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The United States began its existence as a British colony far removed from Europe, which was the center of civilization in the 17th century. Since then, it has attained independence, grown into a financial superpower, and become one of the most prominent drivers of scientific progress. The country managed to achieve this due to its unique and powerful identity that allowed the people to successfully revolt and create a nation unlike those seen before. This essay aims to describe the influences behind the formation of that identity as well as its original qualities and weaknesses.
The Origins of the Identity
America was an unexplored frontier where people were expected to fend for themselves, as any help from their homeland would take a great time to arrive. As a result, the people who chose to settle there typically had fiercely independent natures and were determined to achieve everything they wanted on their own. Nevertheless, America was a colony, and the immigrants were considered citizens of Great Britain and answered to the king’s authority.
These factors eventually led to resentment against the British rule, as the settlers felt that Britain gave them no more than the right to claim land that belonged to no one but demanded taxes and obedience. Meanwhile, according to Davidson, the philosophical idea that all people were equal began gaining popularity among the population of America, being used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence (85). Americans united and eventually rebelled because of the conflict between the concept of equality and the British claim that the king’s rule was divinely mandated, in addition to various grievances toward their government.
The resulting national identity was a combination of the above factors. The new American nation strongly valued independence and equality, and the ideas were reflected in the organization of the country they created. All states were independent of each other, and although there was a Congress that consisted of state representatives and settled matters with a majority vote, a state could refuse to follow its decisions. Furthermore, each state was a collection of independent individuals whose rights were considered inherent and not granted by some outside entity.
Contradictions in the Identity
Although the United States claimed that all people were equal in the Declaration of Independence, it initially only included a small part of the human race into the definition. Neither the Native Americans who were confined to reservations nor the African slaves enjoyed treatment as equals of the white citizens. Furthermore, women did not have a variety of civil rights that men possessed, leading to the eventual rise of feminist movements.
The equality of the states also came into question shortly after the formation of the Congress. According to Davidson, politicians such as Patrick Henry believed that the small states had too much power, while they were concerned about losing their influence to the more populated members of the Union (93). As a result, the states began ignoring Congress, and the nation came close to falling apart, only being saved by the creation of the Constitution.
Support and Opposition to the Identity
Not all people of America initially supported the revolution, especially in its early stages, when the defeat of the British forces was a distant possibility. According to Davidson, many New Yorkers remained loyal to the king, and the majority of the civilians would support the British rule if the rebellion appeared to fail (87). Some of the loyalists were not content with watching the conflict, taking up arms, and attempting to help subdue the forces under Washington’s command.
Nevertheless, Americans had overthrown the British rule and created an independent nation founded on the principles that constituted the national identity. According to Davidson, even when the country appeared to be close to collapse due to the distrust of the states toward each other, there were people such as James Madison who strived to keep the United States together (95). He convinced George Washington to preside over a convention that was attended by numerous influential figures such as Benjamin Franklin, and the Constitution was created, reforming the nation and firmly uniting it.
Later on, disagreements about what people should be treated as equals led to the secession of the southern states and the Civil War. The concept of slavery was inconsistent with the recognition of slaves as people and therefore equal to other citizens, but slave owners were opposed to giving up what they considered their property and the source of their wealth. Ultimately, however, the northern states prevailed, and slavery was abolished in the United States, though racism and unequal treatment of African Americans remained critical issues for a long time after that.
The American identity was founded on the principles of independence and equality, as well as the idea that human rights are inherent. Although there were contradictions that sometimes led to severe consequences, and not all citizens supported the nation or the ideas behind it, the United States was able to survive and thrive, unlike earlier republics. The country upholds these founding principles to this day, although they have evolved since then.
Davidson, James West. A Little History of the United States. Routledge, 2017.