What does "American" mean?

“That’s not American.”

The words hit me a few days ago when someone said them to me in a discussion about government-based health care.

I don’t want to go into that argument.

I do want to back up and talk about the premise, and about the term, “American.” Because those words, “That’s not American,” have been bouncing around in my head enough that I’ve begun to think about what exactly is meant by the word “American.”

It’s tough to pin down. It’s a word that has been appropriated by everybody.  I grabbed the phone book off my desk and found 250 business listings that began with the word “American.”

American Air Filter, American Brake Center, American General Tarps, American Mobile Glass, American National Insurance, American Plastic Engravers, American Plumbers, American Founders Bank, American Martial Arts, American Pride Painting, American Realty, American Sleep Medicine, American Refrigeration, American Roofing & Metal.

Ask a foreigner to define “American” and you’re likely to get a description of current U.S. culture, attitudes and politics.

In this country, most people’s definition of “American” probably has one common trait — whatever that person believes, that’s “American” for him or her.

Maybe it’s an old history major’s habit, but lately when I run across issues in the news or political questions, I find myself looking back. It doesn’t always provide answers. But it does always provide insight.

So over the coming weeks, I’m going to explore myself what “American” actually means for me. It’s not a political discussion — though it’s hard to separate politics from the concept. I welcome anyone to post their own definition of “American” in the comments section here. Try to keep it in the neighborhood of 200 words, and let’s try to keep the discussion philosophical rather than political, at least to start.

What does “American” mean to you? This nation, it seems to me, has looked at itself differently at various stages in its history. From our founding stage, this nation became marked by westward expansion. Coming out of the Civil War, it wasn’t until after World War II that America began to be identified with its power. In 1932, the U.S. had but the 16th largest Army in the world. It had a single mechanized regiment, stationed at Fort Knox, led by cavalry horsemen. So here we have an example. At the founding of this nation, the idea of becoming involved in foreign wars would surely not have been considered “American.” Yet now, it is very much part of American makeup, even pride in some quarters.

These days, I hear a lot of talk about America being the “best” at this or that. But for much of our history, I don’t know that we have made those claims. I am investigating.

Looking at those phone book entries, I decided that just as useful as defining what “American” is, may be determining what it is not. Which brings us back to the original statement that sparked my question in the first place.

In the end, this is about investigating. For me, it means going back to the beginning, and for this blog, it means an occasional rumination on what I have found, or heard. Hopefully, it will culminate in something useful.

Does “American” have more to do with the spirit that formed the nation, the sentiments expressed in our Constitution and other founding documents, or does it evolve as the nation grows and times change? The value in this, I think, is to challenge our own beliefs, to not accept as “American” just that which bills itself as American, or that which is sold to us draped in the flag or packed into the grooves worn by party affiliation.

I suppose, if you’re looking for an example of a workable definition, this one from the esteemed historian Joseph Ellis is a fine one. He describes the American story as “the triumph of representative government bottomed on the principal of popular sovereignty, a market economy fueled by the energies of unfettered citizens, a secular state unaffiliated with any official religion, and the rule of law that presumed the equality of all citizens.”

James Madison did an important thing before the Constitutional Convention was convened in 1787. He made the decision that the Articles of Confederation, which bound the colonies together loosely, would need to be scrapped, and a new structure, a new constitution, be built from the ground up.

So as I go into this, I’m going to do my best to go the route of Madison, and build not on what I already have heard and believed, but build from the ground up.

More to come . . .

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