s history: how best to address the economic inequities and societal problems stemming from industrialization, and relatedly, wealth maximization in the private sector.

For some, a bureaucratic state was the answer. As was argued first by the Socialist Party of America in the early 20th century, the state could equalize wealth inequalities. Later, with the Depression, a great …

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The Pioneering Cornell Anatomist Who Sought to Bring ‘Honor’ and ‘Duty’ to College Life

At the Turn of the 20th Century, Burton Green Wilder Railed Against Frivolous Activities and Thought Privileged Students Should Hold Each Other to Higher Standards

By Richard M. Reid
November 8, 2018

In 1901, Cornell University students created a new holiday on campus, called “Spring Day.”

Many faculty members objected to the holiday, but few were as visible and vocal as professor Burt Green Wilder, who would go on to become a defining, if little-known, figure in American higher education.

Spring Day built upon a relatively new tradition: During the 1890s students began holding a dance and fundraiser, the Navy Ball, prior to major fall regattas. Not surprisingly, on the day of the regatta, …

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The Union Army Regiment That Survived Andersonville

Defeated and Humbled in Battle, the 16th Connecticut Volunteers Gained a Measure of Redemption by Enduring a Year in a Brutal Confederate Stockade

By Lesley J. Gordon
November 1, 2018

More than 40 years after the Civil War ended, machinist George Q. Whitney, formerly a private in the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, helped to dedicate a monument to his state’s prisoners of war. The statue, nicknamed “Andersonville Boy,” was a duplicate; the original had been erected at the site of the former Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia in October 1907. Whitney told a crowd assembled in Hartford that, “many of you know nothing of the Men whom I represent, so …

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How the South Made Hubert Humphrey Care About Race

The Minnesota Liberal's Louisiana School Years Turned His 'Abstract Commitment' to Civil Rights Into 'Flesh and Blood'

By Arnold A. Offner
July 26, 2018

It is one of the great ironies of 20th-century American history: Hubert Humphrey, the foremost proponent of civil rights among American politicians, had little contact with African Americans until age 28.

Humphrey’s distance from people who would benefit from his legislative prowess was a result of biography and history. He was born in 1911 in the tiny prairie hamlet of Wallace, South Dakota, which had no African Americans. In 1919, he moved with his family 50 miles southwest to slightly larger …

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The South Carolina Aristocrat Who Became a Feminist Abolitionist

After Moving to Philadelphia and Joining the Quakers, Angelina Grimké Rededicated Her Life to Fighting for Racial Equality

By Louise W. Knight
July 23, 2018

Angelina Grimké’s future seemed clear the day she entered the world. Born a Southern aristocrat in Charleston, South Carolina in 1805, she was destined to become an enslaver; born female, she was destined to receive little formal education, have no profession, and pursue a life of domestic obscurity. Instead, she broke free. She left the South for Philadelphia in 1829 and by 1837 had become a famous lecturer and published author advocating for the end of slavery and for women’s …

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The 41-Volume Government Report That Turned Immigration Into a Problem

In 1911, the Dillingham Commission Set a Half-Century Precedent for Screening Out 'Undesirable' Newcomers

By Robert F. Zeidel
July 16, 2018

The Dillingham Commission is today little known. But a century ago, it stood at the center of a transformation in immigration policy, exemplifying Americans’ simultaneous feelings of fascination and fear toward the millions of migrants who have made the United States their home.

In 1911, the Dillingham Commission produced perhaps the most extensive investigation of immigration in the history of the country, an exhaustive 41-volume study that demonstrated just how vital 19th-century and early-20th-century immigrants were to the U.S. economy. But …

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How the Know Nothing Party Turned Nativism into a Political Strategy

In the 1840s and '50s, Secretive Anti-Immigrant Societies Played on National Fears Fed by the Spread of Slavery

By Michael Todd Landis
July 12, 2018

Though the United States is a nation built by immigrants, nativism—the fear of immigrants and the desire to restrict their entry into the country or curtail their rights (or both)—has been a central strain in the national fabric from the beginning. Nativism waxes and wanes with the tides of American culture and politics, with some eras exhibiting more virulent anti-immigrant activism than others.

But few eras have exceeded the 1840s and 1850s, when a ferociously anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic secret …

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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” …

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How Vain, Stubborn, Thin-Skinned George Washington Grew Up

Through the Trauma of War, and By Learning From His Mistakes, the First President Gained Empathy and Gravitas

By Peter Stark
May 21, 2018

At 21 years of age, George Washington was a very different man than the one we know and hold sacred, different from the stately commander, the selfless first president, the unblemished father of our country staring off into posterity. This young Washington was ambitious, temperamental, vain, thin-skinned, petulant, awkward, demanding, stubborn, hasty, and annoying.

He was in love with his close friend’s wife. He was called an ingrate by his commander. He was accused of being a war criminal, a murderer, …

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