What defines an American? Is it the love of liberty, the pursuit of justice, the urge to invent, the desire for wealth, the drive to explore, the quest for spiritual values? The paradox of the American identity is that although the United States is a melting pot of many different traditions, motives, and ideals, there are nevertheless distinctive qualities that define the American character
In this course, historian Patrick N. Allitt investigates the national character by introducing you to notable Americans from all eras of the nation's history, whose lives speak eloquently about the qualities that make one truly American.
Focusing on various character traits and attitudes that have indelibly shaped the national psyche, Dr. Allitt takes you on a journey from the very first settlers to the present, showing how certain characteristics have been passed down through time, and also how certain traits and beliefs have changed over time.
You will learn about the famous (like Thomas Jefferson), the infamous (like Al Capone), and the relatively unknown (like Emma Goldman). Each person covered in this course manifests certain characteristics that are quintessentially part of the American identity, or reveal some underlying aspect of the American identity.
A Deeper Understanding of Trends and Ideas
The figures in these lectures led fascinating lives. And while the course is enjoyable simply as a well-told series of biographies, it does much more, helping you gain a deeper understanding of the trends and ideas that shaped America and that continue to influence American society today. For example:
- The 17th-century Puritan leader Cotton Mather is the spiritual ancestor of today's vogue for political correctness, which Professor Allitt sees as a secular transfiguration of the Puritan belief that you can think, do, and say the right things and gradually get rid of the wrong things.
- The Civil War-era landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted combined public park construction and anti-slavery advocacy, spurred by the conviction that each contributed to fulfilling his ideal of a society where citizens are free, educated, genteel, and able to maintain contact with rural conditions.
- The late 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie helped create a pattern of philanthropy in which business leaders who succeeded by ruthless methods sanitized their reputations by endowing universities and other institutions. "It wasn't a trend which was taking place elsewhere in the world," says Professor Allitt.
- The 20th-century columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., was among the first Americans to take pride in the conservative label, which Americans had long resisted attaching to themselves. Buckley transformed the image and idiom of conservatism, with consequences that persist into the 21st century.
What You Will Learn
Each lecture in this course takes as its subject a single individual or pair of individuals. Each person is then treated in terms of a particular activity, which is reflected in the lecture's subtitle: for example, "Frederick Douglass—The Abolitionist" or "Samuel Gompers—The Trade Unionist." The four parts of the course follow a roughly chronological pattern:
Part I introduces a series of powerful figures from colonial America, who imparted their imaginativeness, forcefulness, and energy to the American tradition. Among them are the explorer and colonial founder John Smith; the religious liberty advocate, Quaker, and colonial founder William Penn; the great Puritan intellectual Cotton Mather; and the astonishing 18th-century polymath Benjamin Franklin. This part climaxes with the revolutionary generation and the men and women who had to make the difficult transition from being British subjects to being American citizens. Some among them, such as First Lady Abigail Adams, set the tone and style for a long line of successors.
Part II considers influential Americans of the early 19th century, many of whom were involved in the great controversy over whether the nation would maintain or overthrow the slave system, and who collectively energized the young republic's astonishing economic growth. Two writers from this group, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, bear witness to the maturing of a distinctive American literary and philosophical culture.
Part III picks up the story after the convulsions of the Civil War, highlighting the men and women who turned America into a first-class industrial nation dedicated to sustained economic growth, and who enabled the republic to stretch, in reality rather than just aspiration, from ocean to ocean.
Part IV shows how America's diversity flowered in the mid-20th century, as new waves of immigrants were assimilated and began to play a role in every facet of national life. This was also a time when America developed a global reach, personified in such international heroes as aviator Charles Lindbergh, such war leaders as General Douglas MacArthur, and such international cultural stars as Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein.
The American Character Exemplified
There are countless examples of how these individuals embody distinctly American traits. Here are some of them:
- Lack of Fatalism: Louisa May Alcott volunteered as a nurse in a Civil War hospital, where she contracted typhoid fever and was crippled for life from the mercury used to treat her. Nonetheless, she kept writing to support her family and pay off her father's debts. Her most beloved book, Little Women, emerged from this difficult period.
- Energetic Approach to Problem-solving: Benjamin Franklin was inspired by a firewood shortage in Philadelphia to invent a more efficient source of heat: the Franklin stove. His clever marketing campaign for the invention displays another American characteristic: boundless self-confidence.
- Faith in Economic Growth: Andrew Carnegie made a fortune in various industries before devoting himself full time to steel, seeing its limitless potential. It was then that he said, "Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket!"
- Dedication to Education: When Horace Mann was named secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837, he encountered a school system in decay. By the time he left the job 12 years later, he had laid the foundation for universal compulsory schooling that would be a model for all other states.
- Devotion to Religious Liberty: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson drafted in 1786, was one of his proudest accomplishments, which he classed even above his two terms as president of the United States. The statute was the foundation for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
- Belief in Equality: When Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams, to "remember the ladies" as he worked to establish the new American nation, she was speaking partly in jest. But her feminist heirs were serious. In the 20th century Betty Friedan sought to give women real equality and real democratic access, rather than the outward legal shell of these rights.
You May Even Recognize Yourself
This is a course that is descriptive of the American character, rather than prescriptive; Professor Allitt emphasizes that one need not have certain characteristics in order to be really American. Nonetheless, if you are an American, you will probably find that you share basic attitudes and beliefs with many of the individuals featured in these lectures. This is no accident. One of the lessons of the course is that habits of mind that you may take for grantedùoptimism, self-reliance, and belief in education, among others—are specifically American in outlook and have been developed through the success of these and other like-minded individuals throughout American history.