What is the American Way?

The question that I pose concerns national identity as well as the identity of the individual American citizen. What does it mean, after all, to be a citizen of the United States? Are there characteristic ways of thinking and acting that can be identified as typically American? If I were to ask Bill O’Reilly and Noam Chomsky this question, I would certainly receive two quite distinct answers. If I were to narrow the scope of the question somewhat and ask: What does it mean to be patriotic, the answers would still be quite divergent. Does being patriotic mean that I support our troops, as so many bumper stickers urge me to do? And if so, what does it mean to “support our troops”? Does this mean that I am concerned about the welfare of the young men and women who are placed by our government in harms way? Or does it mean that I support the foreign and military policies of the US government? Does being a patriotic American mean that I give preference to white, male voters of English, Irish or Scottish descent? Or does it mean that I express my dissent to military policies that I oppose and that I embrace the plurality of our current society? Does it mean that I think of America as a Republic (“under God” as Eisenhower insisted) or that I view America as a Democracy where everyone has an equal voice (regardless of his or her religious views)? The apparent impossibility of answering these questions to everyone’s satisfaction has led me to take another path in trying to describe the “American Way”.

If we turn our attention away from the divisiveness dominating public discourse today and consider for a moment the history of our country, we will find that some characteristic ways of thinking and acting do, in fact, come to light. The family names alone of the two political commentators mentioned above give us a first clue to certain common characteristics: Bill O’Reilly is of Irish, Catholic descent, Noam Chomsky of Ukrainian-Lithuanian, Jewish descent. Both of them come from immigrant families. But then, which one of us Americans didn’t come from an immigrant family?! Although we often forget this simple and undeniable fact, the United States is a country of immigrants.

Looking back to the colonial period, we discover that there were four waves of immigrants from Britain to the New World before the American Revolution. Under the leadership of John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1630 by Puritans, migrating from the Eastern part of England in search of religious freedom. As the Puritan immigration was coming to a close, an elite group of English cavaliers under the leadership of Sir William Berkeley founded another colony in Virginia. These immigrants were Royalists of Charles I in England, who were having difficulty maintaining their social and economic position during the turbulent times just prior to the English Revolution. They came from the South of England, bringing indentured servants with them to the New World, and in contrast to the Puritans, they were seeking not religious freedom, but rather material gain. For the most part, they were Anglicans and understood their religion as a justification for the social hierarchy which they maintained. Then, there was the “Friends’ Migration” from the North Midlands of England to the Delaware Valley. Like the Puritans of Massachusetts, these Quakers came to the New World to escape religious persecution, but their religious views were quite different from both the Puritans and the Anglicans. They repudiated the Five Points of Calvinism and were hostile to many of the Anglican doctrines; theirs was a religion of the “inner light”, the divine presence in every soul. The last great British migration was not from England, but rather from North Ireland and Scotland, and it occurred between 1717 and 1775. Most of these immigrants were people of humble origins who were seeking a better life in the New World. Religiously, they were mixed, but the general sentiment of these immigrants seems to have been evangelical. They tended to be militant Christians. Their sermons were full of military metaphors, and their prayers often invoked vengeance and destruction on their enemies. When they arrived in Pennsylvania, their appearance and manners were shocking to the Quaker community, which openly expressed its disapproval and rejection of these immigrants. Unwelcome in the Delaware Valley region, they moved quickly to southwestern Pennsylvania, the western parts of Maryland and Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Although most of these immigrants had lacked any social standing in Britain, there were some notable exceptions such as the Scots-Irish immigrant parents of Andrew Jackson.

On the eve of the American Revolution, we find four distinct regional cultures in Colonial America: the Massachusetts Bay, the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware Valley and the Appalachian highlands. Each of these regions was populated by immigrants from different parts of Britain who were culturally different long before their migration. There were dialectical differences in their speech, which were similar to the differences today between Bostonian and Southern dialectics, and they were religiously diverse, being either Puritans, Anglicans, Quakers or Evangelicals. All of this notwithstanding, they did have one thing in common: They were all immigrants seeking a better life in a new land. They were willing to leave their homeland with all of its familiarity and to travel great distances in the hope of finding something better. The courage to overcome incredible obstacles and the hope of a better future bound them together.

Yet, they were also bound together by one enormous problem upon arrival in the New World; their New World was someone else’s Old Word. In every region, the colonists met an indigenous population of American Indians. The reaction of the immigrants to this situation varied from region to region. The Puritans tried to convert the Indians to Christianity, while the Quakers tried to establish treaties with them. But in the end, the majority of immigrants were willing to resort to violence in order to obtain their objections. These seeds of violence have grown over the years, as evidenced by the numerous wars waged by the US: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and so forth. Today, the exercise of force has become a hallmark of American culture and is perhaps even more predominant at the moment than courage and hope.

Following the Revolutionary War, the four regional cultures found themselves in conflict with each other, and eventually, they attempted to find a consensus through the careful formulation of the Constitution of 1787. As the Constitution makes clear, the United States was never intended to be a democracy; in spite of the talk today about spreading democracy in the world, the US was established from the beginning as a Republic, adopting certain ideas about human rights and property from the English philosopher John Locke. The phrase “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence served well to inspire the colonists to revolution, but when the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, our forefathers abandoned this phrase and took over the Lockean version emphasizing the right of “Life, Liberty and Property”. The protection of property is typically a concern of those who have it, not of the poor who don’t have it; for the “Have Nots”, the right to pursue happiness would be more important. From the beginning, the US Republic had an aristocratic tendency, which is evidenced today in the Bush dynasty and the Clinton dynasty. In a true democracy, we would not be contemplating a contest between Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton! And yet, there have been Americans who truly wanted a democracy and have fought for a democracy. Martin Luther King, Jr was one of them; Howard Zinn was another. So perhaps, it is not yet chiseled in stone that we have a republic instead of a democracy; Constitutions can be amended or even changed. Switzerland is in the process of doing just that at the demand of the voting public.

What is the American way? In a country as young as ours, it may not yet be possible to say with any certainty. We are literally in the process of becoming. I find the element of courage and hope in the future to be a very appealing aspect of the American way, and I find the optimism of Americans–admittedly somewhat dampened today–very positive. On the other hand, I find the use of force by Americans, whether in personal or in international relations, very distressing, and I hope that we as a nation can eventually discover the difference between force and power, between coercion and persuasion, between the brute force of arms and persuasive power of the word. A less violent approach to foreign policy would certainly be in the tradition of great Americans like Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain. Finally, I oscillate on the question of a republic or a democracy. In my heart of hearts, I would prefer a true democracy, but I know that an educated public, which is sadly lacking today, is a necessary condition for this form of government.

So my dear readers, I conclude this series of blogs on “Rediscovering America” not by giving you a simple answer to the question “What is the American Way?”, but rather by encouraging you to take on the task for yourselves of defining exactly what it means to be an American. Is the true American the traditionalist Bill O’Reilly or the social activist Noam Chomsky? Or is being an American something else altogether?

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