A place like no other
Every nation is unique, but America is the most unique. This is the theme of the greatest book written on the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. "The Americans," Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, "have a democratic social state that has...given birth to a multitude of sentiments and opinions...that were unknown in the old aristocratic societies....The aspect of civil society has met with change no less than the visage of the political world."
Today, the United States is the third-most populous nation in the world, our economy produces nearly a third of the world's goods and services, and our military is more powerful than the rest of the world's militaries combined. We are, as political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset writes, "the most religious, optimistic, patriotic, rights-oriented, and individualistic" country in the world. At the same time, however, we are also the most materialistic, self-absorbed, and swaggering nation on Earth. When we speak of American values we are speaking of something unique, as Tocqueville observed. But they are values that are almost constantly in real or apparent conflict with one another. How, for example, can the world's most egalitarian nation allow such a yawning gap between rich and poor, a gap that grows wider with each passing year? How does a nation of immigrants, with its impulse for inclusiveness, square with its history of division and racial strife?
Seeds of diversity. Historians have been seeking the answers to such questions for almost as long as there has been an America, and there is reason for that, for a nation's beginnings tell us much about its character. "Peoples always feel their origins," Tocqueville wrote. "The circumstances that accompanied their birth and served to develop them influence the entire course of the rest of their lives." The British colonies that became the nucleus of the United States were, from the first, diverse in both culture and religion. As historian David Hackett Fischer shows in Albion's Seed, the four major clusters of colonies--New England, the Delaware Valley, the Chesapeake colonies, and the Appalachian chain--had cultures and folkways derived from the parts of the British Isles whence most of their settlers came. Their imprint can still be seen today.
Diverse Americans managed to live together, says historian Robert Wiebe, because they lived apart. Religious dissident Anne Hutchinson fled Massachusetts for Rhode Island. Benjamin Franklin left Puritan Boston for worldly Philadelphia. Daniel Boone, looking for elbow room, left North Carolina for Kentucky and Kentucky for Missouri. The frontier provided an opportunity for a new start for millions until the Census Bureau declared it was closed in 1890. By then, growing cities and suburbs were attracting the ambitious, the luckless, anyone possessed of the sense of get-up-and-go. As New York Times columnist David Brooks points out in his new book, On Paradise Drive, when Americans pulled up stakes and moved to new places, they tended to resettle with like-minded Americans: Cultural liberals flocked to the San Francisco Bay Area, cultural conservatives to Dallas-Fort Worth. We have the space we need to be the kind of Americans we want to be.