What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

The Irish-American Social Club Whose Exploits in Their Homeland Sparked a New Understanding of Citizenship

In 1867, the Fenian Brotherhood Was Caught Running Guns to Ireland, Precipitating a Diplomatic Crisis

by Lucy E. Salyer
March 21, 2019

On October 30, 1867, John Warren, a grocer and newspaper man from Charlestown, Massachusetts, entered the dock at Green Street Courthouse in Dublin, Ireland, to stand trial for treason. The Irish attorney general rose to accuse Warren of leading a wicked international conspiracy to overthrow Queen Victoria’s rule in Ireland.

Warren, described by journalists as “squat” and with thinning auburn hair, didn’t look the part of a dangerous revolutionary. But as a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, a transatlantic organization …

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How Americans Learned to Condemn Drunk Driving

In the 1980s, Liberal Activists and Anti-Drug Conservatives Joined Forces to Override a Libertarian Ethos

by Barron H. Lerner
January 17, 2019

At a traffic safety conference in 1980, a Californian named Candy Lightner delivered her first public speech about a 13-year-old freckle-faced girl who had recently been killed by a drunk driver with several previous convictions.

At the conclusion of her talk, she announced, “That girl was my daughter.”

As Lightner later wrote, the press ran out of the auditorium to call their photographers. “Pandemonium ensued,” she recalled.

Recidivist drunk drivers had killed children—and adults—for decades in the United States, often receiving little …

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Frank Capra Oversimplified the Italian-American Story

In His Life and Career, the Sicilian-Born Director Absorbed His Adopted Country’s Ambivalence Toward Italians

By by Stanislao Pugliese
December 6, 2018

Frank Capra, the director of It’s a Wonderful Life, called the film his favorite, and even screened it for his own family every holiday season. The movie hit close to home in another way: Capra was attempting to represent the story of Italian-Americans like himself, who had a complicated path toward assimilation during the first half of the twentieth century.

Francesco Capra was born in 1897 in Bisaquino, near Palermo, Sicily, the youngest of seven children. (“Capra” means goat in Italian; …

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There Is a Real Bedford Falls—It’s My Upstate New York Town

An Uncanny Physical Resemblance and a Frank Capra Visit Connect Seneca Falls to His Holiday Classic

By Frances T. Barbieri
December 6, 2018

Bedford Falls, the town that is the real star of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, is a fictional place. But it closely resembles a real town.

I live there.

The evidence is strong, if circumstantial, that Seneca Falls, New York—where I’m executive director of the historical society—provided the basis for Bedford Falls. Our town and Frank Capra’s mythical town share geography, appearance, and stories in ways that are uncanny, and reveal how thin the line can be between matter and myth.

Both …

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The Voodoo Priestess Whose Celebrity Foretold America’s Future

Marie Laveau, the Self-Invented New Orleans Prophetess, Blurred the Sacred and Profane While Presiding Over a Multiracial Following 

By Adrian Shirk
November 28, 2018

Any tourist who rolls into New Orleans’s French Quarter eventually finds themselves standing before a Bourbon Street botanica called Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. It’s a small shop, and the front window is cluttered with the materials of a spirit altar: candy, bones, saint figurines, jewelry, sugar skulls, and a small porcelain statuette of the woman in blue herself, wearing her signature orange tignon: Marie Laveau.

Wander inside the shop, and you’ll find every surface packed with totems, oils, potions, pendants, …

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The Women Who Built Mayo Clinic

After a Tornado Wrecked a Minnesota Town, Franciscan Nuns and Physicians, Anesthesiologists and Social Workers Helped Create a Pathbreaking Medical Center

By Virginia Wright-Peterson
November 26, 2018

Several years ago, a few colleagues and I discovered a well-kept secret about Mayo Clinic, where we all worked.

We had decided to create a Jeopardy game for Women’s History Month based on women who were involved in the early years of the physician’s practice that evolved into our internationally renowned academic medical center. I offered to visit the clinic’s historical archive, expecting to glean a few little-known facts about the handful of women who were staples of the organization’s 150-year-old …

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The Many Conflicting Identities of the Statue of Liberty

Eastern and Western, Feminine and Masculine, Motherly Yet Ready for War, the Sculpture Holds a Multitude of Meanings

By Francesca Lidia Viano
November 5, 2018

The Statue of Liberty’s creator, the Alsatian artist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, grew up in a world apart from the “huddled masses” who arrived in the New World, sailing toward her beacon. Born in 1834, into a rich and prestigious family in Colmar in northeastern France, his ancestors were doctors, pharmacists and bureaucrats who never felt the need to leave their homeland in search of opportunity. And yet he managed to capture something ineffable about the America he visited in 1871, which—along …

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How African American Spirituals Moved From Cotton Fields to Concert Halls

After the Civil War, Touring Groups of Black College Singers Popularized Slavery-Era Songs, Giving Rise to a New Musical Genre

By Sandra Jean Graham
October 29, 2018

“Swing low, sweet chariot….” These words are familiar to many Americans, who might sing them in worship, in Sunday school, around campfires, in school, and in community choruses. But the black singers responsible for introducing this song, and hundreds of other slave spirituals, to white America after the Civil War remain underrecognized almost 150 years later.

Spirituals are sacred songs composed anonymously by black Americans. Before the Civil War they were sung in the privacy of black spaces—the brush arbor, the …

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Why Major League Baseball Tried to Rein In Babe Ruth

The Sultan of Swat Saved a Discredited Game, But the Sport's Establishment Sought to Tame Its Headstrong Superstar

By Edmund F. Wehrle
October 22, 2018

Babe Ruth was baseball’s greatest hero. So why did the national pastime’s establishment turn against him?

The answer lies in the untold story of Ruth’s challenge to the authorities ruling baseball—a story that defies deeply held American myths about upward mobility and classless democracy.

Today, Ruth is most remembered as the benchmark for excellence. To be known as “the Babe Ruth of…” is to say that you are the dominant figure in some enterprise.

It also connotes popularity. As a baseball …

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The Savvy Press Agent Who Invented Buffalo Bill

"Arizona John" Burke Perfected the Art of Hype That Converted a Bison Hunter Into a Symbol of National Character

By Joe Dobrow
October 18, 2018

To appreciate the wonder and luster of a star in the sky, one must look off to its side—“averted vision,” it is called.

So it was in the late 19th century with the rising star of republics—the United States—and with the man who, more than any other, came to epitomize our nation’s drive, character, promotional flair, and obsession with celebrity: William F. Cody.

In the second half of the century, Cody, also known as “Buffalo Bill,” achieved a measure of renown in …

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