Forging the American Character: Readings in United States History to 1877

Forging the American Character: Readings in United States History to 1877

by John R. M. Wilson

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780133267037
Publisher: Prentice Hall Professional Technical Reference
Publication date: 10/28/1990
Pages: 240

Read an Excerpt

A long United States history textbook may run to 1000 pages. Although that length may seem intimidating to students, it still does not allow extended treatment of a wide variety of fascinating topics. A book of readings, however, does. The theme of this reader is the American character. I trust that the concept will illuminate American history without being overly restrictive.

A reader like this one enables students to explore subjects ranging from the influence of Indians and the Spanish on the American experience to the debate over multiculturalism at the turn of the new millennium, from the horrors of life and death in the Civil War to the myths that grew up around the Vietnam War. The nature of the selections varies. Some offer cutting-edge interpretations of the past; others introduce readers to new findings; a few synthesize the writings in a historical subfield; and several are classic statements of enduring value. The readings do not pretend to cover every possible topic; rather, they explore various areas that shed light on the American character yet suffer comparative neglect in many textbooks.

Trying to define the American character can be very frustrating. No one has been able to develop a widely accepted definition of the concept. Authors often use different meanings in the same piece of writing—for instance, referring interchangeably to the character of the individual American and to the character of the mass of Americans. National character, especially in a country as big and heterogeneous as the United States, can be useful only as a large-scale generalization to cover the most prominent characteristics of the national culture. Some scholars have criticizedefforts to capture the national character, suggesting that in many cases they may merely be intellectually sophisticated forms of racial stereotyping. Yet the practice persists, perhaps because it is so convenient to group people and thus make them more manageable. Perhaps the most useful definition is that national character means generalizations about a nation or nationality developed to clarify the ways in which it is distinctive.

A national character suggests tendencies on the part of a people, not fixed positions held by everyone. It means that, all things being equal, the people of a given nation are more likely to believe or behave in a certain way than those of another nation. There is an inherent comparison implied in suggesting a national character, although studies of the American character generally tend not to explicitly explore other nationalities.

The genre began very early in the history of the United States with the publication in 1782 of J. Hector St. John de Crevecouer's Letters from an American Farmer; the immigrant asked the famous question, "What then is this American, this new man?" Crevecouer's pioneering inquiry into the American character ran up against geographical and cultural heterogeneity, which has become a vastly greater obstacle in the succeeding two centuries. The most famous inquiry came in the 1830s when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America and provided penetrating French insight into the nature of the conforming, religious, liberty-loving joiners he observed. Over the years, historians and other social observers have sought to explain American distinctiveness through such characteristics as abundance, exposure to the frontier, pragmatism, belief in progress, and mobility. They have debated the relative influence of mother England and the wilderness'and, in so doing, have illuminated American self-understanding without providing any final answers. The quest continues, as the popularity of Habits of the Heart attests. That 1985 study by Robert Bellah and associates focuses on the strains between American individualism and the need for community and offers the most thorough recent analysis of the American character.

This collection suggests that Americans have defined themselves not only by what they are but also by what they are not, and the latter, negative definition is an important component of Americanism. By and large, Native Americans have not been allowed to share their heritage with Europeans, despite their significant contributions to the lives of colonists in the New World. For other nationalities, conformity to the English cultural model was long required for acceptance in the United States, although a more pluralistic, open society seems to be emerging as the nation has moved into a new millennium. Yet over the past half century, the increasingly diverse American population has frequently defined itself less by what it is than by what it is not—as antifascist and, especially, anticommunist.

This book should help to clarify some of the various forces, ideologies, people, and experiences that have helped forge today's distinctive American character. If, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, then this excursion into the life of a people should help make it more worthwhile.

In closing, I wish to thank the Prentice Hall reviewers for their helpful comments: Louis Schmier, Valdosta State University; Charles T. Johnson, Valdosta State University; Dwight D. Watson, Southwest Texas State University; and Brooke D. Simpson, Arizona State University.

John R. M. Wilson
Costa Mesa, California

Table of Contents

1. Gerard Reed, The Significance of the Indian in American History.
2. Henry Wiencek, The Spain Among Us. 
3. Carl Degler, Were the Puritans Puritanical?
4. Edmund S. Morgan, Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox.
5. David M. Potter, The Quest for the National Character.
6. John M. Murrin, Religion and Politics in Early America.

7. James Kirby Martin, The Myth of Popular Participation in the Revolutionary War.

8. Lance Banning, The Revolutionary Context of the Constitutional Convention.
9. Henry Steele Commager, The Invention of America.
10. Jack Larkin, The Secret Life of a Developing Country (Ours).
11. Thomas Dublin, Women, Work, and Protest in the Early Lowell Mills.
12. John B. Boles, Slaves in Biracial Protestant Churches.
13. Brian W. Dippie, The Winning of the West Reconsidered.
14. Thomas Horrocks, The Know-Nothings.
15. Allan Nevins, The Glorious and the Terrible.
16. Eric Foner, The New View of Reconstruction.

 

Preface

A long United States history textbook may run to 1000 pages. Although that length may seem intimidating to students, it still does not allow extended treatment of a wide variety of fascinating topics. A book of readings, however, does. The theme of this reader is the American character. I trust that the concept will illuminate American history without being overly restrictive.

A reader like this one enables students to explore subjects ranging from the influence of Indians and the Spanish on the American experience to the debate over multiculturalism at the turn of the new millennium, from the horrors of life and death in the Civil War to the myths that grew up around the Vietnam War. The nature of the selections varies. Some offer cutting-edge interpretations of the past; others introduce readers to new findings; a few synthesize the writings in a historical subfield; and several are classic statements of enduring value. The readings do not pretend to cover every possible topic; rather, they explore various areas that shed light on the American character yet suffer comparative neglect in many textbooks.

Trying to define the American character can be very frustrating. No one has been able to develop a widely accepted definition of the concept. Authors often use different meanings in the same piece of writing—for instance, referring interchangeably to the character of the individual American and to the character of the mass of Americans. National character, especially in a country as big and heterogeneous as the United States, can be useful only as a large-scale generalization to cover the most prominent characteristics of the national culture. Some scholars havecriticized efforts to capture the national character, suggesting that in many cases they may merely be intellectually sophisticated forms of racial stereotyping. Yet the practice persists, perhaps because it is so convenient to group people and thus make them more manageable. Perhaps the most useful definition is that national character means generalizations about a nation or nationality developed to clarify the ways in which it is distinctive.

A national character suggests tendencies on the part of a people, not fixed positions held by everyone. It means that, all things being equal, the people of a given nation are more likely to believe or behave in a certain way than those of another nation. There is an inherent comparison implied in suggesting a national character, although studies of the American character generally tend not to explicitly explore other nationalities.

The genre began very early in the history of the United States with the publication in 1782 of J. Hector St. John de Crevecouer's Letters from an American Farmer; the immigrant asked the famous question, "What then is this American, this new man?" Crevecouer's pioneering inquiry into the American character ran up against geographical and cultural heterogeneity, which has become a vastly greater obstacle in the succeeding two centuries. The most famous inquiry came in the 1830s when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America and provided penetrating French insight into the nature of the conforming, religious, liberty-loving joiners he observed. Over the years, historians and other social observers have sought to explain American distinctiveness through such characteristics as abundance, exposure to the frontier, pragmatism, belief in progress, and mobility. They have debated the relative influence of mother England and the wilderness'and, in so doing, have illuminated American self-understanding without providing any final answers. The quest continues, as the popularity of Habits of the Heart attests. That 1985 study by Robert Bellah and associates focuses on the strains between American individualism and the need for community and offers the most thorough recent analysis of the American character.

This collection suggests that Americans have defined themselves not only by what they are but also by what they are not, and the latter, negative definition is an important component of Americanism. By and large, Native Americans have not been allowed to share their heritage with Europeans, despite their significant contributions to the lives of colonists in the New World. For other nationalities, conformity to the English cultural model was long required for acceptance in the United States, although a more pluralistic, open society seems to be emerging as the nation has moved into a new millennium. Yet over the past half century, the increasingly diverse American population has frequently defined itself less by what it is than by what it is not—as antifascist and, especially, anticommunist.

This book should help to clarify some of the various forces, ideologies, people, and experiences that have helped forge today's distinctive American character. If, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, then this excursion into the life of a people should help make it more worthwhile.

In closing, I wish to thank the Prentice Hall reviewers for their helpful comments: Louis Schmier, Valdosta State University; Charles T. Johnson, Valdosta State University; Dwight D. Watson, Southwest Texas State University; and Brooke D. Simpson, Arizona State University.

John R. M. Wilson
Costa Mesa, California

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