What is an American?

Some four hundred years ago my family became Americans. My ancestors were among the very first to come off the European ships and be introduced to this new world. Now, it is clear that if the pilgrims had landed in Sweden they would not have become Swedish (in fact they didn’t). If they had landed in Spain they would not have become Spanish, at least not overnight. It is clear that the mere presence of people in a land does not make them heirs of what it means to be part of that land. As I ponder what it means to be an American I’m not sure I can think, at least not in so short a time, of a single characteristic or event in life that makes someone an American. There is no magic definition. However, I can think of a number of things that I consider part of the definition. Americans value freedom in all areas, they are deeply practical, and the origin of a person is less important than the destination.


We are a people wrought in the fires of a revolutionary war. That war still plays a major part in who we are and how we value our government. Americans are constantly reminded that everything they are came at the cost of blood. I know people in the military, but I don’t personally know any who have died in defending freedom. Even without this personal knowledge I still recognize that the patriots of 1776 and 1812 and 1860 and on and on gave their lives and shed their blood for freedom. I believe that the sacrifice was worth it because, for Americans, freedom is worth your life. That’s why, even though I hate war and mourn the necessity, I am willing to send American troops, American money, and American’s reputation to wars all over the world to bring freedom to anyone that wants it (and some who don’t).

Americans are inventors. We are innovators. The revolution created a nation utterly unique at the time. Our government was a great experiment in giving power to everyone. Using that valued freedom as the governing power. The colonies were in wild lands that we, at least as white immigrants, didn’t know how to survive in. The climate was different, the plants, the animals, the natives, even the social structure was different from what we had come from. Because there were no generations of traditions to follow, we had to create a new society. We had to learn and invent the technology that would allow survival. We became creative, but with a practical edge. Unique art and literature didn’t feed us; it was practical creativity that led to American greatness. The creativity of those early Americans is what allowed us to become the most powerful nation on the earth. Innovation drove us to create countless inventions and rocketed us even to the moon.  Americans are innovators, ever thinking outside the box about how to make the box bigger.

One way we made the box bigger was another consequence of our colonial roots. The poor and landless came to America. The wealthy nobles stayed in Europe where they had property. With a social structure adapted to hierarchy but suddenly missing the top tiers someone had to become the upper class. With titles and nobility eliminate it was open season. Those that could work hardest and produce the most made the most money. Society became part of the free market. How many societies in Europe were based on a free market social system? Anyone, through hard work and industry (and maybe a little providence) could become the elite of society. The founders were self-made men. Some had the benefits of wealthy parents but they all had to hold on to their inheritance and grow it as they could. That is why the first wave of American millionaires was such an astounding group. They all earned it against great odds. They had to be great men to even get to where they were. The ideals of this first aristocracy are embodied in a line in the play 1776. One of the loyalist congressmen, John Dickinson, comments that most men would rather hold on to the possibility of become rich than face the reality of being poor. There is irony in the statement because he was trying to prevent the revolution where in reality the possibility for anyone to become rich is far greater in the nation he helped create then it was in the nation from which they split. Today the rags to riches dream can be called the American Dream, or the Log Cabin myth. It is the idea that anyone can become anything here. Your access to greatness is held back only by your talent and ability to work. Americans are more interested in what you are trying to become than in what you were born into.


As I write these words I confess that my mind is calling liar to my fingers. How many times in American history has freedom been repressed to one group or another? What about the Africans or the Indians or the Japanese or the Hispanics? What about my own Latter-day Saint ancestors? How many Americans today laze around on couches or live of off government programs? What about our slipping monopoly on education and innovation? What about the industrial revolution that essentially enslaved immigrants in patterns of poverty? What about the current aristocracy of America where only the rich can even dream of becoming President? When was the last time we had a president that rose out of poverty? I acknowledge that in the details of a long and complex history there are counter examples to every American attribute that I have listed. But for me, these are among the attributes that make up the ideal American. We believe in work. We believe in practicality. We believe that no matter where you came from you can rise above it. We believe in advancement, of people and societies and technologies. We believe in the freedom to become whatever you want to become. It is the Americans that share these beliefs that have made the America that I love and would give my life to preserve.

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2 thoughts on “What is an American?

  1. Chris

    An excellent post. I especially liked the end. I don’t know if it is so much that history demonstrates that America is a lair. Rather, I think that living up to those lofty ideals, that ” All men are created equal. and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is difficult and takes time. Just as with the gospel, the national also has a tendency toward the base and human. From the beginning we codified slavery in the Constitution and, as you said, have oppressed individuals. And it is true that, like most societies, we have an American aristocracy that runs government and business. But, despite these failures, We, also as in the gospel, have struggle to progress to a higher state. We have learned, and changed, and grown and become better and more true to our ideals. Although I often disagree with his policies, the current president is emblematic of this. In Europe, a minority and son of a single working mother would never become president. And yet Barack Obama has done just that and sit proudly next to a thoroughly Germanic Merkle and an Eaton born Cameron. in a little over two hundred years since our founding by a bunch of white men, we have a very diverse leadership filled with multiracial men and women. The nice thing with America is that, despite our failures, we as a people are never content with the status quo. Just as Adams says in the same musical, we can always see the rays of ravishing light and glory of our full potential just out reach, and we struggle and fight, occasionally falling, often rising to live up to the ideals so nobly declared in a hot summer day in 235 years ago.

    • D. Riley Rackliffe

      In spite of our warts we have done much good. I agree fully. I must acknowledge our faults though. We have failed in many areas many times. I suppose we should expect failure in the face of so lofty a goal but we should not excuse it. We must constantly try to become even better.

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