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Being American

4 Conversations

We all know that apple pie, the Pac-Man phenomenon, and colour without the 'u' are American, as are even more minor things, such as the pronunciation of 'lieutenant'. However, the broader sorts of things aren't generally well-recorded, unless you don't look in encyclopedias and fact-guzzling guide books.

Americans may tell you that the United States of America was founded on independence, liberty and freedom. For many, these virtues and others - democracy (and with it, often, apathy), the principles set forth in the Bill of Rights and patriotism, set the foundation of what being an American is. Somehow these principles continue to serve the people and inspire them.

The Landscape

This is what America has been since the very beginning: the sum of the imaginary landscapes of each individual American.
- Luigi Barzini

The Unites States has a rich and varied landscape: there are the cherry trees of Washington, DC, the skyscrapers of New York City, the humid summers of the south-east, the chaotic film studios of Los Angeles, fast food and petrol ('gas') stations, the glowing lights of Las Vegas, the high peaks of the rocky mountains or the green lands along the Mississippi River. 20,000 miles of beaches and countless mountains sit on either side of the first 48 states of America. Volcanoes, mountains and islands lie in the other two states.

In San Francisco, California, steep roads get steeper, leading cars and people from the ocean to the 'crookedest street in the world'. In the great plains, roads can go for 30 miles at a time without one turn - where the only landscape is dust or cornfields...or, if you're lucky, a scenic vista. It's no secret that the urban world is much different from the rural and unsettled world. However, it's easy to forget if you dwell in the clogged cities of Europe or in the large cities on the American east and west coasts that the urban areas of the United States only constitute about 3% of the territory.

Though the US has come a long way since Columbus landed or the Pilgrims set up Plymouth, the country still has lots of open spaces. Even after the Industrial Revolution, which inspired great inventors like Edison and Franklin, America isn't anywhere near being one big city.

America is two and-a-half times the size of Western Europe and roughly the same size as China. In population density, it is still relatively unsettled, with only about 50 people per square mile, or 32 per square kilometre1 - about as densely populated as Zimbabwe or Venezuela. Small-town America is known for its hospitable inhabitants.

New York City, the largest city in the country, has a hustle-bustle reputation - everyone has somewhere to go and has to get there quickly. Texans have a reputation for doing everything bigger than everyone else - but don't tell anyone that Texans are often joking when they do things big. Los Angeles is known for housing huge numbers of folks in the entertainment business and for valuing appearance over substance. San Francisco is known for being liberal - especially during the 1970s at the time of the Vietnam War. The south-eastern states have many farms and small towns, and there is a characteristic southern accent. The Midwestern states are known for their manufacturing and industry - with factories in important cities like Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland.

A United Country?

A house divided against itself cannot stand.
- Abraham Lincoln

Today, America generally strives for unity...racial unity as well as social and religious unity. However, before the 1860s, unity in America was generally about unity between the states.

Though people often abbreviate the name of the country to 'the US', history has proven that the 'A' is more than the sum of the states (and this doesn't have anything to do with the territories and Washington, DC). America started off with a very small Federal government under the Articles of Confederation. However, the country's Constitution established the Federal government to be somewhat more powerful. The first and second Presidents were Federalists2, but by 1800, only 130 people worked for the Federal army (excluding the military).

The bonds between the states were tested several times. Differences between the north and south came up during several occasions. New England nearly seceded over the rise of the Republicans in national politics, and again during the War of 1812 because it was very unpopular there. As slavery became more popular after the invention of the Cotton Gin, the south nearly began a war over their right to nullify Federal laws, but backed down. The Civil War, beginning in 1860, was won by the north over the seceded southern states. They were able to enforce a more national political system on the south. After the Civil War, people began to say 'The United States is...' rather than 'The United States are'.

Gradually, a larger federal government evolved. By 1900, there were 239,476 federal employees - 2,000 times larger in only 100 years. During the Great Depression and the second World War, the US government grew greatly again. By the year 2000, 2,696,625 civilians were employed by the Federal government, which is 11 times more than the amount one hundred years earlier, or around two million more than 200 years earlier. Historically, the rate of growth of the Federal government is a significantly higher number than the rate of population growth.

Nowadays, a person is a resident of the US - not of Ohio or Virginia or Vermont as they might have once considered themselves.

Hamilton's Country

I like to be in America!
Okay by me in America!
Everything free in America.
For a small fee in America!
- 'West Side Story', the Musical

For whatever reason, Americans have decided that it is decidedly American to want to make money. Capitalism has been generally seen as normal and good since the Great Depression, when people experienced hard times and wanted money. During the Cold War, when the world seemed to be divided between forces of capitalism and communism, it became a matter of pride.

The current US financial, political and social philosophies have roots in the political philosophy of Alexander Hamilton. Of all of the people who are considered America's founding fathers, Hamilton's vision of the country was the most accurate and he would probably be the only one who would be comfortable in today's America. George Washington shared many of the financial and governmental philosophies of Hamilton, but differed very much on political ideas. Thomas Jefferson was basically on the other side of Hamilton on every issue you could think of. Even James Madison, once the political ally of Hamilton and the father of the Constitution, became an advocate of states' rights, in opposition to Hamilton's views3.

Hamilton tried to take a realistic approach to government, and a cynical view towards the people. He served as the first Secretary of the Treasury and laid the foundations of today's treasury. He was not born in America, but served mostly in and from the state of New York. Perhaps because of this, he favoured a largely industrial nation, while the great politicians from Virginia wanted a country of farmers. He admired England, and hoped to see the growing nation like it someday.

As it turned out, the political ideas of Hamilton (he went with the party line and very often campaigned negatively - rather vocally against Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who ended up killing him in a duel4) ended up taking over American politics. His Federalist governmental beliefs were confirmed following the Civil War. Lastly, his beliefs of an industrial nation, as opposed to an agricultural one, can be seen either way. Now, the America financial system isn't dominated by farmers, but that's just as much because of a modernisation of farming. It also isn't dominated by manufacturing and industry, as Hamilton envisioned. However, his contribution to the industries and finances of the United States are not underestimated - he is enshrined with a statue in the New York City Stock Exchange and his image appears on the ten dollar bill5.

Perhaps most importantly, Hamilton was born poor, without a father, and rose to greatness. He was one of the first people to set the example for a poor immigrant rising to the high places of society. This is now commonly known as the 'American dream'.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

You have to give 100% in the first half of the game. If that isn't enough, in the second half, you have to give what is left.
- Yogi Berra

Baseball has traditionally been known as America's favourite pastime - even if American Football is more popular. It would be futile to attempt to explain why teh US has a fascination with watching people running around, swinging a stick, catching a ball and then throwing it somewhere - it seems to be something in the genes.

Perhaps it is the great history of the teams, the adoration of the legends, such as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, the tension of an extra-inning game, with a tied score and the bases loaded or the excitement that comes with a win and the 'We'll get 'em next time' attitude following a loss. Perhaps it's the singing of the National Anthem before each game that makes it seem such a national institution. Maybe it's the beer and hotdogs?

Old Glory

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
- The Pledge of Allegiance

Patriotism is a trait common among citizens of the US. No matter how much they may hate a President or a Congress, there is the determination that they can help steer their country into a better situation. Some historians attribute the success of democracy in the US to the belief that tomorrow will be better and that anyone has the power to make a difference and make the country a better place.

It is seen as just as patriotic to protest as it is to vote or contribute to a candidate or run for office yourself. A flag in front of a house is a very common and simple way of showing that one loves his or her country. The star-spangled banner, immortalised in the county's national anthem, is the red white and blue rectangle with as many white stars as there are states.

Great American Documents

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
- the Declaration of Independence

The greatest documents in US history are generally regarded to be the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They are both symbols of the American Revolution, and based on the philosophers of the Enlightenment period6. The Declaration of Independence asserted Americans were free from the British. However, a revolution is not complete until a new form of government is set up, and the permanent government was set up with the Constitution. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Bill of Rights are often similarly honoured.

However, there are plenty of less symbolic documents of equal importance (though less honour). The first patent issued in the United States, granted to Samuel Hopkins, was for a device designed to produce potash for fertiliser. The Monroe Doctrine closed the Americas to further colonisation. The Nullification doctrine, written by John C Calhoun, nearly began the American Civil War thirty years earlier by asserting that states had the right to nullify federal laws. In December 1941, Congress declared war on Japan and Germany. The Civil Rights Act of 1963 was passed in order to prohibit discrimination.

The Open Road

Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?
- Jack Kerouac

In the 1950s and 1960s, driving yourself became the American way to get around. The romantic quality of Route 66, On the Road by Jack Kerouac and beautiful, now classic cars such as Chevrolet's Corvette and Ford's Thunderbird contributed to this. The tail fin on the back of many cars (especially the Thunderbird) came to represent the almost magical essence of cars and driving in that period.

Today, though driving in the US has lost much of the charm that it used to have, the car is still an integral part of life. Due to a lack of public transportation outside of large urban areas and a negative attitude towards buses and other common modes of transport, the car is today a necessity for many citizens.

Though most highways don't live up to the legend and myth of Route 66, driving down the US Interstate system is definitely a distinctly American experience.

The American Hero

America is a place of dreams and opportunity, but this doesn't come without a price. In the realm of fiction and in history, heroes have been made helping and saving the US. Sadly, too often, this results in their giving their lives for the cause. However, if it is any consolation, those who help their nation are honoured after their demise.

Historical Heroes

Throughout American history, there are hundreds of thousands of people who could be characterised as heroes. On one level, every soldier who died believing he fought for his country is a hero - whether he fought in the Confederate side of the Civil War or in the War on Terrorism. The men who save the lives of others every day - policemen, soldiers, firefighters for instance - by risking their own are often forgotten in history, but their sacrifice is equal. Those who responded to the World Trade Center Attacks in New York and at the Pentagon on 11 September, 2001 are highly regarded by US citizens.

There are a outstanding few whose names stick out as true American heroes. George Washington is sometimes called the 'first citizen'. In an act of patriotism, he did not accept a salary for his service in the Revolutionary War, declined calls for him to become King, and stepped down after two terms. President Abraham Lincoln was killed for a policy that Americans now agree was correct. He's been deemed an all-around good egg, and a great American, but the nature of his tragic death because of his bold, just deeds solidified his reputation in the hearts of many as a hero. The same sort of thing happened to President John F Kennedy, who, incidentally, celebrated some of his heroes in his book Profiles in Courage. Hundreds of other figures in history present themselves as classic heroes of America - many of them women, and many not political leaders. However, for the sake of brevity, you'll just have to trust us on that.

Fictional Heroes

Something that has helped cultivate the image that many see of America is the fiction that is produced about and by it. In some of the works of fiction, there are characters whose deeds far outweigh those of any political leader. After all, how many real people can claim to have saved the planet? Cartoon heroes such as Superman and Batman (or any of them, really) present a paradigm of justice7 that some feel is the way America should be.

The heroism of some becomes apparent in a different way. Some are looked upon as being heroes for their strength of character and difficult situations. The lonely cowboy of the American West is an oft-romanticised figure. The good ones are about as close as the US gets to having its own Camelot. What could be more heroic than rescuing a lady from the train tracks, put there by a villain with a moustache (and, for some reason, an English accent)?

Hollywood and other forms of US entertainment has produced hundreds of heroes over the years. From Han Solo in Star Wars to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, there is a wide variety of heroes to learn from.

1As opposed to the UK, which has about 250 people per square kilometre. The Earth has about 16 people per square kilometre.2If you can consider George Washington a Federalist - he hated political parties, but his governmental philosophy was similar to that of the Federalists.3Interestingly enough, these men are all now virtually sacred cows, despite history showing that none of them really agreed with any of the others on anything... Jefferson distrusted Washington, Washington disliked the policies of Jefferson and the politics of Hamilton...and so on.4Note that there is some speculation that Hamilton let himself be killed by Burr and die as a martyr for his country with honour, rather than be seen as a murderer. It rather worked.5This Researcher is fortunate enough to have at least one of every common American unit of currency, and he can confirm that it is a flattering picture indeed.6John Locke said that it was acceptable for citizens to tear down a government when it wasn't working and build another up. Baron de Montesquieu gave the vital idea of separation of powers to the Constitution.7At least in the beginning this can be assured... sometimes film-makers recklessly change the whole dynamic around for money.

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