The Four Americas

Posted: April 19, 2010 in Culture, History

Nationalism has been both boon and bane in different locations around the globe. Virulent forms tend to lead to strife and war, whereas harmless or even beneficent forms can be chalked up to national character. Many such characterizations are borne out of cliché or may be the result of joke memes that proliferate and self-reinforce over time. My mind drifted recently, perhaps in the wake of another biannual celebration of national glory (the Vancouver Olympics), toward how the American national character has changed over the centuries. There is considerable overlap to the characterizations I propose below and no nice, easy, dividing lines. Collapsing several hundred years into a few paragraphs is also admittedly a radical reduction. But then, I’m not exactly writing a doctoral dissertation.

Colonial America

Our early character was heavily informed by a combination of believers seeking escape from religious persecution and others seeking economic opportunities in what they erroneously believed to be an uninhabited continent. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean and homesteading in a relative wilderness was a risky proposition best suited to the bold, adventurous, and sometimes desperate. The intrepid spirit of freedom and self-determination we now take for granted may well have been a direct result of the sorts of people attracted to the New World, which spirit eventually had its expression in the American Revolution and the formation of a new country.

Frontier America

While homesteading was by no means easy for the earliest settlers, it was the westward expansion during America’s frontier phase that informed and solidified such notions as perpetual expansion, manifest destiny, right of conquest, and resource exploitation. Whether animal skins, gold and oil deposits, or arable land, frontier Americans believed that by dint of hard work and rugged individualism they could make a better life for themselves and their kin. Alternative theories propose that even though more than 90% of Americans lived rural, agrarian lives nearly up to the turn of the 20th century, it was cities — especially on the eastern seaboard — and the political and financial elite that formed the American spirit during that time. Although the demands and influence of cities were important, even out of proportion to the rural population, I insist that the way most Americans lived is a better approach. Otherwise, you have the tail wagging the dog.

Innovation America

The Industrial Revolution began in the factories of the United Kingdom, but when it began in earnest in America, it catalyzed generations of tinkerers, inventors, and not insignificantly, developers of business methods. Perhaps it’s merely selective perception, but after widespread adoption of the steam engine and building of railroads in Europe, it’s difficult to cite an example of a major innovation that didn’t spring from America’s restless minds. For example, the telegraph (and later wireless telegraph), the telephone, the incandescent bulb, the automobile (and with it the assembly line), the airplane, weapons of mass destruction (notably, the Bomb), television, the computer, and the Internet are all American creations that transformed the world.

Empire America

Up to World War II, America had been fairly isolationist, which is to say, it was more concerned with its own westward development and admitting states to the Union than with the “old country” or countries. But after being drawn into (an arguable bit of history) the world’s second great war, America’s perspective turned increasingly outward. We perceived military threats from abroad — some real, some paranoid, and some wholly imagined — and we sought to expand our markets and political influence globally. In the process, we perhaps unwittingly adopted the imperatives of empire. History demonstrates that empires rise and fall over time (but they all fall eventually), failure often occurring as the result of overshoot or overreach of one type or another. Whereas U.S. politicians and citizens frequently believe that, as the last great superpower, we are the default global police, most of the rest of the world regards us as a tyrannical bully — including some of our allies. The familiar trope about our being a beacon on a hill only plays to our own vanity. If each of the other formative eras had a combination of pros and cons, the latest development in the American national character is, according to many cultural critics, the result of a decadent, commodity culture plundering the Earth’s resources without concern for either equitable conduct or a positive legacy.


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