From the time of the Revolution to the present, Americans have always been self-conscious, aware that their nation represents something unique in the history of the world. A wide variety of American interpreters have explained the nature of this uniqueness, and a wide variety of foreign visitors have joined in, offering interpretations that depend on the contrast between their own countries and what they found on this side of the Atlantic. None of these interpreters has had a more lasting effect, here and abroad, than Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America appeared before the Civil War but remains an influential explanation of American character and identity. To Tocqueville, America’s commitment to human equality and to a democratic political system were the nation’s most distinctive attributes.
From the vantage point of the 21st century, this course examines the lives of distinctive Americans as it seeks to answer the question of what makes America special and different. It shows that certain character traits and attitudes, vivid in some of the nation’s most creative individuals, have stamped themselves on American life. Among them are, undoubtedly, faith in human equality and faith in political democracy. Other traits include an anti-fatalist outlook, a belief that material and moral progress are possible, high faith in the benefits of education, eagerness to live up to national ideals, intense religiosity, and a belief that individual economic exertion will generate wealth and material development.
Stereotypes can be insulting and can lead us to overlook important variations, but they grow out of real situations and, as a point of contact with social realities, can also be useful guides. The generalizations made in this course about Americans are not to be taken as definitive, nor prescriptive—only descriptive. Inevitably, the character of American identity has gone through profound changes in the two centuries since the Revolution. In the late 18th century, the new United States was overwhelmingly a rural country, most of whose people made their living from farming. Today, it is overwhelmingly urban, with only about three percent of its people still drawing their living directly from the soil. This immense change has been accompanied by others equally great: the annihilation of slavery in a bitter civil war; the transformation in the social roles played by, and expected of, men and women; and the rise of the United States from provincial obscurity to the status of a world-dominating superpower…
* Alexis de Tocqueville, who probably wrote the most famous study of the American identity, regarded the commitment
to human equality as the bedrock of American virtues.
The idea of national character, much disputed among historians, was popular in the early and mid-20th century.
1. David Potter argued that the American character was defined by the fact of material abundance.
2. Daniel Boorstin emphasized Americans’ inventiveness, adaptability, and pragmatism.
* …Certain characteristics and attitudes do appear, especially to outsiders, as distinctly American, including a lack of fatalism, an energetic approach to problem-solving, faith in human equality and democracy, belief in the boundless possibilities of economic growth, and a dedication to making education and literacy available to every citizen. Americans have high expectations of progress and are eager to live up to their ideals.
* …Few of the figures studied in this course were self-satisfied. Nearly all strove constantly to improve themselves and their society. American history is full of workaholics.
* …One characteristic that Americans do not exhibit is fatalism. If something is wrong, they will fix it, and if something works slowly, they will speed it up. The whole of American history is full of people trying restlessly to improve their farms, their machines, their society, their culture, their relationships, and their entire way of life…
* …Irregular warfare and ingenious military improvisation characterized the expansion of America over the next century.
* Visitors from abroad are always impressed by Americans’ intense pride in their own country. It was not always so. Throughout the colonial period, many Americans, including Benjamin Franklin through most of his life, liked to think of themselves as British. During and after the Revolution, however, a vivid sense of American national identity and
patriotism developed quickly.
* A striking aspect of American nationalism is its self-critical character, most apparent among the more highly educated Americans.
* Religious innovation is one of the most distinctive aspects of the American identity. For 400 years, faith in unconventional religions has been a leading motive of migration to America, and for almost as long, new religions have been invented and developed here.
* In the second half of the 20th century and right up to the present, the United States led the world in scientific research and achievements. American funding, laboratories, and official support for the most complex research schemes were unparalleled. Every ambitious scientist from the rest of the world sought a permanent job, or at least a postdoctoral fellowship, at one of the major American research centers.
* One of the strongest and most distinctive aspects of the American identity has always been Americans’ ability to make practical new devices and put them to profitable use. Another stereotype is that of the shrewd Yankee businessman who knows how to drive a hard bargain.