Who is This American?
The Search for "THE" American Identity


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 page:

John Winthrop
Benjamin Franklin
Thomas Jefferson
Hector St. John de Crevecouer
Sarah Josepha Buell
Catherine Beecher
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Alexis de Tocqueville
Frederick Douglass
Walt Whitman
Charles Dickens
Henry James
Langston Hughes
James Baldwin
Richard Brookhiser
Writers on America (for the Department of State)
A Portrait Gallery of Americans

Note: If you would like to take another look at the people who appeared on the "Who is this American?" Page as the frontispiece for this section, see The E Pluribus Unum Portrait Gallery of Representative Americans.

John Winthrop (1607-1783)

Excerpt from "A Modell of Christian Charity" (1630)

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.

Note: To see how Winthrop's idea of a "shining citie on a hill" continues to be part of the American conversation, see the closing passages of Ronald Reagan's Farewell Address (1989), an excerpt from A Shining City : The Legacy of Ronald Reagan (1998),Colin Powell's Address to the Republican National Convention in 2000, and Kent Braithwaite's poem, Every Morning in America.

Benjamin Franklin (170690)

From "Information to Those Who Would Remove to America," (1782)

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 establish’d 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 (17431826)

Letter to John Adams, October 28, 1813

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 (17881868)

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 pilgrims.

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, and industrious.


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 (180382)

"American Civilization," (1862)

...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 American Scholar," (1873)

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 (180559)

"Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans," Democracy in America (1831)

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.

"What are the Real Advantages Which American Society Derives from a Democratic Government," Democracy in America (1831)

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.

"Why the Americans are So Restless in the Midst of their Prosperity," Democracy in America (1831)

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 (181270)

"Concluding Remarks" of American Notes (1842)

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. 18171895)

"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 (181992)

"Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson," Brooklyn, August, 1856. Supplementary Prose, 1819-1892

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.

Leaves of Grass, 1855

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.

"Notes" from Memoranda Produced During the War, 1875-6

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.

Specimen Days, 1892

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 it’s 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.) Me—who?
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 records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t 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.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and 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....

Richard Brookhiser

"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."

Writers on America

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 on America.

A Portrait Gallery of "Representative Americans"

Whose picture would you use to represent "The" American Identity?




The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.