Term Paper: American National Character What Characteristics

Pages: 10 (3057 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] C. works today imagine the current president having long philosophical conversations with intellectuals? Maybe that's not a fair question, but it addresses the question posed for this paper, "What have we inherited exactly?" Indeed, where have those lofty ideals of people like Jefferson gone? Now we are dominated in the media at least, with news of terrorism and Iraqis being tortured by American soldiers.

In search of an answer to the question about the national character, and having noted earlier in the paper that religion and individualism still shape part of that character, the question should also be: Is the national character of America now a split personality? That is a fair question because pundits and social-watching experts say America is more polarized now than even during the Nixon years, when the Vietnam War was a dividing line between two bodies of opinion, just as now, the war on Iraq divides Americans.

Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is probably one of the most thorough and damning documents in American history. It is fascinating to read it in 2004, and realize that some of the charges against the English crown sound a lot like charges made against recent presidents (and vice presidents) of the United States. For example, "He has obstructed the administration of justice" (237) reflects back to Nixon's Watergate felonies.

Impressive though the Declaration of Independence is, nearly equally straight-forward and cutting-edge is Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" (251-253). "...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess...their opinions in matters of religion..." In search of that "American National Character" one can easily see that the one thing that binds us morally together as a nation - notwithstanding diversity and ethnic or political differences - is the right we all have to worship as we see fit.

That right of religious freedom can be stomped on, however, and the goals of providing all citizens of all persuasions the unquestioned right to worship maybe is not always realistic. Why? Because, in times of war or extreme national stress, supposedly constitutionally guaranteed freedoms can be taken away very quickly. The Japanese-American families, tens of thousands of them, can tell a story about unfair imprisonment during WWII in America; they lost their freedom to live and work and worship as normal Americans, merely because of the Pearl Harbor attacks.

And, another example would be, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, many mosques were vandalized or otherwise threatened. Members of the American community who were of the Muslim faith (Islam) were randomly picked out for violent acts - as though Osama bin Laden's violence against American meant that all Muslims were part of his terrorist network. But still, it was frightening for innocent Arab-Americans who wished to attend religious services, but feared reprisals.

But back on the subject of Jefferson's many talents, his letter to Maria Cosway (400) shows another of the many positive sides of this legendary American. His writing oozes with charm, craftsmanship and utterly suave narrative. "Seated by my fireside," he writes, following having placed Maria into her carriage, "solitary and sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head and my Heart." Jefferson then launches into a long, involved, intellectually tantalizing narrative, jumping back and forth cleverly between what he asserts is his "Head" talking and his "Heart" talking. He is writing to a married woman, but there are more than a few indications that he is flirtatious through the use of his elegance and charm. His "Head" (403) speaks of Maria (one assumes) in this fashion: "...I often told you during it's course that you were imprudently engaging your affections under circumstances that must cost you a great deal of pain: that the persons indeed were of the greatest merit, possessing good sense, good humour, honest hearts, honest manners, and eminence in a lovely are: that the lady had moreover qualities and accomplishments, belonging to her sex, which might form a chapter apart for her...and that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex and charm of ours."

When Jefferson's enormous brainpower and literary skill is unleashed on a woman that he obviously admires, one can't help but wonder how such a woman could possibly resist those advances. And one can't help but wonder, on the subject of the American character, what has happened in public education that so few young people graduating from high school can write a basic, literate paragraph - let along create narrative as descriptive and involved as Jefferson has done here.

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin's autobiography is not the easiest read for a first-time reader in 2004, but when one takes into account the fact that he is writing in the early 18th Century, and that he was a brilliant, if a bit self-centered American patriot and leader, one can excuse some of the puffed-up nature of his narrative.

Meantime, part of the American character and spirit has always been learning, and the opportunities afforded citizens when they get a good education. Franklin (130) lets readers know that in 1733, he began to "study languages...and soon made myself so much a Master of the French as to be able to read the Books with Ease. I then undertook the Italian." Shortly thereafter, "with a little Pains-taking acquir'd as much of the Spanish as to read their Books also." So, he quickly learned French, Italian, and then Spanish (though he doesn't tell exactly how much time he spent in learning those languages). But meantime, Franklin is gracious to admit that, although in the year of studying Latin he didn't think had learned very much of it because he was very young, after mastering French, Italian, and Spanish, "I was surpiz'd to find, on looking over a Latin Testament, that I understood so much more of that Language than I had imagined..."

Americans in search of the character of the nation of course will find families whose predecessors have come from France, Italy, England, Russia, Africa, Japan, and from all other corners of the world. Teaching the children of America some of the languages spoken by immigrants from international places is part of helping the next generation accept and admire the diversity which is represented here.

Franklin writes (162) his will with the same flair and seeming conceit that much of his autobiography reflects: "And now humbly returning sincere thanks to God for producing me into Being, and conducting me hitherto thro' Life so happily, so free from Sickness, pain and Trouble, and with such a Competency of this World's Goods as might make a reasonable Mind easy: that he was pleased to give me such a Mind, with moderate Passions..." Note here that Franklin capitalizes "Mind" and "Competency" when it refers to himself, but when referring to God, he does not capitalize "he...was pleased to give me such a mind..."

Walt Whitman - Leaves of Grass

On page 5 Whitman clearly spells out what he sees as the American character: "Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses." He continues, as a tribute to diversity and the common man: "...The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislators, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges of churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors...but almost most in the common people."

Whitman's writing embraces idealism more than anything else, and that is appropriate, since idealism and hope were the ingredients that went into the building of this country. He writes (6) that the "largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen."

If a person is looking for the things in addition to what has already been discussed in this paper - religion and individualism - that perfectly and seamlessly bind America together into some form of a "national character," Whitman has the answer in idealism and spirit. When it comes to the spirit of the citizen, he asserts that "Not nature nor swarming states nor streets and steamships nor prosperous business nor farms nor capital nor learning may suffice for the ideal of man..."

What America needs, in conclusion, are leaders who have the brains, sense of history, charm and vision of Jefferson; the wit, learning ability and innovative acumen of Franklin; the courage and resilience of the Puritans; and the idealism and humanity of Walt Whitman. The goals of the American dream are not yet realized, and probably will never be. But the pursuit of the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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