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Who is american? A definition of American Identity

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2018 17 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Myth of an American Identity

3. American Idealism and Citizenship

4. Multicultural Identities

5. The Fear of a Multicultural Identity

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

The meaning and consequences of national identification have long been the subject of debate among philosophers, historian, and social scientist. The identification with the American country through national attachment, pride, and loyalty is self-evident for many Americans. A national identity shared by fellow citizen creates a sense of unity and a bond of solidarity. The question of what defines an identity or the American identity, to be specific, is not clarified. What is clear, however, is the important and vast difference between a patriot, who feels a sense of pride and love for his country, while the nationalist views his country as superior with a desire to dominate other countries. However, both are bond by their trust for the American values. Freedom, Truth, Justice and the American way of life.

The majority of Americans think of the United States as an “exceptional” state. American Exceptionalism is up to date one of the most important myths about the United States, as it describes “the American Creed” liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez faire. The Americans consider the American Creed the tenet of the nature of a American society. Still, it is not clear if believing in these values is what creates an American Identity. The American identity was long a connection between nationhood and race, mainly the white race.

This paper focuses on what it means to be an American and if it is possible for people and immigrants with different cultural backgrounds to acquire an American Identity. In want to find out if the American exceptionalism and its three dimensions give an impression of what it means to gain an American identity. Obviously, being American means to share the same values, but it is not clear if it means to also share the same citizenship. I take a close look at the idea of multiculturalism that challenges the current ideological solutions for equality and diversity in the United States, trying to answer the question whether multiculturalism is or is not a threat to the idea of an American Identity.

2. Myths of an American Identity

During the 19th century of the United States the term “American character” was widely debated and described the connection between nationhood and race. America was seen as a unique place of western progress and civilization. From the late 19th century to the early 20th century the term “American Identity” described a form of nationalism, a so-called “spirit” that left the common culture and ethnicity behind.

“If early 19th-century U.S. citizens identified national identity as the racial traits of its citizens, or as an inevitable product of environment, twentieth century ideas of national self-determination placed the ‘culture’ of the folk (or the people) at the center of ‘American-ness’” (Knadler, p.4). This race focused Americanness shifted to culture when the immigration from South- and East Europe heightened. During this time being American meant to assimilate. Today many scholars argue that none has just one identity. People behave differently according to their surroundings, which means that the “American Identity” is in fact the opposite of an authentic spirit. “People today can and will identify and align both with the nation as well as other local, ethnic, or transnational identities, from their ancestors’ culture, to global environmental or humanitarian communities whose concerns they share in addition to the interest of the nation state “(Knadler, p.8).

The American exceptionalism was the result of a regional past that was turned into a national identity by writers and antebellum leaders during the early 17th century. During that time nationalism and industrialization began to develop in America, also known as New England during that time. However, but American citizen wanted to define their own identity and culture by separating themselves from their European hegemony. An understandable move considering that American citizen had to study European books and history. The wish of independence led to the idea of a “New World”, which was an inspiration for many Americans to create something new, an exceptional identity.

The Americans developed three dimensions of exceptionalism. Namely, the religious exceptionalism where they developed their American cultural identity through the origins of Puritans. Seeing America as the “promised land” and themselves as “God’s chosen people”. The second dimension includes the American political Exceptionalism, the American Revolution. The American Revolution was not only a fight for independence but also a fight for liberty. The United States were a “new nation” for all people who believe in the “free world” and democracy, which during this time was unique. “The patriots’ claim that a people had the God-given, natural right to determine its own destiny marked a truly revolutionary, exceptionally significant moment in modern world history” (Onuf, p.93) The third dimension, also known as economic exceptionalism, believed in commerce and freedom, who believe in the “American Dream”. The economic exceptionalism implies the notion of an unlimited upward mobility. Unlike in their European counterpart, individual success is possible in the United states. Still today, the “American Dream” holds an important ideological function that bridges the discrepancies between lived reality and the dream and myth of an exceptionalism dimension.

For many people the American Dream defines the American identity. The American dream means individualism, gaining control of one’s life, and the pursuit of happiness and upward mobility. However, the American Dream is not a universal concept that ensures success and equality. For many minorities the “American Dream” is equivalent to obtaining equal rights and opportunities as the white man.

3. American Idealism & Citizenship

The question of identity and how to define identity has always been part of the United States and t of political debates. Especially for migrants developing a national identity sometimes means to overcome religious and ethnical conflicts. Many migrants had to reshape their own values in order to adopt “American values”. Many Americans state that being an American means sharing same values and ideals – committing oneself to the political ideologies which are based on equality, abstract ideals of liberty, and of course to republicanism (Gleason, p. 32). This is what America’s motto “E pluribus unum”, which can be translated to “From many one”, stands for. It embraces the idea of a coexistence not based on nationality or religious beliefs, but on a unified citizenship based on shared values and ideals, and behind this citizenship stand the state the natural unit of an American community.

Gleason mentioned republicanism as a part of American identity; however, there is more to America than just republicans. Peter J. Spiro argues that currently there are two groups of nationalists that represent the debate of the nature of the U.S. as a nation. He argues that the first school, the conservative nationalists, preaches a form of assimilationism that presses cultural and political attributes of American nationality. They view themselves and Americans in generals as exclusive and privileged. The second school is called liberal nationalism. Liberal nationalists represent a soft-edged notion of Americanism, considering the American citizenship as a symbol of equality and inclusiveness. However, Spiro refers to two groups of nationalists but there is an opposition to those two nationalist groups, namely the group of multiculturalists. Even though multiculturalists support a strong state, they also emphasize diversity. (Spiro, p. 83- 85)

A new group of nativists oppose the multiculturalists’ and liberal nationalists’ views, wishing to return the United states to its European roots and culture. For the nativists the United States “has always had a specific ethnic core […] and that core has been white” (Brimelow, p.10) Nativists can be compared to hard-edged nationalists who view themselves as the center of the world, not concerning themselves with the rest of the world. They are against admitting immigrants or even granting them citizenship. Nativists think the waves of immigrants are a threat to their nation and the values they define.

“The new nativists may find much historical support for their definition of the American people. Racial restrictions were imposed on both immigrant admissions and naturalization applications well into the twentieth century. Citizenship was also internally stratified, so that large portions of the polity (blacks and women, most notably) were legally subordinated, their citizenship status notwithstanding. American citizenship has been a vehicle of exclusion” (Smith, p.24)

Nativists hope that by restricting people from become citizens the citizenship would be treated as a valuable membership to an exclusive privileged nation where all citizens share the same treats such as ethnic, religion and northern European roots, basically sharing the same cultural identity.

Other than the nativists, conservative nationalists welcome immigrants and newcomers as long as they submit to the “assimilationist premise of American immigration” (Spiro, p.87). The conservatives pledged to the “American way of life”, following an Americanization movement back from the twentieth century. “Without assimilation the pluribus threatens to drown out the unum, imperiling the very concept of American nationhood.” (Miller, p.7) Conservative nationalists argue against bilingualism, stressing that the Anglo-Protestant culture, language, and religion are what defines an American national identity, and as long as these American ideals are adopted immigrants are welcomed regardless of their race, previous religion, or previous nationality.

Conservative nationalists are strictly against dual citizenship and support limitations on territorial birthright citizenship. “Conservative hew to old world comparisons of the status of polygamy and the impossibility of ‘serving two masters’. They suggest that dual citizenship results in irreconcilable psychological conflicts, produced by a ‘narcissistic conceit” in “unlimited identities and that its toleration will further fuel anti-assimilation trends” (Rehnson, p. 208). However, what those conservative nationalists do not explain is how a dual citizenship would impose a threat to their American values and their “American way of life”. Spiro explains that conservatives won’t be able to explain a so-called threat, simply because there isn’t one, accusing conservative nationalism of looking naïve and nostalgic. (Spiro, p.88)

Another point conservatives criticize are the civics test that have to be taken in order to be granted the American citizenship. Conservatives argue that the answers given during the test cannot determine if immigrants understand American political traditions. “A sample 10 or 15 questions taken from widely available list of 100”, which cannot measure the applicants understanding of American tradition and the American identity. Therefore, conservatives hope for a stricter test including the traditional canon of American politics, tradition and history. (Spiro, 90). Returning to their roots of exceptionalism. Conservatives, however, do not want to be misunderstand as nativists, as they are welcoming of immigrants but only as long as they are willing to assimilate, and accept and respect American traditions.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Institution / Hochschule
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
America E pluribus Unum




Titel: Who is american? A definition of American Identity