What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : American History

Encounters

In Colonial Virginia It Was the Kids Who Mixed the Cultures That Became American

Both the English and the Native Americans Used Children to Learn the Mysterious Ways of Their New Neighbors

July 18, 2019

In 1608, Thomas Savage, age 13, arrived on the first ship from England bringing supplies to the newly founded Jamestown colony. He had been in Virginia just a few weeks when he was presented as a gift to Wahunsenaca, the great Powhatan who ruled over most of the people along the rivers leading into the lower Chesapeake Bay area. In return, Powhatan gave the English a young man named Namontack.

Such exchanges of young people were considered normal. As English …

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Journeys

How the Survivor of a 1609 Shipwreck Brought Democracy to America

Stephen Hopkins, Colonist at Both Jamestown and Plymouth, Proposed a Government Based on Consent of the Governed

by Joseph Kelly
June 24, 2019

We don’t like to talk much about Jamestown. Established in 1607, it was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. But it was a shameful start to America.

Even before they landed, the governing councilors were at each other’s throats. John Smith, a former mercenary, was nearly hanged—twice—and narrowly escaped an assassin. Another councilor, George Kendall, was executed by firing squad. John Ratcliffe deposed the colony’s first president, Edward Maria Wingfield, and installed himself as president. Later, …

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Encounters

The Dazzling 1830 Defense of a Strong Federal Government

New England Statesman Daniel Webster Found Religion in Centralized National Power When it Served His Region’s Interests

by Christopher Childers
April 18, 2019

For generations, school children memorized the ending to Daniel Webster’s “Second Reply to Hayne,” delivered during the famous Webster-Hayne debate of January 1830. This most-famous-of-debates began in a modest fashion, with an argument over westward expansion and morphed into a discussion of tariffs and then nationalism versus states’ rights. Over time, the discussion came to symbolize something much more about American unity, as Webster’s soaring defense of nationalism and American nationhood, crowned with the words “Liberty and Union, now and …

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Identities

What Benjamin Franklin Ate When He Was Homesick

Living Abroad, the Founder From Philadelphia Saw America's Essence in Turkeys, Succotash, and Cranberries

By Rae Katherine Eighmey
February 19, 2018

In the midst of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin envisioned the turkey as an exemplar of the ideal American citizen. In a 1783 letter home to his daughter Sally, written while Franklin was serving as chief diplomat to France, he wrote about the “ribbons and medals” presented to the French by grateful Americans in thanks for significant military and financial support. The tokens bore an image of an eagle—but, Franklin explained, some recipients complained that the workmanship was not up …

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Identities

Why We French Canadians Are Neither French nor Canadian

An Intimate Family History of New England's Franco-Americans

By Robert B. Perreault
December 7, 2017

Whenever my family visits Québec, people other than our relatives are surprised to hear Americans—even our grandchildren, ages five and six—speak fluent French. They’re amazed to learn that French is our mother tongue and that we also speak English without a French accent. Likewise, if we leave our native New Hampshire to travel elsewhere in the United States, we get blank stares upon mentioning that we’re Franco-Americans from New England.

“Franco-American, as in canned spaghetti?” some ask.

I roll my eyes and …

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Identities

Why Americans Love Diners

For 135 Years, the Iconic Eateries Have Been Our Home Away From Home

By Richard J. S. Gutman
November 27, 2017

Driving north on Route 95 through Connecticut, I noticed a billboard advertising a local diner. Its immense letters spelled out: “Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free and Diner Classics.” I knew a seismic shift had occurred when Blue Plate Specials—hands-down favorites for nearly a century such as meat loaf, hot turkey sandwiches, and spaghetti and meatballs—were last on a list of diner offerings.

Over their long history, diners have been a subtle part of our built environment and also our inner landscapes. They …

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Places

When Variety Theaters Tantalized the Frontier West

In 19th-Century Spokane, Risqué Performances Set off a Battle Over Civil Morality

By Holly George
November 6, 2017

In the spring of 1897, Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review published an exposé of its city’s thriving red light district—known as Howard Street. The newspaper lingered on distasteful scenes in variety theaters with names like the Comique or the Coeur d’Alene: Places where a man could pick up a game of keno, watch a show, and—for the cost of a drink—enjoy the flirtations of “waiter girls” in short skirts. The most controversial and profitable feature of the Howard Street varieties were their …

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Ideas

How New Mexico’s “Peons” Became Enslaved to Debt

A System Inherited From Colonial Spain Kept Americans in Servitude Even After the Civil War

By William S. Kiser
November 2, 2017

Imagine a time and place where a small debt—even just a few dollars—could translate into a lifetime of servitude not only for the debtor, but also for his or her children. For much of the 19th century, the American Southwest was just such a place. There, a system commonly called debt peonage relegated thousands of men, women, and children to years of bondage to a master.

This system of unfree labor came into existence in the 1700s, when the region was …

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Identities

When Halloween Mischief Turned to Mayhem

Nineteenth-Century Urbanization Unleashed the Nation's Anarchic Spirits

By Lesley Bannatyne
October 26, 2017

Imagine. Pre-electricity, no moon. It’s late October, and the people whisper: This is the season for witchery, the night the spirits of the dead rise from their graves and hover behind the hedges.

The wind kicks up, and branches click like skeletal finger bones. You make it home, run inside, wedge a chair against the door, and strain to listen. There’s a sharp rap at the window and when you turn, terrified, it’s there leering at you—a glowing, disembodied head …

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Identities

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Positive Symbol of American Power!

Rarely an Agent of the Government, Superman Defended the 'American Way' Through Simple Decency and Acts of Charity

By Ian Gordon
October 23, 2017

I can’t really remember when I first encountered Superman. It might have been through the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman, or it might have been in a Superman comic book—not an American comic book, but a black and white reprint, by the Australian publisher K. G. Murray.

Growing up in Australia, I learned the basic stories of American history from the pages of these Superman comics. I read about the Boston Tea Party; Nathan Hale’s patriotism; Washington crossing …

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