What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

How the Mexican-American War Gave Birth to a News-Gathering Institution

The Associated Press Was Built for Speed and Straight Facts

By Valerie S. Komor
September 4, 2015

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States during 1831 and 1832, he was struck by the fact that the young republic had no overpowering metropolis, that “the intelligence and the power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country.” While New York City was the hotbed of innovative newspapering, much of that innovation was in the service of disseminating the news to the broadest possible audience. The New York Sun, established by Benjamin Day …

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Richard Nixon Considered Optimism His Patriotic Duty

The Naturally Gloomy President Thought It More American to Be 'Joyful’ and ‘Serene’

By Evan Thomas
August 10, 2015

Richard Nixon saw himself as a true patriot, and he considered it his patriotic duty to strive to overcome his darker impulses and moods to exude an upbeat, optimistic outlook—an outlook he considered quintessentially American. He often didn’t succeed, but it was this struggle that made Nixon so relatable to what he called America’s silent majority. Most of us who aren’t natural-born, back-slapping politicians have also been there, struggling against our own shades of negativity.

Whatever you think of …

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Vaccinations Have Always Been Controversial in America

While Creating the Polio Vaccine, Jonas Salk Had to Deal With Critics Like Walter Winchell, Who Warned, "It May Be a Killer"

By Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs
August 4, 2015

In 1952, Americans suffered the worst polio epidemic in our nation’s history. As in prior outbreaks, the disease spread during the summer, mainly attacking children who had been exposed to contaminated water at public pools or contaminated objects in other communal places. The poliovirus entered the body through the mouth and multiplied in the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms started innocently enough—a sore throat, a runny nose. As the virus moved throughout its victims’ bloodstreams, the pains soon began—electric shocks darting through …

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Abolition and Emancipation Were Not the Same Thing

After the Civil War, Rose Herera Wanted More Than Freedom—She Wanted Justice

By Adam Rothman
July 21, 2015

Early in 1865, in the city of New Orleans, a newly freed woman named Rose Herera made a startling allegation. She told a local judge that her former owner’s wife, Mary De Hart, had abducted three of her children and was holding them in bondage in Cuba. She wanted De Hart prosecuted for kidnapping, and she wanted her children back.

In histories of slavery, we often hear about people who wanted to be free. But Rose Herera and countless other men …

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What Would Jesus Read?

Americans Are Obsessed With Popular Religious Books Because They Give Us What Organized Religion Can't

By Erin Smith
July 10, 2015

In the 1990s, my best friend—a brilliant historian with an “I read banned books” bumper sticker on her car—handed me a book that had changed her life. It was Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, a 1992 New York Times best-selling spiritual guide for “cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life.” I could not get past page 30 or so. I found it long-winded, simple-minded, and tedious—an ahistorical mess of Greek myths, Jungian psychology, and cranky critiques of the superficiality …

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The Christian Roots of Modern Environmentalism

Presbyterianism Inspired Teddy Roosevelt’s Conservationist Zeal

By Mark Stoll
June 26, 2015

Like only a handful of presidents, Theodore Roosevelt lives in our memory and popular culture. He is the bespectacled face gazing from Mount Rushmore, the namesake for the teddy bear, and the advice-giving Rough Rider, played by Robin Williams in the movie Night at the Museum. We remember him, too, as the trust buster who broke up monopolies, the avid outdoorsman and conservationist who preserved parks, forests, and wildlife, and the politician who crusaded for a “fair deal,” a just …

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Have We Turned the Last Page in America’s Songbook?

Tracing the Great Songwriting Tradition, From Cole Porter to Joni Mitchell

By Ben Yagoda
June 12, 2015

The Great American Songbook isn’t really a book. Rather, it’s a notional collection of several hundred pop songs. The precise identity of the songs varies according to who is doing the collecting, but in almost all versions the bulk of them were composed, starting in the 1920s, by a small (almost all male) group of composers and lyricists including George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers (teaming first with Lorenz Hart and later with Oscar Hammerstein, II), …

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The Biggest Forgotten American Indian Victory

While We Remember Little Bighorn, That Wasn't the Battle That Led to the First Congressional Investigation in U.S. History.

By Colin G. Calloway
June 9, 2015

In less than three hours on November 4, 1791, American Indians destroyed the United States Army, inflicting more than 900 casualties on a force of some 1,400 men. Proportionately it was the biggest military disaster the United States ever suffered. It was also the biggest victory American Indians ever won. Yet it was quickly consigned to the footnotes of history.

Unlike the much more famous Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, when American Indians annihilated George Armstrong Custer’s command, …

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Movies’ Most Memorable Mexican-American Moments

From Stand and Deliver to Giant, These Are Hollywood's Strongest Cinematic Depictions of America’s Third Largest Ethnic Group

May 26, 2015

For better or for worse, when many Americans think about Italian-Americans, they think of The Godfather. When it comes to Irish-Americans, it’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And for Chinese-Americans, it’s The Joy Luck Club. The way people talk. The clothes they wear. The houses they live in. What makes them cry. Film has a way of making abstract identities vivid and tangible.

So what has the silver screen been communicating to Americans about the Mexican-American experience? Mexican-Americans make up one …

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Noah Webster Would Have Loved Urban Dictionary

The Founding Father of American English Was a Radical Who Wanted Us to Write the Language the Way We Spoke It

By Rosemarie Ostler
May 12, 2015

In the late 18th century, as the recently independent states were working to define what America was—after fighting with England about what it wasn’t—grammar books were still teaching American children to speak like proper Englishmen and women. The books taught such formal, outdated usages as the correct verb forms for thou (thou goest, thou wilt) and proper uses of shall (used with I and we for simple future, with you, he, she, and they to imply insistence or a threat). …

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