What does it mean to be American?

Reflections on civic nationalism, artists, and heroes on Independence Day

Gracious reader,

This week, we’ll explore:

  • What does it mean to be American?

  • Positive vs. Negative identity

  • Word of the week: ethos (ήθος), the Greek word for character

Happy Independence Day from Washington, D.C.! We’re grateful to be back in DC spending the weekend with dear friends.

Today is July 4th, and Americans across the world are celebrating the day that the United States declared independence from Great Britain. For many Americans, it’s a day of patriotism and national pride.

For eighteenth-century English writer Samuel Johnson, though, “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” And there is no doubt that both patriotism and national pride have rather poor reputations these days. Indeed, though it’s common for people to say they are “proud” to be American, my husband Kian, always thoughtful and wise, is quick to remind me that “pride” isn’t really the right word.

After all, if one was born here, did we do to earn our citizenship? What do we as individuals have to be proud of?

Gratitude, I think, is the more appropriate word. This is because it is altogether right that Americans take this day to reflect on the reasons we have to be thankful to be citizens of this nation, to be grateful for the freedoms we enjoy and the ideals we are able to pursue because of that citizenship.

It’s not always fashionable to be terribly patriotic these days—when is it ever?—but there are a few reasons in particular I think Americans everywhere have good reason to be grateful to be Americans. I’d like to share a few of them with you.

Up until the American founding, virtually all nations in history defined themselves organically, distinguishing themselves from others according to ethnic, territorial, racial, or linguistic lines—by their blut und boden as the Germans put it.

Americans, though, face a particular challenge to forging and—and keeping—a coherent national identity.

As Colin Woodard showed in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, there is no monolith when it comes to the narrative of the early American experience. America was settled by people of many ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds—the the Pilgrims who settled Massachusetts Bay are a far cry culturally and religiously from the Scotch Irish that settled Greater Appalachia in the early eighteenth century.

America didn’t have an ethnic identity by which to define itself. So it became a civic nation—a country defined by a collective commitment to living by a set of ideals instead of a common blood, religion, or language.

In a sense, American identity is artificial. It is constructed, and it is chosen.

Of course, American citizenship is something we can be born into. But being born into American citizenship is not enough. it is also something we must choose. In a sense, that collective choice—that shared commitment to the rule of law, to the shared project of self governance—is what it means to be an American.

Yet this is all a very precarious ground upon which to form a national identity.

That is why the question of what it means to be an American is such an open-ended question—one that has been, and continues to be, hotly debated.

Negative vs. Positive identity

Across time and place, nations—including America—have forged their identities negatively and positively.

A negative identity involves a nation defining itself by contrast to what it is not.

The people of ancient Greece thought themselves to reside at the pinnacle of human achievement, and they made a sharp distinction between themselves and all non-Greeks. They were suspicious of foreigners, calling them “barbarians” because, to the Greek ear, all they seemed to say was “bar-bar-bar.” The calculation was simple for the Greeks. “Our way of life, defined by rationality and self rule, is good and civilized.” “These other people do not speak or look or live like we do, therefore they must be a lesser people.” Difference was treated with skepticism, and was not seen as having any redeeming value.

In another example, the rapid rise and territorial expansion of Islam during the Middle Ages alarmed Christian Europe. Christian art depicted Muslims with animal-like features—a dehumanizing project intended to galvanize and inspire the Crusaders in their righteous cause, as it becomes is easier to conquer and persons, or less than persons, with whom one shares little in common.

Similarly, in American history, national unity was strongest when Americans had an external threat against which we could define ourselves —the British, the Nazis, the Soviet Union, the Taliban. We knew who we were because we had a stark example of who we were not.

A positive national identity, by contrast, casts and rallies around a vision of what a people stand for.

Often, creating a such a positive national identity has two components: the hero and the artist.

The hero is the figure that realizes a nation’s ideals of greatness, who embodies the national ethos, the Greek word for character. The artist, in turn, is the immortalizer—an mythmaker working as a painter, musician, or poet—who takes the hero’s story and captures the collective imagination, forging a national identity in the process.

The ancient Greeks, for example, looked to Achilles and Odysseus, heroes whom Homer immortalized in his Iliad and Odyssey as exemplars of what it meant to be Greek.

In Ancient Rome, Aeneas is the hero, Virgil the myth-maker. Before Italian Unification, known as Il Risorgimento, Italy was fragmented into many city states that were at the time controlled by many different European powers. In the nineteenth century a swell of interest in what it meant to be an Italian swept across the country—in no small part thanks to the magnificent melodies of composer Giuseppe Verdi. It’s difficult to overstate the role that Verdi’s music played in capturing the national imagination of the once-fractured country. He is the author of the Italian national anthem, and his name even came to be a symbol of national unity (VERDI is also an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele, Re DItalia—in reference to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy).

America too has its own tradition of heroes and artists who immortalize them. Consider, for example, Parson Weems. In the years after George Washington’s death, Weems took it upon himself to write our first president’s first biography.

In The Life of Washington, first published in 1800, Weems took Washington the man and transformed him into Washington the hero.

He told stories from Washington’s life that showed how and why Washington embodied all that was great about what it meant to be an American—honesty, integrity, grit, resilience—to the end of inspiring young Americans across the country to aspire to these noble traits, too.

Naturally, Weems took some creative liberties. Indeed, he drew some stories entirely out of thin air. Here are a few examples:

  • The story about George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree and confessing to it? (“I cannot tell a lie, Pa!”)

    Utterly fabricated, but intended to bring to life and celebrate Washington’s exceptional reputation for integrity.

  • The story of George Washington having two horses shot out from underneath him during the Revolutionary war?

    A story invented by Weems to illustrate the divinely providential nature of both Washington personally and the American project generally.

  • The story of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River?

    Also created by Weems, it seems in order to demonstrate Washington’s supernatural strength.

This superhuman, larger-than-life image of Washington still exists in the American consciousness today. For many, Washington remains someone who embodies much that is great in the American tradition.

And we have Parson Weems to thank for that.

Weems—like Homer, Virgil, Wagner and Verdi before him—harnessed the power of art and storytelling for national identity-building and moral instruction. He defined and brought to life what it meant to be American, and cast a vision that was both aspirational and possible.

Even with its tall tales, Weems’ positive-identity building is still far superior to the negative approach to nation building: creating a national identity by “other-izing” those who are different.

This leads us to a question: where are the artist and heroes who can help us craft a positive identity today?

Who are the people embodying the ideals we stand for, such as human dignity, equality under the law, honesty, hard work, and integrity?

Who are the artists helping to craft and tell our national story in a way that recognizes and learns from our shortcomings—and defines and inspires us anew with our strengths?

If you know them, tell me! I’d love to hear from you.

Instead of a definition of what it mean to be American that unquestioningly celebrates all things America—or demonizes others to feel better about ourselves—I’d love your help reviving this important tradition, of building an identity grounded in confronting our vices while celebrating our virtues.

What do you think about these ideas? What do you think about what it means to be an American?

Send me your thoughts at ah@alexandraohudson.com

Whether you are American or not, Happy Independence Day! Wishing you a lovely day with loved ones.