According to the thesis, which will be presented in the current book, the American identity is monolithic and homogenous, although it communicates daily with other cultures and despite the fact that it contains a given set of subcultures within. The American identity belongs to a community of people sharing the same values, religious beliefs, political views, and historical memory. It has been formed through common experiences, common beliefs, and cooperation. All new-coming immigrants have to accept our traditions, values, language, etc. This is the formal side of the definition. As S. Huntington observes, the core of the American identity is the culture that settlers created (Huntington 2004, 62). It is manifested in what he called the American Creed, a system of beliefs that is based upon the principles of equality and individualism (Huntington 2004, 11). But it should be also added that the American identity is related to a biblical story, to a conception contained in many mythologies and legends. This is the promised land, or the land where a people looking for freedom can live peacefully and realize all of its social, political, and economic potential. In this sense, every American has the intuitive knowledge that America is the promised land, and that the Pilgrims imagined it exactly in the way in which the Jews thought of their promised land.
Europe in the seventeenth century still experienced the consequences of the Reformation and the military and doctrinal collisions with the adherents of the Catholic Church. It was the first time that a doctrine different from the officially adopted one was not called “heretic.” By that time, all such doctrines had been accused as heresy, as contradicting to the Catholic doctrine. The Reformation changed that attitude toward the people who had different religious confession, and the Peace of Augsburg (1555) established the normal relations between Catholics and Lutherans within the Holy Roman Empire, which at this time comprised almost one-fourth of the territory of Europe. Unfortunately, that settlement turned out to be not final and not decisive due to the fact that some other confessions were dismissed. In this way, a new religious conflict emerged, and it continued for thirty years—the so-called Thirty Years’ War. While the most powerful countries in continental Europe were fighting against each other in the name of religion, the English Pilgrims settled down in America and started building their community anew. This fact only shows what could have happened with Europe had the European powerful states argued in favor of religious tolerance and freedom of confession. However, the descendants of the Pilgrims around the second half of the eighteenth century felt that they lacked independence and that Britain was slowly restricting their freedom. Thus, under the influence of the European Enlightenment, a cultural and political process that developed gradually in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the colonists in America decided to defend their independence and to claim their right to establish themselves in a new state, a state that would be entirely independent from Great Britain and its king.
As all of us know, the American Constitution was the first one in the world. It served as an example for the French revolutionaries (although there were some significant differences). Some of them can be found in the liberalism of John Locke. Others can be found in the works of the French Enlightenment. Still, we must be careful while dealing with such conceptions since religious tolerance was not among the leading ideas of these authors. They rather put stress on the equality of all the citizens. What is more, the French philosopher Rousseau constructed such a doctrine that could serve as a basis of a democratic state but also to be the cornerstone of a totalitarian state (which was really established in France during the Jacobins Terror).
Ergo, the American constitution should be conceived as different from the ideas of the French Enlightenment, although the former certainly was influenced by the latter. The Constitution of the United States was elaborated in the spirit of individualism, liberalism, and the right of self-determination. What is more, it was especially constructed to address the needs of a federal republic with a central government, thereby allowing for keeping the balance between the autonomy of the separate states and the powers of the central (or federal) government. These peculiarities of American democracy will be analyzed also in connection with the observations of authors like Alexis de Tocqueville and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur.
The American Constitution and law in general were products of the so-called American mentality, or American way of thinking. Strangely enough, there was a transition from objective idealism to pragmatism, a philosophy that can be called typically American, and not without justification. Initially, American philosophy emerged in the form of transcendentalism with its accent on the endless world, the world-soul (Emerson), and the harmony. But this form of idealism did not last long. Later, the influence of European positivism led to what was called then pragmatism, or a philosophical doctrine putting emphasis on the practical definition of every concept that science deals with. In this way, pragmatism allowed for advancement of contemporary science and overcoming traditional metaphysics, eventually resulting in America being the leading force in the high technologies in the twentieth century. But another thing was the most important with regard to pragmatism—knowledge and action were received as correlated. Thus, American people have always been convinced that knowledge leads to action, and action is always based upon knowledge. This is the view that knowledge should be practical, that it should have effects. Still, pragmatism was not understood properly at the beginning. Wrongly, the word effective was (and it still is) associated with useful (utilitarianism). However, both concepts are quite different.
Theory and practice are interrelated, pragmatism points out. Actually, they are only two parts of one and the same process. Knowledge and action are always related to each other. This assumption should not be confused with the conception that the only reasonable goal in life is becoming wealthy. On the contrary, one must be active instead of being isolated from the world. This we shall see later while analyzing the conception developed by Max Weber. According to him, the Protestant worldview led to the attitude that “blessed are the ones who work and their labors are rewarded.” In this way, American pragmatism can be seen also as connected with Protestantism.
Logically, the philosophy of pragmatism, seen as putting stress on the importance of action in its interaction with knowledge, leads to the idea that the technologies in America are developed within the framework of the conception of practicality, unlike ancient Greece or ancient China. Since American mentality perceives knowledge and action as correlated, American society has become the appropriate environment for developing technologies. But its main goal has never been developing technologies for the sake of developing but rather to change the society by doing this. The United States have welcomed many renowned scientists, thereby giving them the opportunity to realize their scientific projects, due to which America has become a leading military and technological power in the world.
Evidently, we can easily claim that scientific progress is a typical mark of the American mind. It is connected with the pragmatist approach (i.e., the search for practical effects and with the goal-directedness of the pragmatists. Strangely enough, here, a contradiction appears: the strive for action, for finding practical solutions, for transforming theory into practice ensues in widening the gap between the two pillars of American society: the Christian worldview, on the one hand, and the conviction that social progress is achievable through knowledge on the other. Thus, the tension between religion and science increases. How is this conflict solved (if this is possible at all)?
A more detailed definition of American identity is needed. America has its origins in the pilgrimage of the Puritans searching for freedom of confession. This pilgrimage was not only a historical event, but it had also spiritual meaning: it was a spiritual pilgrimage. At that time, Europe was highly intolerant in the following aspect: the official church in every country persecuted all people confessing faith different from the official one in the particular country. Hence, the American identity is strongly connected with the idea of the promised land, or the place where God’s people will find peace and realization. The analogy between the exodus of the Jews and the pilgrims from the Mayflower is quite reasonable. In both cases, the travelers had to escape from slavery (or from persecutions), and they hoped to find the promised land, the land of freedom where they could choose how to live and how to adhere to their moral values. For that reason, we shall make some references to the Holy Bible in order to find out what the phrase promised land means; and then we shall stop at a very interesting theory of the specialist in religions Mircea Eliade regarding the promised land and the Pilgrims. As it was shown above, an essential and inevitable part of American identity is the idea of America as the promised land. It is not by accident that today people associate exclusively the United States with America. America has always been a name associated with richness, wealth, and freedom. Thus, America is associated with the Unites States, and not with Brazil, Canada, or another country belonging to South or North America. Why should the Unites States be perceived as the promised land?
However, although being highly attractive for immigrants, America has kept its identity and self-awareness. The flow of immigrants did not change the attitude our nation had toward itself (i.e., America did not become a multicultural society but, rather, preserved the domination of the Anglo-Protestant model). It should be noted that a few theories emerged that argued in favor of assimilation of the immigrants by American society and culture (the melting-pot theory), or of immigrants’ integration into American society. As we know, it was not only the Pilgrims who found salvation in America. Many people afterward fled from Europe and Asia in order to find peace and to have more political and religious freedom—Jews, Germans, Italians, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and so forth. What happened with them? Did they adhere to their national identity (German, Italian, etc.), or were they rather “assimilated” by the local American society? On the one hand, according to the adherents of the melting-pot doctrine (S. Huntington), America has its own identity that should be accepted by everyone coming to this country. This theory will be supported by some thoughts and reflections on the American way of life by the French author J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur and by Israel Zangwill, the writer who first introduced the metaphor of the “melting pot.”
In opposition to this doctrine, the theory of the salad bowl was elaborated by Horace Kallen after the First World War. Kallen claimed that many nationalities coexist together without the need to be completely integrated or assimilated in a cultural sense. Hence, Germans, Italians, and Irish, for instance, keep their national self-awareness, but they feel also like American citizens with all duties and rights of American citizens. Similar is the conception of Max Lerner, according to whom, American culture is a mixture of various cultures, traditions, and even languages. As Lerner observed, “It became part of the American tradition to be an amalgam of many traditions, even while there were pressures to select one of them” (Lerner 1957, 22). In the course of time, the salad-bowl theory became the favorite doctrine of plenty of researchers in the field of social sciences, especially researchers of American identity and culture. In some sense, this was due to the fact that extreme nationalism rose in Europe, especially in Italy and Germany, in the 1930s.
An excerpt from Dr. Anthony Vento’s Newest Book, American Identity, now available on Paperback!
Every community has its own principles and regulations. But they are not enough to keep the integrity of all its members: an individual could be a good citizen (i.e., to observe the law) and, despite that, not to respect the goals and aspirations of the community in general. This can occur especially in times of crisis or disappointment. For that reason, a set of various celebrations is used in order to integrate the members of the community again. Some of these celebrations are essentially recollections of past events that define the identity of the particular nation. Their function is to unite people, but their ramifications are far-reaching. The feeling of belonging can be very important for every individual, and it can help the latter to construct their own view of the world. In short, to belong to a community is an inevitable part of human life, but to be aware that one belongs to a given community means that one’s life is meaningful. In this way, we can ask here, How can the fact that we are Americans affect our lives? What difference does it make? What is America for all of us?