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The Documents

The Development of the American Character

Theme Description

I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence. —Frederick Douglass

All-American—it’s a loaded term. Sure, we love to celebrate national pride with fireworks, stars and stripes, and marching bands. But the true character of our nation is much deeper, and more complicated, than simple displays of patriotism.

Casual observation shows the United States has a unique character shaped by its systems of government, education, and economy. Further inspection also reveals a national history, immigrant experience, and popular culture that set us apart. But examine it too closely, try too hard to definitively identify what it means to be “American,” and the nation’s character slips away as if it were only a figment.

This hasn’t stopped people from trying to define the American character, of course. Sometimes this has occurred in a “top down” fashion in which political leaders have sought to make proclamations, create laws, and establish legal precedence aimed at shaping the nation. Sometimes it’s been shaped in a “bottom up” fashion wherein people outside the traditional halls of power have influenced what it means to be American. Still other times the America character has been shaped by foreigners, people whose familiarity of life outside the United States has helped them identify what is uniquely American.

The documents contained in this exhibit do not define the American character so much as they have shaped it. Conflict exists here, as people throughout the centuries have not always agreed on what constitutes “American.” Perhaps this conflict is part of the national character.

Sponsored by the Madge Rothschild Foundation