Janie B. Cheaney: What is an American? | WORLD
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Janie B. Cheaney: What is an American?


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: What is an American?

Recent criticism of Florida’s curriculum by the U.S. vice president is part of a centuries-old debate

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the UnidosUS 2023 Annual Conference, July 24, in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast via The Associated Press

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 26th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next: commentator Janie B. Cheaney wants to know, What’s an American?

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: Western history in general, and American history in particular, has become a minefield of reinterpretation, with some of the greatest flare-ups over how to teach it. Last week Vice President Kamala Harris blasted Florida’s new standards for black history for teaching that “enslaved people benefited from slavery.” That’s a lie, wrote Charlie Cooke in National Review, going on to list 191 references to slavery in the Florida curriculum. Cooke adds, “There is simply no way of perusing this course and concluding that it ‘gaslights” people or whitewashes slavery.”

That’s just the latest skirmish in a civil war of words, where conflicting ideas meet on the battlefield to test whether any nation that so vigorously debates its own existence can long endure.

The debate isn’t new, though. The Revolution that created the United States was our first civil war, beginning with a clash of ideas that led to blood and bullets. Shortly after the war for our independence came to an end, a French aristocrat who had settled in upstate New York tried to define the stakes. His name was Hector St. John de Crevècoeur, and his Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782, is best known for an essay that asks the question, “What then is an American, this new man?

An American, wrote Crevècoeur, is heir to European arts and sciences, but freed from European traditions and obligations. He is a man of property, entitled to the fruits of his labor. He is a free agent in a classless society, owing no allegiance to a king or a church. And he participates in a great destiny: “Here, individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great change in the world.”

Interestingly, Crevècoeur wrote those words in England, after first being hounded off his farm for suspected Tory sympathies, then held in British-occupied New York City for suspected espionage. Returning to New York in 1784 as newly-appointed French consul, he discovered his farmhouse destroyed in an Indian raid, his wife dead, and his children scattered. Eventually Crevècoeur returned to his homeland and died there, leaving it to the Americans to discover for themselves who they were. We haven’t figured it out yet.

Americans might be simply defined as individuals freed to act out their human nature. Human nature is complicated, and so is American history. Humans are the “glory and garbage of the universe” according to another Frenchman, Blaise Pascal. Glorious are the innovations, the material prosperity, and the opportunity to follow up on a good idea. Less so is the freedom to exercise greed and prejudice. Americans aren’t uniquely good or evil; we’ve just been uniquely unfettered.

That’s why John Adams said our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. We the people, left and right, still believe that; the disagreement is over whose morality, and what religion.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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