On this page you will find excerpts from an assortment
of writers who have tried to identify the characteristics that define
the true American. As you read these passages, you will probably find
that some qualities are mentioned repeatedly, even though these excerpts
are taken from books published over three centuries. You will also notice
that the same American traits that come commentators celebrate, other
writers regard as reasons for concern.
To read the complete work from which an excerpt was taken,
just click on the link. You can also use this index to move directly
to the excerpt(s) from any of the following people included on this
Hector St. John de Crevecouer
Sarah Josepha Buell
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Alexis de Tocqueville
Writers on America (for the Department of State)
A Portrait Gallery of Americans
John Winthrop (1607-1783)
The Lord hath given us leave to drawe our own articles.
Wee haue professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these
and those ends. Wee have hereupon besought Him of favour and blessing.
Now if the Lord shall please to heare us, and bring us in peace to the
place we desire, then hath hee ratified this covenant and sealed our
Commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained
in it; but if wee shall neglect the observation of these articles which
are the ends wee have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall
fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnall intentions,
seeking greate things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will
surely breake out in wrathe against us; be revenged of such a [sinful]
people and make us knowe the price of the breache of such a covenant.
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide
for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly,
to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be
knitt together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each
other in brotherly [Page 47] affection. Wee must be willing to abridge
ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities.
Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes,
patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other's
conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer
together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community
in the worke, as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie
of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight
to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon
us in all our wayes. Soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome,
power, goodness and truthe, than formerly wee haue been acquainted with.
Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us
shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make
us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations,
"the Lord make it likely that of New England." For wee must
consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people
are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this
worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present
help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of
God, and all professors for God's sake. Wee shall shame the faces of
many of God's worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned
into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither
wee are a goeing.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–90)
The Truth is, that though there are in that Country few
People so miserable as the Poor of Europe, there are also very few that
in Europe would be called rich; it is rather a general happy Mediocrity
that prevails. There are few great Proprietors of the Soil, and few
Tenants; most People cultivate their own Lands, or follow some Handicraft
or Merchandise; very few rich enough to live idly upon their Rents or
Incomes, or to pay the high Prices given in Europe for Paintings, Statues,
Architecture, and the other Works of Art, that are more curious than
useful. Hence the natural Geniuses, that have arisen in America with
such Talents, have uniformly quitted that Country for Europe, where
they can be more suitably rewarded. It is true, that Letters and Mathematical
Knowledge are in Esteem there, but they are at the same time more common
than is apprehended; there being already existing nine Colleges or Universities...
besides a number of smaller Academies; these educate many of their Youth
in the Languages, and those Sciences that qualify men for the Professions
of Divinity, Law, or Physick. Strangers indeed are by no means excluded
from exercising those Professions; and the quick Increase of Inhabitants
everywhere gives them a Chance of Employ, which they have in common
with the Natives. Of civil Offices, or Employments, there are few; no
superfluous Ones, as in Europe; and it is a Rule establishd in
some of the States, that no Office should be so profitable as to make
it desirable. The 36th Article of the Constitution of Pennsilvania,
runs expressly in these Words; As every Freeman, to preserve his
Independence, (if he has not a sufficient Estate) ought to have some
Profession, Calling, Trade, or Farm, whereby he may honestly subsist,
there can be no Necessity for, nor Use in, establishing Offices of Profit;
the usual Effects of which are Dependance and Servility, unbecoming
Freemen, in the Possessors and Expectants; Faction, Contention, Corruption,
and Disorder among the People..
You may also find it interesting to read the transcript
of the PBS Think Tank show on Was
Benjamin Franklin the First American?
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
Here every one may have land to labor for himself if he
chuses; or, preferring the exercise of any other industry, may exact
for it such compensation as not only to afford a comfortable subsistence,
but wherewith to provide for a cessation from labor in old age. Every
one, by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested
in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously
reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public afairs,
and a degree of freedom, which in the hands of the canaille of the cities
of Europe, would be instantly perverted to the demolition and destruction
of everything public and private.
Hector St. John De Creveoeur (1788–1868)
Excerpt from Letters from an American Farmer (1782)
What then is the American, this new man?...He is an American,
who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives
new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government
he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He has become an American by being
received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals
of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity
will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western
After a foreigner from any part of Europe is arrived,
and become a citizen, let him devoutly listen to the voice of our great
parent, which says to him, "Welcome to my shores, distressed European;
bless the hour in which thou didst see my verdant fields, my fair navigable
rivers, and my green mountains! -If thou wilt work, I have bread for
thee; if thou wilt be honest, sober, and industrious, I have greater
rewards to confer on thee -- ease and independence. I will give thee
fields to feed and clothe thee; a comfortable fireside to sit by, and
tell thy children by what means thou hast prospered; and a decent bed
to repose on. I shall endow thee beside with the immunities of a freeman.
If thou wilt carefully educate thy children, teach them gratitude to
God, and reverence to that government, the philanthropic government,
which has collected here so many men and made them happy. I will also
provide for thy progeny; and to every good man this ought to be the
most holy, the most powerful, the most earnest wish he can possibly
form, as well as the most consolatory prospect when he dies. Go thou
and work and till, thou shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful,
Sarah Josepha Buell (1788-1879)
Concluding paragraphs of "Walter Wilson,"
Sketches of American Character, 1829.
'These wild, idle boys sometimes succeed well,' said a
neighbour to the grandfather of Walter Wilson. 'There is your grandson,
he has married the richest and prettiest girl in the country. Who would
have guessed it?/
'It has happened just as I intended,' replied the sagacious
old man, significantly shaking his head, 'when I persuaded the child
to live with Mr. Clark. Walter was one of your romantic, hasty, wayward
boys; but he had a good heart notwithstanding. One of those tempers,
so difficult to manage, and so well worth the attempt of managing. I
placed him in the right way, and he is now so trained and bound, that
habit and inclination will keep him right. His own ardor and ambition
will soon carry him forward, and it is the blessing of our happy institutions,
that merit and talents, in whatever station, if rightly exerted, will
command respect, and ensure success. I prophesy,' continued the old
man, raising himself up with a lofty air, 'I prophesy, that if Walter
Wilson lives twenty years, he will be a distinguished man!'
There is now a large, elegant brick mansion beneath the
shade of those old elms, that once threw their arms over a long, low,
irregular building; the grounds, and everything around, bespeak the
owner a gentleman of industry, wealth, and taste; and the address of
that gentleman is, the Hon. Walter Wilson.
Catherine Beecher (1800-1878)
"Chapter I. The Peculiar Responsibilities of American
Women,"Treatise on Domestic Economy: For the Use of Young Ladies
at Home, and at School, revised edition, 1846
And it is by forming a habit of regarding the apparently
insignificant efforts of each isolated laborer, in a comprehensive manner,
as indispensable portions of a grand result, that the minds of all,
however humble their sphere of service, and be invigorated and cheered.
The woman, who is rearing a family of children; the woman, who labors
in the schoolroom; the woman, who, in her retired chamber earns, with
her needle, the mite, which contributes to the intellectual and moral
elevation of her Country; even the humble domestic, whose example and
influence may be moulding and forming young minds, while her faithful
services sustain a prosperous domestic state;--each and all may be animated
by the consciousness, that they are agents in accomplishing the greatest
work that ever was committed to human responsibility. It is the building
of a glorious temple, whose base shall be coextensive with the bounds
of the earth, whose summit shall pierce the skies, whose splendor shall
beam on all lands; and those who hew the lowliest stone, as much as
those who carve the highest capital, will be equally honored, when its
top-stone shall be laid, with new rejoicings of the morning stars, and
shoutings of the sons of God.
"Chapter II. Difficulties Peculiar to American Women,"
Treatise on Domestic Economy: For the Use of Young Ladies at Home,
and at School, revised edition, 1846
Now, the larger portion of American women are the descendants
of English progenitors, who, as a nation, are distinguished for systematic
housekeeping, and for a great love of order, cleanliness, and comfort.
And American women, to a greater or less extent, have inherited similar
tastes and habits. But the prosperity and democratic tendencies of this
Country produce results, materially affecting the comfort of housekeepers,
which the females of monarchical and aristocratic lands are not called
to meet. In such countries, all ranks and classes are fixed in a given
position, and each person is educate for a particular sphere and style
of living. And the dwelllings, conveniences, and customs of life, remain
very nearly the same, from generation to generation. This secures the
preparation of all classes for their particular station, and makes the
lower orders more dependent, and more subservient to employers.
But how different is the state of things in this Country.
Every thing is moving and changing. Persons in poverty, are rising to
opulence, and persons of wealth, are sinking to poverty. The children
of common laborers, by their talents and enterprise, are becoming nobles
in intellect, or wealth, or office; while the children of the wealthy,
enervated by indulgence, are sinking to humbler stations. The sons of
the wealthy are leaving the rich mansions of their fathers, to dwell
in the log cabins of the forest, where very soon they bear away the
daughters of ease and refinement, to share the privations of a new settlement.
Meantime, even in the more stationary portions of the community, there
is a mingling of all grades of wealth, intellect, and education. There
are no distinct classes, as in aristocratic lands, whose bounds are
protected by distinct and impassable lines, but all are thrown into
promiscuous masses. Thus, persons of humble means are brought into contact
with those of vast wealth, while all intervening grades are placed side
by side. Thus, too, there is a constant comparison of conditions, among
equals, and a constant temptation to imitate the customs, and to strive
for the enjoyments of those who possess larger means.
In addition to this, the flow of wealth, among all classes,
is constantly increasing the number of those who live in a style demanding
much hired service, while the number of those, who are compelled to
go to service, is constantly diminishing. Our manufactories, also, are
making increased demands for female labor, and offering larger compensation.
In consequence of these things, there is such a disproportion between
those who wish to hire, and those who are willing to go to domestic
service, that, in the non-slaveholding States, were it not for the supply
of poverty-stricken foreigners, there would not be a domestic for each
family who demands one. And this resort to foreigners, poor as it is,
scarcely meets the demand; while the disproportion must every year increase,
especially if our prosperity increases. For, just in proportion as wealth
rolls in upon us, the number of those, who will give up their own independent
homes to serve strangers, will be diminished.
The difficulties and sufferings, which have accrued to
American women, from this cause, are almost incalculable.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82)
...The true test of civilization is, not the census, nor
the size of cities, nor the crops, -- no, but the kind of man the country
turns out. I see the vast advantages of this country, spanning the breadth
of the temperate zone. I see the immense material prosperity, -- towns
on towns, states on states, and wealth piled in the massive architecture
of cities, California quartz-mountains dumped down in New York to be
re-piled architecturally along-shore from Canada to Cuba, and thence
westward to California again. But it is not New-York streets built by
the confluence of workmen and wealth of all nations, though stretching
out toward Philadelphia until they touch it, and northward until they
touch New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Worcester, and Boston, -- not
these that make the real estimation. But, when I look over this constellation
of cities which animate and illustrate the land, and see how little
the Government has to do with their daily life, how self-helped and
self-directed all families are, -- knots of men in purely natural societies,
-- societies of trade, of kindred blood, of habitual hospitality, house
and house, man acting on man by weight of opinion, of longer or better-directed
industry, the refining influence of women, the invitation which experience
and permanent causes open to youth and labor, -- when I see how much
each virtuous and gifted person whom all men consider lives affectionately
with scores of excellent people who are not known far from home, and
perhaps with great reason reckons these people his superiors in virtue,
and in the symmetry and force of their qualities, I see what cubic values
America has, and in these a better certificate of civilization than
great cities or enormous wealth.
The scholar is that man who must take up into himself
all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all
the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges. If
there be one lesson more than another, which should pierce his ear,
it is, The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law
of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in
yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it
is for you to dare all. Mr. President and Gentlemen, this confidence
in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy,
by all preparation, to the American Scholar. We have listened too long
to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is
already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice
make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent,
complaisant. See already the tragic consequence. The mind of this country,
taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself. There is no work for
any but the decorous and the complaisant. Young men of the fairest promise,
who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain winds, shined
upon by all the stars of God, find the earth below not in unison with
these, -- but are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles
on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust,
-- some of them suicides. What is the remedy? They did not yet see,
and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for
the career, do not yet see, that, if the single man plant himself indomitably
on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to
him. Patience, -- patience; -- with the shades of all the good and great
for company; and for solace, the perspective of your own infinite life;
and for work, the study and the communication of principles, the making
those instincts prevalent, the conversion of the world. Is it not the
chief disgrace in the world, not to be an unit; -- not to be reckoned
one character; -- not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was
created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or
the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong; and our
opinion predicted geographically, as the north, or the south? Not so,
brothers and friends, -- please God, ours shall not be so. We will walk
on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our
own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity,
for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of man and the love
of man shall be a wall of defence and a wreath of joy around all. A
nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself
inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59)
There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality
that incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion
tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists
also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels
the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces
men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom. Not
that those nations whose social condition is democratic naturally
despise liberty; on the contrary, they have an instinctive love of
it. But liberty is not the chief and constant object of their desires;
equality is their idol: they make rapid and sudden efforts to obtain
liberty and, if they miss their aim, resign themselves to their disappointment;
but nothing can satisfy them without equality, and they would rather
perish than lose it.
It is not impossible to conceive the surprising liberty
that the Americans enjoy; some idea may likewise be formed of their
extreme equality; but the political activity that pervades the United
States must be seen in order to be understood. No sooner do you set
foot upon American ground than you are stunned by a kind of tumult;
a confused clamor is heard on every side, and a thousand simultaneous
voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants. Everything is
in motion around you; here the people of one quarter of a town are
met to decide upon the building of a church; there the election of
a representative is going on; a little farther, the delegates of a
district are hastening to the town in order to consult upon some local
improvements; in another place, the laborers of a village quit their
plows to deliberate upon the project of a road or a public school.
Meetings are called for the sole purpose of declaring their disapprobation
of the conduct of the government; while in other assemblies citizens
salute the authorities of the day as the fathers of their country.
Societies are formed which regard drunkenness as the principal cause
of the evils of the state, and solemnly bind themselves to give an
example of temperance.
The great political agitation of American legislative
bodies which is the only one that attracts the attention of foreigners,
is a mere episode, or a sort of continuation, of that universal movement
which originates in the lowest classes of the people and extends successively
to all the ranks of society. It is impossible to spend more effort
in the pursuit of happiness.
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men
placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, it seemed
to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought
them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.... In the United
States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he
sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just
as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage
and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces a profession
and gives it up; he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves
to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs
leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics;
and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a
few days' vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent
of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in
a few days to shake off his happiness. Death at length overtakes him,
but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete
felicity which forever escapes him....
Charles Dickens (1812–70)
They are, by nature, frank, brave, cordial, hospitable,
and affectionate. Cultivation and refinement seem but to enhance their
warmth of heart and ardent enthusiasm; and it is the possession of
these latter qualities in a most remarkable degree which renders an
educated American one of the most endearing and most generous of friends.
I never was so won upon as by this class; never yielded up my full
confidence and esteem so readily and pleasurably as to them; never
can make again, in half a year, so many friends for whom I seem to
entertain the regard of half a life.
These qualities are natural, I implicitly believe, to
the whole people. That they are, however, sadly sapped and blighted
in their growth among the mass; and that there are influences at work
which endanger them still more, and give but little present promise
of their healthy restoration, is a truth that ought to be told.
It is an essential part of every national character
to pique itself mightily upon its faults, and to deduce tokens of
its virtue or its wisdom from their very exaggeration. One great blemish
in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable
brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes
himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate
to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite
of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness
of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.
"You carry," says the stranger, "this
jealousy and distrust into every transaction of public life. By repelling
worthy men from your legislative assemblies, it has bred up a class
of candidates for the suffrage, who, in their every act, disgrace
your Institutions and your people's choice. It has rendered you so
fickle, and so given to change, that your inconstancy has passed into
a proverb; for you no sooner set up an idol firmly than you are sure
to pull it down and dash it into fragments: and this because, directly
you reward a benefactor, or a public servant, you distrust him, merely
because he is rewarded; and immediately apply yourselves to find out,
either that you have been too bountiful in your acknowledgments, or
he remiss in his deserts. Any man who attains a high place among you,
from the President downwards, may date his downfall from that moment;
for any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate
directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once
to your distrust, and is believed. You will strain at a gnat in the
way of trustfulness and confidence, however fairly won and well deserved;
but you will swallow a whole caravan of camels, if they be laden with
unworthy doubts and mean suspicions. Is this well, think you, or likely
to elevate the character of the governors or the governed among you?"
The answer is invariably the same: "There's freedom
of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are
not to be easily overreached. That's how our people come to be suspicious."
Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895)
"Convention of Colored Citizens," The North
Star, April 10, 1851
A report of a speech that argued against the proposed emigration
of freed slaves to Liberia by explaining that African Americans were
not Africans, but Americans.
But we claim no affinity with Africa. This is our home.
We have beheld no other sun save that piercing the clouds that tip
our noble Alleghanies -- which glistens on our own rolling Hudson,
and gives vegetation and life to the green fields, where our fathers
lie--"The land of our forefathers."
What more this to us than to all other Americans? Go
ye "home to the places your fathers voluntarily left; our forefathers
were forced there; their sons will not be forced away." further,
we do not trace our ancestry to Africa alone. We trace it to Englishmen,
Irishmen, Scotchmen; to Frenchmen; to the German; to the Asiatic as
well as to Africa. "The best blood of Virginia courses through
our veins." We sympathize deeply with poor benighted Africa.
We wish her disenthralment from the deep superstition and idolatry
in which she is sunk. We would see her regenerated--civilized. "We
do not love Caesar less, but Rome more." We have been persecuted.
Despite of it--despite of all that has been visited upon us by our
fellow countrymen--we "love our country still." We would
defend her honor while we mourn our shame. A fair destiny awaits her--a
destiny shadowed in the landing of the pilgrim Fathers--our glorious
Declaration of Independence--in the present times. What else is it
but that it should be reserved unto her to establish complete the
idea of universal brotherhood--including even the despised and abused,
the rejected, the cast down. How the fact will be yielded to that
effect--the fact that the first martyr, Wm. Attuck, the first man
that fell in the Revolutionary struggle, fighting in vindication of
the fact of the equality of man, and in defence of the rights of man,
in favor of the idea of brotherhood, was a black man; gloried be his
name? What else could have created the passiveness which has been
remarkable in the persecuted and outraged colored man? What else have
disconcerted the many movements of the slaves to be free or to die
gloriously? It is the finger of God. He purposes a glorious destiny--our
Union will be preserved....
We have not as yet secured for ourselves a character--reputation.
We are but the immediate descendants of those who have been reared
under all manner of depressing influences, in ignorance, in an ignorant
section of the country, and Southern plantations; we have not had
a fair trial; our position has been a stooping one. We are beginning
to feel the necessity of standing erect. We have too generally occupied
menial positions, which has been urged against us. This must be changed;
this is being changed. Our children--the children of those who occupy
menial positions--are being educated to a more refined taste. Not
however, to discard honorable labor. They will possess all the requisites
to success and advancement. They inherit a spirit of endurance, a
virtue necessary to success. They are sensitive, which creates perception.
They have strength, being the descendants of muscular frames. They
are being educated, let their children be as oppressed as they are.
Keep them oppressed, cast down, as we have and our fathers have been,
and you have accomplished that which to us seems physically and morally
impossible. They will be respected here socially and politically.
Believing this and admiring the principles of our Government; believing
that the country is by nature, blest with advantages far beyond those
afforded in Africa, or anywhere else, how can anyone expect, even
Horace Greeley himself, that the colored man will leave this country?
...Not that there will be some cases of individual emigration; this
may be expected. It betakes of a spirit of enterprise in keeping with
the progress of our people from their country, to a disconnection
of interests, responsibilities and hopes, with other Americans.
Walt Whitman (1819–92)
Of course, we shall have a national character, an identity.
As it ought to be, and as soon as it ought to be, it will be. That,
with much else, takes care of itself, is a result, and the cause of
greater results. With Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Oregon -- with the
states around the Mexican sea -- with cheerfully welcomed immigrants
from Europe, Asia, Africa -- with Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire,
Rhode Island -- with all varied interests, facts, beliefs, parties,
genesis -- there is being fused a determined character, fit for the
broadest use for the freewomen and freemen of The States, accomplished
and to be accomplished, without any exception whatever -- each indeed
free, each idiomatic, as becomes live states and men, but each adhering
to one enclosing general form of politics, manners, talk, personal
style, as the plenteous varieties of the race adhere to one physical
form. Such character is the brain and spine to all, including literature,
including poems. Such character, strong, limber, just, open-mouthed,
American-blooded, full of pride, full of ease, of passionate friendliness,
is to stand compact upon that vast basis of the supremacy of Individuality
-- that new moral American continent without which, I see, the physical
continent remained incomplete, may-be a carcass, a bloat -- that newer
America, answering face to face with The States, with ever-satisfying
and ever-unsurveyable seas and shores.
The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth
have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves
are essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto
the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler
largeness and stir. Here at last is something in the doings of man
that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here
is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action
untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently
moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates
heroes....Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness
and nonchalance that the soul loves. Here the performance disdaining
the trivial unapproproached in the tremendous audacity of its crowds
and groupings and the push of its perspective spreads with caramels
and flowing breadth and showers its prolific and splendid extravagance.
One must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need
never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground or the orchards
drop apples or the bays contain fish or men beget children upon women.
Other states indicate themselves in their deputies,
but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives
or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or
churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors; - but
always most in the common people. Their manners, speech, dress, friendships;
- the freshness and candor of their physiognomy, the picturesque looseness
of their carriage, their deathless attachment to freedom, their aversion
to everything indecorous or soft or mean, the practical acknowledgment
of the citizens of one State by the citizens of all other States,
the fierceness of their roused resentment, their curiosity and welcome
of novelty, their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy, their susceptibility
to a slight, the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt
to stand in the presence of superiors, the fluency of their speech,
their delight in music (the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native
elegance of soul), their good temper and open-handedness, the terrible
significance of their elections, the President's taking off his hat
to them, not they to him, - these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits
the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.
Wise men say there are two sets of wills to Nations
and to persons -- one set that acts and works from explainable motives
-- from teaching, intelligence, judgment, circumstance, caprice, emulation,
greed, &c. -- and then another set, perhaps deep, hidden, unsuspected,
yet often more potent than the first, refusing to be argued with,
rising as it were out of abysses, resistlessly urging on speakers,
doers, communities, Nations, unwitting to themselves -- the poet to
his fieriest words -- the Race to pursue its loftiest ideal.......Let
us hope there is, (Indeed, can there be any doubt there is?) this
great, unconscious and abysmic second will also, running through the
average Nationality and career of America. Let us hope that amid all
the dangers and defections of the present, and through all the processes
of the conscious will, it alone is the permanent and sovereign force,
destined to carry on the New World to fulfil its destinies in the
future -- to resolutely pursue those destinies, age upon age -- to
build far, far beyond its past vision, present thought -- to form
and fashion, and for the general type, Men and Women more noble, more
athletic than the world has yet seen -- to gradually, firmly blend,
from all The States, with all varieties, a friendly, happy, free,
religious Nationality -- a Nationality not only the richest, most
inventive, most productive and materialistic the world has yet known
-- but compacted indissolubly, and out of whose ample and solid bulk,
and giving purpose and finish to it, Conscience, Morals, and all the
Spiritual attributes, shall surely rise, like spires above some group
of edifices, firm-footed on the earth, yet scaling space and heaven....
The glory of the Republic of The United States, in my
opinion, is to be, that, emerging in the light of the Modern and the
splendor of Science, and solidly based on the past, it is to cheerfully
range itself, and its politics are henceforth to come, under those
universal laws, and embody them, and carry them out to serve them..
....And as only that individual becomes truly great who understands
well that, (while complete in himself in a certain sense,) he is but
a part of the divine, eternal scheme, and whose special life and laws
are adjusted to move in harmonious relations with the general laws
of Nature, and especially with the moral law, the deepest and highest
of all, and the last vitality of Man or State -- so those Nations,
and so the United States, may only become the greatest and the most
continuous, by understanding well their harmonious relations with
entire Humanity and History, and all their laws and progress, and
sublimed with the creative thought of Deity, through all time, past,
present and future. Thus will they expand to the amplitude of their
destiny, and become splendid illustrations and culminating parts of
the Kosmos, and of Civilization.
Oct. 17, '79. -- To-day one of the newspapers of St.
Louis prints the following informal remarks of mine on American, especially
Western literature: "We called on Mr. Whitman yesterday and after
a somewhat desultory conversation abruptly asked him: `Do you think
we are to have a distinctively American literature?' `It seems to
me,' said he, `that our work at present is to lay the foundations
of a great nation in products, in agriculture, in commerce, in networks
of intercommunication, and in all that relates to the comforts of
vast masses of men and families, with freedom of speech, ecclesiasticism,
&c. These we have founded and are carrying out on a grander scale
than ever hitherto, and Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas
and Colorado, seem to me to be the seat and field of these very facts
and ideas. Materialistic prosperity in all its varied forms, with
those other points that I mentioned, intercommunication and freedom,
are first to be attended to. When those have their results and get
settled, then a literature worthy of us will begin to be defined.
Our American superiority and vitality are in the bulk of our people,
not in a gentry like the old world. The greatness of our army during
the secession war, was in the rank and file, and so with the nation.
Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it
in the bulk of the people. Our leading men are not of much account
and never have been, but the average of the people is immense, beyond
all history. Sometimes I think in all departments, literature and
art included, that will be the way our superiority will exhibit itself.
We will not have great individuals or great leaders, but a great average
bulk, unprecedentedly great.'"
Henry James (1843-1916)
Letter to his Mother, Florence, October 13, 1869 (reprinted
on page 22 of Letters, vol. 1, edited by Percy Lubbock)
Willy asked me in one of his recent letters for an 'opinion
' of the English, which I haven't yet had time to give--tho' at times
I have felt as if it were a theme on which I could write from a full
mind. In fact, however, I have very little right to have any opinion
on the matter. I've seen far too few specimens and those too superficially.
The only thing I'm certain about is that I like them--like them heartily.
W. asked if as individuals they 'kill' the individual American. To
this I would say that the Englishmen I have met not only kill, but
bury in unfathomable depths, the Americans I have met. A set of people
less framed to provoke national self-complacency than the latter it
would be hard to imagine. There is but one word to use in regard to
them--vulgar, vulgar, vulgar. Their ignorance--their stingy, defiant,
gruding attitude towards everything European--their perpetual reference
of all things to some American standard or precedent which exists
only in their own unscrupulous wind-bags--and then our unhappy poverty
of voice, of speech and of physiognomy--these things glare at you
hideously. On the other hand, we seem a people of character, we seem
to have energy capacity and intellectual stuff in ample measure. What
I have pointed at as our vices are the elements of the modern man
with culture quite left out. It's the absolute and incredible lack
of culture that strikes you in common travelling Americans.
Langston Hughes (1902-67)
"Theme for English B," 1951
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if its that simple?
I am twenty-one, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me -- we two---you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Mewho?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or recordsBessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesnt make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you dont want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, thats true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me
although youre olderand white
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
James Baldwin (1924-87)
"The Discovery of What it Means To Be an American,"
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, (1961)
"It is a complex fate to be an American," Henry
James observed, and the principal discovery an American writer makes
in Europe is just how complex this fate is. America's history, her aspirations,
her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position
in the world --yesterday and today -- are all so stubbornly and profoundly
unique that the very word "America" remains a new, almost
completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one
in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, ot even we motley
millions who call ourselves Americans....
We must...consider a rather serious paradox: though American
society is more mobile than Europe's, it is easier to cut across social
and occupational lines there than it is here. This has something to
do, I think, with the problem of status in American life. Where everyone
has status, it is also perfectly possible, after all, that no one has.
It seems inevitable, in any case, that a man may become uneasy as to
just what his status is.
But Europeans have lived with the idea of status for a
long time. A man can be as proud of being a good waiter as of being
a good actor, and, in neither case, feel threatened. And this means
that the actor and the waiter can have a freer and more genuinely friendly
relationship in Europe than they are likely to have here. The waiter
does not feel, with obscure resentment, that the actor has "made
it," and the actor is not tormented by the fear that he may find
himself, tomorrow, once again a waiter....
"AMERICA: Pluribus, and Unum," The National
Review, January 24, 2000
As for the new face of America, it is borrowed from no
one, made entirely by ourselves. It is a happy face--too happy. In daily
life, it is the face of informality: casual Fridays, stretch waistbands,
gimme caps or watch caps instead of brimmed hats, rock 'n' roll in megachurch
services. In public life, it is the face of buddyship, rather than leadership.
You would not know it, looking at how we behave today,
but we were not always so informal. One of the great apocryphal stories
of the Founding involves Washington, Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris,
the witty ladies' man who wrote the Constitution. Hamilton bet Morris
a dinner that he wouldn't go up to Washington, slap him on the back,
and say, "My dear General, I am glad to see you looking so well."
Morris gave the slap and won the meal, though he said later that the
scowl Washington gave him was the worst moment of his life. Morris,
incidentally, had scalded his right side as a boy, lost a leg in a carriage
accident, and lived in Paris during the Terror; Washington's scowls
must have been something indeed.
Now presidents and presidential candidates high-five voters,
grip their elbows, and flop down in their booths at IHOPs. Sometimes
the poor voter cringes; all he wants to do is eat his Lumberjack Special.
We have reached the point where the common man has more dignity than
would-be presidents. Not that he has much, as any spin around the television
dial shows. From audiences in football stadiums to audiences of Jerry
Springer, we look like a nation of slobs, leavened by freaks. When we
were small and weak, we had to stand on our dignity. Often we stood
too stiffly: Touchy American rhetoric was a byword among amused European
visitors. Now that we are world hegemons, we can afford a grin, a yell,
a pumped fist, or the great adolescent "whatever."
In the days since September 11, 2001, there has been an
increasing sense of urgency on the part of some Americans to help those
from other countries to understand what it really does mean to be an
American. Recently, the U. S. State Department has asked an assortment
of writers to offer their personal thoughts on this subject. Their
writing was published in a booklet that has been distributed overseas
and via the web. If you would like to compare your own thoughts and/or
those expressed above with the messages written by these writers for
the State Department project, see: Writers
Whose picture would you use to represent "The"