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Windows on American History

By Wilfred M. McClay

Now comes the place where we take a slightly more focused and systematic look at some of the characteristic themes of American history. These are, so to speak, the prime numbers of the field, for they cannot easily be factored down into something more basic—although, to be sure, you will see how readily they link, meld, or overlap. They are also the subjects that one finds weaving in and out of virtually every account, every monograph, and every dissertation and term paper written about the American past. They are the perennial problems of American history. For that reason, as you will see, they often are best expressed not as propositional statements but as questions. For that reason, I have chosen to call them "windows" onto the American past, rather than "sketches" or "portraits" of elements in that past, for they function more as frameworks, orienting our line of vision and directing our inquiry, than they do as endpoints or findings for the inquiry itself. In my book I offer 16 windows on such topics as liberty, pluralism, and religion. Here are three:

The Founding

The United States is distinctive in even having a founding, a clear moment in time in which the nation-state and its institutions were created, in full view of the world, out in the open air. Americans can look to a real Washington and Madison, rather than a legendary Romulus and Remus, as their forebears. Historians, of course, differ about the meaning of the nation’s beginnings. Was the establishment of the nation’s new constitutional regime really such a dramatic and architectonic moment as the term "founding" implies? Or was it merely a codification into basic law of the shape of an American nation that already existed, and had already been formed decisively by the living legacy of centuries of English law and institutions? Was it truly a founding, in the sense that the principles guiding the Founders and Framers are in some way foundational, permanently necessary for the rest of us, just as the superstructure of a building depends upon its solid foundation? Or was it merely a beginning, the most felicitous deal that could be struck at a given time, opening the way for even more felicitous deals in the years to come? Did it assert a modern idea of politics based upon interest rather than virtue? Or was its modernity tempered and moderated by its simultaneous rootedness in the entire moral and political heritage of the West? And what role did religious conviction and belief in the providential role of America play in the Founding? All of these questions, while a source of endless academic debate, are of far more than academic importance.

The Frontier

Interestingly, in European parlance, a frontier refers to an inviolable boundary or a no man’s land, often a forbidding and inhospitable place, the edge of something dark and threatening. For Americans, however, the word has a vibrant, almost mystical ring, as the trackless and unsettled territory where civilization renews itself in the quest of exploration by encounter with the unknown and by drinking from the pure springs of unconquered nature. That concept of frontier ran through the literature of the 19th century, but found its classic expression in the 1893 lecture of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who would immortalize the idea that it was its frontier, not its European heritage, that enabled America to produce a social and political democracy. Turner’s thesis has been disproved and disparaged in a hundred ways, but its mythic quality lives on. Small wonder that President John F. Kennedy called his 1960 campaign platform "the New Frontier," and referred to the exploration of space as "the last frontier." Don’t expect this kind of talk to end anytime soon.


This is one of the greatest American themes, not only because the United States is largely a nation of immigrants, but because immigration is such a rich metaphor for the kind of personal transformation that America promises—or compels. It captures both what is wonderful and what is heart-breaking about the American experience. Wonderful, in that it symbolizes America’s generosity and openness and promise, as the land of a second chance, where the heavy lumber of the Old World could be put aside. Heartbreaking, in that the price paid for pursuing such aspirations was often so high, not only in the broken and blasted lives of those who failed, but in the poignant loneliness of those who succeeded, only to see their children and grandchildren grow into full-fledged citizens of an alien country, with little or no inkling of a former life.

The question of immigration stirs the profoundest sentiments. It is hard for some Americans to accept the cultural diversity and the constant cultural upheaval that come with immigration. They fear that unless immigration is carefully controlled, the basic character of the nation may be altered beyond recognition and thereby undermined. For others, it is hard to imagine their country without a steady flow of immigrants and the cultural variety it brings. It has ever been thus. The current controversies over rates of immigration and their effects upon the composition of the nation are nothing new; the subject has always been controversial. Such debates do, however, have their significance, since they go to the heart of the open question of whether America is fundamentally a British or a European or a universalistic or a multicultural nation.

What is sometimes lost in the abstract character of these debates, however, and their tendency to focus on aggregate numbers and inchoate abstractions like "diversity," is a simpler meaning of immigration. Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem "The New Colossus," which appears on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, is perhaps the best expression of it. Just as Emerson’s American Scholar disdained the "courtly muses of Europe," so Lazarus’s "mighty woman" refused to emulate the "storied pomp" of the conquering Colossus of Rhodes, preferring a humbler name: "Mother of Exiles." Her joy would not be in luring the powerful and well born, but in embracing the huddled masses and wretched refuse of the earth. To the proud spirit of the Old World she implored: "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me." To generations upon generations of the homeless and tempest-tossed—Irish potato farmers, German political refugees, persecuted Russian Jews, Italians, Poles, Greeks, Czechs, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Cubans, Cambodians, Kosovars—these have not been empty words.

Emma Lazarus came from a sophisticated and refined New York Jewish family. But the sentiments in her poem could have come straight from the biblical prophets and the Christian New Testament—the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; and the stone that was rejected shall become the cornerstone. Such sentiments are an integral part of the warp and woof of American moral life, with its disdain for hereditary privilege, its fondness for underdogs, and its penchant for the second chance. In thinking about immigration, then, we touch upon a subject that engages some of the deepest and most enduring sources of our national soul.

Wilfred M. McClay is professor of history at the University of Tennessee, where he holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in humanities. In 1995, for The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, he won the Merle Curti Award from the Orgainzation of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history published in the years 1993 and 1994. This article is excerpted with permission from A Student's Guide to U.S. History by Wilfred McClay (Wilmington, DE, ISI Books, 2000).