Statele Unite ale Americii
These six topics—geography, people, culture, economy, government, and history—comprise the interrelated elements of the nation’s experience. Geography is the first element because landforms, resources, and climate affected how people who came to the United States formed new societies. People, in all their variety, are the second element because they formed communities and built a society.
The next three elements are major parts of that society—its culture, economy, and government. History tells the story of how people created a society. It details how people adapted to geographical settings, how they constructed and changed their economy and government, and how their culture changed along the way. Thus all of the six topics—geography, people, culture, economy, government, and history—form a progression of interconnected topics.
II E PLURIBUS UNUM: THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE E Pluribus Unum is the United States motto, appearing on the nation’s coins and paper money, and on many of its public monuments. It means “From many, one.” First used to unify the 13 British colonies in North America during the American Revolution (1775-1783), this phrase acquired new meaning when the United States received wave after wave of immigrants from many lands. These immigrants had to find ways to reconcile their varied backgrounds and fit together under a constitution and a set of laws. That process of creating one society out of many different backgrounds is one of the biggest stories of the American experience.
“What then is the American, this new man?” asked one of thousands of immigrants who came to North America in the 18th century. “He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles…Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”
Michel Guillaume Jean de Crčvecoeur, who wrote under the pseudonym J. Hector St. John, wrote these words more than 200 years ago. In 1759, at the age of 24, Crčvecoeur emigrated from France to the American colonies. Learning English quickly and making a success of himself as a farmer in upstate New York, he married an English woman and became a celebrated observer of the American scene. Amazed at the mingling of people from many parts of the world, Crčvecoeur pointed to a family headed by an Englishman who had married a Dutch woman, whose son married a French woman, and whose four sons had each married a woman of a different nationality. “From this promiscuous breed that race now called Americans have arisen,” he proclaimed.
A hundred years later, on the other side of the continent, Harriette Lane Levy wrote of growing up as a Jew. In her San Francisco neighborhood, she remembered, “The baker was German; the fish man, Italian; the grocer, a Jew; the butcher, Irish; the steam laundryman, a New Englander. The vegetable vendor and the regular laundryman who came to the house were Chinese.”
The United States began as an immigrant society, and it has continued to be a mingling of immigrants ever since. Even Native Americans, the first people to live in North America, descended from people who arrived from Asia many thousands of years ago. Since 1820, 63 million immigrants have arrived in the United States. Never in the history of the world has a country been braided together from so many strands of people arriving with different languages, histories, and cultures.
How could a nation of such diversity meld together so many different humans? Alexis de Tocqueville, another Frenchman who traveled to the United States, was fascinated with this question. He knew that the nation had to find some kind of glue to bind together so many different peoples. He found that glue in the American political system that had developed by the 1830s—a politics of participation based on the notion that to be legitimate and lasting, a government had to derive its power from the people. These principles were part of the political system created by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. This system aimed to create “one federated whole,” but this was an ideal yet to be accomplished. Today, the American people are still reaching for that ideal.
The goal of E pluribus unum has been closely connected with an ongoing debate: What is the meaning of the three resounding words that open the Constitution of the United States—“We, the people.” Every generation has faced the question, How wide is the circle of “we”? The various answers to that question have defined the degree of democracy in the United States. Creating one from the many, then, has been inseparable from deciding how democratic the nation will be.
Accordingly, a second theme of this set of articles on the United States is the growth of democracy in the nation and in its institutions and culture. This process has sometimes been tumultuous and often dramatic. The idealistic agenda set forth by the Founding Fathers—that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—remains the standard by which we judge ourselves.
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