Some American Identities

If I say I demand Identity Independence as an American, that statement in itself implies a certain identity. It says that, being an American, I have a right to personal freedom and independence. Our nation has a government of limited powers that are specified in the Constitution. We have a Bill of Rights which forbids government to engage in certain personally invasive acts. In other words, the legal framework of government in the United States provides for a zone of personal freedom. As an American, I see myself as possessing this freedom. I am my own man (or woman). This is my self-image; and, for the most part, it is a positive one.

But there have been other models of identity in American history. From the Pilgrims’ first landing in Massachusetts to the present day, the inhabitants of this land have chosen to see themselves in certain ways. We recognize, of course, that the most numerous part of the population may have an image that is different from that of groups in the minority. Americans of European ancestry have had a different experience than American Indians and Negro slaves. Their picture of themselves is different. Even so, certain models of identity stand out in the discussion of what it means to be an American.

The Puritans:

A group of 149 persons abroad the Mayflower set sail from England in September 1620 bound for Virginia in the New World. Sixty-five days later, they landed in Cape Cod. The core of this group consisted of religious Separatists, alienated from the Church of England, who had lived in Holland and now wanted to remain Englishmen while practicing their religion freely. The “Mayflower Compact” asserted their right to self-government in the new land.

Ten years later, an even larger group of dissenting Protestants, whom we call “Puritans”, settled in Massachusetts. Like the Separatists, they believed that the Church of England had been corrupted. Their aim was to purify the Church. In John Winthrop’s mind, America was a place where a “city of God” might be established. Armed with a charter from the king of England, this group of 500 persons set sail from England in March 1630. The aim was to establish “a government of Christ in exile”. The Puritans were prepared to build their new community both spiritually and materially. They are remembered for their moral strictness and severity.

This model of American identity, I would say, is dependent upon the idea of a corrupt church in England. The dissenting groups that settled in the New World saw themselves as being morally superior because they suppressed worldly influences and lived according to a strict religious code. Like American self-images to come, they set themselves up as a positive force in opposition to some negative - in this case, the established English religion.

The American revolutionists:

The American revolution had its roots in a tax on tea. The colonialists believed that this measure was “taxation without representation” since they had no voice in the British Parliament. Fifty men dressed as American Indians dumped three hundred chests of taxed tea in the Boston Harbor. The British government responded by closing the port of Boston and dispatching four additional regiments to Massachusetts. Armed hostilities began in April 1775 when the British commander sent 700 troops to Concord to destroy stockpiles of fire arms which the colonialists had assembled. They were beaten back by a hastily assembled group of farmers and “minutemen”. Word of the British defeat spread to the other colonies. Soon the British government was at war in all its colonies along the eastern seaboard. A Continental Congress coordinated the rebellion politically.

The Continental Congress produced a written document which stated the purpose of the rebellion. This “Declaration of Independence”, signed on July 4, 1776, was sent to the king. Besides stating grievances against the royal government which had caused the rebellion, this document stated unequivocally that the colonialists meant to establish a government independent of Great Britain. Perhaps even more shocking, the document stated that all men were created equal, having “a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, kings were not superior to other people. Neither did kings have a right by birth to rule over other men. Instead, government’s power was based upon the consent of the governed. This was a core statement of democratic government.

The colonial armies, led by General George Washington, won a military victory over the British after a six-year conflict which ended with Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in October 1781. There was a six-year interlude in which the independent states of North America were loosely united under the “Articles of Confederation”. Then, in the spring of 1787, representatives of the state governments assembled in Philadelphia to draft a constitution for a new and stronger federal government. This was authorization to form a certain type of government. It was a democratic government with specifically defined powers, organized in three branches, each exerting a check upon the power of the other. After this government began operations in 1789, ten amendments to this Constitution were promptly adopted. They have become known as the Bill of Rights. Here further restrictions were added to government power.

Democratic government thus took shape through the deliberations of wise and scholarly persons intent on searching history for the best models of government and fashioning their own accordingly. For the next half century, Americans were aware of participating in a political experiment with a type of government that was different than governments in Europe. Loosely put, they lived in a “democracy” - a government by and for the people rather than a government of hereditary monarchs. They, in turn, were examples of the new “democratic man”. They were a self-governing and free people.

This new sense of identity spilled over into the culture. Noah Webster compiled an “American” dictionary and wrote extensively on the literature and language of the American people. Ralph Waldo Emerson composed a famous oration on “the American Scholar” which envisioned than an independent American culture would emerge, superior to the old culture in Europe. Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” predicted that, in their democratic society, Americans would create new and superior types of poetry, literature, sculpture, architecture, and everything else. American chauvinists were trumpeting the virtues of democracy in every area of life.

This model of American identity, like the Puritan, formed itself in opposition to identification with Europe. It said that we Americans are not like Europeans. Unlike them, we live in a democratic society which promotes personal freedom. We are in the vanguard of historical progress. Our superior political system will allow us to excel in all areas. Soon others will want to imitate us.

The westerner:

English immigrants to North America settled first along the Atlantic coast. General Braddock’s expedition against a French fort near Pittsburgh brought attention to the wooded interior. By the time of the American Revolution, Daniel Boone was leading migrations into the territory known as Kentucky. This encroachment upon Indian lands caused friction with the current inhabitants. Bears and other wild animals posed an immediate danger. The white pioneers were a hardy lot who had to fight hostile Indians and provide for themselves in the wilderness. In the process, they caught the imagination of those settled into comfortable lives in the east.

Europeans were enchanted with people who inhabited the North American wilderness. Rousseau imagined that American Indians were “noble savages” who led uncorrupted lives. Benjamin Franklin, the philosopher-inventor from the wilds of America, was lionized in French society. So, in the United States, the pioneers who pushed westward acquired a certain mystique. Popular novels and plays were written by them. Politicians such as Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln cultivated the image of the rough-and-ready westerner who rose from a humble birth to acquire power and fame. Image was always a factor in this personality. Crockett customarily wore a coonskin hat. His popularity soared after a play was written about him.

In a second phase, the westerner entered territories west of the Mississippi river. Like Daniel Boone before them, resourceful guides such as Kit Carson and Jim Bridger shepherded white settlers through the dangerous mountains and deserts of the western frontier. The Sioux annihilation of General George Custer and his cavalry troops showed that this land could be dangerous. Again, the western personality gained stature through publicity. Jesse Fremont, wife of the leader of an early expedition to California, did much to popularize Kit Carson by her writings. The Crockett-like character was “Buffalo Bill” Cody who, after shooting buffalo to provide meat for railroad crews, became an entertainment entrepreneur. His “Wild West Shows” thrilled audiences both on the American east coast and in Europe. An eastern dentist turned novelist, Zane Grey, wrote a series of novels set in the west that were picked up by Hollywood film studios.

And so, the adventurous pioneer of the western frontier became another model of American identity. This person was strong and courageous, exhibiting a restless spirit that evoked human progress. In contrast, the people living in the east led comparatively soft, uneventful lives. Politically, this played out as a struggle between eastern plutocrats and small farmers in the west. Jacksonian democracy sided with working people and against the banks. Americans liked to believe that their nation embraced a “pioneer spirit” that was associated with western expansion. The rugged cowboy and grower of corn or wheat were a foundation of our national strength and prosperity. Again, this model of western personality was set against an unattractive alternative. Western virility was set in contrast to the effete ways of the east.

The U.S. Civil War:

Decades of political wrangling between slave and free states and Abraham Lincoln’s election to the U.S. Presidency in 1860 precipitated the withdrawal of six southern states from the Union. They formed a new government called the Confederate States of America. When Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, President Lincoln called upon the northern states to send troops to quell the rebellion. This led to the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Over a four-year period, the northern and southern armies fought each other over a wide territory that was east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line. By the end of the war in April 1865, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were dead, the South was devastated, and an enduring memory was left in the minds of Americans.

An event this terrible tends to shape personal identity. So it affected veterans of the Civil War combat. This was a defining moment in the history of the nation. Persons living in the North could take pride in the military victory which the Union forces had achieved under the leadership of General U.S. Grant. Even more, they could respect the superior leadership and personality of President Lincoln, assassinated less than a week after the war’s end. Lincoln was a martyr to two just causes, preservation of the national union and abolition of slavery. Veterans of the “Grand Army of the Republic” could march with pride in memory of the heroic sacrifices made then.

Residents of the southern states were left with mixed memories. The war had left many wounded and dead. Whole cities were left in ruins. The survivors had to deal with the legacy of an unsuccessful rebellion against the U.S. government that had supported the institution of slavery. On the positive side, the Confederate soldiers had fought bravely and effectively against a numerically superior, better equipped force. Through able leadership and sheer tenacity and courage, the southern soldiers had kept the Union army at bay for most of the war. In the person of Robert E. Lee, they had a hero who combined high-minded commitment with military genius. More than Grant, he looked the part of a noble leader.

In this case, then, American identity was regionally defined. While the Civil War had a gripping effect on both sides, the South was the more deeply effected. Southerners hung on to the memory of that war determined to keep their regional identity. After the bitter days of Reconstruction, they revived a race-based system of social stratification. Though comparatively poor, they took pride in their regional culture. And so the southern identity combined pride in the community with lasting injury from that war. Southern charm combined with political unity and skill brought them disproportionate influence in the U.S. Congress. Until fifty years ago, one still heard boasts that “the South will rise again.”

Inventors and industrialists:

After the Civil War, the northern states experienced a rapid expansion of industry, spurred by new technologies and processes of production. The inventors and captains of industry who created the great enterprises of that age are yet another model of American identity. Some such as John D. Rockefeller and William K. Vanderbilt were persons who built large companies through financial acumen and wealth. Andrew Carnegie, on the other hand, was a person born in poverty who worked for others until he had enough money to start his own company. Carnegie acquired properties and organized production in ever more efficient ways, cutting costs and prices, until he achieved a near monopoly in the steel industry. Then, in 1901, he abruptly sold his company and became the nation’s foremost philanthropist and philosopher of wealth.

A distinctively American type of industrialist was a person such as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford who had mastered the technology underlying his business. Typically, this person had limited education. Born in modest circumstances, he was yet able to tinker with gadgets and pursue scientific knowledge. Just as important, he lived in a society that encouraged free enterprise. He applied himself to projects of interest, employed others, and soon owned businesses that were on the cutting edge of technology. Only in America could such a person succeed.

Thomas Edison, America’s greatest inventor, went to work as a newsboy on a railroad at the age of 12. Three years later, he became a telegraph operator. His work in that capacity gave him enough time to experiment on improvements in telegraphy. He received his first patent for an electrical vote recorder. Barely in his 20s, he then invented the stock ticker. Edison did not become fabulously rich but he did acquire the resources to found a research laboratory that produced inventions ranging from the electric light bulb to the phonograph and motion-picture projector. He created whole systems to generate electric power in large cities such as New York. General Electric, still one of the nation’s largest corporations, was founded on Edison’s patents.

Henry Ford was chief engineer at the Detroit Edison Company when he met the great inventor at a luncheon. Edison encouraged him to continue working on a transportation machine that carried its own fuel. Once Ford had built a functional automobile, he demonstrated its capabilities by racing on the frozen ice of Lake St. Clair. Ford raised capital from Detroit investors to start a company which would manufacture his automobiles. His superior product and production techniques brought spectacular commercial results. By 1915, the Ford Motor company had produced and sold one million cars. As more units were produced, Ford was able to improve product quality and lower the price while paying his workers a wage well above the prevailing rate. His pioneering automobile business helped to create the consumer mass market, an extensive system of paved highways, vacation travel, the growth of suburbs, and other features of modern life.

Ford surrounded himself with other mechanically gifted persons including his long-time assistant, Charles Sorensen. Another employee, William S. Knudsen, later joined General Motors to become head of the Chevrolet division and then president of the company. A Danish immigrant, Knudsen resigned his position at General Motors to take charge of U.S. war production during World War II. Another who contributed to this effort was the famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. Best known for his pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic ocean, he later consulted with wartime producers of aircraft and, after the war, with Pan-American Airlines. Besides being a celebrity, Lindbergh was a technologically competent person who helped to shape the airline industry.

With respect to personal identity, this type of individual was a business leader rather than someone broadly represented within the community. Even so, he did become a role model. Carnegie’s “gospel of wealth” is an important source of inspiration for the “get-rich” schemes that continue to motivate people. Edison’s fruitful career has inspired others to seek fame and fortune by “building the better mousetrap.” Beyond this, these inventors and industrialists were champions of progress. They improved American life in material ways, providing new gadgets and conveniences while turning the masses into knowledgeable consumers of such products. Every neighborhood has self-taught auto mechanics or computer geeks who follow in their footstep.

The entertainer superstar:

The development of the motion-picture and music-recording industries in the early 20th century created a huge audience for the works of certain performers. Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin became celebrities of the silent screen. When sound was added to motion pictures in the late 1920s, Hollywood produced new stars such as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Monroe. Some performers had active fan clubs whose members followed the star’s career and personal life with almost religious interest.

The music-recording industry produced a particular kind of idol. Audiences became acquainted with the music by listening to the radio and buying records. However, the popular singers also gave live performances. This created the opportunity for a public spectacle, depending upon how many screaming and cheering fans showed up in person to greet the singer. Frank Sinatra was a musical phenomenon who appealed to a certain type of female fan known as a “Bobbysoxer”. Down south, Hank Williams attracted a following on the Country Western music circuit. And, of course, another southern singer, Elvis Presley, became “the king of rock ‘n roll”. He achieved early notoriety as a white singer who sang “black music” and swiveled his hips on stage. In later years, he was the iconic superstar who met an early death.

The singer Hank Williams, whose career helped popularize Country and Western music, died before the age of 30. Over 20,000 persons mourned his death at a public gathering in Montgomery, Alabama, in the winter of 1953. Elvis Presley was a pioneer of rock ‘n roll music. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were “crooners” with a smooth vocal style appealing to audiences in the 1940s. Each type of music had its own following which was often regionally or generationally defined. Thus a certain personal identity came from this music. Those singers who died prematurely from abuse of alcohol or prescription drugs have become like martyrs to their unique musical “vision”. Elvis’ burial place at Graceland has become a kind of national shrine.

Audiences still connect with these singers personally as well as with the aesthetic qualities in their performance. Even today, our nation has millions of people, especially young, whose lives are primarily focused on the consumption of music. With their iPODs and computer downloadings, they live fast-paced lives surrounded by the music they enjoy. It is yet another kind of American identity, more passive than some but emotionally consuming.

The Civil Rights activist:

The racially segregated society that was established in southern states following the U.S. civil war came under attack in the 1950s following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of school integration. The federal government forced schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, to integrate. Black students enrolled at previously all-white colleges. An initiative to integrate Woolworth lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, spread throughout the south. The Rev. Martin Luther King organized a boycott of the public bus service in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to remain in a section for blacks at the back of the bus. New organizations such as King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to provide structure for the Civil Rights movement.

With President Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s ascendance to the Presidency came major new legislation protecting the rights of black Americans. Later regulations and administrative decisions laid the foundation for affirmative action to help blacks with employment. Fair housing laws were enacted. By such laws and regulations, U.S. society became firmly committed to racial integration. Meanwhile, there was a political and social effort to end race prejudice. Law-enforcement agencies monitored the activities of racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Both government and business organizations, supported by religion, took strong stands against lingering thoughts of white supremacy. White racists became social pariahs. Racial slurs were cause for dismissal from a job.

The critical work to end racial segregation in the south and to discredit white racism was undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s. From a vantage point forty years later, African Americans look back with pride upon the courageous struggles of black people at that time. Many whites are also proud of having supported that struggle then. Anti-racism remains the core of the liberal-left political identity. Martin Luther King has become a political hero without parallel. Many whites who were too young to have participated in the Civil Movement identify personally with the struggles of black Americans to achieve full equality in our society. It is alleged that U.S. society remains racist and eternal vigilance is required to prevent a recurrence of abuse.

This model of personal identity is based on social alienation. Blacks are alienated from whites and from white society. Many whites, identifying with the suffering of black people, are likewise alienated from society. They may see themselves as suffering in a way similar to blacks. Politically, nonracial groups have attached themselves to the Civil Rights model of activism: women, gays and lesbians, undocumented immigrants. All see themselves as having suffered at the hands of the majority white society. Social conservatives would call this the politics of victimhood. Proponents regard it as a struggle against oppression. Racial oppression is the archetype supporting the genre.

By this model of American identity, the center of American society is essentially evil. Racist white people occupy the structures of power, working the system to their own advantage. Again, the fact that white people widely share this view suggests that they are alienated from their own society. They identify neither with that “racist” society nor with their white race. It is unclear what positive identity it is, if any, that they have for themselves. For black Americans, it is a simpler matter of associating U.S. society with a white power structure that continues to oppress them as in the days of slavery. Since belief in white racism appears to be the majority position or, at least, the politically dominant one in America, American society as a whole seems to be mired in self-hatred. We have come full circle from believing that a “city of God” might arise in this land.

The defensive patriot:

Some conservatives who abhor criticism of U.S. society express their displeasure in xenophobic ways. It used to be that people would complain of ungrateful foreigners who expressed hatred toward the United States while accepting our foreign aid. But now U.S. aid to most countries is insignificant. The United States has instead a growing military presence around the world. Today, there is resentment of countries that enjoy U.S. military protection whose people believe our aims are less than altruistic. Some harbor resentment against the United Nations where nations with poor human-rights records dare criticize the United States. Some want the United States to pull out of that international body and go it alone. In this mode of personality, they become super-patriots staunchly supporting U.S. government policy in such ventures as the Iraq war.

Multicultural curricula also have a bad odor with some people. For instance, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in high schools has come under attack for its “anti-American bias”. Critics believe that western civilization has developed the most ethical and humane institutions in the world and courses suggesting that other systems have equal value are misguided. The emphasis upon “global citizenship” tends to undermine the identity which we have as Americans. In response, a high-school senior who was graduating from an International Baccalaureate program wrote in a letter to the editor of a newspaper: “Americans too easily see the world as an us-vs.-them competition. If being ‘American’ implies intolerance of other cultures and natural superiority, then yes, IB is anti-American. But then instead of changing IB, we may want to change what being ‘American’ means.”

Again, it gets back to one’s sense of identity. That’s what this website is about.

In Summary:

As citizens of a free country, we have the ability to choose our own identity. Among the preceding models, I would criticize those models which assume a posture of moral superiority with respect to other groups of people. The Puritans thought they were superior to the Church of England. The American revolutionists and proponents of democratic culture thought themselves superior, at least in some respects, to the people of England whose system of government was backward and repressive. However, if a person’s self-identity depends upon favorable comparison with someone else’s, that person is not truly independent since his own being is defined in opposition to another person. If we seek Identity Independence, we should be free of comparison with others. We should not have to foist negativity upon someone else to become proud of ourselves.

What are the best models of independent identities among the “American” models discussed above? The westerner, though fairly attractive, still shines in the light of corrupt eastern society; his heroism also neglects to mention the damage done to American Indians. The Civil War model pits north against south. Southerners are treasonous rebels and slave owners while northerners are “damn Yankees”. Obviously, the Civil Rights model has many of the same elements, except that they are racially defined. The defensive patriot holds foreigners and foreign cultures in disregard. In all these cases, we define ourselves in terms of disliking someone else. We depend upon the disliked identity for emotional energy to sustain ourselves and our self-worth. We are captive to their negative example.

That leaves the “inventor and industrialist” and the “entertainment superstar”. Both are positive models of personality, free of hate and disdain. However, the consumers of music depend too much upon the music superstars whom they follow. Also, theirs is a role too passive to justify much personal pride. These people merely listen to the music and enjoy it; little creative activity is involved on their part.

My favorite, then, would be the inventor and industrialist. Anyone who uses his or her intellectual or imaginative talents to produce something new which is useful to humanity has earned the right to a healthy self-esteem. Such an identity has no limitation other than the person’s own talent. Obviously, in an age of dwindling oil supplies, we would not want another Henry Ford inventing a new gasoline-powered automobile (other than one with greater fuel efficiency). However, this type of person is also a metaphor for creators in other fields.

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