Theme 1 (NAT) - American and National Identity

34 min readmarch 2, 2021

Ashley Rossi

Ashley Rossi

AP US History 🇺🇸

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The one thing you need to know about this theme:
The Development of National Identity
America is a powerful nation (which powers, granted, have also been abused at times). We are one of the world’s strongest military powers and have an enormous reputation in the world. Many see the US as a beacon of hope, a home of opportunity, a great melting pot, and one of the most relentless defenders of our interests at home and abroad. But how did we get here? How did America become “America”? What does it even mean to be an “American”? And how has this strong current of national identity shaped history as well as the present? That’s what this theme is all about. 
🦅 🌄 🗽 💭

College Board Description 📘

This theme focuses on how and why definitions of American and national identity and values have developed among the diverse and changing population of North America as well as on related topics, such as citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism. 

Organizing Question 🔎

How did American identity, exceptionalism, and culture develop throughout its history?

Key Vocabulary 📝

Bacon's RebellionMiddle PassageMayflower CompactAmerican ExceptionalismSalutary Neglect
AnglicizationFirst Great AwakeningEnlightenmentAlbany Plan of UnionDeclaration of Independence
Inalienable RightsSocial ContractPopular SovereigntyEgalitarianismRepublican Motherhood
Articles of ConfederationBill of RightsRevolution of 1800Manifest DestinyEra of Good Feelings
Monroe DoctrineMarket RevolutionSecond Great AwakeningDred Scott v. SandfordGettysburg Address
Transcontinental RailroadTurner ThesisDawes Severalty ActEllis IslandUrbanization
Laissez-FaireJingoismWhite Man's BurdenRoosevelt CorollaryRugged Individualism
Welfare StateBaby BoomSecond Red ScareMcCarthyismXenophobia

Historical Examples of this Theme:

Period 1 (1491-1607)

The AP Course Description does not recognize American and National Identity (NAT) as a central theme in Period 1, which makes sense. For one, America was not actually a nation and British colonization (from which the nation would arise) had not yet been cemented.
Nevertheless, there are a few things to mention.

The Roots of Colonization

For one, the seeds of colonialism were sewn here. The Age of Exploration ⚓ 🗺️ was motivated by the Three G’s: Gold, God, and Glory. 
Prior to the Age of Exploration, the Crusades created a huge demand for new trade routes and the Renaissance sparked a desire for knowledge and growth. Europe continued to move away from feudalism and more towards capitalism as monarchs began consolidating their wealth. 👑
This development spurred competition amongst nations and it is here that colonization of the Americas began.
More so, before Europeans arrived, this nation was already claimed by indigenous people. Columbus technically did not “discover” anything. These tribes had complex and diverse societies that developed around their geography, albeit with very little cultural consistencies between various tribes. 
It is important to acknowledge this history when considering this theme, as it provokes the discussion of who America truly belongs to and what makes a person an American.

Period 2 (1607-1754)

Even before America was “America,” the basis for our national identity was laid. 
European nations colonized the Americas for a variety of different reasons. The Spanish colonized with the goal of harvesting raw materials and spreading Christianity. They created the encomienda system based on the subjugation of Natives and developed a new caste system within their colonies. The French, on the other hand, were less interested in developing empire and more interested in trade with Natives. Thus, they developed generally peaceful relations with Natives which were centered around trade. Britain settled along the east coast of North America and its colonies developed their own regional identities based on settlers, their motivation for settling, and geographic factors.

Chesapeake and Southern Colonies

England’s first permanent colony of Jamestown was settled in 1607. It was settled as a joint-stock company, meaning that investors pooled their wealth in hopes of making a profit. Its settlers were mainly young, single men who were looking to get in, make money, and get out. Times were very difficult at first and during the Starving Time of 1609, 80% of settlers died ☠️. Tobacco eventually saved the region and, here, the agricultural basis of the area was set. 
Since the South had a long growing season and fertile soil, farming of cash crops 🌱 became the main source of income. Tobacco remained the primary crop in the Chesapeake region, while rice, indigo, and cotton dominated other southern colonies. Large rivers in the south meant that port cities were not necessary, ships could travel via rivers right up to plantations in order to gather exports.
Systems of government in the Chesapeake area represented male land-owning settlers. Most notable was Virginia’s House of Burgesses. This government was a legislative body that was meant to represent the settlers of Virginia. 
The headright system incentivised settlement and allowed land for anyone who paid for their own voyage over. Laborers who could not afford their own ticket could have one paid for them and, in exchange, would work for several years to pay off their debt. These individuals were known as indentured servants.
Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 highlights the early notion of a right to revolt against an unjust government and also marks a major transition to slave labor in the Chesapeake and Southern colonies.  
Agricultural economies require a lot of physical labor and, initially, indentured servants were the preferred source of labor in the Chesapeake colonies. However, as the colonies became wealthier, enslaved African people became the more common source of labor exploitation and the Middle Passage came to be the lucrative route through which thousands of slaves were stolen to the Americas.

New England Colonies

The New England settlers originally migrated to the Plymouth settlement and, later, to the Massachusetts Bay colony seeking freedom from religious persecution. Even while still under British rule, the colonies were seen as a land of freedom and opportunity.
The governments of these colonies, though devoutly Puritan, laid down some serious principles in democracy. The Mayflower Compact of 1620 illustrates the idea of sacrificing personal gain on behalf of the greater good. These pilgrims recognized that they were a long way from home and were undertaking something major, and so they laid out (in writing) the need for equal laws and a government that serves the governed. 
Another important document to outline the early ideas of American Exceptionalism is John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity (you may know it as the “city upon a hill” sermon). John Winthrop illustrated the idea of a city upon a hill-- a model society for all other. He stated that “we shall be knit together in this work as one” and suggested they were bound for greatness so long as they kept God on their side.  
The economy of the New England societies was a mixed one that profited off of trade and shipbuilding. Cities began to develop as centers of commerce around ports. Agriculture was mainly limited to self-sustenance farming 🐮🐷🐔 and, although slavery existed in the North, there was much less demand for labor. 

Colonial Cultural Identity

Since they were so far from Britain, the colonies began to develop their own identities. For most of this period, Britain followed a policy of salutary neglect, which allowed the colonies to operate fairly independently from their Mother country. The erratically enforced Navigation Acts led to some early tension between Britain and its colonies, but for the most part, colonists identified as British citizens.
Governments were unusually democratic for the time. Town Hall Meetings in the New England colonies allowed the community to come together and form legislation. Meanwhile, the Virginia House of Burgesses was (at least in theory) a representative legislative body. 
Still, the colonies also absorbed a fair share of English culture through a process known as Anglicization. Thanks to the transatlantic print 🖨️ and Protestant Evangelists, English ideas were brought to the colonies and, in turn, a great deal of colonial society was modeled after English society. 🇬🇧

The First Great Awakening and Enlightenment

Two of the most important factors in the development of national identity during this time were the First Great Awakening and the Enlightenment. Both movements began in England and traveled to the colonies; however, they impacted the colonies in a very unique way. 
The First Great Awakening was a revival of Protestant Evangelism ⛪. It was all very “fire and brimstone,” 🔥 but (in case you haven’t noticed) American identity is steeped in this tradition. When we pledge allegiance, we pledge to “one nation under God.” Our patriotic songs boast lyrics such as, “God shed his grace on thee!” Even our currency comes with the phrase “in God we trust.” 
Through the First Great Awakening, colonists also learned that they could resist the “old way” of doing things. Gone were the days of the divine rights of the King-- people now sought a more personal relationship with God and individual understanding of religion. A religious reformation may not seem particularly nationalistic, but it was crucial in developing a unique sense of autonomy. 
Equally important was the Enlightenment 💡, which also made its way to America via the transatlantic print. The ideas of Locke, Rousseau, and others revolutionized the way people thought about government and would play a critical role in the development of the nation. 

Period 3 (1754-1800)

Clearly, Period 3 is extremely important to the theme of National Identity-- it is not only when the United States became an independent nation 🇺🇸, but also when it formed its own government via a series of experiments in democracy. 

The American Revolution

After the French and Indian War, tensions began to rise between the colonists and Britain. The war spurred contempt on both sides. After the war, Britain felt the colonies should pay for the massive debt incurred during the war.  
This began a period of taxation and attempts at greater imperial control, which spurred on the revolutionary movement. Bolstered by the ideals of the Enlightenment, colonists began to fight against both real and perceived constraints on liberty with the rallying cry of “No taxation without representation!” 🚫
In addition to this, the colonists also felt they had been victimized in other ways: they were forced to quarter soldiers, faced Britain’s attempts to seize their arms, and had their attempts to petition shut down multiple times. These problems were seen as fundamental violations of inalienable rights and, in the future, would be explicitly protected by the Bill of Rights. Still, it is important to remember that during this time most colonists still considered themselves British citizens and identified more with the colony and region they were from. Years prior, they had rejected down Ben Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union, which was the first colonial government. Even within the Patriot movement, very few thinkers had come to accept the vision of America as a united front. 
Enlightenment thinkers 💭 like Thomas Paine (author of Common Sense), Samuel Adams, and Benjamin Franklin fanned the flames of rebellion by using Enlightenment ideals to bolster the patriot cause
Average people-- the artisans, farmers, and women in society-- fueled the Patriot cause by aiding in boycotts, creating revolutionary groups like the Sons/Daughters of Liberty, and serving in the colonial militia (initially known as Minutemen).
In 1776, at the start of the war, the colonies officially declared their independence from Britain with the Declaration of Independence 📜. It is one of the most important documents in US history because it so clearly frames what the United States stands for. 
The ideas in this document were shaped by Enlightenment ideals and modeled partially off of documents such as the English Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta. It  was created on the basis of four important themes of American identity: inalienable rights, the social contract, the right to revolt, and popular sovereignty. 
Inalienable Rights
Fundamental human rights that should not be taken away by any government--  according to John Locke, these were our right to “life, liberty, and property.” In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson used the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Social Contract
The concept that governments derive their power from the consent of the government. As citizens, we sacrifice some individual freedoms in order to live under a government that protects our rights and offers us protection.
Right to Revolt
If any government violated their end of the social contract (that is, if the government is no longer serving its populus) then the people can, and should, replace it. 
Popular Sovereignty
The right of the people to choose their form of government. 

Impacts of the American Revolution

After the Revolutionary War, the United States of America became a sovereign nation with the Treaty of Paris (1783). The revolution spurred what became, arguably, one of the most central themes in the country’s national identity: the idea of egalitarianism-- the belief that an individual’s success should be determined by what a person does, not who they are born as. 
The idea of egalitarianism resounded amongst many groups. Abigail Adams urged her husband to “remember the ladies” and republican motherhood was born. Abolitionist movements formed and northern states gradually began emancipating slaves. Inspired by the success of the American revolution, revolutions also formed in France, Haiti, and Latin America.

Experiments in Democracy 

The first government of the United States was ultimately unsuccessful. The creators of the Articles of Confederation were so fearful of centralized power, they created a federal government that was essentially paralyzed. 🔒
As mentioned before, most colonists identified as a member of their colony, not as a citizen of the United States. This meant that most representatives desired to act on behalf of what was best for their colonies or regions, not on behalf of the nation as a whole.
With the drafting of the Constitution, the founders eventually got it right. The spirit of compromise was present as various regions and interests compromised on what was best for the nation. The 3/5’s Compromise, the Great Compromise, and the electoral college 🗳️ all display this notion.
The Bill of Rights ensured civil liberties to all citizens. The scars of Britain’s infringements on colonial liberty can be seen directly through these ten amendments: the right to bear arms, freedom to assemble, reserved powers of the states and the people, amongst others. 🗣️
The US Constitution is a living document. It was formed so that it could be changed and adapted over time. It gives the federal government power, but also limits that same power. It separates federal power into three branches 🏛️ and ensures that no one branch becomes too powerful via a system of checks and balances. 
As the first President of the nation, George Washington set many precedents that would further define national identity. Within his cabinet, political parties began to form. This division between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans concerned many (including Washington) but, in hindsight, set the tone for US politics.
The country also had to iron out remaining foreign policy issues. Although an independent nation on paper, several European powers (namely Britain and Spain) were failing to recognize America’s sovereignty. Both nations remained on American territory, restricting our freedom of trade and ability to negotiate with Native tribes. 
The French Revolution 🇫🇷 was another contentious issue that the new nation was faced with. Despite opposing views on the matter, Washington decided to stay out of the dispute completely with the Proclamation of Neutrality. 
In his Farewell Address, ✌️ Washington warned against political factions and permanent foreign entanglements. The latter of these two warnings would be echoed time and time again in American history. 

Period 4 (1800-1848)

While the AP Course Description does not identify American and National Identity (NAT) as a central theme for Period 4, there are many ways in which our national identity developed in this time frame.

The Revolution of 1800

Period 4 begins with the Election of 1800. In this election, Democratic Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson was elected following the single term of Federalist John Adams. It is sometimes called the Revolution of 1800 because it was the first time power between opposing political factions changed hands. 
This happens frequently in modern-day America without any second thought. Yet, at the time, this was pretty revolutionary. Nobody really knew what would happen-- Would the Federalists refuse to give up office? Would there be a military coup? Would we have a second revolution?
In reality, nothing happened. One party left office as the next one entered and it was all done in a fairly tame manner. This, in retrospect, is pretty central to our identity as a nation. 🤷🏻

The Early Republic

Jefferson would further set the tone of American Exceptionalism. In his inaugural address, he described America as a nation blessed by God with fertile soil and room enough for many generations to come. He also famously quoted, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists.” Yes, the nation had its internal disputes, but at the end of the day, we were Americans.
With this address, he placed our identity as Americans above political factions or personal differences. He also welcomed dissent and poignantly explained that this was the beauty of our nation-- it is a place where dissent may be voiced and heard with no cost to the nation or its dissenters. He stated that this alone proved how strong our government would be.
His inaugural address also further promoted the idea (initially insisted upon by Washington) that the president was not a sovereign leader, but rather a steward of the people. He gave credit to his advisors and apologized in advance for any errors he might make.
His presidency itself continued to develop the fledgling national identity. He struggled with the Louisiana Purchase, not wanting to overstep his boundaries as president. Eventually he did go through with it (obviously) because it helped us to become the great agrarian empire 🌾 he had dreamed it would be. 

Defending American Sovereignty in the War of 1812

The nation was trying to prove its sovereignty once again as Britain and France were violating our ability to trade freely. More so, Britain’s nasty little habit of impressing American sailors (which meant capturing them at sea and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy) was getting pretty old. These trade issues and violations eventually forced the nation into the War of 1812. 
While the nation was divided over whether another war with Britain was appropriate, it seemed pretty important to defend our sovereignty… once again. 
This conflict intertwines with another APUSH theme of America in the World (WOR) but, just to note, the eventual War of 1812 was extremely important for our national identity. It is sometimes referred to as the Second War for Independence and, afterwards, America would never again have to fight for our independence and sovereignty. 
The end of the War of 1812 spurred a period of intense nationalism. With the decline of the Federalist party after the Hartford Convention, America was launched into a super patriotic period of only one political party: The Era of Good Feelings. 

The Era of Good Feelings, the Market Revolution, and National Development

During this Era of Good Feelings, the United States issued what is known as the Monroe Doctrine. Issued under president James Monroe, the doctrine stated that any further intervention in US politics or further attempts at colonization of the Americas by European powers would be considered an act of aggression. 
While this dabbles in the themes of politics (POL) and foreign affairs (WOR), it was also a huge power move for America. We established not only our supremacy over our own territory, but over territories we believed might become ours. 
During this period, the Market Revolution ⚙️ also defined America as a nation. Our economy switched from a traditional economy to a market economy and capitalism became more of the status quo.
Regional differences heightened with the Market Revolution as the North began to industrialize rapidly and the South became more entrenched in agriculture and dependent on slavery. Even as nationalism soared, sectionalism also continued to drive the North and South apart. 
Work and home became separate spheres and gender roles were further defined. The development of railroads 🛤️ and canals opened the West and manifest destiny became a pretty big deal. 

Manifest Destiny and the Expansion of Democracy

On that note, Manifest Destiny refers to the increasingly popular belief of the time that it was America’s god-given destiny to be a great nation spanning from one coast to the next. This idea was rooted in American exceptionalism and a belief in the superiority of American culture and civilization. It was the notion that America was destined to do great things because we are a great nation founded in liberty and with God on our side.
No work better summarizes the idea of Manifest Destiny than John Gast’s American Progress. The piece summarizes everything that American exceptionalism was built upon. The female figure (named “Liberty”) moves westward. In her hand she carries a school book (a symbol of education) and telegraph wires. With her follows light and symbols of technology, civilization, and industry. 🌄
When Andrew Jackson became president in 1828, democracy was greatly expanded for the common man. As the first “self-made man” to become president, Jackson believed that everyone should have the opportunity to participate in government. 
While it can be debated how democratic Jackson’s presidency truly was, his presidency saw the elimination of property qualifications for voting and the implementation of universal white male suffrage 🗳️. With that, democracy definitely grew. 
But who is American and what does the nation stand for? This expansion of Empire was not without its costs. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced Native Americans further west out of their homeland and culminated in the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of 16,000 Cherokee natives. One fourth of them died along the way. 
Manifest Destiny also led us into the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. Under President James K. Polk (nicknamed the Manifest Destiny President) the US acquired its largest territorial gain since the Louisiana Purchase. The Mexican Cession officially expanded our nation from one coast to another and consised of land that would later comprise ten states including California.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Again, we must ask: At what cost? Mexico lost nearly half of its territory with its defeat. More so, the status of thousands of Mexican settlers living in the area was now in question. 

The Second Great Awakening and the Goodness of America

The Second Great Awakening ⛪ revived Protestant religion once again. Beliefs in human goodness and perfectibility led to a period of Antebellum reform movements. Most notable amongst these movements were abolitionist reforms and women’s suffrage movements.
In the 1830s, English ministers Andrew Reed and James Matheson quoted the now famous line, “America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud…”  Ideas such as this once again speak to American Exceptionalism and attempts to explain what makes American a great nation.
Just to note, this quote is frequently misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville and has been quoted (mostly incorrectly) by politicians time and time again. While its particular origins are hard to pin and the exact phrasing becomes murky over time 🤨, the notion is still incredibly important: America is a special nation, founded in liberty and endorsed by God.

Period 5 (1844-1877)

The Nation Splits

As land was increasingly added to the nation throughout the first half of the 1800s, sectional tensions continued to rise. Just like they had in colonial times, Americans once again began to identify more with their specific region than with their nation as a whole. 
The issue of states’ rights and the question of slavery became an increasingly moral and political issue. On the political front, the nation floundered with a series of failed legislative compromises. Looking at slavery as a moral issue (rather than a political one), abolitionists fought to defend the rights of the enslaved individuals in this country. 
The case of Dred Scott v. Sandford brought the issue of African American citizenship and the constitutionality of slavery to the SCOTUS ⚖️. Dred Scott was a slave who had lived in free territory with his owner to live for several years. Upon his owner’s death, Scott petitioned to the Supreme Court for his freedom.
In the landmark ruling of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court deemed that, as a black man, Scott was not a citizen of the United States and, therefore, and no legal standing. The case dealt a crushing blow to the topic of racial equality and the federal government decided that African Americans had no legal rights to which whites were bound to respect. 
The election of 1860 marked a key turning point in the history of American identity. The election of Abraham Lincoln triggered the secession of Southern states, which marked the commencement of the Civil War. 
Like Jefferson, Jackson, and other presidents before him, Lincoln held no pretenses about his views on the country. To him, the unity and sanctity of America came first and foremost. Preserving the Union was always Lincoln’s goal leading up to and during the Civil War. 
As the Civil War raged on, America faced what is still, to this day, likely the greatest threat ever to our national identity. The country had split apart at its seams and citizens had turned from brothers to enemies. 
In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln delivered one of the most important and poignant speeches in American History. His Gettysburg Address, lasting just under three minutes in total, reminded listeners of everything the nation stood for. 
The speech recalled America’s foundations, hearkening back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence “four score and seven years ago” (that’s 1776 for those of you keeping track). He spoke only of the nation as a whole and made no mention of North, South, or any other existing division. 
He honored veterans, past, present and future who had died fighting for our nation’s sanctity and he assured that, no matter what, a country made “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 👏

Legacy of the War

As the war ended with Union victory, the nation merged back together as one (granted, not all that easily). While resentment still existed, America would be a united front from that point on and, for the most part, citizens would consider themselves to be “Americans.” The United States were, well, united once again. 
The United States was redefined by the Civil War. The war ultimately expanded the power of federal government with conscription, the nation’s first income tax, and the temporary suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. 
Given the industrialization that had occurred in the decades prior, the United States moved further away from Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian society. The strong centralized government and manufacturing society Alexander Hamilton had envisioned became more of a reality. The questions of secession and states’ rights were officially ended as well. 
The end of the Civil War also marked the end of slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Although some historians may argue the Civil War was not necessarily fought over slavery, there is no doubt that the war’s scope changed over its course. 

America Attempts to Mend

The Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address, and tireless work of abolitionists made the war a moral one and brought the question of slavery to the forefront. With the end of the war and the subsequent end of slavery, the topic of who was considered an American arose again. 
The period of Reconstruction featured debates over African American rights and citizenship. The 14th and 15th Amendments, along with the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, made great strides in securing equal rights for former enslaved person. 
Unfortunately, legal loopholes to these amendments, violence inflicted by the Ku Klux Klan in the south, and the Supreme Court’s eventual restriction of the 14th Amendment meant that much of this progress was quickly undone. These issues would not be revisited to this degree until nearly one hundred years later.

Period 6 (1865-1898)

The Gilded Age was a time of major growth for America; however, it was also a period that was rife with social issues and political corruption. The term Gilded Age was actually coined by author Mark Twain for this exact reason. Just like an item gilded in gold, the period looked shiny and new on the outside 💍 🏆, but was teeming with issues within 🏚️ 🐀. 

Closing the West

One important way in which national identity grew was in the settlement of the West. The federal government actively encouraged settlement of the west in this period through legislation such as the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act, and the Morrill Land Grant Act.
As thousands of migrants moved west seeking opportunity 🌾🚜, the United States merged the east and west with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad 🚂. By this point, America had reached its true manifest destiny (in the sense that we had achieved territory spanning from sea to shining sea) and the West had become a major part of our national identity. 
In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented this famous thesis titled The Significance of the Frontier in American History at the Chicago World Fair 🎡. In this work, Turner claimed that the west was fundamental in shaping national identity.
He argued that all the traits central to the American identity (industry, individualism, materialism, ingenuity, and democracy) were developed via the American frontier. He supported this by developing the idea of successive frontiers-- the claim that the frontier had forced Americans back into a more primitive state time and time again throughout its settlement, eventually cultivating a culture that was uniquely American. 
Turner also saw the West as a hotbed for progressive reforms and as a safety valve-- a place of endless opportunity and hope. With the closing of the frontier, Turner argued that America would soon seek imperial goals in new frontiers outside of our own territory. Let’s just say that he wasn’t exactly wrong on that one. 
Still, who does American identity belong to? The Native Americans of the Great Plains suffered great loss at the hands of this settlement. As the West was further settled during this era, Natives progressively lost more and more. 
In 1887, thousands of acres of tribal lands were broken up and redistributed through the Dawes Severalty Act and the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee is widely thought to be the end of Native American resistance. Native Americans of the Great Plains region participated in a ghost dance movement in a final, desperate attempt to call upon their ancestors for a return to prosperity. The consequences of these losses still reverberate throughout Native American culture to this day.

The American Melting Pot

The idea of American citizenship was also challenged with the enormous influx of immigrants during this period. Millions of immigrants came to the nation via Ellis Island 🚢 throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. 
This influx forced Americans to consider what it meant to be a citizen of this country. Many Americans responded with Nativist sentiments and called for restrictions on immigration. Meanwhile, immigrants struggled to assimilate in this country while still maintaining their own cultural heritages. 
In relation to the theme of national identity, this influx of immigration can be seen as crucial to the idea of the American melting pot. For immigrants coming from their home countries, the first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty 🗽 as they arrived at Ellis Island meant something immense: America was the home of liberty, opportunity, and endless optimism. 
Speaking of the Statue of Liberty, the statue was actually gifted to America by France during this period. Meant to symbolize our comradery, the statue bears the famous inscription: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Now, that’s national identity! 👌
Urbanization happened rapidly. The cities in which many immigrants settled became centers of culture and commerce. Many Americans would travel to cities to enjoy a Vaudeville show or a new department store. Thanks to innovations in steel, electricity, and developments in urban planning, the American city came to look like the ones we know today. 🏙️

The Question of Responsibility

America also rose to power as one of the world’s leading industrial powers during this period. A laissez-faire approach to economics and new business tactics allowed industry 🏭 to soar. This growth led to the prominence of a very wealthy upper class, led by captains of industry (or, as one may choose to think of them, robber barons). 💰💰💰
While men like Carnegie and Rockefeller became wealthier than ever, millions of laborers and immigrants lived in abject poverty. Living conditions in urban tenements were often times filthy, overcrowded, and unsafe. Work conditions were not much better. Many people saw this gap as an alarming sign of the times and a call to reform began to grow.
A middle class began to emerge as well. For many native-born Americans, standards of living rose and consumption became the status quo. In this era, Americans began to enjoy department stores, spectator sports, and new sensational forms of journalism. 🗞️
This disparity and the social issues it caused called to light new debates over the responsibility of the American government and its people.

Period 7 (1890-1945)

In Period 7, America continued its rise as one of the greatest world powers. Foreign policy, efforts in World War I and World War II, and continued industrialization all played key roles in the nation’s identity as America came to power on the world stage. Domestically, ideas of American citizenship and what it meant to be a citizen of this country were further developed as Issues of the Gilded Age prompted a slew of progressive reforms. 

Progressive Reform and American Citizenship

The reform efforts inspired by the problems of the Gilded Age, which typically began through individual and local efforts, eventually made headway at the state and local levels as well. 
While the rights of African Americans were still largely stifled in the Jim Crow South, brilliant minds like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ida B. Wells continued to fight for equality and debated the best means by which to achieve such equality. 
The Women’s Suffragist movements 👒 also made great headway thanks to organization like NAWSA and the NWP. Eventually, the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 and secured the right to vote for women. With the ability to participate in government affairs and have their voices heard, women continued to work towards equal standing in American culture. 

Imperial Efforts & American Nationalism

During the last years of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, America’s imperial efforts secured its role as the policeman of democracy. Though the Spanish American War in 1898 was short lived, the Treaty of Paris signed upon America’s victory secured the territories Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. 
Further territorial acquisitions of Hawaii, Alaska, and the Panama Canal further cemented American Empire. The result was a soaring feeling of extreme ethnocentric nationalism, referred to as jingoism.
The philosophy of jingoism has roots in American Exceptionalism and the belief in the superiority of American culture and civilization. The same sentiments that inspired manifest destiny years prior bolstered further imperial efforts in this era. Just as Turner had predicted, with the closing of our own frontier, America looked to expand its influence into new frontiers. 🌎
This idea was epitomized in Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden. In this work, Kipling encourages America’s imperial efforts and its subsequent annexation of the Philippine Islands. According to Kipling, the white man was morally obliged to encourage progress in less “civilized” areas of the world. 
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt added the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The addition asserted America’s right to intervene in the affairs of smaller nations in Central America and the Caribbean. 🗺️
This sort of nationalism, which was now justified both morally and politically, led the country into various diplomatic interventions as well. America played key roles in China’s Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, and in the affairs of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. 

America’s Identity in World War I

Despite this apparent willingness to involve ourselves in the affairs of other nations, the country largely remained isolationist upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Reminiscent of Washington’s Farewell Address, President Woodrow Wilson thought it best to keep America out of the messy entanglements that led a sizable portion of the globe into a world war. 
The United States managed to defend this neutrality until our own national security was threatened via the Lusitania incident and the Zimmerman Telegram. With this, America asserted another very important component of our national identity: While the affairs of others may or may not incite a rise to action, our own national security is considered the utmost priority. 
American troops greatly helped to raise the morale of allied troops and victory came a year and a half later. America came out of WWI as one of the strongest nations in the world and we played a key role in the peace negotiations that would follow. 

The Roaring 20s and the Great Depression

The Roaring 20s 💸 were a time of great optimism and prosperity for many Americans. It was also a period of great economic growth and a time of major social change. All of these factors helped to further America’s self-image of a nation built upon liberty, prosperity, and optimism. 
The prosperity of the decade created a sense of rugged individualism amongst Americans and its politicians. Coined by President Herbert Hoover, the term posits the idea that Americans are (and should be) totally self-made and self-reliant, free from the need of any government aid. 
This “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” approach came under scrutiny with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression 📉 that followed. Many Americans were forced to re-evaluate national ideals and the government struggled to decide its place in aiding its citizens. 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal changed the relationship between the government and the economy and, by extension, its relationship to the American people. Social welfare programs of the New Deal created a larger federal government designed to provide financial aid and protection to its citizens.
Hard times typically tend to build character and this era of history was no different. The boom of the 20s and crash of the 30s shaped American identity in a very unique way.

America in World War II

The same concerns over national security that led us into World War I eventually pulled the nation into World War II as well. When Japan bombed Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941, America once again saw the great need to defend its safety and honor. 
Hours after the attack, as millions of citizens watched on in horror, President Roosevelt addressed Congress with his well-known Infamy Speech. The speech was officially a request for Congress to declare war but, more broadly, it was a rallying cry of reassurance for the nation. 
Just like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s address to Congress held much more importance than its immediate historical context implied. The speech illustrated unwavering faith in the national government, armed forces, and the will of the American public. It put America on the side of good and assured all the God was on our side.
The United States emerged from World War II as the most powerful nation in the world. It was, and still is to this day, the only nation to use nuclear warfare. America was no longer an isolationist nation, but a global superpower. 🦅
The American public’s role in the war also served our optimism and growth in this period. The entire country mobilized and participated in the war: food was rationed 🥫, war bonds were issued 💵, victory gardens 🥕🥬 were planted, and all fronts of society (including women, African Americans, and Native Americans) participated in the effort. 

Period 8 (1945-1980)

The 1950s

The 1950s played a great role in shaping the personal identity of American citizens. The nation’s success in World War II and rise to great power created an overwhelming sense of optimism. Similar to the 1920s, Americans enjoyed an economic upswing, higher standards of living, and a great sense of optimism. 
After the war, many Americans retreated back into their home lives to enjoy simple pleasures. Widespread automobile ownership 🚗 led to urban sprawl and rapid housing development created American suburbia 🏡 and the lifestyle that accompanied it. The newfound security of the 1950s ushered in the baby boom 🍼, a period in which birth rates soared. 
Mass developed suburban houses (the first of which being Levittown, NY) and the families that lived in them became the idyllic picture of American success. They were safe, clean, and wholesome. They were also mostly caucasian. The vision of the white picket fence, manicured lawn, and single car in the driveway became an American symbol.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The nuclear family (two parents and a few kids) became the hearthstone of the American dream. Americans seemed to find great comfort in traditional gender roles that cast men as providers 👔 💵 💼 and women as homemakers 🧺 🧹 🍰. 
Greater household income and more readily available technology allowed Americans to enjoy more everyday comforts. Cars, refrigerators, vacuums and other household items were easier to own than ever before. 
One of the greatest innovations of this period was the television 📺. Each night, suburban families would gather in front of the TV to enjoy quality time. The television not only united families, but also united Americans as a whole by creating a united popular culture.

Defending Democracy in the Cold War

With a new role on the world stage, America turned its sights on defeating a new enemy: Communism. The days of neutrality and isolation had come to an end and America saw the policy of containment as a moral obligation.
Communism was viewed to be the antithesis of everything the American identity had come to stand for. America was a free world built on individual liberties, social mobility, and capitalism. Communism was, well, none of those things. 
The United States experienced a Second Red Scare and Senator Joe McCarthy led a crusade against what he perceived to be communist infiltration. McCarthyism, as it was called, increased attention on immigration and American citizenship. Suddenly, once again, immigrants were viewed as uniquely un-American. The Cold War Era fostered great xenophobia and many Americans regarded foreigners with suspicion. 
The Cold War lasted for nearly forty years and overshadowed several presidencies. While a detailed timeline would probably be better suited for other historical themes, it is important to note the ways in which American national identity manifested itself throughout the war.
The policy of containment (stopping the spread of communism) was the dominant theme for much of the Cold War. Ever since the Roosevelt Corollary,  America had envisioned itself to be a defender of democracy and, in this time period, we were one of the only nations powerful and wealthy enough to actually enforce this role. 
The Truman Doctrine (1947) and Marshall Plan (1948) provided financial aid to countries judged to be at risk. It was thought that providing these nations with aid would help them to resist the lure of Communism. Similarly, the United States provided physical aid to those under the rule of Communism in the Berlin Airlift. ✈️
This cause also drew America into two official wars: the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Many Americans protested this involvement. They questioned why we should risk our safety and the safety of our troops fighting a war that was not ours to fight. 

Social Issues of the 60s and 70s

The issue of civil rights was revisited as many Americans fought to achieve equality for African Americans. Activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X fought for the rights of African Americans once again. ✊🏿
Ever since the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the South had existed in a state of racial segregation. For the first time since Reconstruction, the federal government actually heard this call to action. Great strides were made through the Supreme Court Ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 
America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, distrust in the government, and a general backlash against the conformity of the 1950s led to a great counterculture movement. The American youth exercised its voice through protests, music, and in their chosen lifestyle. Colleges across America became sights of protest and unrest.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This counterculture movement, seemingly against the established national identity, was actually pretty characteristic of exactly what America stands for. 🕊️✌️✊🏿

Period 9 (1980-present)

The Globalization of America

In the modern era, America has become part of a more global identity. Technology has fundamentally changed how we live, work, communicate, and operate. The digital age 📱 💻 has not only affected our lives as individuals, but has informed global economy and policy.
 America is no longer a nation of isolationist policy and currently plays a major role in world affairs. The power we wield has continued to spark talks about whether or not intervention is always appropriate. The status of our nation as a great superpower has been both bolsered and challenged in the modern era.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is no doubt that America has great solidarity within itself. In the light of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the country came together in a way that has rarely been seen throughout our history. In the face of devastation and terror, America unified and found great inner strength.
In other ways, division still exists. Americans continue to dispute what our national identity implies and what this identity means to us as citizens. With current events related to politics, gun control, religious extremism, and civil rights, it sometimes seems that our nation is more partisan than ever. 🤔

Thinking About the American Identity ❔

To this day, America continues to be one of the world’s great powers. Still, we wrestle with the questions that were initiated and shaped throughout our history:
  • Is America truly great and, if not, why? 
  • What responsibility does America have to the world? 
  • Who does this nation belong to and what does it mean to be an American?
As the nation continues to debate current issues like gun control, immigration, and the perpetual division of modern-day politics, it is more important than ever to understand where we once came from. 
These questions may never have definite answers, but that is okay. Growth and progress lies in our ability to think critically about our history and wrestle with the realities of our national identity. 🇺🇸
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🌽Unit 1 – Interactions North America, 1491-1607
🦃Unit 2 – Colonial Society, 1607-1754
🔫Unit 3 – Conflict & American Independence, 1754-1800
🐎Unit 4 – American Expansion, 1800-1848
💣Unit 5 – Civil War & Reconstruction, 1848-1877
🚂Unit 6 – Industrialization & the Gilded Age, 1865-1898
🌎Unit 7 – Conflict in the Early 20th Century, 1890-1945
🥶Unit 8 – The Postwar Period & Cold War, 1945-1980
📲Unit 9 – Entering Into the 21st Century, 1980-Present
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