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Each Generation Of Americans Must Define What It Means To Be American Essay, Research Paper

“Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American” (William Jefferson Clinton) On 4 July 1776 the American colonies issued a Declaration of Independence from Britain, written by Thomas Jefferson; in it were listed the grievances that colonists felt towards the British government in general, and King George III in particular. The American people no longer accepted the legitimacy of Britain and its king to govern them. Since the first white settlers immigrated to America in the fifteenth century, each generation has constantly attempted to redefine what it means to be an American, priding itself “not merely on being different from every other nation, but in being wholly exceptional”, with its own distinct values, traditions, political system and culture, based on principles of liberty, democracy, capitalism and individuality. In examining the way in which generations of Americans have sought to define their “Americanness”, I have decided to focus on three fundamental periods in American history: the post-Revolutionary period, the antebellum South and the role of slavery, and the McCarthy witchtrials of the 1950’s. The first significant event which prompted the American people to evaluate what it means to be an American was the American Revolution. John Locke’s theory of Social Contract can largely be employed to explain the general discontent of the American people under British rule. Locke’s theory claimed that the authority of a government to rule came from a social contract which was made between all members of society when that society was primarily established. The individual members of that society agreed to allocate certain powers to the government, and to abide by its laws and regulations, if in return, the government used these powers in the interest of all of its citizens. If these powers were abused, then the social contract would no longer be valid, and the people would no longer be obliged to obey the government. This theory was particularly attractive to the American people, the majority of whom felt that they were being dictated to and exploited by a tyrannical government with absolute, unlimited power. They believed that the authority and legitimacy of governments had to come from the people, that the powers that were granted to the government had to be restricted, and that because the British government was exercising absolute control, that they retained the right to rebel and overthrow the government. During the early years following the Revolution, the American people were still suspicious of centralised power, and feared tyranny and corruption, limiting national power to a bare minimum. The localist Articles of Confederation were drafted in 1776 and finally ratified in 1781, the first American attempt to produce a national framework of government; each of the thirteen states was allowed to preserve its independence, and retain its own powers, under Article II, which states that, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” The result of this unlimited freedom allocated to each individual state was that the institutions of the Confederation were relatively powerless. The Confederation lacked the means to raise funds, or to pay off the nation’s revolutionary debt; it was unable to acquire access for American products in foreign markets, and failed to protect fundamental national interests that conflicted with those of England and Spain. Each state was allowed to regulate its own laws on trade and taxation; the Confederation Congress had no power to enforce these laws, resulting in a system of government that was too weak and ineffective, unable to command respect internally and overseas. Many Americans such as James Madison now believed that a new national government system had to be established, in which specific powers and authority would be defined, to ensure that it would remain effective. Madison believed that a strong central government was potentially dangerous, but that an ineffective central authority was more detrimental to the future of the states. In Vices of the Political System of the United States, he wrote that the failure of the states to adhere to the Constitutional requirements “has been so fully experienced both during the war and since the peace, results so naturally from the number and independent authority of the States, and has been so uniformly exemplified in every similar Confederacy, that it may be considered as not less radically and permanently inherent in, than is fatal to the object of, the present system.” He saw the states as abusing the generous power and liberty which they had been allowed to exercise; he observed a “spirit of locality,” which he believed was sabotaging the “aggregate interests of the community.” Many Americans believed that a balance must be monitored between power on the one hand, and the liberty of the individual on the other, in order to avoid the threat of tyranny, or alternatively, anarchy. The American Constitution, completed on 25 May 1787, was very much geared towards producing a system of government in which political tyranny could not be allowed to occur. The Founding Fathers decided to achieve this by limiting the power that each branch of government was allowed to exercise, and to allocate specific, specialised powers to each body. This was called the Doctrine of Separation of Powers and was heavily based on the writings of a Frenchman, Baron Montesquieu (1689-1755). This doctrine declared that there should be three basic powers of government: an executive power, a legislative department, and a judicial authority of power, and that these three powers were distinct and should be separated. They should also be exercised by three separate bodies or institutions; should they, however, be fused within one institution or person, such as a monarch, the result could be tyranny; if any one institution exercised more than one of these responsibilities, society would be endangered by the possibility of having a tyrannical and corrupt government. The American Constitution set up a dual system of government, in which power was divided between national (federal) government and state governments. The Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, therefore feared the power of governments, and wished to separate the duties of government into a number of separate components. In this way, they believed that American values of democracy and liberty could be maintained, and that dictatorships such as those prevalent in the Old World could be avoided. Another crucial aspect which fundamentally altered the course of American history and values was the institution of slavery in America. The Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, declares that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…”; however, it is evident that these stipulations did not extend to those who were not born white in the antebellum South. Slaveholders attempted to justify this obvious breach of justice by claiming that those of African descent were primitive savages, unlike white Americans, whose heathen culture was a danger to themselves; by “civilising” blacks, and forcing them to labour, they were saving their corrupt souls. As George Alsop reasoned, “There is no truer Emblem of Confusion [than an attempt by subject or servant] to be equal with him, from whom he receives his present subsistence.” The abolition of slavery in the North following the War of Independence made slavery a uniquely Southern institution. In Maryland and Virginia the most important accomplishment of the Revolutionary period was the formation of a significant free black population amid widespread slavery. Prior to the Revolution, the number of free blacks in these states was marginal, the majority being the offspring of inter-racial unions; in cases where these children had white mothers and black fathers, they were legally born free. Before the Revolution, white fathers who wished to liberate their mulatto children were restricted by a Virginian law, implemented in 1723 and overruled in 1782, which made manumission by will or deed illegal. Additionally, many slaves had fought during the war, and received their freedom and in some cases, land bounties, as a reward for their s ervice. A small number of masters freed their slaves out of conscience, resulting in the conflicting interests of democracy and slavery. Richard Randolph emancipated his slaves by will at the start of the Revolution in order “to make retribution, as far as I am able, to an unfortunate race of bond-men, over whom my ancestors have usurped and exercised the most lawless and monstrous tyranny, and in whom countrymen (by their iniquitous laws, in contradiction of their own declaration of rights, and in violation of every sacred law of nature, of the inherent, inalienable and imprescriptable rights of man, and of every principle of moral and political honesty) have vested me with absolute property.” In the Upper South, the Revolution had some impact on localised emancipation; masters such as George Washington were increasingly freeing their slaves in their wills. Despite these philanthropic acts, it is important to note the irony that Randolph, Washington and other masters only freed their slaves upon their death. Plantation owner Thomas Jefferson recognised the paradox of slavery in a democratic society; in his Notes on Virginia (1785), he wrote:”Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Many masters therefore believed that their livelihoods would not survive without the institution of slavery, and allowed their personal prosperity to come before their conscience in perpetuating this unequal and unconstitutional system. “The white man will never raise – can never raise a cotton or a sugar crop in the United States. In our swamps and under our suns the negro thrives, but the white man dies.” Many masters saw abolition as a threat to liberty and prosperity, rather than as a means of ensuring that “all men are created equal”, as emancipation limited their resources for expansion in achieving the American Dream. One of the great ironies concerning improved conditions for slaves during the 1800-1840 period is that as slave treatment became better, emancipation became more difficult. As psychological domination was replacing physical punish ment, servile dependency increased. Prior to the Revolution, masters demonstrated little interest in intruding into their subjects’ religious life; this altered due to the massive expansion of the evangelical movement in the nineteenth century, and Christianity started to play an important part in the daily lives of slaves. At the same time, family life became instrumental in the slave community, to the point where whites often considered slaves to be an extension of their own families. African slavery was therefore becoming domesticated and “Americanised”; masters sought to provide stability for their slave communities, so that they would become more obedient and dutiful, and would not consider rebellion. However, slaves often saw religion as being a useful means of gaining knowledge about everyday lives from the slave congregation, and their spiritual hymns often carried messages of liberation rather than obedience; religion was therefore manipulated as a convenient tool for sharing collective values of freedom amongst the slave population. The nineteenth century saw the collapse of slavery as an institution, following strong abolitionist movements emerging in the North, heightened by Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election victory, Southern secession in 1860-1861, the outbreak of Civil War in 1861, and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, signed on 1 January, 1863. While conditions for the majority of blacks had notably improved throughout the nineteenth century, masters still perceived slave ownership as a fundamental part of their liberty; the 1857 Dred Scott decision clearly demonstrates the manner in which blacks in the United States still had no civil rights, and the law was subject to corruption by white slave-owners; after the Civil War, African Americans were by law granted full citizen’s right, although these were still subject to manipulation and corruption by the Bourbon elite. The final example of a generation that has defined what it means to be an American is the conformist generation of the 1950’s under Joe McCarthy. Few men or women have had as much notoriety in the United States of America as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who utilised anti-communist propoganda in order to win support and fame, although he never managed to uncover a single communist in government, from 1950 to 1954. He attacked not only government officials, but also journalists, academics and other citizens; as he always spoke from the Senate floor, he could not be sued for libel. What McCarthy sought was fame and publicity and re-election to the Senate; communism in government was a convenient tool for him to exploit to further his personal glory-seeking, and no dirty tactic was too demeaning for him to fulfil his ambition. In the beginning, in February of 1950, he appeared to have little support from the American people, but as he continued to press his charges and gain publicity, the public’s approval of him increased and more Republican Congressmen started to support him. Why, then, did Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade achieve such extra ordinary success in the early 1950’s? Just a few weeks before McCarthy’s famous Wheeling speech in February 1950, the civil war in China resulted in Mao Tse-tung’s Chinese Communist Party’s defeat over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists; many Americans believed that China should have been theirs by right; Joe McCarthy perpetuated this resentment over the “loss” of China by attacking politicians who were involved in external affairs, in particular those involved in Far Eastern issues, such as Owen Lattimore, whom he called “the top Russian espionage agent” in the United States of America, and the “principal architect of our far-eastern policy”, which had led to the communist defeat of China. It was also at around this time that the Cold War was peaking, with Eastern European Countries, such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia being defeated by Soviet troops; Americans feared this communist expansion, believing that it was trying to enforce its evil doctrine on innocent people; Many saw America as “God’s country”, and saw the Soviet Union as the antithesis of American Values of religion and democracy. World events seemed to be playing into McCarthy’s hands, when on 25 June 1950, the Korean War broke out, adding fuel to the American fear of expanding communism in the east. He used this new issue as a weapon against the Truman administration, whom he blamed for encouraging the North Korean attack by being “soft on communism”. Another major factor that added to McCarthy’s phenomenal success in the early 1950’s was the exploitation of the media; he used the press in order to publicise his allegations and propagate the people’s hysteria about the expansion of communism. The newspapers that dared to oppose him were branded as “communist” or “Red” publications, consequently generating even more publicity. McCarthy was therefore heavily backed by the press, either through agreement with his ideologies or out of fear of opposing him. His strongest supporters were the Hearst and Scripps-Howard newspaper chains and mass publications which were conservative in origin, such as Reader’s Digest,Time and Life: McCarthy was strongly backed by conservative radio commentators, such as Paul Harvey, Walter Winchell and Fulton Lewis, Jr., who broadcasted McCarthy’s views frequently. One of the major victims of the Great Fear hyped up and exploited by Joe McCarthy was the film industry: blacklists of writers, directors, actors and actresses were compiled, and every film produced was put under close scrutiny. Hollywood reacted to the Great Fear by sharply reducing the number of films made that tackled serious social issues and controversial topics, replacing them with escapist entertainment such as Westerns, cops and robbers, comedies and musicals. About forty anti-communist films were produced by Hollywood, to demonstrate its patriotism; these films included I Was a Communist for the FBI, The Steel Fist, and The Red Menace. Libraries also suffered as a result of Joe McCarthy’s Great Fear, with publications such as The Daily Worker, The National Guardian, The Nation, The Negro Digest, and National Geographic being banned from the shelves. Any books considered controversial or critical of American capitalism, government, religion or other American values and traditions were censored. To further fuel this anti-Soviet hysteria, in February 1950, Dr. Klaus Fuchs, a British scientist who had worked on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, was arrested on charges of passing secrets about the atomic bomb to Russia between 1942 and 1947; shortly after, Fuch’s American accomplices, Harry Gold, a Philadelphia chemist, David Greenglass, a New York machine-worker who had been employed at Los Alamos during the War, Ruth Greenglass and Ethel and Julius Rosenburg, his sister and brother-in-law were arrested. It was also at around this time that President Truman had decided to build the hydrogen bomb, with the atom bomb having been developed relatively recently; cases of conspiracy and espionage, such as the Rosenburg trial, perpetuated America’s fear and suspicion of the Soviet Union emerging as a powerful world leader, and many believed that their country was at threat, due to the leaking of these high-security documents. There was an intense fear of the Soviet Union and Communism, and this public hysteria led to many Americans believing that McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade was for the benefit of the country, and that although his methods were often unorthodox and extreme, he was doing the right thing. As I have demonstrated in these three examples, from the birth of the American nation to this present day, each generation of Americans has attempted to define what it means to be an American. The earliest examples were the Founding Fathers, who used radical philosophies such as John Locke’s Theory of Social Contract and Montesquieu’s Doctrine of the Separation of Powers in order to define principles of liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness. These American values came into conflict over the issue of slavery: the North defined liberty as emancipation from bondage whereas the pro-slavery South argued that liberty was achieved through the right to own property and expand agriculturally, and that slavery was their legitimate means of achieving the American Dream of prosperity. American values come under question yet again during the conservative 1950’s, during Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, in which conformity, persecution and patriotism were major features in a political culture which claims to protect minority rights. One plausible explanation for the way in which such a situation arose is that there has always been an enormous desire for conformity in American society, which has stemmed from the necessity to forge a new American identity out of a diverse social and religious heritage. This search for an identity has led to extremism and fear of deviation from the norm of acceptable political and sociological rules. Each generation of Americans has attempted to define what it means to be an American, an act which has therefore both encouraged individuality, democracy and freedom, and promoted moral panics, conformity and persecution. Bibliography Michael Foley, American Political Ideas, Manchester University Press, 1991 Richard Maidment and Michael Tappin, American Politics Today, Manchester University Press, 1991 George B. Tindall & David E. Shi, America, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989 James Madison, “Vices of the Political System of the United States”, in Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (pages 319-328), 1867, reproduced in Paul Goodman’s The American Constitution, 1970 Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1982 James Oakes, The Ruling Race, a history of American Slaveholders, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1982 Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1956 J. Ronald Oakley, God’s Country: America in the 50’s, Richard M. Freeman, The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism , 1971 The Norton Anthology of American Literature, W. W. Norton & Co, 1994


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