History American National Character Term Paper


¶ … American National Character What characteristics are distinctly American, regardless of class, race, background? What is problematic about making these generalizations and inheriting the culture? What have we inherited exactly? What problems arise with our ideals - and are we being honest with ourselves? Discuss individualism and the "American Dream." Are these goals realized and are they realistic? This paper seeks answers to those questions.

The Puritans (The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry). When analyzing the possibility of a "national character," one must first discuss the original immigrants who arrived on this continent, why they came, who they were, what they believed. They were Puritans, "resolved to 'purify' the Church of England"; but were they also hoping to "purify" the new continent in North American? Was the execution of the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Charles I in 1649 a true "purification" - or was it murder in the same blood-soaked clothing that the Puritans loathed and fought to end? Had they become the very thing they abhorred?

William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation" describes in detail the persecution that Puritans were subjected to - which sets the stage for the new nation's first citizens, and may be a part of the recipe (the characteristics that are "distinctly American") that makes up a national character. Some were "hunted and persecuted on every side," so horribly that previous problems ("afflictions") they may have suffered "were but as flea-bitings in comparison..." Some were "clapped up in prison" and others "had their houses beset and watched night and day."

All these terrible and unfair occurrences, according to Bradford, prepared them for what was to come, including being caught and punished and made into a public spectacle while trying to sail to Holland. And in reality, because Holland was a place of "great labor and hard fare" in fact "...some preferred and chose the prisons in England rather than this liberty in Holland with these afflictions." Still, Bradford writes that these individuals "bore all these difficulties very cheerfully and with a resolute courage." And when it was time for the Puritans to have the courage to sail to a new frontier, which was "devoid of all inhabitants" save for "the savage and brutish men" (Native Americans), the Puritans were "met with many fierce storms with which the ship was shrewdly shaken," to the point that her "upper works made very leaky."

This description by Bradford of the trek across the Atlantic - and about the terrible struggles as the colonists adjusted to a cruel and untamed world - could well be a metaphor for the hardships the citizens of the new nation must endure. And when the there was "great distraction and difference of opinion" amongst the trekkers as to whether to continue to the New World, or turn back, they examined "all opinions" before deciding to continue on westward. These "great distractions" were only the prelude to the great distractions that Americans have always faced, and will continue to face. Strong individuals helped those pilgrims get across the raging ocean, and strong individuals would also keep them "afloat" in the New World as they faced one challenge after another. The many "shiploads" of "His people" that arrived in the New World "through so many dangers, as upon eagles' wings," surely, Bradford wrote, must have come through the grace of God.

Surely there are three characteristics that are constant themes in American History as shown through the assigned readings: religion, individualism, and the will of the people vs. The power of the state.

To wit: on page 78, John Winthrop writes what will later become the centerpiece of the reason for going to war with England, and the philosophy behind the U.S. Constitution: "In the Puritan formulation, it held that a body politic could be constituted only out of the consent of the governed... [and in accordance with] God's eternal law of justice and subordination." John Cotton (84) discusses the "covenant" that was the social compact of the Puritans: "...society was founded on 'nature'." And again, the pioneer theme of individualism bonding with group strength, of strong people laying the foundation for a strong nation, comes through.

Robert Bellah asks important questions in the Preface of his book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life: "How ought we to live? How do we think about how to live? Who are we, as Americans?...These are questions we have asked our fellow citizens in many parts of the country." Though the ideas are very intelligent and in many cases refreshing, a reader has to ask, just what is author...


He, along with his editorial colleagues, suggests (142-143) that individualism has reached new, and not necessarily higher, levels: "There is a biblical individualism and a civic individualism as well as an expressive individualism..." And the last two are fused together as "modern individualism." There is an opposition in Bellah's book to "radical individualism," and on page 143 Bellah lashes out at the "growing strength of modern individualism at the expense of the civic and biblical traditions."
There are some confusing cross-signals in this book, some conflicting points that ask more questions than they answer. For example, Bellah writes (247) that "Religious individualism is, in many ways, appropriate in our kind of society...Ours is a society that requires people to be strong and independent. As believers we must often operate along in uncongenial circumstances..." Why is religious individualism "uncongenial" - even though Bellah asserts that expressive individualism is the "first language of individualism" and the "second language" of individualism is those of the 18th century republican and biblical traditions (pages 20 and 154).

Still, one does not want to quibble and be picky with Bellah's many seemingly contradictory (and sometimes confusing and vague) statements. It is hard not to agree with his pronouncement that the one "universal language under God" could unite all Americans. Maybe that again is the point that this assignment seeks to have answers for: The "characteristics [that are] distinctly American, regardless of race, class, background..." is religion, or at least, a belief in God, and a belief, not always spoken, that God somehow has founded this nation as a harbor for all who wish to believe freely in Him. (Bob Dylan's song, "With God on Our Side" fits with this concept of America; and that is, America is right, no matter what war she enters or how she treats her own people; God is on our side...")

The Portable Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson (xvi) sent to the First Continental Congress "a 6,500-word paper that was deemed too bold for the convention's approval." The "too bold" part was apparently Jefferson's "radical" argument, according to Peterson's book, "that the Americans possessed the natural right to govern themselves." It was Jefferson's hallmark, Peterson believes, to mix the old philosophies of English tradition - together with the "rationalism of natural-rights philosophy - and come up with a brilliant set of principles to guide the new nation. Jefferson didn't just lash out at the English arrogance and brutality, but rather, he, as an intellectual, incorporated the brainy and visionary concepts of such icons as Bacon, Newton, and Locke, "his trinity of heroes."

What made Jefferson great, was his leadership - something that was a characteristic of early America, distinctly American, and now doesn't seem to be as evident as we look toward elected officials in Washington, D.C. - and his ability to "no longer reflect the world but to change it" (xviii). As to the question, "What problems arise with our ideals..." It would be wonderful and comforting if America boasted such vision today as Jefferson showed in the 18th Century. That is, because Jefferson tackled problems with energy, intelligence, vision, and the ability to tap into previous great minds and ideas.

In Jefferson's first term, though he reportedly enjoyed the "splendid misery" (xxxv) of the Presidency, he also complained privately that he had so much executive work that there was no time for philosophy. Still, his dinner table at the White House "was a perpetual feast of philosophical conversation." Here he was, a sitting president, and he was also president of the American Philosophical Society - can anyone…

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