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What Makes Americans American? Why Origin Stories Require Negotiation

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A poster featuring drawn images of symbols from American life and history.
Credit: Rodrigo Corral

Origin stories are never simple, and this is as true for countries as it is for individuals, ideas, and cultures.

That the term “nation-state,” which designates one of the primary building blocks of modern geopolitical order, is a compound word speaks to this complexity, and there are many reasons why scholars are unable to fully agree on its evolution, which dates back at least as far as the Treaty of Westphalia (1648.)

In broad strokes, states are political units while the word “nations” has traditionally referred to groups of people with similar ethnic identities. Not all nations are states, but states, by definition, include at least one nation, sometimes many more.

The term is problematic, however, because even in states where ethnicities tend to be more uniform, they are never entirely so, and inevitably there are questions about how best to recognize ethnic minorities.

Different countries do this in different ways. Italy, for example, even with limited levels of ethnic diversity, grants special status to five of its regions, allowing their schools to instruct students in languages other than Italian, among other privileges. Similarly, in our next-door neighbor Canada, French remains the official language in Quebec, and the province of New Brunswick is bilingual. In other states, matters are more complicated. Switzerland recognizes four official languages, while the Indian constitution officially sanctions twenty-two.

Intersecting with the cultural history of states, nations, languages, and ethnicities is the concept of citizenship. In the modern era, each state has its own complex regulations, which usually include some combination of requirements for birth within national borders, marriage to a citizen, birth to a parent with citizenship, or time spent in residency within a country.

Questions regarding the nature of citizenship can be traced at least as far back as Aristotle, who systematically collected and compared constitutions. The Roman Empire developed its own unique ways of balancing political order with the requirements of local and ethnic identities. Later, once the Roman Empire was no longer the guardian of order in Europe, debates about the proper requirements for citizenship became more intense during the late Medieval and early Renaissance period, in particular around Florence and other city-states, as new groups of people moved from the country-side to cities  and merchant classes began to challenge the political supremacy of ruling elites.

For all of these reasons, the conversation around what groups and traditions define the parameters of a state’s identity is hardly unique to the United States. In fact, as the forces of globalization and economic integration have continued to become more powerful, movements to preserve regional and cultural identities like the ones seen in Quebec, Catalonia,    in the North Eastern Region of India, and in many other countries around the world, have become even more significant.

Yet, while the US may not be unique in its challenges, it faces its own set of questions as a country primarily composed of immigrants who came from different states across the world. In addition, the US has struggled to create a narrative that takes into account the fact that many were brought to US shores against their will as slaves and that others were displaced from their ancestral lands and nearly wiped out as a result of these movements.

As such, there are a number of unique and sometimes conflicting strands in the American political narrative. On one hand, there is the abiding ideal that a reverence for liberty and the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, rather than place of origin or economic status, are what makes Americans American; on the other hand, there is increasingly a recognition that those ideals have not always been equally applied to all people and groups in the United States.

This tension between ideals and reality, and between historical record and aspiration for the future, is where the conversation with Kluge Prize winner Danielle Allen will begin on May 13 at 1pm. Free registration is available here.

That conversation is unlikely to be either easy or conclusive, but we are certain it is necessary and confident it will be fruitful.

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