Defining America:  Why the United States is unique


Do America’s beginnings continue to shape the nation still?


“The Americans have a democratic social state that has given birth to a multitude of sentiments and opinions…that were unknown in the old aristocratic societies…The aspect of civil society has met with change no less than the visage of the political world.”


--Alexis de Tocqueville


“What I have seen among the Anglo-Americans brings me to believe that democratic institutions of this nature, introduced prudently into society, that would mix little by little with habits and gradually blend with the very opinions of the people, could subsist elsewhere than in America.”  --de Tocqueville


United States:


·        Third most populous country in the world

·        Economy produces nearly a third of the world’s goods and services

·        Military is more powerful than all of the rest of the world’s militaries combined.  America’s military budget is $399 billion in 2003

·        Credit card debt is nearly a trillion dollars.  By the 1740s the Colonies had the highest per capita income in the world.

·        Divorce rate is 6.2 percent per thousand (Next highest is Denmark—4.0)

·        U.S. has 3.11 lawyers per thousand—twice more than any other country

·        Fifty-nine percent of Americans say religion plays a very important role in their life.  90 percent say they believe in God.  Less than 1 percent call themselves atheists or agnostics

·        Americans spend 10 days on vacation per year—lower than 7 other countries

·        U.S. produces 1,637 pounds of garbage per person each year—highest in the world



Questions for discussion:


·        Is America unique?  How is it unique?

·        What is an American?

·        What ideal is most sacred in America?  (individual freedom—each of us has the ability and the right to make our dreams come true)

·        How can the world’s most egalitarian nation allow such a yawning gap between rich and poor, a gap that grows wider each year? 

·        How does a nation of immigrants, with its impulse for inclusiveness, square with its history of division and racial strife?  Diverse Americans managed to live together when there was space to live apart!  E.g., Anne Hutchinson, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone—frontier always provided an opportunity for a new start somewhere




Jerry Falwell:  I’m predicting that America will no longer be one nation but more like the Roman Empire—a conglomerate of races and cultures held together by a regime.  The country I grew up in was culturally united, even if it was racially divided.  We spoke the same language, had the same faith, laughed at the same comedians.  We were one nationality.  We’re ceasing to be that when you have hundreds of thousands of people who want to retain their own culture, their own language, their own loyalty.  What do we have in common that makes us fellow Americans?  Is it simply citizenship?  Or is it blood, soil, history and heroes?”  Time, August 28, 2006


Who are our common heroes?

Whose history?  Battle of Little Big Horn, Oklahoma land rush

What is meant by blood? – Hmong Marine




·        The self-made man has been America’s durable icon, whether personified by the prairie homesteader or the high-tech entrepreneur.

·        American settlers and pioneers were necessarily self-reliant: Government could neither effectively bind them nor give them aid.

·        Emerson:  Self-reliance:  “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.  Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”  “I have only one doctrine, the infinitude of the private man.”

·        Thoreau:  Civil Disobedience:  dissent:  “Shall we be content to obey unjust laws or transgress them at once?”  U.S. has a history of dissent:  Roger Williams, Boston Tea Party, Thomas Paine, Susan B. Anthony…Civil Rights movement, anti-war movement, women’s rights movement – Dissent can be perceived as unpatriotic – paradox of wanting to be free to dissent and yet create a unified people

·        Whitman

·        Benjamin Franklin

·        Colin Powell

·        Julian Sanchez

·        Lone Ranger, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg

·        Since the 1960s there has been a rise in measures of malaise, from the use of anti-depressants to suicide rates.  Medical studies confirm that individuals are sicker and die sooner in direct proportion to the degree that they are isolated from others.

·        Jefferson—“love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself.”


Religion  (What does “one nation under God” mean to you?)  It wasn’t until the 1950s that Congress opened with a prayer in the Capitol, made “In God We Trust” the official national motto, and required its inclusion on all currency, and added “under God” to “The Pledge of Allegiance.”  Does it mean that we are held to a higher moral principal?  Or does it mean “God is on our side?”  The Star-Spangled Banner:  And when conquer we must, and our cause it is just, then this be our motto, In God is our Trust.”


·        Many of the original colonies were founded as religious havens for dissenting sects or for all believers.  The past quarter century has seen a surge in evangelical Christianity, reminiscent of the Great Awakening and the Can Brake revival—and this despite the loosening of traditional moral strictures against abortion, divorce, and single parenthood.

·        John Winthrop—saw Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “city upon a hill” an example to others; Abraham Lincoln called America the “last best hope on Earth.”  “We must make others’ conditions our own…always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body” – Winthrop

·        Winthrop went broke from giving away all of his money.

·        The “Planting Fathers” sought to practice their own brand of Christianity and to found a Christian state, to govern according to the rule of the word of God.  Jerry Falwell:  “I think we need a re-conversion of the country to a traditionalist, Christian point of view—and I don’t see that coming.”  Time, 8-28-06      

·        The Puritans believed that each person received marching orders directly from God.  In their new society people would interact as equals, and God would reward the just.  Wealth = righteousness

·        Enlightenment—First Great Awakening (emphasized individual religious experience and subtly challenged the authority of the established sects.)—Second Great Awakening (Populist, revivalist Christianity spread hand in hand with Jacksonian democracy—bolstering the American creed of liberty, individualism, and equality)—Third Great Awakening (end of 19th century emphasized eliminating the gap between institutions and ideals and creating a just and equitable society)—Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King, Jr.


Materialism—Conspicuous consumption was coined in 1899—Why are we materialistic?   Expression of freedom and individualism “have it your way”


·        By 2003, personal consumption accounted for 70 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

·        We work long hours.

·        We satisfy our wants through debt.

·        Our identity is formed through our objects.

·        American excess:  three-car garages, big malls, super-size meals,

·        Americans shell out more for garbage bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend for everything.

·        America has double the number of shopping malls as it does high schools!

·        “I know of no country indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men.  The love of wealth is therefore to be traced, as either a principal or an accessory motive, at the bottom of all that the Americans do.”




·        We escape poverty through land, trade, craft, toil, free market

·        We had land and resources available to use to make ourselves wealthy

·        France and Germany laborers work only 35 hours a week


Reinvention (Madonna)





Respond to a crisis

Meet the challenge—solve the problem