The question of an American identity is very dynamic and dates back to the original colonies. The struggle many historians encounter is distinguishing between European settlers and American. However, many of the first English colonists still embodied traditional “American values.” The Massachusetts Bay Puritans, led by the charismatic John Winthrop, adhered to different principles than Englishmen. Although they stressed heavily on religious worship and opposed materialism, the Puritans displayed a hard work ethic. The Puritan work ethic became engrained in the American identity and still exists today. A common saying goes, “Americans live to work. Europeans work to live.”
Arguably, the first man who marks a complete transition from European to American, and thus can be credited as the “first American” is Benjamin Franklin. As an enlightened polymath, Franklin’s interests span from politics, to science, and to literature. Like Winthrop and the Puritans, Franklin always worked hard for personal and communal gains. He also recognized and supported materialism. In his autobiography, Franklin describes the time his wife bought him a silver spoon and china, “for which she had no other excuse or apology to make but that she though her husband deserved a silver spoon and china bowl as well as any of his neighbors. This was the first appearance of plate and china in our house, which afterward, in a course of years, as our wealth increases, augmented gradually to several hundred pounds in value.” When Franklin traveled to France to negotiate military aid, his attire consisted entirely of beaver fur. Many historians suggest that Franklin’s American outfit persuaded the French to recognize the uniqueness of the American character, and offer military assistance.
The next vision of the American developed in the mid-1800s during the settling of the frontier. As Frederick Turner emphasizes in his essay “The Significance of the American Frontier,” the frontier allowed for both democracy and a true American character to emerge, since America is the only country in the world to have a Western front. The rugged, individualistic Western settler was idealized a true American. Through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the beginning of the film industry arose the image of solitary cowboy, who always saves the day. The “lone ranger” image as depicted frequently be John Wayne soon became the American identity.
By the 1920s, the American character was redefined once again. Rapid industrialization and an economic boom made many people nostalgic the simpler times. However, others supported rampant materialism and the desire to achieve the American dream. As a result, the American qualities of Ben Franklin and the American qualities of the Western pioneer merged to form a new American identity, best exemplified by acclaimed pilot Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh grew up on a simple farm, but through hard work and determination became an experienced pilot. For many Lindbergh’s successful flight across the Atlantic represents the triumph of the machine and industrial age. For others, his flight is an emblem of exploration and rugged individualism. They viewed Lindbergh as pioneer and trailblazer, much like Western settlers. Thus, Lindbergh represented both the old and the new, and became the symbol of the American identity in the early 20th century.
Because of many civil rights movements and social progress, there is no one American identity in today’s world. But the Puritan work ethic, an emphasis on materialism, the desire to achieve the American dream, an impulse to expand and explore into space, and rugged individualism are all American values we still hold today.
– Zach Halem