There are countless ways to tell the story of America. A country as diverse and complex as the United States can be approached from any number of angles; our story contains a multitude of narratives. In honor of July 4th, here are four different ways to tell the story of the United States.
America the Religious
Many of the first settlers of what would become the United States were what we would consider religious fanatics fleeing persecution in their homelands.
The Puritans were Protestant extremists who wanted to radically reform Christianity, stripping it of everything unnecessary. Many Europeans in the 1600s took religious differences extremely seriously and fought bloody wars over distinctions that seem minuscule today; the Puritans took religious matters more seriously than most.
Because they were persecuted back home in Europe — but also because they were unwilling to compromise on their beliefs — Puritans migrated en masse to America.. Many of the first colonies in America were organized along religious lines, and the Puritans occasionally lapsed into extraordinary religious excess, as seen in the Salem witchcraft trials.
The debate over the role of religion in American history took a turn when the Puritan ethos clashed with the Enlightenment ideas upon which the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were written. Many of the framers of the Constitution were deists, who believed only in the idea of god as a “first mover.”
Thomas Jefferson famously edited the Bible, cutting out passages that he didn’t think could be supported by evidence. Freedom of religion and separation of church and state were enshrined as core American values, but the tension between the secular government and the religious intensity of Americans would remain unresolved.
As Europeans slowly lost their interest in both religious practice and policing religious divisions, Americans did not. The U.S. became a hotbed of emotional evangelicalism in the nineteenth century.
Americans bought into new religious movements, perhaps as a response to social change. Americans continued to pour their enthusiasm into religious movements, showing themselves to be religious innovators. New religions like the Church of Latter Day Saints, Christian Scientists, and Adventists popped up in the nineteenth century. Some of these religions have become global in scope.
Americans have persisted in their religious orientation long after other societies have secularized. The United States is singular among wealthy nations in its commitment to religion.
Many European countries have seen severely declining church attendance, and fewer and fewer Europeans profess belief. Most Americans, however, continue to orient their lives around God.
While 14% of western Europeans say that religion is “important in their lives,” 68% of Americans do. Religion still has a massive impact on American political and social life. Religion is an excellent predictor of Americans’ political affiliation, and candidates — especially those on the right — often make explicit appeals to people’s religious beliefs. George W. Bush (R-Texas) and Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) rode to the White House largely because white Evangelical Christians put them there over concerns about abortion and gay rights.
In some ways, American religious belief seems old-fashioned compared to the rest of the world; on the other hand, Americans have continually innovated in the religious sphere. Whatever you think of it, you could argue that America’s singular attachment to religion — which goes back to its founding — is our distinguishing characteristic.
America the Immigrant
The United States was formed by settlers from across the Atlantic, and has often thought of itself as a haven for people from around the globe. The “New Colossus” — better known as the poem on the Statue of Liberty — says it best:
“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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The United States has not always been welcoming, however — Americans have frequently expressed intense anti-immigrant sentiment. We have bounced back and forth between these poles throughout our history, at times welcoming in new citizens and at times keeping them out.
The influx of new Americans throughout our history has been credited with making America one of the world’s most diverse, free, and innovative nations. The resistance to these immigrants has often defined our politics and social arrangements.
During the colonial period, the future United States beckoned Europeans who were looking for opportunity or were persecuted back home. A mix of opportunists and outcasts came to the New World to find their way.
Most of these people were from England, although a large number of Scots-Irish came here as well. Since they were unwelcome in the eastern cities, these immigrants settled the frontier regions in the Appalachians. They often listed their ethnicity simply as “American.”
In the early 1800s — especially the 1830s and 1840s — there was a wave of immigration from Ireland, Germany, and some other European locations. Many of these new immigrants were fleeing terrible conditions brought about by British policies in Ireland or the political upheavals in central Europe in 1848.
These new immigrants were often Catholic, and sometimes did not speak English. In response to this, some Protestants formed the Know-Nothing Party, the first of many far-right, anti-immigrant movements in American history.
They formed a template that would be used over and over again, accusing immigrants of being unable or unwilling to assimilate into American culture. They saw Catholic immigrants as part of a sinister Papist conspiracy to subvert American values and undermine the things that made America great. Of course, these fears were overblown. The Irish immigrants became productive citizens of many Eastern cities, while the German immigrants became the farmers of the Midwestern heartland.
In the late nineteenth century, a new wave of immigrants arrived. Chinese and Japanese people came to the west coast, largely to work in mines and on railroads, while southern and eastern European immigrants came to the cities of the east.
Both of these groups were the target of immigration restrictions and nativism. For the first time, immigration quotas and restrictions were enforced in the United States (before this, there had been little real control over who came across the borders).
Congress tried to limit Asian immigration with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Italian and Jewish Americans were persecuted on the east coast. Again, conspiracy theories about immigrant plots emerged as some Americans felt that these new immigrants threatened their way of life.
The Ku Klux Klan, for example, spread lurid stories of Jewish and Catholic plots to destroy American freedom. Despite these accusations, the new immigrants largely assimilated and became an important part of American society.
The immigrant population is more diverse than ever, with large numbers from Latin America and Asia. About half of Americans see this as a positive that will propel our economy and culture forward. The other half are driven by anti-immigrant anger, which is animated by 200-year-old tropes.
You could certainly argue that immigration — and resistance to it — have been the defining feature of American history for over 200 years.
America the Racist
You may have noticed that I left one important group of immigrants out of the section preceding this one.
African-Americans are also the descendants of immigrants to this country, though those immigrants were not free to choose their fate. The first African slaves were brought to the modern United States by Spanish settlers in the 1500s, and English settlers had slaves as early as 1619. As some historians —and the New York Times’ controversial 1619 project — have argued, you could view the entire history of the United States as a prolonged grappling with the legacy of slavery.
Slavery was the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the United States. This country was founded on ideals of freedom and equality. Many of the people who wrote the documents that express these ideals so eloquently also owned other human beings.
Many of the defining features of our Constitution are there because of the desire of the founders to preserve a balance of power between slave and free states. The famous three-fifths compromise counted each enslaved person as 60% of a white person.
Why do we have an Electoral College, which makes our elections needlessly Byzantine and creates unrepresentative outcomes? Slavery. As Laurence Tribe argues, many scholars also see the Senate’s composition — which gives a massive advantage to rural, low-population states — as a result of slavery.
Slavery was also at the heart of America’s early economy. The profitability of cotton made now-unknown towns like Greenville, Mississippi into centers of immense wealth. The crops tended by enslaved people also provided the raw materials for northern industries. Despite constant revisions to the balance of power between the north and south in the nineteenth century, the nation could not avoid its biggest crisis, the Civil War, which was fought primarily over slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment may have abolished slavery, but they did not abolish racism and discrimination. After a brief experiment with reconstruction, America’s white leaders decided to sell out the interests of African-Americans in order to prevent further disunity between whites. Jim Crow laws and unwritten rules of race relations restricted African-Americans’ prospects for freedom and prosperity. When black Americans deviated from the status quo, they were often met with violence.
The Civil Rights movement, one of American history’s most inspiring moments, stood up with great fortitude against the forces of white supremacy. The movement achieved many things — it ended the legal system of apartheid that separated people, and ensured that black people could have legal access to housing, education, jobs, and the like. But the events of the last few decades have illustrated exactly how deeply the legacy of slavery has embedded itself into American life. Politicians on the right have at times made white racial resentment the subtext of their campaigns; Donald Trump has made it his explicit text. The recent awareness of police discrimination against African-Americans, culminating in the George Floyd protests, has made it clear how far this country has to go to rectify its racial problems.
Slavery is often called the “original sin” of the United States. We have wrestled with its consequences ever since 1619, and we have a long way to go. Racism and its effects have been central to the American story.
America the Empire
A fourth way that we could view American history is as one of insatiable conquest. White Americans spent much of the country’s early history taking land from indigenous people. When there was no more land to take from the Native Americans, we turned to conquest overseas.
William Bradford summed up early American colonists’ view of their new home when he called it “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” In Bradford’s eyes, the beasts were there to be subdued; the men were, too. As Native American populations plummeted due to infectious diseases unknowingly brought by Europeans, American colonists did their best to deliver a finishing blow. They took land from Native Americans through treaties; they took it through trickery; they took it through force. As the white American population expanded, they simply moved west and took more land from the indigenous people.
This pattern continued well into the nineteenth century. Some of American history’s most shameful and resonant episodes occurred as white Americans took more and more land in order to expand west. There was Andrew Jackson’s “Trail of Tears,” an act of genocide against the Cherokee people. There was the age of “Manifest Destiny,” in which the U.S. military fought a long series of wars against people on the great plains. By 1890, historian Frederick Jackson Turner mourned the fact that the frontier was gone — Americans had conquered everything between the Atlantic and Pacific. Turner thought that the idea of the frontier had shaped American culture and politics. He speculated that, with the frontier gone, America would end a new phase of history.
Turner was partially right. America entered a new phase, but it looked a lot like the old one. Unable to conquer any more of the North American continent, the United States began to look to dominate the world outside of its home continent. Americans suddenly developed a strong interest in international affairs, entering in the Spanish-American War for baldly imperialist reasons. Having secured its first colonial possessions, America then embroiled itself in the disputes of Europeans during World War I, laboring under the delusion that America’s joining the war would allow it to impose its will on a new world order.
After a brief isolationist period during the 1920s and 1930s, Americans embarked on another wave of expansion after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. By the end of World War II, American military power spread across the globe. Because American leaders feared the expansion of Communism during the Cold War, the American military remained globally deployed. American intelligence services intervened in the politics of countries like Iran, Guatemala, and Cuba. Its corporations became global behemoths. The global monetary system was arranged around the American dollar.
After the Soviet Union fell, one might have imagined that the United States would have become less interventionist — after all, all of its enemies had been defeated. Instead, the foreign policy establishment of the United States made sure that America remained, as Madeleine Albright put it, “the indispensable nation.” American troops remain based all over the planet. Perhaps 200,000 American soldiers are deployed at about 800 bases in at least 150 nations. The United States has repeatedly intervened in disputes around the world, often militarily, since the Cold War. Americans have conducted military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, the Balkans, and many other locations. Though Donald Trump is sometimes considered an isolationist, his track record shows how hard it is for America to really keep to itself; he has seen fit to police North Korea’s nuclear program, bomb Syria, and assassinate Iranian government officials.
Perhaps America’s true nature is in its constant grasping for more land and more power. We began by taking the Native Americans’ land and never stopped. It’s unclear if we will ever curb our insatiable desire to take more of the planet for ourselves.
There are, of course, other ways to tell the story of America, but I’ll save those for next July 4, perhaps. As you eat your grilled meats and watch your fireworks this July, take a few moments to think about the nation in which you live. What do you think its story is?