Ten American Experiences: A Fourth of July Meditation


The Fourth of July is a good time to ask the question: what exactly are we celebrating when we celebrate “America?” Is it a set of ideals and principles rooted in the Enlightenment? Is it a blood-and-soil nation on the American continent, with unique institutions and culture? Is it an idea that happens to have a nation, a nation that happens to have an idea, or something else entirely?

Another way to define it might be an empirical account of various American experiences. What follows, then, is a narrative litany of what this writer believes to have been the most influential historical experiences shaping Americanism in every epoch of our existence as a nation, from colonial days to the present. Together, in their creative tension, they contribute to the great American story and conversation, full as it is with contradictions and irregularities.

Of course, in these polarized times, there’s the political question. Some of these experiences, for one reason or another, are distasteful to modern observers of whatever political persuasion. Some might willfully abandon their legacy, out of hopes to build “a better future.” But we cannot forget our own past, or our civilization will fail to thrive beyond its fourth century of existence.

Ten Experiences that defined America.  

1. The Origins.

Americans came from somewhere- the first settlers were different groups of colonists from various parts of England. David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial study of American origins, Albion’s Seed, documents this brilliantly. At a foundational level, America remains and always has been an Anglo nation-state with a powerful yet flexible core cultural heritage. The English language, traditions of common law, and the Protestant influence on American individualism, philosophy, and civic culture and community are all undeniably components of the American identity at a very basic level.

2. The War of Independence.

It was the American Revolution that granted our nation its nationhood. Whereas the colonial experience had been a conservative affair of the transference of culture from one side of the Atlantic to the other, the American Revolution sparked the beginnings of American radicalism and universalism, the exuberance and triumphalism of a newly-awakened people firm in the belief that they had Providence on their side.

3. The Constitution.

The Revolution won but did not secure America’s liberty- that important work was done by the Framers of the Constitution, who through toil and conflict, reflection and compromise, designed the framework and foundations of a constitutional republic. The Constitution’s checks and balances and divisions of authority, the federal system of state and national sovereignty, a national government that was energetic and powerful, yet limited and constrained, and capable of addressing the great issues of the day and many days beyond, all contributed to the successful organization of the thirteen states and their western territories into a great new federal union. This federal union alone could preserve the liberty of the American people.

4. The Rise of Jackson.

The basically aristocratic culture of the early Republic would not outlive the Framers. The Jacksonian Revolution of the late 1820s and 1830s would forever change the culture of American politics, decisively shifting American legitimacy from a mere faith in institutions to something looking more like a democratic “common will.” It would infuse American politics with a common man’s ethos of simplicity, tradition, people’s wisdom, and folk culture, and would turn “democracy” from the dirty word of the Federalists into the litmus test for American statesmen for generations to come. By some measures, America was first truly “American” upon the onset of this democratic ethos.  

5. The Civil War.

Upon Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in 1860, America’s Iliad broke out and consumed the young nation. The Union cause in the Civil War was in some ways a radical affair- the erasure of Southern plantation culture, the expansion of freedom and franchise to more Americans than ever before, the coming hegemony of free-labor industrial capitalism- but in the eyes of the Republicans and the Union Army’s general staff, it was a conservative project. The preservation of the Union, and of American power over the Continent, was the crucial question. The Civil War’s conclusion ensured that the Union, which by now stretched across the American continent from sea to shining sea, would be preserved in whole and not in parts. It would remain the great power it was, positioned towards even higher greatness in the decades and centuries to come.

6. The Western Migration.

Long before Fort Sumter, the American people were being shaped by their expansion across the American continent. Americans pushed further and further West, in great numbers starting in the 1830s, and would continue to do so until they’d populated the entirety of American territory between the Mississippi and the Pacific in the late 19th century. As Frederick Jackson Turner argued in The Significance of the Frontier in American History, the land and its conditions left its mark on the culture and society of those who crossed it and settled it. The poet Sam Walter Foss, speaking as the American continent, asked for “Men to Match My Mountains,” and the American people obliged.

7. The Industrial Revolution.

Matching the individualist ethos cultivated by the experience of the Westward movement was an entrepreneurial ethos- a great knack for management and organization and innovation, a brilliance and genius rooted in benevolent acquisitiveness, all of which inspired and drove American inventors, investors, and captains of industry. Over the course of several great industrial revolutions, starting in the early 1800s and still ongoing, Americans built titanic industries, infrastructure, and cities, harnessed the power of every natural resource conceivable, and invented contraptions and machines that sent men to the moon and split the atom.

8. The Progressive Era and the New Deal.

The excesses and social dislocations of industrial capitalism precipitated a great social crisis, and by the turn of the 20th century, Americans clamored for major reforms in their governing institutions. Some of these efforts were quite radical- the great labor strikes, populist politicians, and socialist movements of the early 20th century have gone down into legend, and few remember today that between the 1880s and 1910s, a few Presidents of the United States were shot by anarchist terrorists. Conservative statesmen and radical reformers joined hands in compromise to reform institutions to quell the social crisis. Americans built up a federally-sponsored safety net and welfare state, a system of collaborative enterprise and regulation, and a government promising a better quality of life for all citizens. The notion that the government ought to serve its people in all ways possible, and marshal resources for national ends, remains integral to American political culture.

9. World Leadership.

These modernizing reforms bound the American people together at home just in time for the great Eurasian crises of 1914-1991. The crisis of imperialism in the First World War, and the rise of Fascism and Communism in the 1930s, and our subsequent involvement in the Second World War and competition with the Soviets in the Cold War, stretched our resources and our need to defend the homeland to degrees never before known.  The architects of post-1945 American foreign policy institutionalized the stewardship of international institutions, the maintenance of a navy that could command the seas and keep open the sea lanes of trade, and the preservation of a peaceful balance of power between the most powerful nations on the planet. The consummation of America’s role as a “city upon a hill” and a “light unto the nations” took its fullest form when America assumed the mantle of world leadership- and this has been integral to its self-image ever since.

10. The Civil Right Movement.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement- building off of earlier antecedents including Temperance, Abolition, and Women’s Suffrage- successfully enshrined equality before the law, for people of all races and origins, into the American national identity. It paved the way for a fuller integration of people from around the world into the American experience. Its legacy is still felt acutely today, when questions on immigration, civil rights, and American identity frequently bubble up to the foreground of public discourse. More than any of the other American experiences listed here, this one is still ongoing.

The Future

We can imagine future “American experiences” that one hundred years from now may prove to be just as vital to the American identity as these ten listed have been. Perhaps the reform of the New Deal state towards a more localized, sustainable, and fundamentally workable system – something like the stymied “New Federalism” of the Nixon Administration, updated by the power of the Information Revolution – could transform American governance in the 21st century as did the Progressive and New Deal reforms of the 20th century. Another great quest with historic antecedents is the conquest of the Solar System: the rejuvenation of the American space program and the exploration and colonization of other worlds beyond the Moon. A great period of exploration can bring out the greatest facets of the existing American character and transform them into something new.

One begins to notice a pattern, looking across American history: each of these experiences was in some ways conservative and in other ways radical, but distinctively one more than the other. The conservative transference of Anglo culture from the British Isles to the American continent; the radical universalism of the American Revolution; the conservative caution of the Framing of the Constitution; the radical experiments with Jacksonian Democracy; the conservative preservation of the Union in the Civil War; the radical egalitarianism and democracy of the Westward Conquest; the conservatism of culture and class wrought by the Industrial Revolution; the radicalism of the Industrial Age’s excesses, tempered into reforms in the Progressive Era and New Deal movements; the conservatism that went into building the Liberal International Order after the ravages of two world wars; and the fundamental radicalism and reformism of the Civil Rights Movement and its antecedents. Will all this be followed by a conservative reformation of American governance down to the localities? Will that be followed by the radical disruptive technological advancement of space colonization?

In each case, a primarily radical historical experience was followed by a primarily conservative one, and so on and so forth. This should surprise no one, for America has always been a remarkably extreme nation with no less remarkable staying power. American schizophrenia has been a quality of our national existence for our entire experience as a people, and will surely remain with us until we’ve been extinguished from the Earth.

Luke Phillips is a political activist and writer in California state politics. His work has been published in a variety of publications, including Fox&Hounds, NewGeography, and The American Interest. He is a Research Assistant to Joel Kotkin at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.