Stories

A Call for Unity

No Author

Birmingham, Alabama was the scene of perhaps the most significant campaign of the Civil Rights Movement, not least because it catapulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been invited to Birmingham, one of the nation’s most segregated cities, by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, whose own efforts to negotiate desegregation with the city’s business leaders and government officials had failed. In the spring of 1963, King and the SCLC carefully orchestrated a program of nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins, targeting downtown businesses and white churches, hoping to gain national public attention and ...

A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

By: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The catastrophic “war to end all wars” produced a shaky peace that lasted barely two decades. When World War II broke out in 1939, the United States was again slow to enter, as many Americans hoped that we could remain peacefully on the sidelines. All that changed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The next day, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), 32nd President of the United States (1933–45), delivered this famous speech to a joint session of Congress, calling for an official declaration of war.

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A Frenchman’s Estimate of Washington in 1781

By: Claude C. Robin

By the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington’s reputation for greatness had spread far and wide, gaining the admiration of many Europeans, especially among the French. One such admirer, the Abbé Claude C. Robin (1750–94), was for a time during the American Revolution a chaplain (recommended by Benjamin Franklin) in the French army in America (serving under General Rochambeau). This letter bears the place and date “Camp of Phillipsburg, August 4, 1781,” a few weeks after his arrival in this country and shortly before the battle of Yorktown, where Robin witnessed Cornwallis’ final surrender to Washington. The letter was the first of ...

A Groundhog’s Death

By: Jack Conroy

Jack Conroy (1898–1990) was a “worker-writer” best known for his contributions—both fiction and nonfiction—about the life of the American worker during the early decades of the 20th century. Born to Irish immigrants in a coal-mining camp in Moberly, Missouri, Conroy lost his father and a brother in work accidents. As a young man, he worked at different times as a railroad foreman, auto factory worker, construction worker, and secretary for the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of America. He drew upon these searing personal experiences in his writing—and in this essay, first published in The New Masses in 1937, which looks ...

A History of Veterans Day: Its Origins and Traditions

No Author

On the morning of November 11, 1918, after four years of war, Allied and German powers met in Rethondes, France, to sign an armistice that halted the hostilities of World War I. The agreement was signed shortly after 5:00 a.m. and went into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, finally bringing to an end the carnage of the Great War—the war thought by many to be the war that would end all wars.1

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A Jury of Her Peers

By: Susan Glaspell

This story by Susan Glaspell (1876–1948), playwright, actress, and writer, raises questions not about the justice of the law but about its proper enforcement, not about the obligation to obey it but about how to judge those who allegedly have violated it. The story (1917), inspired by an actual case in Iowa a few years earlier, is set in the rural Midwest. Law enforcement officials and a key witness, joined by the wives of the sheriff and the witness, search the domestic scene of the crime, seeking clues to why the woman of the house might have murdered her husband.

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A Marine’s Journey Home

By: Michael R. Strobl

This selection, written during the recent Iraq War, addresses the crucial question of how we should treat the mortal remains of those who die in our nation’s service. Private First Class Chance Phelps of the United States Marine Corps was killed in action on April 9, 2004, in Baghdad. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael R. Strobl (b. 1965) served as the officer who escorted Phelps’ remains to his home and family in Dubois, Wyoming, where he was then buried. Strobl kept a diary during the trip, recording his experiences and feelings; with the permission of Phelps’ father, he published this essay ...

A Meaning for Monuments

By: William Hubbard

War memorials and monuments such as those discussed in the preceding selections pay homage to the fallen not only by recognizing their valor but also by celebrating the cause for which they gave their lives. This is more easily done when the cause is popular. But how do we remember the dead in an unpopular war? The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC designed by then 21-year-old Maya Lin, may be said to be our nation’s answer, and it has drawn and moved thousands of visitors from the day it was unveiled (November 13, 1982). At the same time, objections ...

A Monument for the Soldiers

By: James Whitcomb Riley

The father of James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916) wanted him to become a lawyer, but his studies never amounted to anything. Instead, Riley discovered his talents lay in entertainment, especially poetry. As his fame grew, Riley toured the country, where he became noted for his ability at reciting his own verses. Often, he would recite his Civil War-themed poetry to veterans’ groups like the Grand Army of the Republic. He gained two nicknames: “The Hoosier Poet,” because his work often centered around his Indiana upbringing and employed Hoosier dialect; and “The Children’s Poet,” because children were the intended audience of much ...

A New Pioneer

By: Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Daniel Webster asked his auditors to imagine themselves in the place of the Pilgrims 200 years before. In this story from 1940, for and about young schoolchildren, Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879–1958)—American author, education reformer, and activist—enables her readers to appreciate the immigrant experience in their own time. The daughter of the Chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Fisher was a contemporary of Willa Cather and took a PhD in Romance Languages from Columbia University. She served as secretary of Horace Mann School in New York, and later as the first female member of the Vermont Board of Education.

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A Night, from Hospital Sketches

By: Louisa May Alcott

American novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832–88), later famous for Little Women and Little Men, drew on her personal experience as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War to write Hospital Sketches (1863). During her time in a Washington, DC hospital, nursing wounded Union soldiers fresh from the battle of Fredericksburg (1862), she wrote letters home, from which she soon after composed the Sketches, narrated by a novice nurse “Tribulation Periwinkle.” The work was a milestone in Alcott’s career, bringing her critical and commercial notice.

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A Pretty Story

By: Francis Hopkinson

This allegory was written by the lawyer, statesman, and signer of the Declaration of Independence Francis Hopkinson (1737–91) under the pseudonym Peter Grievous and published in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1774, a year before the outbreak of fighting. It presents, by means of a homey, personal, and familial tale, an accessible—and perhaps unthreatening—account of the grievances that the colonists had with the English king and Parliament, growing from small beginnings and nourished by ordinary human desires and failings. It is also a useful introduction to the following selections in this section, which deal with the events that led up to the ...

A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition

By: George III

King George III (1738–1820) refused to receive the Olive Branch Petition adopted by the Second Continental Congress in July 1775 and sent to the king in the hope that war might yet be avoided. Instead, on August 23, 1775 he responded to the hostilities that had already erupted in the American colonies with this Proclamation, declaring that the colonists “have at length proceeded to open and avowed rebellion” and calling on all “subjects of this Realm” to aid and assist in the suppression of the rebellion. This proclamation effectively ended many colonists’ hope that a useful and peaceable agreement could ...

A Son of the Gods

By: Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842–1913 [?]) was an American journalist, critic, and author whose acid wit and dark view of human nature earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” After working as a printer’s apprentice in his youth, he enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry at the outset of the Civil War, fighting in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and receiving a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864. With the war’s conclusion, Bierce moved to San Francisco, contributing to local newspapers and periodicals stories and essays that were influenced by the horrors of battle. He ...

A Trip to Mount Vernon

By: Henry Brooks Adams

Not everyone in the American past has stood in awe of George Washington. As the country prospered and as manners became more democratic, here and there envy and resentment took aim at his elevated standing. Some prominent people who might have esteemed him begrudged his reputation for moral excellence, inasmuch as it stood as a permanent rebuke to their own moral weakness. The resulting habit of debunking the great man, today a common practice, is already on display in this (fictional) selection from Democracy: An American Novel by American journalist and historian Henry Brooks Adams (1838–1918), published anonymously in 1880. Adams, ...

A Very Peculiar God: Reading Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

By: Caitrin Nicol

On March 4, 1865—just a month before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox—Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address. Invoking theological speculation and quoting Scripture, he offered an interpretation of the meaning of the war, which enabled him to summon Americans to a new and more difficult public purpose. In this essay, Caitrin Nicol (b. 1985), managing editor of the New Atlantis (and a former student of the editors), reveals the depths of Lincoln’s address.

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A Village Patriot

By: Sarah Orne Jewett

In this story from 1897, Maine novelist and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) explores different attitudes toward the Fourth of July among members of a group of workmen who, on July 3rd, are shingling the roof of a new country house outside Boston. Most of the men hail from Boston, to which they are eager to return. The old-timer in the group, Abel Thorndike, lives nearby in the local village, and differs from the others also in his way of celebrating the Fourth.

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Abraham Lincoln on George Washington

By: Abraham Lincoln

How do we American citizens develop attachment to and affection for the United States? What role do our founding documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and principles play in making patriots? How important is national memory of important events and great leaders?  These questions were much on the mind of an aspiring young politician named Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) who, on January 28, 1838 gave this speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” in which he articulated the need for a “political religion” to secure “the attachment of the People” to ...

Account of the Battle of Kings Mountain

By: James P. Collins

The Revolutionary War was not only a war between Great Britain and America. As this selection reminds us, it was also very much a civil war, fought between revolutionary and loyalist (Tory) militias. On October 7, 1780, these militias faced off at the Battle of Kings Mountain, in rural York County, South Carolina. The result was a decisive victory for the Continentals (also known as “Patriots”). In this account from his Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier, James P. Collins (1763–1843) describes what the battle was like for the patriot militiamen.

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Account of the Vote for Independence

By: John Adams

The true formal declaration of American independence came not on July 4, 1776 but two days earlier, when the Continental Congress voted to approve the following resolution, introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of ...

Address at Arlington Cemetery

By: Joseph B. Foraker

On May 30, 1905, Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio delivered the annual Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery. Foraker (1846–1917) had fought in the Civil War as a member of the 89th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, where he eventually rose to the rank of brevet captain. As a veteran and a political leader, he uses this speech to marvel at the progress made by the United States since the war, progress that would have been unattainable without the sacrifices of the Union dead. It is useful to compare his remarks, made from a greater distance, with those of James A. Garfield 38 years earlier, made while memories of ...

Address at the Monument of the Unknown Dead

By: Frederick Douglass

Not everyone after the Civil War was a patron of reconciliation, especially if it meant forgetting or overlooking what the war was all about. Frederick Douglass (circa 1818–95), who rose from slavery to become one of America’s great orators, writers, reformers, and statesmen, was by both sorrowful experience and firm principle committed to celebrating the superior moral position of the Union. In this short speech, given at Arlington National Cemetery, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871, Douglass rejects the claim that it is the zeal, courage, and personal nobility of the wartime dead that most deserve our honor and ...

Address at the Unveiling of the Soldiers’ Monument

By: Rutherford B. Hayes

The National Soldiers’ Home in Dayton, Ohio provided a place to care for disabled Civil War veterans. Several such homes were built across the country, but the Dayton site became the largest, and was the first to admit black veterans of the war. It was here, on September 12, 1877, the Country’s Defenders Soldiers’ Monument was unveiled and dedicated, to honor not the great generals but the common American soldier. In attendance was President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–93). Called upon by the crowd to speak, Hayes reflected on his own experiences as an officer in the Union Army, where he ...

Address on Armistice Day, 1941

By: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

In an address delivered before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery less than a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) would bring the United States into war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) spoke about the meaning of Armistice Day and the war whose conclusion it commemorated. Amidst the gathering storm of World War II, how does he ask Americans to understand World War I and the sacrifices that it occasioned? Why, according to Roosevelt, was that war fought? What lessons for present and future conduct does he draw from the past? ...

Address on the Newburgh Conspiracy

By: George Washington

As commander in chief, George Washington had to reckon not only with a dangerous enemy but also on occasion with uprisings among his men. Here, too, he performed superbly. In March 1783, Cornwallis having long since surrendered and with the war now officially coming to an end, a different sort of trouble was brewing in the Continental Army headquartered at Newburgh, New York. The troops, angry at the Congress of the Confederation because they had not been properly paid, concerned that their promised pensions would go unfunded, and spurred by an anonymous letter that urged them to act, planned to ...

Address to a Joint Session of Congress Following the 9/11 Attacks

By: George W. Bush

On September 20, 2001, nine days after the surprise terrorist attacks by al Qaeda that leveled the World Trade Center in New York, damaged the Pentagon in Washington, and took the lives of some 3,000 American civilians, President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress with the following remarks. Unlike the previous wars in which the United States had been involved, the difficult and challenging “war on terror” that began at this time (and that continues, as of this writing) was not directed against specific hostile nations but against an inchoate transnational foe, operating from secret bases within ...

Address to a Joint Session of Congress on the Bicentennial of Washington’s Birthday

By: Herbert Hoover

Through most of the calendar year 1932, the American people celebrated the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. On February 22, President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) opened the celebration with this address to a joint session of Congress. Why—and how—does Hoover say we should commemorate the founder of our country? What does he mean by saying, “The true eulogy of Washington is this mighty Nation”? Despite Washington’s lack of spectacular qualities, “Why did his brilliant fellow patriots always . . . turn to him?” What, according to Hoover, makes the American system of life “distinctly unique and distinctly American”? Why, according to ...

Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War

By: Woodrow Wilson

If the Civil War was the defining national experience of the 19th century, the two World Wars were arguably the defining American experiences of the 20th century, for they involved the United States in protracted and costly struggles on the international stage and catapulted the United States into world prominence as a military and political power. Hoping to avoid participation in the First World War (1914–18), the United States was finally dragged into the war as a result of unprovoked submarine attacks on American ships by the Imperial German Navy. A disappointed but determined President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) gave this ...

Address to the 1964 National Baptist Convention

By: Joseph H. Jackson

Not all African American leaders interested in advancing the cause of African Americans approved of Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategies of direct action and civil disobedience. A highly prominent example, now almost forgotten, was the Reverend Joseph H. Jackson (1905?–90). Jackson rose from the hardship of his early life in Mississippi to become pastor of the historic Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago, and eventually served as president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953–82, longer than any one before or since. Jackson had supported King (including financially) during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but the two men fell out over Baptist Convention politics; and ...

Affirmative Action: The Price of Preference

By: Shelby Steele

One of the most vexing questions about American race relations concerns the wisdom and fairness of our programs of affirmative action, practices that, in the name of justice and fairness, give one form or another of preferential treatment to blacks (and other victims of prior discrimination), in order to help them overcome the handicaps incurred as a result of prior injustice and deprivation. As Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (2007) indicates, the legal debates turn on whether such racial preferences fall afoul of the Equal Protection Clause (and also the Due Process Clause) of the Fourteenth Amendment. But ...

America is Hard to See

By: Robert Frost

In this 1951 poem, first published in The Atlantic as “And All We Call American,” poet laureate Robert Frost (1874–1963), unlike many of our other authors (see, for example, the poems by Miller, Hale, and Whitman), takes a rather iconoclastic approach, both to the achievement of Columbus and to the American “new world” that it made possible. What is Frost’s judgment on Columbus’s voyage? Why does Frost believe that he was deceived by what Columbus did? What did Frost think of Columbus’ achievement when he was a youth, and what does he think of it now? Why, according to the poem, is ...

American Names

By: Stephen Vincent Benet

Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Stephen Vincent Benèt (1898–1943) was a prolific poet who authored nearly a dozen books in the course of his career. Despite a bout of scarlet fever at the age of three that permanently affected his eyesight and overall health, Benèt loved to read and write. The poetry he wrote as a young teenager quickly caught the attention of others. By 1915, he had already published his first poetry collection, Five Men and Pompey. Benèt attended Yale University, where he excelled in his studies and became editor of the student literary magazine. He continued to write poetry after ...

American Sonnet

By: Billy Collins

A native of New York City, Billy Collins (b. 1941–) attended the College of the Holy Cross and then earned his PhD in English from the University of California-Riverside. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he published many works of poetry, including Questions About Angels, a 1990 National Poetry Series winner—and it is from this work that “American Sonnet” is drawn. In 1994, Poetry magazine selected Collins as “Poet of the Year,” and in 2001 he was named Poet Laureate, a position he held until 2003. From 2004 to 2006, he also served as the Poet Laureate for the State ...

Americanism

By: Theodore Roosevelt

In this Columbus Day speech from 1915 (excerpted), former President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) addressed the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization that advanced the cause of equality and civil rights, on the subject of immigration and Americanization. What, according to the opening paragraph, is Roosevelt’s attitude toward Columbus and his commemoration by the society of the Knights of Columbus? What is Roosevelt’s attitude toward immigrants, and how does he see the relation between our democratic principles and immigration? What does he regard as the rights and duties of new immigrants to America? Why does he object to “hyphenated Americans”? ...

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

By: Louisa May Alcott

This story from 1881 by the beloved New England author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1832–88) presents a picture of a 19th-century Thanksgiving in a farming family in New Hampshire before there were stoves and supermarkets, when all food was raised in the fields around the house and cooked in the hearth that kept the house warm. The daughter of Boston transcendentalist Bronson Alcott—whose social circle included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—Alcott turned to the practical aspects of life and living after a utopian commune her father founded collapsed. She often focuses on themes of domestic ...

Aria: from Hunger of Memory

By: Richard Rodriguez

This selection considers the poignant case of children of immigrants, caught between two worlds: public life conducted in English and private intimacy conducted in the language of the home. In his memoir, Hunger of Memory (1981), writer and cultural critic Richard Rodriguez (b. 1944) presents a thoughtful account of his journey from “minority student,” who began school knowing but fifty words of English, to accomplished student of English literature and published author. Rodriguez makes vivid the price he has paid for his successful assimilation: a painful alienation from his origins, his family, and the immediate intimacies of his Spanish-speaking home. ...

Armistice Day Address

By: Omar N. Bradley

Known as the “GI’s General” for his modest demeanor, Omar N. Bradley (1893–1981) served as commander of the Twelfth US Army Group during World War II, leading nearly a million soldiers as part of the build up for the Normandy invasion. Following the conclusion of the war, in 1949, he became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Harry S. Truman, and in 1950 he was promoted to general of the Army, becoming the fifth (and, as of yet, last) person to serve as a five-star general in the US Army. In this speech, delivered on ...

Barbara Frietchie

By: John Greenleaf Whittier

American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–92) wrote this poem to commemorate the Maryland Unionist Barbara Fritchie (or Frietchie, as he spells it) (1766–1862), who supposedly waved the American flag at Confederate general Stonewall Jackson’s troops as they passed by her home in Frederick, Maryland, on the way to Antietam. The veracity of the story is doubted, but Whittier, an ardent abolitionist and founding contributor to the Atlantic, turned it into a notable poem. Fritchie’s house still stands, and when Winston Churchill visited it during World War II, he recited the poem from memory.

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Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street

By: Herman Melville

The summons to compassion and neighborliness is often most difficult to answer when the suffering we confront seems beyond our capacity to remedy. Poverty invites us to give money. Illness calls for medical care. But how do we respond to those maimed in soul and spirit—the homeless, helpless, and hopeless in our midst? No story presents this problem more powerfully than “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) by Herman Melville (1819–91). In this story, a nameless, middling lawyer—perhaps an American everyman—struggles to do right by Bartleby, an “incurably forlorn” man in his employ, who “prefers not” to make any effort on his ...

Becoming a Redwood

By: Dana Gioia

In the last selection, Carl Sandburg described the “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders” city of Chicago. With this selection, we look at another part of America: the redwood forests that inhabit northern California, seemingly from time eternal. Originally from Los Angeles, Dana Gioia (b. 1950–) is an award-winning poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. After graduating from Harvard University with a master’s in comparative literature (1975) and from the Stanford Business School with a master’s of business administration (1977), Gioia spent 15 years working at General Foods Corporation, where he ...

Bivouac of the Dead

By: Theodore O’Hara

Kentucky-born journalist and poet Theodore O’Hara (1820–67) was an officer in the United States Army during the Mexican-American War. After the Battle of Buena Vista (1847), he wrote this famous poem as a memorial tribute to the dead of this battle. Although O’Hara later fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, his poem became deeply connected with the mourning of Union dead. During the Civil War, as Arlington National Cemetery was being established (1864), Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs ordered lines from the poem inscribed on the cemetery’s gate, although without attributing them to the Southerner O’Hara.1 ...

Brave Men Lost

By: E. B. Sledge

In his memoir, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (1981), Eugene Bondurant Sledge (1923–2001), a United States Marine and afterwards a professor of biology, provides a first-hand account of his combat experiences in the Pacific theater during World War II.1 In this selection, excerpted from Chapter 6, Sledge reports and reflects on his own first combat experience with Marine unit K/3/5 (Company K, Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Division), from the time it was called to the front during the final successful assault against the Japanese positions on Peleliu to the time they left ...

Brown v. Board of Education

By: Earl Warren

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, unanimously struck down as unconstitutional all state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students, holding that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Finding that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the court overturned its own prior ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that had upheld segregated schools on the principle of “separate but equal.” Reaching this conclusion unanimously took much time and enormous effort by the newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974; Chief Justice 1953–69), who ...

Caged Bird

By: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (b. 1928–) was born in St. Louis, Missouri as Marguerite Johnson. When she was eight years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was killed soon after his release from jail—probably by members of Angelou’s family. As a result, she became mute for almost five years, believing that her voice had killed the man. During the 1950s and 1960s, she participated in the Civil Rights Movement, serving as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1969, she published her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and wrote several books of poetry in the ...

Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban Seasonings

By: Ana Menendez

Many Americans today, no less than in times past, are immigrants—or children of immigrants—who live between the culture of their homeland and the culture of their new home to which they are, sooner or later, assimilated. This story, written in 2004 by Los Angeles-born Cuban American novelist and journalist Ana Menéndez (b. 1970) shows the way a Cuban immigrant family dealt with this cultural “doubleness” around the peculiarly American holiday of Thanksgiving. The daughter of Cuban exiles, Menéndez has written four books of fiction, earning a Pushcart Prize, and has worked as a columnist for the Miami Herald. 

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Chamberlain

By: Michael Shaara

Courage is a virtue difficult to cultivate, especially among self-interested citizens oriented toward the pursuit of their own happiness. At the extreme, why shouldn’t I prefer the preservation of myself to the preservation of my nation? If there is both a natural and cultural tendency to cowardice, how is courage to be cultivated? Although courage usually grows only through repeated acts in the face of fear and danger, inspiring speeches can rally groups of men on the eve of battle. This selection—excerpted from The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1928–1988), an account of the Battle of Gettysburg during ...

Chicago

By: Carl Sandburg

First appearing in Poetry in 1914, Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago”—the first of nine poems he wrote about the city in his 1916 collection Chicago Poems—describes the “City of the Big Shoulders” that Sandburg loves, despite its imperfections. Sandburg had moved to the city in 1912, just two years before writing the poem. The poem is an early example of social realism, a form of art that became popular in the 1920s and 30s with paintings such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) and photographs such as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936).

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Columbus (1892)

By: Joaquin Miller

Joaquin Miller (pen name of Cincinnatus Hiner Miller; 1837–1913) was an American poet whose work was popular in England, in part because it was so distinctly American. Nicknamed the “Poet of the Sierras,” Miller wrote about the adventurous life he led, having worked at various times as a mining-camp cook, rider on the Pony Express, horse thief, newspaper correspondent, judge, and politician. In 1892, he composed “Columbus” for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, praising the explorer for his unrelenting adventurous spirit.

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Columbus (1903)

By: Edward Everett Hale

Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), Unitarian minister and antislavery activist, was a prolific author of stories, essays, and poems, many on patriotic themes. A lifelong patriot, Hale was born into a family of active Americans: He was the nephew both of Edward Everett, renowned orator and statesman, and of Alexander Hill Everett, the American diplomat who invited Washington Irving to Spain, where he wrote about Columbus. Hale’s father, Nathan Hale, was the namesake and nephew of Nathan Hale, executed by the British for espionage during the Revolutionary War and famous for his last words, “I only regret that I have but ...

Columbus (1919)

By: Nancy Byrd Turner

In this 1919 poem, from The Youth’s Companion, which she edited, the American poet Nancy Byrd Turner (1880–1971) celebrates the character of Columbus. For which virtues especially does she honor him? She emphasizes his dream and his prayer. What sort of a man lives and “pledges his soul” according to his dreams and prayers? Is having dreams and offering prayers sufficient for realizing their fulfillment? What other Columbian virtues would be needed? How does Turner’s portrait compare with that of Adams or Whitman?

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Columbus a Heretic and a Visionary to His Contemporaries

By: James Freeman Clarke

James Freeman Clarke (1810–88) was an American author, editor, abolitionist, and Unitarian minister. Associated with the Transcendentalists (though eventually rejecting the label), Clarke published early poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson while serving as editor of the Western Messenger, a Unitarian magazine he co-founded to promote liberal Christian thought. In 1880, Clarke published Self-Culture: Physical, Intellectual, Moral, and Spiritual, a collection of his public lectures about education, human nature, and Christian culture from which this selection is drawn. This excerpt, specifically, comes from a speech titled the “Education of Hope.”

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Columbus and His Discovery of America

By: Herbert B. Adams

In this address, given on October 10, 1892 at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University to celebrate the opening of the academic year, Herbert Baxter Adams (1850–1901), a professor of history, uses Columbus’s discovery of the New World as an example of a “great deed,” that brings with it “a certain immortality.” What precisely, according to the poem, are the excellences of Columbus? What is the meaning of “Those faithful, finding eyes”? Why does Adams think—and why might anyone think—that the discovery of America is the greatest event in secular history? What other events, before or since, would you ...

Columbus and the Egg

By: James Baldwin

James Baldwin (1841–1925) was an American educator and editor whose books of stories for children had a great influence on the education of young people in the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. In this parable, attributed to Italian historian Girolamo Benzoni’s History of the New World (1565) and taken from Baldwin’s collection, Thirty More Famous Stories Retold, Baldwin invites us to consider how anyone can know whether something cannot be done. What do you think of Columbus’ response to the doubters? If anybody can do something “after he has been shown how,” what is it that enables ...

Concord Hymn

By: Ralph Waldo Emerson

American educator and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) wrote this poem on request from the Battle Monument Committee for the 1837 dedication of an obelisk commemorating the Battle of Concord, Massachusetts, fought on April 19, 1775 at the outbreak of the American Revolution. The well-known first stanza is inscribed at the base of the famous Minute Man statue by Daniel Chester French, erected (1875) at Concord’s Old North Bridge. First read at a Concord Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1837, it was later sung as a hymn—hence its title.

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D-Day Prayer

By: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

On the evening (in the United States) of June 6, 1944, after the Normandy invasion had already been launched, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) spoke to the nation, praying for the soldiers fighting across the Atlantic and for those at home who supported their efforts. How does he characterize the struggle and the reasons for fighting the war? For what does he pray? In what sense might the fallen soldiers be regarded as God’s “heroic servants”?

Listen to President Roosevelt recite the prayer.

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Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress

No Author

A decisive step in the march toward American independence was the convening of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September 1774. Parliament, earlier in 1774, in reaction to the Boston Tea Party (December 1773), had passed a series of tough laws—known in America as the Intolerable Acts or the Coercive Acts—aimed at punishing the people of Boston and Massachusetts, and at strengthening Parliament’s rule over all the colonies. Recognizing that this threat to one colony was in fact a threat to all, 56 representatives from 12 of the American colonies convened to produce a collective response. Some of the ...

Declaration of Causes of Secession

By: Christopher G. Memminger

On December 20, 1860, shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president of the United States, the state of South Carolina, through representatives meeting in convention in Charleston, seceded from the federal Union. Four days later, this declaration of justification was issued, drafted chiefly by Christopher G. Memminger (1803–88), future Treasury Secretary of the Confederate government. In making the case for South Carolina’s departure from the Union, Memminger drew heavily from arguments in the Declaration of Independence, used to justify the American Revolution, and argued that the Lincoln administration could not be trusted to uphold the constitutional ...

Declaration of Independence

No Author

The Declaration of Independence contains the first and most authoritative statement of the American creed. In separating from Great Britain, the united colonies declared not only their independence as a distinct people but also the universal principles of legitimate political order. The birth announcement of the American Republic, on July 4, 1776, grounded the claim to political independence in a teaching about individual human rights—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to which rightful freedoms all human beings are said to be equally entitled. In articulating the four self-evident truths (natural equality, inalienable individual rights, government founded on the consent ...

Declaration of Independence

No Author

On July 4, 1776, two days after it adopted the Lee Resolution that declared the united colonies’ independence from Great Britain, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), which explains that decision by “declar[ing] the causes which impel them to the separation.” These causes are laid out in the bill of particular charges against the king, the listing of which constitutes the bulk of the Declaration. But in addition, the opening paragraphs of the Declaration provide the first and most authoritative statement of what we might call “the American creed.” For in separating from ...

Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms

No Author

The Second Continental Congress was convened in May 1775, as relations with Britain were deteriorating and war was looming. The Congress merged the several continental militias into the Continental Army and appointed George Washington its commanding general. Yielding to those delegates who still hoped to avoid full-scale war and further bloodshed, the Congress approved the Olive Branch Petition which was forwarded to the king. At the same time, however, on July 6, 1775 the Congress also approved this Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms, which outlines the colonists’ increasing frustration with acts by the British Parliament ...

Decoration Day Address, 1868

By: James A. Garfield

On May 30, 1868, a crowd of 5,000 gathered at Arlington National Cemetery for the first Decoration Day exercises. Before strewing flowers upon the graves of the dead, the crowd listened to an address by James A. Garfield (1831–81), then an Ohio congressman who had also served as a major general in the Civil War. In this first of such annual addresses at Arlington National Cemetery, Garfield, who in 1881 would become the 20th president of the United States, sets a standard by explaining what Decoration Day is all about and why it should be commemorated.

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Digging and Grousing

By: Ernie Pyle

The most famous war correspondent of World War II, Ernest “Ernie” Taylor Pyle (1900–45) began working for newspapers in college at Indiana University. Beginning in 1934, he contributed a national column to the Scripps-Howard news service about his travels throughout America, recounting the interesting people he met along the way. When World War II broke out, he traveled to the front lines in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific, writing about the war from the common soldier’s perspective. In 1944, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. The following year, on April 18, 1945, he was killed by ...

Discovering Columbus

By: John Noble Wilford

Compared with their predecessors, recent historians and cultural critics have been much less friendly to the idea of heroes and individual greatness, and Columbus has not escaped this revisionist treatment. In this 1991 essay, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author John Noble Wilford (b. 1933) chronicles the changing reputation of Columbus, arguing that Columbus’ standing is mainly a mirror of the changing prejudices and cultural attitudes of society. Yet he also appears to want to separate the man from his changing mythical reputation, to know Columbus as “he really was.” Is it possible to do so? Is Wilford’s effort free of ...

Dissent from Texas v. Johnson

By: William H. Rehnquist

This selection consists of two opinions (both excerpted here) from the famous US Supreme Court flag-burning case of 1989, in which a split court (5–4) held that burning an American flag as political protest is a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment. Five years earlier, Gregory Lee Johnson, a Communist activist, had burned a flag in front of the Dallas City Hall as a protest against Reagan administration policies. Johnson was tried and convicted under a Texas law outlawing flag desecration. The court overturned the conviction, and in so doing, invalidated similar laws in force in 48 ...

Dreaming of a Black Christmas

By: Gerald Early

For many years, American blacks have been trying to make sense of their identity as African and American, and much effort has been spent to establish connections to their forgotten African roots, partly in negative reaction to the “imposed” American holidays and Christian rituals, partly in positive search for a lost ancestral culture. In this essay, Gerald Lyn Early (b. 1952), professor of English and head of the African American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, discusses one prominent expression of this search for a more authentic African American culture and religion, the holiday of Kwanzaa.

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Duty, Honor, Country

By: Douglas MacArthur

Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) served his country as a soldier for more than sixty years. He found his fame as the commander who led America’s withdrawal from the Philippines with the words “I shall return”—a promise he would fulfill. For his leadership in the defense of the Philippines, MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor, making him and his father Arthur MacArthur Jr. the first father-son pair to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor. In 1951, after President Harry S. Truman relieved him of command in Korea, MacArthur famously bid the American people farewell: “like the old soldier of [the ...

Eulogy for Adams and Jefferson

By: Daniel Webster

July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, saw the deaths of both Thomas Jefferson—the Declaration’s chief author—and John Adams—its most effective advocate in the Continental Congress. On August 2 that year, Daniel Webster (1782–1852), the great orator, statesman, and senator from Massachusetts delivered this moving eulogy (greatly excerpted) at Faneuil Hall in Boston, a famous meeting house where Samuel Adams and others had once given speeches in favor of American independence. Webster, born just after the Revolutionary War and having living contact with many of the Founders, was able to give eloquent testimony to the ...

Eulogy for the Martyred Children

By: Martin Luther King Jr.

On September 15, 1963, less than three weeks after King delivered his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial at the Great March on Washington, four young girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Three days later, King delivered this eulogy at the funeral service for three of the children—Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair, (age 11) and Cynthia Diane Wesley (age 14). A separate service was held for the fourth victim, Carole Robertson (age 14). Along with “The Great March,” this bombing is said to have marked a turning point ...

Everyday Use

By: Alice Walker

Families are teachers of culture and the transmitters of tradition. As we go forward into an uncharted future, and whether we know it or not, we carry our past with us in many ways—in the homes and families of our origin, in the names we are given, in the heirlooms we inherit. Yet in times of rapid cultural change and ferment, ties to families are stretched thin; old traditions are abandoned for new religious and cultural forms—or, sometimes, for nothing at all. These phenomena raise special challenges for contemporary black Americans, as they face choices regarding how much to retain ...

Excerpt from Northwood

By: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

This excerpt, taken from the 1852 edition of her popular 1827 novel, Northwood, is the first of three selections from the writings of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788–1879), the influential American editor, author (she wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), and champion of education for women. Widowed in 1822 with five children to support, Hale took up a literary career, publishing a book of poems in 1823 and assuming the editorship of Ladies’ Magazine in 1828.  She would go on to edit Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1837, which would become the most widely circulated women’s magazine in the country, and would assume a leading ...

Excerpt from The Columbiad

By: Joel Barlow

In 1807 the American poet, diplomat, businessman, and politician Joel Barlow (1754–1812) published an epic poem about Columbus, a more elaborate version of his earlier work The Vision of Columbus (1787). After reading this first poem, George Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette about Barlow, declaring that the poet was “considered by those who are good Judges to be a genius of the first magnitude; and to be one of those Bards who hold the keys of the gate by which Patriots, Sages and Heroes are admitted to immortality.”

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Excerpt from “The First Settlement of New England”

By: Daniel Webster

In 1820, the bicentennial of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock—well before Thanksgiving became a national holiday—the great statesman, orator, and United States Senator Daniel Webster (1782–1852) delivered this oration (excerpted) at the landing site. In this speech, he performs his duty to “our ancestors and our posterity” and to “this memorable spot” by paying homage to our Pilgrim fathers and to the blessings of liberty and equality that Americans enjoy thanks to their legacy. His oration moves from an attempt to articulate for the assembled the “genius of the place” to a discussion of our system of government, and ...

Excerpts from Of Plymouth Plantation

By: William Bradford

William Bradford (1590–1657), a member of the English Puritan sect that had left England for more tolerant Holland, was one of the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower to set up a colony in the New World. Bradford, who became the long-term governor of the Plymouth colony, kept a journal of the group’s experiences in Holland, their transatlantic voyage, and the early years of the settlement at Plymouth, from which he eventually published Of Plymouth Plantation in 1650, having brought the account of the colony up to date through 1646. In these two excerpts Bradford tells, first, of the end of the ...

Farewell Address

By: George Washington

As was evident from the beginning of his presidency (see, for example, his First Inaugural Address), George Washington was greatly concerned with the viability of our constitutional republic and, therefore, with the need to preserve and perpetuate our political institutions and culture of liberty. Near the end of his presidency (September 19, 1796), Washington spoke at length about these topics in his most famous speech, the Farewell Address. Published in newspapers, and addressed intimately to “Friends and Fellow-Citizens” (the only such intimate salutation in all of his writings), Washington’s advice was geared to protecting the Union and the Constitution and promoting ...

Farewell Address to the Armies of the United States

By: George Washington

On November 2, 1783, the war officially concluded, General Washington delivered his farewell orders to the Armies of the United States of America at Rocky Hill, New Jersey. After more than eight long years as commander in chief, George Washington was returning to private life. In the address, he briefly reviews past events, discusses the future prospects of his military men and the lines of conduct they should pursue, and expresses the obligations and gratitude he feels toward the men who had served under him. A particularly touching and affectionate speech, it conveyed Washington’s hopes for post-war life in the ...

Farewell Address to the Continental Congress

By: George Washington

George Washington’s famous Farewell Address was given in 1796, at the conclusion of his second term as President of the United States. But this earlier and less well-known speech of farewell is also of great significance, and it too repays careful attention. After eight years of service, and more than two years after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, George Washington traveled to Annapolis, Maryland, where he formally resigned his commission as commander in chief of the Armies of the nascent United States of America; he delivered these remarks to the Continental Congress on December 23, 1783. Washington here offers, with remarkable brevity, ...

Federalist 10

By: James Madison

The Federalist Papers, originally published in New York newspapers between October 1787 and August 1788, were intended to encourage ratification of the new federal Constitution. The 85 essays by Publius (the collective pseudonym for James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay) have become a much-respected source for understanding the intentions of the Founders in creating our complex governmental structure. Seeking to achieve stable and energetic government while preserving republican liberty, the Founders developed a new science of politics, relying on such institutional mechanisms as the separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, representative government, and something called “the ...

Fireside Chat, Labor Day 1936

By: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Having just returned from a trip across nine states to see the effects of the then-ongoing Dust Bowl and drought, on September 6, 1936—two months before the next election, and with the country still in the midst of the Great Depression—President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) spoke directly to the American people in one his famous evening radio addresses. In his eighth “fireside chat,” he acknowledges the nation’s dire economic condition and outlines government relief efforts. Roosevelt also reminds “brain workers and manual workers” of their mutual reliance upon one another, urging Americans to join together to secure their “economic freedom”—just ...

First Inaugural Address

By: George Washington

Presidential inaugural addresses have in our time become the occasion when newly elected (or re-elected) presidents, following custom, present in broad outline their visions of the national future and the plans for their administrations. As with everything else that he would do as president, Washington’s First Inaugural Address was unprecedented—and he spoke and acted accordingly. After taking the oath of office on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of the Senate Chamber at Federal Hall on Wall Street, in New York City, Washington addressed a joint session of both houses of Congress inside the Senate Chamber. He spoke personally, rather ...

First Inaugural Address, 1861

By: Abraham Lincoln

The First Inaugural Address was delivered ten days after Abraham Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, DC. Several southern states had already seceded from the Union, and Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the president of the Confederacy just two weeks before. Ignoring advice to the contrary, the former Illinois congressman (1809–65) rode with outgoing President James Buchanan in an open carriage to the Capitol, where he took the oath of office from the East Portico steps on March 4, 1861. Lincoln begins by affirming his Constitutional duty to preserve the Union while reassuring the South as to “the good will, conciliatory ...

First Landing of Columbus in the New World

By: Washington Irving

Washington Irving (1783–1859) was an American author and US ambassador to Spain, perhaps best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and for his five-volume biography of his namesake, George Washington. One of the first American writers to garner acclaim in Europe, Irving wrote his history of Christopher Columbus while accompanying the American diplomat Alexander Hill Everett in Madrid, making good use of the consul’s library on Spanish history. Published as a four-volume set in 1828, the semi-fictional account quickly became immensely popular.

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Food That Pleases, Food to Take Home

By: Anthony Grooms

This story by African American writer and educator, Anthony “Tony” Grooms (b. 1955), taken from his 1995 collection Trouble No More, is set during the days of the lunch counter sit-ins, in this case in Grooms’ hometown of Louisa, Virginia. It exposes the human complexities of the racial situation, this time mainly from the side of two young African American girls, who, inspired by a sermon from their minister, decide to go to a local lunch counter and “demand their rights.” And it raises questions about the strategy of nonviolent resistance, about the difficulty, for the resister, of purging anger and ...

Fourth of July Ode

By: James Russell Lowell

Would the attainment of equal rights for women and minorities, and also the alleviation of poverty and undeserved misfortune, be sufficient to perfect the union and to realize King’s “American Dream” of freedom for all? Would the elimination of these and other external evils be sufficient to secure a healthy self-governing republic of ordered liberty, one in which the people rule wisely and well? This “Fourth of July Ode” (1876) by James Russell Lowell (1819–91), Fireside Poet, literary and social critic, Harvard professor, abolitionist, and diplomat, suggests that more would be necessary.

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Fourth of July Oration

By: Horace Mann

Not everyone in the new Republic was confident that the Spirit of 1776 and our life of ordered liberty would be safely preserved and perpetuated to posterity. For example, in a remarkable speech on the subject of perpetuating our institutions, the young Abraham Lincoln addressed the dangers of lawlessness and mob rule and urged that reverence of the law and the Constitution become the “political religion” of the nation, to be “breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap.” But in a polity in which the people rule, more than law-abidingness and ancestral ...

Freedom and Its Obligations

By: Calvin Coolidge

On May 30, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) offered this reflection on the meaning of Memorial Day at Arlington’s annual commemorations. By then, the Civil War had largely faded from living memory and the scars of another war, World War I, were quite fresh. Coolidge took the opportunity of distance from the Civil War to draw larger meaning from the observance of Memorial Day. We see here another example of how changing historical circumstances lead people to find different lessons in the same historical past.

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Freedom’s Plow

By: Langston Hughes

The Union victory in the Civil War and the Civil War amendments to the Constitution permanently ended slavery in the United States. But the vindication of the idea of human equality and the achievement of civil rights for all Americans remained an unrealized goal for more than the next hundred years. In the face of state-sponsored racial segregation and discrimination, the denial of the franchise, and brutal violence against Negro citizens, especially in the South, it was difficult to preserve hope that the American dream was more than a mirage. This poem (written in 1943) by American poet, playwright, and ...

From Enough

By: Juan Williams

Now several decades after Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the economic and social progress of African Americans has been mixed. Large numbers of blacks have entered the middle class and positions of leadership in business, government, and the arts and sciences. Yet in large segments of the black community, poverty and crime remain high, graduation rates from high school and college remain low, and many people have given up hope of a better life. Explanations and possible remedies for this state of affairs have been the subject of sometimes ...

From Making Patriots

By: Walter Berns

In his 2001 book, Making Patriots, American political scientist Walter Berns (b. 1919) reflects on several difficulties, old and new, confronting the cultivation of patriotism in the American republic, and offers important suggestions for how these difficulties might be addressed. Telling stories is part of the answer. Here is one of his, taken from the epilogue of the book.

How do you understand the ceremonial deed of the solitary Marine? In what sense does it “pay honor to my country”? Why does this story so move the diplomat? Does it move you? How and why?

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From Notes of a Native Son

By: James Baldwin

In this title essay from his 1955 collection (written from France to which he had moved in 1948), James Baldwin (1924–87) interweaves the story of his response to his father’s death (in 1943) with reflections on black-white relations in America, and especially in the Harlem of his youth. It was in 1943 that Baldwin met the black novelist, Richard Wright, author of Black Boy (1937) and Native Son (1940), who became for a time Baldwin’s mentor until they had a falling out when Baldwin wrote a critique of Wright’s Native Son. The emotional struggles between son and father, pupil and mentor, are present in this ...

From Texas v. Johnson

By: William Brennan

This selection consists of two opinions (both excerpted here) from the famous US Supreme Court flag-burning case of 1989, in which a split court (5–4) held that burning an American flag as political protest is a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment. Five years earlier, Gregory Lee Johnson, a Communist activist, had burned a flag in front of the Dallas City Hall as a protest against Reagan administration policies. Johnson was tried and convicted under a Texas law outlawing flag desecration. The court overturned the conviction, and in so doing, invalidated similar laws in force in 48 ...

From The Red Badge of Courage

By: Stephen Crane

In The Red Badge of Courage (1895), American author Stephen Crane (1871–1900) tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young private in the Union Army during the Civil War. Henry had grown up “dream[ing] of battles all his life—of vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire”—and joined the (fictional) 304th New York Regiment to experience war firsthand. However, during his first battle, convinced that the Confederates had won the day, he fled from the field and deserted his regiment. This selection takes place near the end of the book, after Henry has returned to ...

from Democracy in America

By: Alexis de Tocqueville

In the early 1830s, the French aristocrat and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) traveled to the United States to study American prisons and penitentiaries, but instead became fascinated by the social condition of equality and its effects on all aspects of American life. Tocqueville presented his findings and reflections in his magisterial Democracy in America (1835), still regarded by many as the most penetrating account of the democratic ethos in general and of American democracy in particular, with profound insights into the ideas, beliefs, sentiments, passions, habits, and mores of American society and their influence on how we govern ...

From the Ashes Comes the Rebirth of Patriotism

By: Walter Berns

The ghastly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 shocked our nation out of its complacency regarding peace and security within our borders and awakened us to new threats from a post-Cold War world that many people thought was no longer dangerous to us. As political leaders struggled to find the appropriate responses, the nation spontaneously displayed a surge of patriotic sentiment and expression. Less than one month after the attack, Walter Berns (b. 1919), distinguished political scientist, constitutional scholar, and author of Making Patriots (2001), wrote this essay on the meaning of the new surge of patriotism and why ...

General Orders No. 11

By: John A. Logan

Our current holiday of Memorial Day traces its origins to this document. John A. Logan (1826–86) was a Mexican War veteran and congressman from Illinois when, in 1862, he resigned his seat to join the Union Army. Wounded at the Battle of Fort Donelson, Logan saw extensive action in the western theater and rose to the rank of major general. After the war, he resumed his political career, first as senator and later as an (unsuccessful) candidate for vice president, and also helped found the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran’s organization, leading the effort to establish a ...

George Washington! A Funeral Oration on his Death

By: Henry Lee

On December 14, 1799, at the age of 67, George Washington died at home in Mount Vernon of pneumonia, contracted a mere two days earlier. His death was widely and deeply mourned in the United States and abroad. On December 26, 1799, at the request of Congress, Representative Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee III (1756–1818) of Virginia—former cavalry commander in the Revolutionary War, later governor of Virginia, and father of Robert E. Lee—delivered the following funeral oration before a joint session of both houses of Congress. Lee reviews in order the significant events in Washington’s life of devoted service, from the ...

George Washington, Model Executive?

By: Harvey Mansfield

George Washington, in being first, set many precedents for the American presidency. To be sure, times have changed, and so have the ways in which our presidents view and discharge their office. Nevertheless, certain persistent features and challenges of the presidency within our constitutional republic can be generalized. In these brief remarks, prepared for a panel discussion celebrating Washington’s Birthday, (“First Among Equals: George Washington and the American Presidency”), Harvard University political scientist Harvey Mansfield (b. 1932) examines the ambiguous idea and practice of executive power.

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Gettysburg Address

By: Abraham Lincoln

The creed of the American Republic, as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, begins with the claim, offered as a self-evident truth, that “all men are created equal.” Yet our embrace of the principle was long embarrassed in practice by the existence of chattel slavery, present at the Founding but greatly increased through the first half of the 19th century. Critics of the Declaration openly called human equality “a self-evident lie,” and the infamous Dred Scott decision (1857) gave voice to a racist and exclusionary interpretation of the Declaration, insisting that its “all men” referred only to “all white ...

Gettysburg Address

By: Abraham Lincoln

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) delivered his most memorable speech at a ceremony dedicating the cemetery for the Union dead at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the great victory in July of that year which marked a turning point in the Civil War. Lincoln used the occasion to offer his interpretation of the war and the reasons for which it was being fought. To do so, he revisits the Declaration of Independence, summoning the nation to achieve a “new birth of freedom” through renewed dedication to the founding proposition of human equality.

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Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death

By: Patrick Henry

At about the same time that events were moving in Massachusetts toward the start of the war for American Independence, other colonies were also gearing up for independence. After the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1774, colonial leaders in Virginia organized the Virginia Convention, at the second meeting of which, on March 23, 1775, lawyer and fiery orator Patrick Henry (1736–99) delivered this famous speech in support of his proposal to arm the Virginia militia. On May 15 of the following year, seven weeks before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, the ...

God Bless America

By: John O. Killens

The absurdity of racial discrimination and segregation is rarely more evident than when it appears in the armed forces, as Americans of all races are called upon to fight and risk their lives for our common country. This poignant tale (1952) by black novelist, essayist, editor, and cofounder of the Harlem Writers Guild John Oliver Killens (1916–87) drives the point home. Although African Americans had fought in all of America’s wars, with over one million serving in the armed forces during World War II, all branches of the military were segregated until 1948, when President Harry Truman, by executive order, ...

Greatness and Commemoration

By: Jane Addams

In this speech, given in Chicago on February 23, 1903 to celebrate Washington’s Birthday, Jane Addams (1860–1935), social reformer, community organizer, and political activist, uses the occasion and the memory of Washington to inspire her listeners to what she calls “wise patriotism.” She speaks about the moral spirit of great men, discusses the moral spirit of Washington as soldier, statesman, and citizen, and suggests the paths that Washington would follow “were he bearing our burdens now, and facing our problems at this moment.” Not surprisingly, her Washington rather resembles Jane Addams herself.

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Harrison Bergeron

By: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Central to the American creed is the principle of equality, beginning with the notion that all human beings possess certain fundamental rights and equal standing before the law. Our concern for equality has expanded over the past half century to focus also on inequalities in opportunities, wealth, achievement, and social condition. What good is an equal right to pursue happiness if one lacks the native gifts or the social means to exercise it successfully? In this satirical story (1961), set in a future time in which “everybody was finally equal . . . every which way,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922–2007) ...

Hero, Standing

By: Allen C. Guelzo

“No man is a hero to his valet; not however because the man is not a hero, but because the valet—is a valet.” This remark of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel invites us to ask whether, in our democratic age, most of us are not becoming like valets—given to merely humanizing or debunking our great men and women. (The tendency is already visible in the selection from Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy.) This question is the point of departure for this speech, given at the dedication of a statue of Abraham Lincoln at Hillsdale College on May 8, 2009, by Civil ...

Historical Memorabilia of Washington

By: H. B. Carrington

Born in Wallingford, Connecticut, Henry Beebe Carrington (1824–1912) was a brigadier general in the US Army during the Civil War. Carrington received a law degree from Yale Law School in 1847 and for a time practiced law in Ohio. He became a leader in the fledgling Republican Party and, in 1857, served on the committee that eventually was responsible for the organization of the national Party. When the Civil War began, Carrington became a colonel—and, later, brigadier general—in the army, serving for the latter part of the war against the Sioux Indians out West. In one of these battles he ...

Homage to Vietnam

By: Pat C. Hoy II

The present selection, like the Holmes speech, speaks to the subject of national memory, but written in a very different time, it speaks in a very different way. While not explicitly about Memorial Day, this essay (from 1999) powerfully raises crucial questions about the meaning of the holiday and the importance of remembering, for a nation fragmented by disputes over the Vietnam War. Pat C. Hoy II (b. 1938), award-winning essayist and professor of writing who has taught at Harvard, West Point, and (now) at New York University, graduated from West Point and served in Vietnam. His concerns remain ...

How It Feels to Be Colored Me

By: Zora Neale Hurston

The problem of personal identity is managed differently by different African Americans. In this personal essay (dated 1928) discussing her own self-understanding, the American author, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) appears to be anything but conflicted, alienated, or angry. On the contrary, she speaks as if being colored is no big deal for her: “I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong.” Is she being sincere or ironic? What does she mean when she says, ...

How We Kept Thanksgiving at Oldtown

By: Harriet Beecher Stowe

In this selection from her partially autobiographical and partially fictional account of “New England in its seed-bed,” before the hot suns of modern progress had developed its sprouting germs” (published in 1869), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96), author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), remembers, perhaps with some embellishment, what Thanksgiving was like in her childhood, when the family gathered in the home of her grandmother for “the king and high priest of all festivals.” The general scene—like Stowe’s account itself—is filled with energy, exuberance, merriment, joy, and good will, as the family’s prosperity and abundance of food and good cheer are shared with all ...

I Am an American

By: Elias Lieberman

Elias Lieberman (1883–1969), American poet and educator, was a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of seven. After graduating from the City College of New York in 1903, he began working as an English teacher at a public school. Lieberman went on to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University, serving also as editor of Puck, The American Hebrew, and the Scholastic. He later worked for the New York Board of Education, as an associate superintendent of schools in charge of the junior high school division. His most famous poem, ...

I Have a Dream

By: Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now legendary, “I Have a Dream” speech, at “The Great March on Washington,” August 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The march for “jobs and freedom,” organized by a diverse group of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations, drew more than 200,000 people, becoming one of the largest political rallies for human rights in our history. Many regarded it as crucial to the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), as well as the Voting Rights Act (1965). King’s oration—part speech, part sermon, part prophecy—was the high point of the rally, remembered ...

I Hear America Singing

By: Walt Whitman

Born on Long Island, New York, Walter “Walt” Whitman (1819–92) worked at various times as a journalist, a teacher, a government clerk, and, during the Civil War, a volunteer nurse in Washington, DC. In his late 20s, Whitman became determined to establish himself as a great poet, and in 1855, self-published his first collection of poems, Leaves of Grass—a work he would continue to edit and revise until his death. This version of “I Hear America Singing,” in which Whitman explores both the individual and collective nature of work, is taken from the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass; an earlier version ...

I, Too, Sing America

By: Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902–67) was a celebrated African American poet and short story writer. Born in Joplin, Missouri, he moved often in his youth before settling in Cleveland, Ohio where he attended high school. He began writing as a teenager and first published his poetry in his school newspaper. He attended Columbia University but left before graduating, instead immersing himself in the Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming of African American art, writing, and thought in the 1920s and 1930s centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Hughes’ writing helped to develop the jazz style of poetry, drawing on the improvisation ...

In Flanders Fields

By: John McCrae

This famous poem grew out of World War I, with its unprecedented magnitude and scale of loss. Fallen soldiers by the tens of thousands were, and remain, buried in graves and fields far from home. Also, the ideological character of the battle raised new questions about how to properly honor the dead. John McCrae (1872–1918), a Canadian physician, poet, and soldier serving with the Allied Powers in Belgium, was called upon to perform burial rites for a close friend who was killed at the battle of Ypres. The next day, May 3, 1915, McCrae, deeply moved by the sight of ...

In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire

By: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

As personal memories of past wars fade, people—especially young people, and especially in times of peace—may wonder why Memorial Day matters. Just such a question is the point of departure for this Memorial Day address that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841–1935) delivered on May 30, 1884, in Keene, New Hampshire, before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic. In the first half of the speech, Holmes, a Civil War veteran and later a distinguished justice of the United States Supreme Court (1902–35), provides, as he puts it, “an answer which should command the assent of those who ...

In the American Society

By: Gish Jen

Gish Jen (b. 1955), a first-generation American and an award-winning author of short stories and novels, was born on Long Island to parents who had been educated in Shanghai (mother in educational psychology, father in engineering) and who had immigrated separately to the United States around the time of World War II. Influenced by her upbringing as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen funneled her childhood experiences and thoughts into her writing. This story, published in Southern Review in 1986, depicts the attempts of members of the Chang family to join American society.

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Independence Day

By: Wendell Berry

Not everyone celebrates Independence Day with parades, barbecues, and fireworks, or with a reading of the Declaration of Independence. In this poem, the prolific author, cultural critic, and farmer Wendell Berry (b. 1934) celebrates the holiday in the woods. What does he mean by suggesting that, “As America from England, [so] the woods stands free from politics and anthems”? The poet claims that it is “in the woods [where] I stand free, knowing my land.” What does he mean? Is America the land? Are the woods America? Is our freedom at bottom not at all civic or political? (Compare ...

Introduction, from Founding Father

By: Richard Brookhiser

What does George Washington (or any other Founding Father) mean to 21st-century Americans? Do we know him, admire him, look up to him? Much less than did our predecessors.1 Concerned about this change, journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser (b. 1955) has tried to do something about it. He has crafted engaging “moral biographies”—like those written by the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, in his Parallel Lives of Greek and Roman political figures—of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and James Madison; and he has written and hosted television documentaries (with Michael Pack) on “Rediscovering George Washington” and “Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton.” In this ...

I’ve Been to the Mountaintop

By: Martin Luther King Jr.

In the spring of 1968, King traveled to Memphis to support the 1,300 striking sanitation workers protesting low wages and unfit working conditions. At this point in his ministry, he had broadened his mission, speaking out not only for racial justice but also for greater economic equality and against the Vietnam War. On the night of April 3, he gave this sermon to a crowd gathered in the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God. He was assassinated the next day. It is eerie to read his remarks, comprising largely a summing up of his life and a prophecy for the ...

John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving

By: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) remains one of our most profound students of the American soul—in all its mystery and complexity. Never one to cover up the faces of evil and darkness, Hawthorne provides us with opportunities to see most deeply into the highs and lows of the human condition, especially as it is influenced by the tensions between freedom and piety, as both wrestle with the penchant for wickedness. This disturbing story, published in 1852 under a pseudonym (“Rev. A. A. Royce”), is no exception. The gathering and mood of John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving are, at first glance, a far cry from ...

Labor Speaks

No Author

This poem of unknown origin (c. 1909) was used by the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies) to encourage laborers to join the cause and “ask for [their] due.” The poet, speaking for all workers (“I am Labor”), asserts sole responsibility for the creation of all material progress in America. How do you respond to these claims? To what extent are they justifiable? What about the role of inventors, architects, and investors? What is Labor’s “due”?

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Letter from Birmingham Jail

By: Martin Luther King Jr.

King wrote this letter on April 16, 1963, in response to “A Call for Unity,” a letter that had been published three days earlier by eight politically moderate white clergymen opposing the tactics of direct action and civil disobedience. King’s incarceration caused local and national consternation, and his release was effected on April 20th by the intervention of President John F. Kennedy. His letter from jail, written on scraps of newspaper and handed out in bits and pieces to his supporters who assembled them into a coherent and eloquent argument, was published in several magazines in May and June, ...

Letter on the Civil Rights Movement

By: Leon R. Kass

In the summer of 1965, while the Voting Rights Act was being enacted, the editors of this volume, Amy Apfel Kass (b. 1940; then a high school history teacher in Lincoln-Sudbury, Massachusetts) and her husband Leon R. Kass (b. 1939; then a graduate student in biochemistry at Harvard University) spent a month in Mississippi doing civil rights work. They lived with a farmer couple in the Mount Olive community of rural Holmes County, in a house with no telephone, hot water, or indoor toilet. They visited many families in the community, participated in their activities, and helped with voter registration and ...

Letter to Congress, 1775

By: George Washington

We celebrate the birth of the nation on the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, we risk forgetting that the nation would have been stillborn had we not won the lengthy war of independence that lasted until 1781 and whose outcome was anything but assured. In June 1775, after the April skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the British won the Battle of Boston’s Bunker Hill, albeit with heavy casualties, and the war was truly on. King George III declared that the American colonists were rebels. The Continental Congress appointed George ...

Letter to Fanny McCullough

By: Abraham Lincoln

Less well known than his letter to Mrs. Bixby, a grieving mother, is this painfully beautiful letter of condolence that President Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) wrote to a teenage girl, Fanny McCullough, the daughter of an old friend from Illinois who had been killed in action. The letter, written in his own hand, was composed a week before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation for which he was still struggling to gain political support, and ten days after the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg. The letter thus speaks volumes about the heart of its author, as well about the heart of its ...

Letter to George Washington, 1787

By: Gouverneur Morris

Soon after the Constitution had been drafted, approved, and signed (on September 17, 1787) by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and as the debates about ratification raged in the states, influential people not surprisingly were thinking about who should lead the nation. Also not surprisingly, George Washington’s name was at the top of most everyone’s list. The question was how to overcome Washington’s clearly stated preference to remain in retirement at Mount Vernon. At the end of October 1787, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania (1752–1816), one of the principal authors of the United States Constitution and later US Senator from New ...

Letter to H. Niles

By: John Adams

In this letter to his friend H. Niles (dated February 1818), John Adams (1735–1826) seeks to explain the idea of the American Revolution and how it came about. Early in the letter he asks: “What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war?” And, shortly thereafter he claims: “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.” The rest of the letter seeks to ...

Letter to Henry Lee in Congress on Shays’ Rebellion

By: George Washington

George Washington’s thoughts about the need for prompt constitutional reform may have been strengthened by the outbreak, in western Massachusetts, of Shays’ Rebellion in the early autumn of 1786. Against a background of economic depression, newly imposed high state taxes, tight credit, no paper currency, and widespread judicial proceedings for tax and debt collection, groups of farmers—some of them veterans of the Revolutionary War who were missing back pay for their service—petitioned and protested, then seized confiscated property, later shut down several county courts, and, in January of 1787, took up arms and mounted an attack on the federal armory ...

Letter to His Parents

By: John F. Kennedy

On August 2, 1943, then-Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy (1917–63) was commanding a patrol torpedo boat off the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Theater when a Japanese destroyer rammed and sunk his vessel. Despite injuring his back in the collision, Kennedy towed an injured crewman to an island by clinching the man’s lifejacket strap in his teeth as they swam to shore. Kennedy then swam many more hours to secure aid and food after getting the rest of his crew ashore. For his “outstanding courage, endurance and leadership [that] contributed to the saving of several lives,” he was awarded the ...

Letter to His Parents

By: Samuel Shaw

The enthusiastic view of the American Revolution expressed in David Ramsay’s July 4, 1778 oration (see “Oration on the Advantages of Independence”) was not universally shared, especially by the war-weary ordinary soldier. In this letter to his parents, Francis and Mary Shaw, dated June 28, 1779, Samuel Shaw (1754–94), a soldier in the Continental Army, reflects on the state of the army and the difficulties of its soldiers. The “ensuing campaign” he mentions was headed by General Benjamin Lincoln and took place in the southern United States—eventually culminating in the Siege of Charleston and his surrender to the British of ...

Letter to Martha Washington, 1775

By: George Washington

Three days after receiving his commission from the Continental Congress, General George Washington wrote this letter to his wife Martha. The letter may very well strike modern ears as overly formal and insufficiently affectionate. But giving the letter a closer reading, do you think that Washington is really indifferent or insensitive to his wife’s feelings and concerns? What is Washington’s understanding of the relation between his public duties and his (and their) private life and happiness? How does Washington explain to Mrs. Washington his acceptance of the position? What does he mean by saying “it has been a kind of ...

Letter to Mary Cranch

By: Abigail Adams

A different appreciation of George Washington, offered in a decidedly different tone, is contained in this letter (December 22, 1799) by Abigail Adams (1744–1818), written to her oldest sister, Mary Cranch (1741–1811). Adams was the wife of John Adams, the first Vice President and, at the time of this letter, the second President of the United States. One of her five children, John Quincy Adams, became the nation’s sixth president. Though not formally educated, Abigail Adams was taught to read and write at home, and took advantage of her family’s large library to become well versed in poetry, philosophy, and ...

Letter to Mrs. Bixby

By: Abraham Lincoln

This letter has gone down in Lincoln lore, yet its origins remain cloudy. To start, it appears that the Mrs. Bixby in question did not actually lose all five of her sons in battle. It was first printed in the Boston Transcript, but no legitimate copy of it survives in Lincoln’s handwriting. Nevertheless, its attempts to console a bereft mother were widely celebrated as a succinct summary of the debt owed to the loved ones of the men who fought and died on behalf of their country, and the grievous honor that fell to them.

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Letter to President Abraham Lincoln, 1863

By: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

In this letter, written on September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale takes her campaign on behalf of a national Thanksgiving holiday directly to the President of the United States. Five days later, Abraham Lincoln responded by issuing the presidential proclamation for the first of what has become 150 years of unbroken celebrations of Thanksgiving as an official national American holiday. Hale had been campaigning for this holiday for many years, and, as her letter indicates, she had by the end lined up powerful support for the cause. What does it say about the United States that a private ...

Letter to Sarah

By: Sullivan Ballou

Examples of courage in the face of mortal danger and examples of willing self-sacrifice in the service of country are the subject of story, song, and legend. But rarely do we have a more moving and self-conscious account than the one presented in this letter by Major Sullivan Ballou (1829–61) of the Second Rhode Island regiment of the Union army to his wife, Sarah, early in the Civil War.

How does Ballou understand and explain the choice he faces? Why does he choose as he does? Imagining yourself as the recipient of this letter, how would you receive and judge his choice?

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Letter to the Orlando Sentinel

By: Zora Neale Hurston

Integration of the public schools, required by the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, was adamantly—often violently—opposed by many southern whites. But a few prominent blacks also took a dim view of forced racial integration. In this letter to the Orlando Sentinel, written on August 11, 1955 from her home in Eau Gallie, Florida, distinguished author and educator Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) offers a witty but biting critique of the court’s decision, in the name of “the self-respect of my people.” In a strong and proud voice, she rejects “the ‘tragedy of color’ school of thought,” emphasizing ...

Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island

By: George Washington

This selection provides an important example of President Washington’s thoughts on the important subject of religion, politics, and national well-being. Developing our unique blend of religion and politics, the American Republic self-consciously pioneered a novel approach to the problems of religious zealotry and religious conflict that have long plagued—and still plague—other nations. The United States has no established national church and the Constitution proscribes any religious test for holding national office. But this “separation” of church and state, far from being indifferent to the religiosity of the people, was intended to support liberty of conscience and freedom of worship, privileges until ...

Letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, 1784

By: George Washington

George Washington’s early thoughts about his retirement from public life are touchingly represented in this short letter, written from Mount Vernon on February 1, 1784 to the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), the French commander who had served with distinction as a major general under Washington in the Continental Army. His retirement was, as everyone knows, short-lived: Within three years he was called back to public life to head the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, over whose proceedings he would preside. Two years after that he became the nation’s first president, and served for two terms.

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Letter to Walter Jones

By: Thomas Jefferson

The most suitable mirror for taking the measure of a great man, it has been commonly observed, is a man of comparable greatness, good if a friend, sometimes even better if a rival or an enemy. Throughout their long association, culminating in his serving as Secretary of State in Washington’s first administration, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was at various times Washington’s friend, rival, and, on important matters of policy, an opponent, if not quite an enemy. Writing to Virginia physician, scholar, and member of Congress, Dr. Walter Jones (1745–1815), 15 years after Washington’s death, Jefferson describes Washington’s character and assesses his ...

Letters on Washington’s Resignation

No Author

Americans today take for granted that military and political leaders voluntarily surrender the powers of office and return to private life. But in the 18th and 19th century-world of hereditary monarchs and men on horseback (e.g., Napoleon), such practices were exceedingly rare. One anecdote vividly makes the point. England’s King George III once asked the painter Benjamin West, who was painting his portrait, “What do you think Washington will do after the war?” West replied, “Well, Your Majesty, I believe he will return to his farm.” And the King said, “If he does that, then he is the greatest man ...

Liars Don’t Qualify

By: Junius Edwards

Notwithstanding the abundant social and personal degradations and humiliations experienced by African Americans as a result of segregation and other racist denials of equal access and human dignity, nothing compares politically to the systematic denial of their right to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, established that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But all through the South, that right was thwarted by the use of poll taxes and ...

Little Selves

By: Mary Lerner

Very little is known about the life of the Cambridge, Massachusetts storywriter Mary Lerner, not even the dates of her birth and death. She published several short stories in national magazines, including “Little Selves” which first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in September 1916 and was collected among The Best American Short Stories for that year. Lerner was writing at a time when Irish immigrants were still largely unwelcome, but tolerated for the need to fill open jobs during World War I. Many of these immigrants treasured vivid memories of their younger—and, at least in memory, more magical—days back in ...

Making an American

By: Mary Antin

America, it is rightly said, is a nation of immigrants. Each new immigrant, in his or her own way, must negotiate the passage to becoming an American. Yet the study of American history, political principles, and national heroes has long played a crucial part in their Americanization. This selection from her autobiography (1912) offers a particularly moving example of what learning about George Washington meant to Mary Antin (1881–1949), a young girl who at age 13 arrived in the United States from Polotsk, a small town in Russia, just before the turn of the 20th century. Antin and her family ...

Mayflower Compact

No Author

While we declared our national independence in 1776 and drafted our new, and abiding, Constitution just a decade later, the founding of the United States of America should perhaps not be taken as the beginning point of democracy in America. Before the Founding Fathers there were the Pilgrim Fathers. That great analyst of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) argued in Democracy in America that the nation’s point of departure was really to be found in the ideas and practices of the “pious adventurers” who came to the wilderness so that they might “pray to God in freedom” and, in their own words, “build ...

My Dead Brother Comes to America

By: Alexander Godin

Alexander Godin, the pen name of Joseph Katz (1909–70) was a Ukrainian who immigrated to the United States with his family in 1922. We know little about his life. His short story “My Dead Brother Comes to America” was published in 1934 and included as part of The Best Short Stories of the Century. Written at a time of large European immigration to the United States, the story highlights the arrival of immigrants to America through Ellis Island to reunite with their father, in the process disclosing the hardships the immigrants faced in the “Old World” and in coming to ...

My Kinsman, Major Molineux

By: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Not everyone shared Holmes’ edenic view of pre-revolutionary America (see “A New Eden”). Taking his bearings from the pre-revolutionary tensions between the colonists and their mother country, this story (1832) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) draws our attention to the dark underbelly of the “new Eden.” The story, set in the 1730s, describes the disturbing adventures of a young man, Robin, who has come from the country to the city (probably Boston) in search of his kinsman, Major Molineux, an officer of the British colonial government, who had offered to help him make his mark in life. The story offers ...

Neighbors

By: Diane Oliver

Integration of previously segregated public schools was an early and important goal of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Although required and supported by the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), integration encountered fierce opposition in many places in the South, and black children and their families who attempted to enroll in white schools met with harassment, threats, and overt violence. A poignant story of one such family is presented in this selection by author Diane Alene Oliver (1943–66), who grew up in the black southern middle class of the 1940s and 1950s and who was herself ...

Night on the Line from Citizen Soldiers

By: Stephen E. Ambrose

American historian Stephen E. Ambrose (1936–2002) gained fame for his popular histories, which often focused on stories of ordinary soldiers in times of war. This selection, excerpted from Chapter 10 of his book, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany (1997), provides a vivid account of the nighttime experience of combat soldiers on the front lines in the European theater of World War II.  He begins by comparing conditions on the line in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

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Not to Keep

By: Robert Frost

This poem by Robert Frost (1874–1963) examines the emotions caused by a wounded soldier’s homecoming and his return to war once his wounds have healed. First published in the Yale Review in January 1917 and included in Frost’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection New Hampshire, the poem was likely inspired by Frost’s friendship with the poet Edward Thomas, whom Frost had met while living in England between 1912 and 1915. Thomas enlisted in the British Artists Rifles in 1915 and was killed in action in France a few months after this poem was published, in April 1917. Frost went on to win three more ...

Ode

By: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Independence achieved and the Constitution adopted, the United States was launched on the world stage with aspirations and high hopes for a more perfect union, one that would make secure for all its citizens the unalienable rights spoken of in the Declaration of Independence. From the start, reaching that goal has proved to be an unending challenge, to begin with, because the existence of slavery cruelly denied even basic freedom to millions of African Americans. Many writers throughout our history have called attention to the gap between our national ideals and our practices, summoning us to close it. Early among ...

Ode for Washington’s Birthday

By: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

This poem by prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809–94), written for the Boston Mercantile Library Association’s celebration of Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1856, has us look back and remember the hero Washington and consider what it means to honor the nation’s “Father.” Writing just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War (in which his son, the future Supreme Court justice and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. would fight), Holmes warns his readers to “doubt the patriot whose suggestions / strive a nation to divide!” These patriotic themes were common among a group of New England ...

Old Esther Dudley

By: Nathaniel Hawthorne

The present selection focuses on the personal and human meaning of the American Revolution, and especially on attitudes toward time past and future and toward change and tradition. “Old Esther Dudley” is the fourth and final story in the “Tales of the Province-House” series by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64), originally published between May 1838 and January 1839 in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review and later republished in Twice-Told Tales. It focuses on the steadfast ways of a now elderly royalist woman, “who had dwelt almost immemorial years” in the Province House mansion in Boston, the house of the royal ...

Old War-Dreams

By: Walt Whitman

As in “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” in this selection by Walt Whitman, published in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865), a veteran speaks about his remembrances of war, this time as they fill his dreams. Of what precisely does he dream? What is the connection between his dreams of the mortally wounded and newly dead (stanza one) and his dreams of scenes of nature, of beauteous sky and shining moon (stanza two)? What, according to this poem (stanza three), is the relation between battle experienced and battle remembered? Can battle veterans ever be entirely back home again?

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On the Situation in Little Rock

By: Dwight D. Eisenhower

In September 1957, nine black students attempted to enroll in the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, under the terms of an approved desegregation plan following the Supreme Court’s 1954 and 1955 decisions declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional and ordering their desegregation with all deliberate speed. Arkansas governor Orval Faubus first called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school, and later reneged on a promise to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) that he would thereafter keep the Guard at the school to maintain order so that the students ...

One Friday Morning

By: Langston Hughes

Even in the not-officially-segregated North, there was often a wide gulf between the color-blindness of the American dream and the racial discrimination in daily life, which, early in their lives, crushed the aspirations and dashed the hopes of promising young black Americans. In this story (published in 1941), celebrated poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes (1902–67) describes such an incident in the life of a talented and proud American high school student, Nancy Lee Johnson, whose family had moved from the Deep South to the North so that she might have better opportunities.

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Oration on the Advantages of American Independence

By: David Ramsay

Even as the war was being waged and with the outcome uncertain, intellectuals and statesmen continued to make the case for the importance of American independence. On July 4, 1778, physician, historian, and South Carolina politician David Ramsay (1749–1815) delivered this speech, the nation’s first Fourth of July oration, in Charleston. In 1780, after the fall of Charleston, Ramsay was imprisoned for a year by the British. Once released, he served as a member of the Continental Congress from 1782–83 and again from 1785–86; and after the Constitution was ratified, he served from 1801–15 in the Senate of South Carolina, ...

Order of the Day: 6 June 1944

By: Dwight D. Eisenhower

After almost five years of devastating war in the European theater, the Allies mounted what turned out to be the decisive operation in the liberation of France and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. On June 5, 1944, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, gave the order to commence Operation Overlord, the invasion of France. The next day, 24,000 paratroopers poured from Allied planes over Normandy, while the largest amphibious assault in history—over 160,000 soldiers and nearly 200,000 navy personnel and merchant seamen from 5,000 ships—took place on the beaches. Each member of the ...

Our National Thanksgiving

By: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

In this 1858 editorial from Godey’s Lady’s Book, its editor Sarah Josepha Buell Hale appeals directly, this time in her own name, for a national day of Thanksgiving. After opening with two stanzas of the Protestant hymn “Praise to God, Immortal Praise,” which indicates the things for which we should offer “grateful vows and solemn praise,” Hale offers the reasons for and benefits of having a national day of thanksgiving. What are those reasons and benefits? Why does she say that Thanksgiving Day would be (is) a “truly American Festival,” or that the last Thursday in November “will become a day of AMERICAN ...

Pandora

By: Henry James

Benjamin Franklin provides advice to the would-be self-made American man, fit to function and thrive in a free and democratic society. While the virtues and self-command he champions appear to be gender-neutral, historically they would have been of far less civic value to America’s women, whose activities were long limited largely to the domestic sphere and whose role in civic life was confined mainly to voluntary, local charitable activity. Yet in a society informed by the American creed, eventually a new type would come into its own: the self-made American girl, whose subtle portrait is brilliantly painted in this story, ...

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District

By: John G. Roberts

In the almost 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court has several times heard a diverse array of cases about the use of race as a factor in admissions to public schools and universities. Some involve preferential treatment for blacks and other minorities (so-called affirmative action), others involve efforts to produce desired racial and ethnic “diversity.” These complicated cases, which unlike Brown have usually been decided by a divided court, have not finally settled when race may, and when it may not, be taken into account in admissions decisions, though one touchstone for these cases is whether it can ...

Paul Revere’s Ride

By: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On April 18, 1775, on the day before what would become the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith, was asked by Joseph Warren to ride to Lexington, Massachusetts to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British troops were marching to arrest them. After crossing the Charles River by rowboat, Revere rode to Lexington, alerting patriots along the way. Revere got word to Adams and Hancock, but was captured by a British Army patrol on his way to Concord. Revere was soon freed, and continued to aid the American cause.

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Pioneers! O Pioneers!

By: Walt Whitman

The Columbian spirits of exploration, adventure, and enterprise in pursuit of gain have continued to play major roles in America’s development and material progress, most especially in the 19th century: the conquest of the prairie, the settling of the West, the taming of the wilderness, the gold rush, and the mastery of nature through science, industry, and technology. In this famous poem from the 1865 edition of his oft-revised Leaves of Grass (first edition, 1855), American poet Walt Whitman (1819–92) offers an exuberant celebration of the people who pushed westward to create a transcontinental nation. Much of Whitman’s poetry discusses ...

Pledge of Allegiance

By: Francis Bellamy

On October 21, 1892, schools across the country celebrated Columbus Day, and with it inaugurated what would become the national Pledge of Allegiance. Written by Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), a Baptist minister, Christian Socialist, and an editor of The Youth’s Companion, the Pledge was to be used by schools at their flag-raising ceremonies.1 Though the Pledge was officially recognized by Congress only in 1942, it quickly became popular in American schools, with many states adopting it for daily school exercises. In 1954, by an act of Congress, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Flag Day, the words ...

Prayer of Columbus

By: Walt Whitman

In this 1874 poem, American poet Walt Whitman (1819–92) imagines Columbus ashore in the New World (perhaps after his fourth voyage). He is sick, miserable, and close to death, hence eager for communion with God. How does Whitman’s Columbus, in his final prayer to God, allot responsibility for his own deeds and accomplishments? For what, if anything, does Columbus claim credit for himself? If he rightly sees himself as a vessel for God’s providence, would we have to reject Herbert Adams’ view (above) that Columbus’ voyage to America was the greatest event in secular history? What are Columbus’ hopes—and fears—for ...

Prisoner of War: A First-Person Account

By: John McCain

John McCain (b. 1936) spent five and a half years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. His first-person account of that terrible ordeal was published in US News & World Report in May 1973. Navy flier McCain was on a bombing mission when he was shot down over Hanoi on October 26, 1967. Despite fractures in his right leg and both arms, he received minimal care and was kept in squalid conditions that he vividly describes in this account. After his return home, he spent eight more years in the Navy before retiring to run for Congress. ...

Proclamation 1335 – Flag Day, 1916

By: Woodrow Wilson

Less than a year after his speech about the flag as an emblem that reflects back our national history and experience, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was thinking differently about the importance of the flag. It was becoming increasingly clear that American troops would soon be drawn into the world war raging in Europe, and deep divisions of sympathy had emerged among the American people, some partial to Britain and France, others to Germany. Against this background, on May 30, 1916, President Wilson officially proclaimed June 14 “Flag Day” as a commemoration of the “Stars and Stripes,” which had been ...

Proclamation 2614 – Flag Day, 1944

By: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

On May 3, 1944, with the United States already deeply engaged in World War II and preparing quietly for the next month’s Normandy invasion that would turn the tide of war in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) issued this proclamation for the observance of Flag Day on June 14, 1944. His thoughts about the day and about the flag deserve to be compared to those of President Woodrow Wilson before him and to those of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush after him.

...

Proclamation on the 400th Anniversary of the Discovery of America by Columbus

By: Benjamin Harrison

Although Columbus Day did not become an official annual holiday of the United States until 1934, President Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901), acting according to a joint resolution of both houses of Congress, proclaimed a national holiday to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. Delivered on July 21, 1892, ahead of the Chicago Columbian Exposition to be held October of that same year, Harrison’s remarks made special mention of the school ceremonies that would “impress upon our youth the patriotic duties of American citizenship.” It was during these ceremonies that a new salute to the American flag—authored by Francis Bellamy—was recited ...

Project for Moral Perfection

By: Benjamin Franklin

Arguably more than other American Founders, Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) gave serious attention to the education and character needed for citizens of the newly founded Republic. Keenly aware of the importance of self-command for both individual flourishing and effective social activity, Franklin understood why the turbulent human soul must first be tamed if we are to become reasonable, free, and responsible social beings and citizens. Many of his writings, from the Dogood Papers (1722) to his Autobiography (from which this selection, written in 1784, is taken), sought to promote these goals. 

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Race Holding

By: Shelby Steele

Unlike Stephen Carter, who probed the deep reasons why he chooses to affirm his blackness out of love and kinship, Shelby Steele (b. 1946), in this second selection from his provocative 1990 book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, explores a different—and, to him, more troubling—psychological aspect of self-identifying by race, what he calls “Race-Holding.” Steele claims that “race does not determine our fates as powerfully as it once did, which means that it is not the vital personal concern that it once was.” For this reason, he suspects that the holding up of ...

Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday

By: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

A rather different George Washington, invoked for a different purpose, is the subject of this radio address to the nation by our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), delivered in the dark days of the Second World War. Roosevelt appeals especially to the memory of how Washington “conducted himself in the midst of great adversities” in order to inspire his listeners to imitate Washington’s example. Roosevelt’s Washington emerges not as a military hero or noble gentleman, but as a man of faith, hope, and charity. Indeed, Roosevelt concludes by quoting the Beatitudes, which he calls “the words which helped shape ...

Reconciliation

By: Walt Whitman

This 1865 poem by Walt Whitman dwells not on concrete details of battlefield experience remembered, but on larger philosophical and religious themes of purification, reconciliation, and redemption. What is the “Word over all” that the speaker invokes at the beginning of the poem? What does the speaker find “beautiful” regarding the carnage of war and “this soil’d world”? What is the connection between those thoughts and the sight of his enemy in the coffin? How does he regard that enemy now, and why? What, according to this poem, makes reconciliation possible?

...

Remarks at a Flag Day Ceremony

By: Ronald Reagan

In the decades following World War II, world affairs were dominated by the Cold War—and the threat of nuclear war—between the United States and its Western and Asian allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. But during and after the unsuccessful war in Vietnam (which ended in 1975), American public opinion was divided about America’s role in the world, and for many Americans, patriotism itself was under suspicion. It was against this background that Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) came to the presidency, determined to restore American honor abroad and patriotic sentiment at home.

...

Remarks at a Memorial Day Ceremony, 1986

By: Ronald Reagan

When President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) made these Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery on May 26, 1986, the world looked very different from how it had appeared to Calvin Coolidge 62 years before. The post-World War I dream of a world without war had been shattered by the horrors of World War II, though the nation mourned its dead as the heroes that they were. Over the next 40 years, a stalemated war in Korea, an unpopular and unsuccessful war in Vietnam, and understandable nervousness that the Cold War against the Soviet Union might turn hot and nuclear ...

Remarks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Dedication

By: Barack Obama

Since August 2011, the National Mall in Washington, DC contains a large monument in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., erected, according to the official vision statement, to “captur[e] the essence of his message, a message in which he so eloquently affirms the commanding tenets of the American Dream—Freedom, Democracy and Opportunity for All; a noble quest that gained him the Nobel Peace Prize and one that continues to influence people and societies throughout the world.” The monument comprises The Stone of Hope, a massive 30-foot relief statue of King, set between two pieces of stone that symbolize “The Mountain ...

Remarks on Memorial Day

By: Amy A. Kass

On Wednesday, May 25, 2011, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute hosted a book forum, “Why Memorial Day?,” featuring Senator John McCain and the coeditors of What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song. Command Sergeant Major Michael T. Hall, US Army (ret.) and William Kristol also gave remarks.

A reading of Civil War veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire” served as the starting point for a discussion of the meaning and importance of Memorial Day.

...

Remarks on Memorial Day

By: John McCain

On Wednesday, May 25, 2011, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute hosted a book forum, “Why Memorial Day?,” featuring Senator John McCain and the coeditors of What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song. Command Sergeant Major Michael T. Hall, US Army (ret.) and William Kristol also gave remarks. A reading of Civil War veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire” served as the starting point for a discussion of the meaning and importance of Memorial Day.

...

Remarks on Signing the Bill Making the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a National Holiday

By: Ronald Reagan

On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) offered the following remarks on the occasion of his signing of the legislation that officially proclaimed the third Monday in January a federal holiday in honor of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. For what particular things does President Reagan say we should honor King? Which do you think are most important? How, according to the speech, should we properly honor him? What is the connection between the biblical commandments (love of God and love of neighbor) and the American promise, “Let freedom ring”? What is meant by—and what do you think ...

Remarks on Signing the Columbus Day Proclamation, 1988

By: Ronald Reagan

In proclaiming Columbus Day 1988, during his last year in office, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) comments on the significance of Columbus and Columbus Day and looks forward to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America. What does he mean by suggesting that “Columbus was the inventor of the American dream”? For what does Reagan celebrate immigrants to America? What, for Reagan, makes Columbus Day “an American holiday”? Assuming that the old story he tells at the end is not just a piece of throw-away entertainment but has some connection with the themes of the American dream and the American ...

Remarks on Signing the King Holiday and Service Act

By: William Jefferson Clinton

The establishment of the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. was followed by further deliberations about how best to honor King’s memory. Accepting the recommendations of the King Holiday Commission, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act of 1994 (coauthored by Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Congressman John Lewis of Georgia), which, among other things, encouraged the practice of community service on King’s birthday holiday, and authorized the Corporation for National and Community Service to fund opportunities to do so. This selection contains the relevant excerpts from the signing speech made by President William Jefferson Clinton (b. ...

Rouge Bouquet

By: Joyce Kilmer

Joyce Kilmer (1896–1918) was an American poet whose poems, before World War I, had focused on natural themes and his Catholic faith. But after entering Army service, he turned many of his thoughts to the scenes of war. He composed “Rouge Bouquet” sometime in 1917 or 1918, to memorialize some of his fellow soldiers killed in battle. In March 1918, it was read over the graves of 21 of his fallen infantry comrades. Eerily, a few months later, the poem was read over Kilmer’s own grave.

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Roy’s Decoration Day

By: Ninette M. Lowater

In this selection, first published by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as a resource for its public schools in 1904, the poetess Ninette Maine Lowater (1844–1932) delicately addresses how the living care for and “keep alive” their dead. What is the mood of the poem? How—and why—do Roy and his Grandma care for Grandpa as they do? What is the meaning of the last two lines? Why is the poem called “Roy’s Decoration Day”?

...

Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation

By: George Washington

We know very little of what George Washington read or studied, or what subjects or ideas mattered to him as a young man. The present selection, concerning proper and gentlemanly conduct, is an important exception. At age 16, Washington copied out by hand 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits at the end of the 16th century. Although many of these rules seem quaint by modern standards, it is worthwhile to try to understand their point and purpose, both in themselves but especially as a window ...

Sacred Ground

By: James Bradley

James Bradley (b. 1954) spent four years of his life seeking and writing about the true account of a famous event in World War II in which his father had participated but about which he had never spoken: the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Captured in an iconic photograph on February 23, 1945, the flag-raising occurred during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II’s Pacific Theater. Its story became the subject of Bradley’s 2000 bestselling book Flags of Our Fathers.

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Second Inaugural Address, 1865

By: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809–65), who presided over the successful prosecution of the Civil War, also gave deep thought to the war’s cause, meaning, and purpose, and also to what would be required to heal the nation after the war was over. In the Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863), Lincoln had summoned Americans to rededicate themselves to the cause of freedom and equality. Here, in his Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865), invoking theological speculation and quoting Scripture, Lincoln offers an interpretation of the meaning of the war, which enables him to summon all Americans to a new and more difficult public ...

Sestina

By: Elizabeth Bishop

A sestina is a structured poem consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a final three-line stanza, for a total of 39 lines in the poem. The end-words of the first stanza are used, in a set pattern, to end lines in the remaining five stanzas. For example, if the first line of the poem ends in the word “peace,” “peace” will be used to end the second line of the second stanza. In this 1956 poem, Elizabeth Bishop (1911–79) uses the fixed form of the sestina to discuss the fixed form of seasons, as described by ...

Shiloh: A Requiem

By: Herman Melville

The Battle of Shiloh took place on April 6–7, 1862, in Tennessee. Confederate troops took the forces of Union General Ulysses S. Grant by surprise, but the tenacity of the defenders, the death of Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston, and reinforcements helped the Federals turn the tide and win the day. However, it came at a frightful cost. The combined casualty list totaled 23,746, more than all of America’s previous wars. This haunting poem from 1866 by Herman Melville (1819–91), one of America’s greatest novelists and author of Moby-Dick (1851), is taken from his Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. ...

Soldier’s Home

By: Ernest Hemingway

In 1918, eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver in World War I. In July of that year, stationed near Milan at the Italian Front, he was wounded by German mortar fire and was awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery for carrying an Italian soldier to safety despite his own injuries. For the rest of his life, Hemingway would write about his experience in and recuperating from the Great War in such works as The Nick Adams Stories (1972) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). In the late 1930s, he reported firsthand on the Spanish Civil War, ...

Solve for X

By: Diana Schaub

The present selection looks back, from 2012, on Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet,” and compares Malcolm’s teaching and strategy to those of King. It is excerpted from the end of a review essay, “Solve for X,” published in the Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2012, by Diana Schaub (b. 1959), political scientist at Loyola University Maryland, scholar of American and African American thought, and coeditor (with Amy and Leon Kass) of What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song.

...

Speech at Independence Hall

By: Abraham Lincoln

On the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, February 22, 1861—after he had been elected President but before he was inaugurated (March 4), and before the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War (April 12)—Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) delivered this impromptu address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the speech, Lincoln credits the principles enunciated in the Declaration as the source of “all the political sentiments I entertain,” and for which he was determined to live and govern and, if necessary, to die.

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Speech on the Fortieth Anniversary of D-Day

By: Ronald Reagan

On June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious assault in history began as 160,000 Allied troops and nearly 200,000 naval personnel controlling over 5,000 vessels commenced the D-Day beach landings at Normandy, France, as part of Operation Overlord. As part of the invasion plan, US Army Rangers under Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder were given the task of destroying a German-controlled artillery installation atop Pointe du Hoc, situated between the Allied landing zones on Utah Beach and Omaha Beach. To reach the guns (which the Germans had actually moved a few miles away before the attack began), the Rangers scaled the cliffs ...

Speech on the Fourth of July, 1872

By: Mark Twain

Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens; 1835–1910), author and humorist, largely took an ironic view of the world around him, rarely missing an opportunity to poke fun at ceremony, solemnity, and moral self-satisfaction. Our sacred holidays were not immune to his wit. Here, for example, from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, is Twain’s entry for July 4th: “Statistics show that we lose more fools on this day than in all the other days of the year put together. This proves, by the number left in stock, that one Fourth of July per year is now inadequate, the country has grown so.” In this ...

Speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence

By: Calvin Coolidge

The Fourth of July, the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, is annually celebrated as the birthday of the United States of America, marked for us with parades, marching bands, and fireworks. In earlier times, the day was also marked by specially prepared orations that commemorated our founding principles. A wonderful example of this at once celebratory and reflective genre can be found in the present selection, a speech that President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) delivered in 1926 in honor of the Declaration’s sesquicentennial.

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Speech to the Third Army

By: George S. Patton Jr.

This selection, taken from The Unknown Patton, a biography by Charles M. Province, deals with the memorable speech by General George Patton (1885–1945) to the Third Army on June 5, 1944, the eve of the Allied invasion of Europe. The first part presents the background, the second the speech itself (as compiled by Province, drawing on many sources and presented as a third-person narrative). Famous for his rapport with his men, Patton was a charismatic leader and an inspirational speaker. According to Province, an Army veteran and the founder and president of the George S. Patton Jr. Historical Society, “Patton always knew exactly what he wanted to say to ...

Stars of the US Flag: A Timeline

No Author

Stars are added to the American flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state. The last star was added to the flag on July 4, 1960, following the statehood of Hawaii in 1959. The new 50-starred version was designed by an Ohio high school student, Robert G. Heft, who created the flag for a class history project. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower set up a commission to design the new flag, Heft’s congressman presented the student’s flag to the committee—and they, in turn, passed it along to the president. It is this flag that, as of July 4, 2007, became the longest-serving flag of the ...

Statement on Columbus Day, 1940

By: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Since Columbus Day became an annual national holiday in 1934, our presidents usually mark the day with some proclamation or public statement. President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) issued many such statements during his four terms in office (1933–45). This one, from October 12, 1940, was made as World War II was raging in Europe, but before the United States would enter the war a year later. Though not yet part of the conflict, the US was already supplying Great Britain and other European allies with war supplies—first under the “Cash and Carry” program of 1939, which permitted the US to sell ...

Stories from the Front

By: Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle (1900–45) was an American journalist and war correspondent known for covering World War II from the soldiers’ perspective. Pyle was killed on April 18, 1945, on le Shima, an island off Okinawa, by Japanese machine-gun fire. In the following columns, Pyle tells of the life and sacrifices of and by the American soldier in World War II. 

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Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant

By: Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830–86) once defined poetry this way: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Dickinson’s elliptical poem #1129, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1868), often affects readers the same way. With its paradoxical first lines, it is widely considered to be a key statement of Dickinson’s own approach to writing poetry.

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Thanksgiving at the Polls

By: Edward Everett Hale

Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), Unitarian minister, antislavery activist, and for a time chaplain in the United States Senate, was also a prolific author of essays and stories, many on American political subjects. He is best remembered for his story “The Man without a Country” (1863). In this story from 1899, Hale explores the relation between the holiday of Thanksgiving and the practice of generosity. But by building the story around immigrants and polling-booths, Hale also invites us to think about citizenship and the meaning of America, as well as our principles of freedom and equal opportunity. 

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Thanksgiving Day (1984)

By: Susan Minot

Not all homecomings for Thanksgiving are as cheerful as the one envisioned in the previous poem by Edgar Guest. This story from 1984 is the work of Susan Minot (b. 1956), who started her literary career writing short stories in the New Yorker and Grand Street magazine. A recipient of the O. Henry Prize for short fiction, she has also published four novels. In this story, she raises questions about how to celebrate the holiday when your parents or grandparents who have traditionally hosted Thanksgiving are no longer able to do so. What is the mood in the old Vincent ...

Thanksgiving Day Proclamations 1789–Present

No Author

The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was issued by the Continental Congress in November of 1777, following the Colonial victories over British General John Burgoyne in the Battles of Saratoga. In the Proclamation, Congress "recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these United States to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise." Near the end of the Revolutionary War—after the British House of Commons had voted to end the war in America, but before the formal signing of the Treaty of Paris—the Congress proclaimed another Day of Thanksgiving, to be held on November 28, ...

Thanksgiving on Slav Creek

By: Jack London

In contrast to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “How We Kept Thanksgiving at Oldtown,” the “prosperity” in this tale exists mainly as a hope—in keeping with the root meaning of the word, (Latin: pro + spes, hope) “according to hope”—as the main characters hopefully prospect (“look forward”: pro + specere) for gold. Like them, Jack London (1876–1916) participated in the Yukon Gold Rush of 1897. But the only gold he brought back was an experience that he would mine for gems of literature for much of his writing life, as evidenced in his well-known novels like Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), as well as in his stories ...

Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1789

By: George Washington

After the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day is our most observed national holiday. The tradition harks back to the colonists of Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts, who, after their first harvest, held a celebratory feast in the fall of 1621—a three-day celebration in which local Native American chiefs and tribesmen participated. But the first national Thanksgiving, authorized by the federal government, took place in 1789, the first year of George Washington’s presidency. President Washington issued this proclamation recognizing November 26 as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.”1

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The American Dream

By: Martin Luther King Jr.

The pursuit of a more perfect Union, with liberty and justice for all its citizens, remains unfinished business. Despite the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, black Americans were systematically denied their civil rights, especially, but not only, in the South, under conditions of racial segregation and discrimination. At the center of the ultimately successful Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was the charismatic Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68), whose courageous and inspiring leadership our nation has memorialized by a national holiday in honor of his birthday and a monument on the National Mall. The present selection is taken from a sermon King ...

The Antiquity of Freedom

By: William Cullen Bryant

Thinking well about Independence Day requires thinking about freedom—where it comes from and how it is preserved. A moving invitation to such reflection is this 1842 poem by America’s first great poet William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), lawyer, longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, translator of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and political activist—Bryant was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln, whom he introduced at New York’s Cooper Union (February 1860) for the speech that would gain Lincoln the presidential nomination. In “The Antiquity of Freedom” Bryant poetically reflects on the history of Freedom and its struggles against its inveterate ...

The Apostate: A Child Labor Parable

By: Jack London

Perhaps most famous for his writing on the Klondike Gold Rush, Jack London (1876–1916) also wrote much about his experience working in factories as a child. Born illegitimate and poor, he was sent to work at the age of eight, and by age 14, was working 12-hour days at a cannery for ten cents an hour. After spending seven months as a seaman aboard a ship, London returned to the factory—this time, a jute mill—where he quickly became disenchanted, later writing that “despite my increase in strength and general efficiency, I was receiving no more than when I worked in ...

The Appointment of General Washington

By: Washington Irving

When the Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord had already been fought and the Revolutionary War begun. The Congress served as the de facto government of what would become the United States, conducting the war effort by recruiting soldiers, appointing officers, and directing strategy; appointing ambassadors and making treaties; and issuing money, securing loans, and disbursing funds to finance the war. The Congress gradually reached agreement on the need for independence from Britain, and on July 4, 1776 adopted the Declaration of Independence. The present reading, like the last excerpted from ...

The Artilleryman’s Vision

By: Walt Whitman

In September 1861, five months after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Walter “Walt” Whitman (1819–1892) published his poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” in Harper’s Weekly, urging Americans to take up the cause of the Union and join the war. The following year, he received news that his brother George was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the poet set off to find him. Though his brother’s wounds were minor, Whitman was profoundly affected by his interactions with the wounded soldiers, and for much of the war he served as a volunteer nurse in Washington, DC. According to a 1915 profile ...

The Ballot or the Bullet

By: Malcolm X

At the same time that King and his followers were practicing nonviolent direct action to awaken the conscience of the nation, a different—and more radical—strategy for improving the lives of African Americans was being advanced by Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little in 1925; died, as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabaz, in 1965). After a dissolute life lived on the edge (described in his 1965 Autobiography of Malcolm X), Malcolm came to prominence once he joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) and, as its most articulate public spokesman, began spreading its teaching of black supremacy and black separatism. Disillusioned with NOI’s founder, Elijah Muhammad, ...

The Battle Royal

By: Ralph Ellison

The black man’s quest for his own identity and the recognition of his humanity is the theme of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1914–94), arguably the 20th century’s greatest novel about the African American experience. (It was published in 1952). In this selection, the novel’s first chapter, Ellison’s young protagonist/narrator embarks on a long journey “to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!” Most of the chapter offers a horrifying account of the young man’s degrading experiences at the ...

The Black Table, the Empty Suit, and the Tie

By: Stephen L. Carter

Few of our contemporaries have written more thoughtfully about their efforts to describe and ground their own black identity than Stephen L. Carter (b. 1954), Yale professor of law, public policy writer, journalist, bestselling novelist, and author of Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991). In this 1994 essay, “The Black Table, the Empty Seat, and the Tie,” Carter tenaciously pursues questions of personal identity: “Who exactly are we, dark-skinned lawyers in a white-skinned profession? . . . Yes, we are black  . . . but how are we black?” After describing, via reflections about “the empty seat,” how society around him compels ...

The Character of Washington

By: Daniel Webster

On February 22, 1832, the centennial birthday of George Washington, a number of gentlemen, members of Congress and others, from different parts of the Union, celebrated the occasion by a public dinner in the city of Washington. After dinner, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts (1782–1852) gave this (excerpted) address, which remains one of the greatest speeches commemorating our founding president. Why, according to Webster, should Washington’s birthday be celebrated? For what virtues of character does Webster praise him? How does he characterize Washington’s political principles, both of foreign and domestic policy? How relevant does Webster regard Washington’s example and his ...

The Civil Rights Cases

By: Frederick Douglass

In a major setback for racial equality, the US Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) declared unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had guaranteed—to all people under the jurisdiction of the United States, regardless of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude—equal access to and enjoyment of all public accommodations, facilities, and services. Declaring that Congress had no authority under the Fourteenth Amendment to outlaw discrimination by private individuals or groups (rather than by state and local governments), the Court legitimated the subsequent institution of Jim Crow legislation and segregation of public facilities in the South that ...

The Crisis, No. 1

By: Thomas Paine

In retrospect, especially looking from the perspective of today, 230 years after the end of the War of Independence, it is easy to forget how uncertain was the revolutionary cause, how perilous the risk of failure, and, especially, how divided were the colonists on the rightness of the revolt and the wisdom of joining what seemed at first to be the losing side. Allow, therefore, the fiery words of Thomas Paine (1737–1809) to recreate for you the situation that faced Washington and the revolution as the campaign moved, in late 1776, into the mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. ...

The Day the Civil War Ended

By: Bruce Catton

Bruce Catton (1899–1978) was one of the most-read Civil War historians. His fascination with the Civil War began in Benzonia, Michigan, where he grew up with Civil War veterans, whose stories “gave a color and a tone, not merely to our village life, but to the concept of life with which we grew up.” In 1916, he began attending Oberlin College, but left without completing a degree to serve in World War I. He was fifty years old when he began the first of his thirteen books on the Civil War, winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize ...

The Declaration of Sentiments

By: Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), American activists for the abolition of slavery and early activists for women’s rights, convened the first major conference on women’s issues in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. The Declaration of Sentiments (also known as the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments), written by Stanton and Mott, was presented at the Seneca Falls convention, where it was signed by 68 women and 32 men. Modeled on the structure and language of the Declaration of Independence, it seeks to prove, from the “history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man ...

The Fable of George Washington and the Cherry Tree

By: Mason Locke Weems

Truth to tell, very little is known about the actual early life of George Washington. The most famous stories about Washington’s boyhood come from Parson Weems’ bestselling Life of Washington (1800), which remained the most popular biography of Washington throughout the 19th century. Weems (1759–1825), says American historian Gordon Wood, “wanted to capture the inner, private man—to show the early events that shaped Washington’s character—even if he had to make them up.” The most famous of these fabled tales, attributed by Weems to Washington’s nurse but now thought apocryphal, is the story of the cherry tree.

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The First Continental Congress

By: Washington Irving

Not only the military and presidential Father of His Country, George Washington was also present at its conception. As a delegate from Virginia, he attended the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26, 1774 to consider a united colonial response to the Intolerable Acts, passed by the British Parliament to punish Boston for the Boston Tea Party. The Congress discussed options, asserted rights, considered grievances, and ended by agreeing to a peaceful boycott of British goods. They also drafted a petition to King George III for redress of grievances, calling for a second meeting ...

The Flag Goes By

By: Henry Holcomb Bennett

Henry Holcomb Bennett (1863–1924), an Ohio-born author and poet, moved west after graduating from Kenyon College to work in the railroad business before returning to his hometown of Chillicothe as a journalist. By 1897, he left journalism to focus on more creative writing, including short stories and poems, often illustrating his own works (he was a landscape painter as well). His nonfiction work included essays about military life, Ohio history, and ornithology. Bennett’s most famous work remains this patriotic poem, first published in The Youth’s Companion on January 13, 1898. It was immediately included in several students’ readers around the ...

The Fourth of July

By: John Updike

In this selection, first published in New England Monthly in the late 1980s and reprinted in his book Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (1991), the prolific 20th-century novelist, poet, and literary critic John Updike (1932–2009) offers reflections on the place of the Fourth of July in the rhythm of our summer holidays and on the ways in which we celebrate it.1 He comments on the following topics, among others, all of which merit conversation: the summer heat in Philadelphia, 1776; the clothing of summertime and freedom—the “freedom felt in the body itself”; the “sadness” of fireworks; the ...

The Fundamental Principle of a Republic

By: Anna Howard Shaw

Attaining civil rights for women was a long and arduous struggle. It took more than 70 years from the Declaration of Sentiments to the ratification, in 1920, of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted all women the right to vote. (Several western states had allowed woman suffrage before the turn of the 20th century.) The English-born but American-reared physician and (the first American female) Methodist minister, Anna Howard Shaw (1847–1919), was a leader in the campaign for woman suffrage. She served for 11 years as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, resigning in 1915 only because ...

The Genius of Washington

By: Edwin P. Whipple

By the middle of the 19th century, Washington was heartily celebrated as a man of impeccable character and ethical excellence—“wise, good, and great,” as Jefferson had put it—but he was unfavorably compared to men of genius and intellectual excellence (such as Jefferson himself). Taking exception to this disparagement of Washington’s mind, the American essayist and critic Edwin Percy Whipple (1819–86) came to Washington’s defense in this July 4th oration, given in Boston in 1850 (published posthumously in 1916). The talk raises interesting questions about the nature of genius and the role of the mind in the life of action.

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The Greatness of George Washington

By: Gordon S. Wood

In this wide-ranging essay, published in 1992, the distinguished historian of the American Revolution and early republic Gordon S. Wood (b. 1933) offers a penetrating account of the character and career of George Washington, in defense of his thesis that Washington “was truly a great man and the greatest president we have ever had.” Wood’s review of Washington’s life and deeds revisits many matters presented in earlier selections—for example, Washington’s interest in “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour” and Addison’s Cato, and Washington’s surrender of his commission as head of the American armies. But he weaves them together into ...

The High Place of Labor

By: Calvin Coolidge

In this speech, delivered to a delegation of labor leaders on September 1, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) emphasizes the esteem Americans have for hard work and the dignity of honest labor. Coolidge was not commonly regarded as a friend of labor. While governor of Massachusetts in 1919, he had earned national attention for using the National Guard to break up a strike by the Boston police; and in a letter to Samuel Gompers, he justified his action thus: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Yet in this speech as president, he ...

The Labor Movement in America

No Author

This short history provides useful background for the selections in the “Defending the Workers” section of our Labor Day ebook. Each illustrates concretely and powerfully some of the evils against which organized labor did battle—in the end, largely successfully.

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The Last of the Sacred Army

By: Walt Whitman

This story by the celebrated poet and essayist, Walt Whitman (1819–92), continues our exploration of the theme of remembrance. Written in 1842, at a time when the longest-living veterans of the War for Independence were fast disappearing, it supports its call for a duty to remember by presenting the narrator’s dream, experienced on one July 4th, of meeting—some 30 years into the future—“the last of the sacred army” of the Revolution. The dream also includes a conversation between the narrator and “a learned philosopher” about the value of honoring and memorializing our national heroes.

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The Little Red Hen

By: Florence White Williams

The story of the Little Red Hen has been retold many times. First published in 1874, this folk tale teaches children the value of hard work and self-reliance. In the story, a hen finds a seed of wheat, which she decides to plant in order to make bread. Though she seeks the help of other farm animals, they refuse, and the hen must do all the work herself. When the bread is finally made, the other animals wish to partake—but, because they did not help the hen along the way, they are refused the fruits of her labor. The story ...

The Lost Turkey

By: Sarah Orne Jewett

In this story from 1902, novelist and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) explores the connection between doing good for others and prospering oneself, as well as the relationship between material wealth and some richer prosperity. Jewett was raised in South Berwick, Maine and was profoundly influenced by her experiences observing local farmers and fishermen, as well as her New England coastal upbringing, elements of which are visible in her writing. In this story, for example, a rupture has occurred between old farmer Jones and his daughter-in-law Sarah and grandson Johnny, after the death of Jones’s son (and Sarah’s ...

The Man Born to Farming

By: Wendell Berry

Born in 1934, Wendell Berry grew up working on his family’s farm in Newcastle, Kentucky and attended the University of Kentucky. After serving as a creative writing fellow in the Wallace Stegner writing program at Stanford University, he became a professor of writing and literature at New York University. He soon returned home to Kentucky, however, teaching at the University of Kentucky, buying a farm near Port Royal, and pursuing a long career of writing. He is the author of more than 30 books, comprised of novels such as Nathan Coulter (1960) and The Memory of Old Jack ...

The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

By: Mark Twain

The principles of freedom and equality influence the character not only of individual Americans but also of our communal life, which, in turn, shapes us as individuals. For most Americans, the freedom to pursue happiness becomes a search for prosperity. The ensuing multiplication of economic interests, the Federalist’s solution to the problem of majority faction, can affect the character of citizens: benign acquisitiveness can grow into a worship of Mammon, selfishness, envy, and hardening of the heart, and can lead to civic division and class conflict. At the same time, the love of equality can lead toward homogeneity and conformity, ...

The Man without a Country

By: Edward Everett Hale

Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), Unitarian minister, antislavery activist, and for a time chaplain in the United States Senate, was also a prolific author of essays and stories, of which this one—written in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation—is the best known. The plot of the story is straightforward: Seduced by Aaron Burr, young, ambitious Philip Nolan, an artillery officer in the “Legion of the West,” becomes a Burr accomplice and is later convicted of treason. Asked after his conviction whether he wishes to declare his loyalty to the United States, he cries out, “Damn the United States! I wish ...

The March of the Mill Children

By: Mother Jones

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837­­­–1930) was a prominent labor and community activist, once called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her success in organizing workers and their families against the powerful. Misfortunes scarred her early life. She lost her husband and four children to the yellow fever epidemic and her dressmaking business to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. After the fire, Mary began to travel across the country as a full-time labor organizer, helping to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. She became known as “Mother Jones” for her matronly black dresses and her ...

The Mason: Carl Murray Bates from Working

By: Studs Terkel

Born to a Russian Jewish family, Louis “Studs” Terkel (1912–2008) grew up meeting people from all walks of life at his parents’ boarding house in Chicago. After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1934, Terkel worked a series of odd jobs before getting his start in radio as a member of the Work Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. Beginning in 1952, he hosted a long-running radio program in Chicago for which he conducted daily interviews. In 1957, Terkel published his first book—a collection of interviews and stories about the Jazz Age—and followed with a series of oral ...

The May-Pole of Merry Mount

By: Nathaniel Hawthorne

With the possible exception of Herman Melville, no American writer wrote more deeply about the complexities of the American character than Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64). In this story (1837), we witness an early version of the culture war, each side representing in extreme form one of two guiding ideas of the American Republic: the pursuit of happiness (see the Declaration of Independence) and the spirit of reverence (see the Mayflower Compact), each unmoderated by the other. The Merry-Mounters, the party of jollity, live carelessly for the pleasure of the moment. The Puritans, the party of gloom, live austerely in fear of ...

The Meaning of Flag Day

By: Amy A. Kass

In this op-ed from June 2011, Amy A. Kass (b. 1940) and Leon R. Kass (b. 1939), educators and co-editors of What So Proudly We Hail, connect the unusual character of the Flag Day holiday with the unusual nature of the American flag and the American republic. What, according to the authors, is unusual about Flag Day? About the flag? About the nation over which it flies? Why do the authors think that our shared ideas and principles are not sufficient to attach us to the American republic? Why do the universality of our principles and the diversity of our ...

The Meaning of Liberty

By: Woodrow Wilson

At different times in our nation’s history, our national leaders have used the occasion of Independence Day to revisit the Declaration of Independence and to comment on its significance, often attempting to interpret its meaning in the light of contemporary circumstances. This Independence Day speech by President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), delivered at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on July 4, 1914 (six days after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the trigger for World War I), is a particularly striking example of this practice. A former political science professor, ex-president of Princeton University, and leader of the Progressive movement, Wilson lectured ...

The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society

By: Cornel West

Few black intellectuals in the United States today command as much attention as prolific author, critic, and activist Cornel West (b. 1953), professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Focusing on race, class, and gender, West is an outspoken critic of contemporary American society in the name of decency and dignity, freedom and democracy. In this essay, West is concerned about the viability of democratic society in America, which he believes is threatened by “a lethal and unprecedented linkage of relative economic decline, cultural decay, and political lethargy.”

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The Namesake

By: Willa Cather

The Meaning of America curriculum began with the question of national identity and with Edward Everett Hale’s story “The Man without a Country,” about an American soldier who is permanently exiled at sea from his native land, in accordance with his wish never again to hear the name of the United States. We conclude with this story (1907) by Willa Cather (1873–1947), about how an American expatriate discovers the meaning of his home country. Lyon Hartwell, the son of an American artist, born abroad and now himself a sculptor living in Paris, habitually entertains his fellow Americans, all ...

The Negro Family: The Case for National Action

By: Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The removal of legal obstacles to equality of opportunity did not directly lead—and has not yet led—to equal results for African Americans considered as a group. Partly as a result, the demand for greater equality of outcomes has risen—especially in matters economic, where the black-white income gap continues to widen. But already in 1965, in the heady days of the Civil Rights Movement and its legislative victories outlawing overt racial discrimination, a government report called attention to what it called “a new crisis in race relations,” based on the need to help the disintegrating black family in order to attain ...

The Night Before Thanksgiving

By: Sarah Orne Jewett

This selection explores the blessings of neighborliness and hospitality, given and received. In this story (1899) by Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909), old Mrs. Mary Ann Robb, a woman who formerly had delighted in bringing aid and sustenance to the poor, is sadly contemplating her situation on the night before Thanksgiving. Her nearest neighbor, John Marder, has been leading a group of townspeople who are trying to force Mrs. Robb to give up her home and to enter the town poorhouse, and the time for her departure now seems imminent. But as she looks out her window at the sunset, a ...

The Origins and Traditions of Columbus Day

No Author

Columbus Day—the day we celebrate Christopher Columbus’s historic discovery of the Americas in 1492—is a most unusual American holiday, as it commemorates an event that occurred well before the United States was a nation. And yet, in the 500 years since Columbus’s sighting, the day has become distinctly American. In the late 18th century, Americans began to see Columbus as somewhat of a mythic founding figure; by the 1830s, he was seen as an archetype of the American ideal: bold, adventurous, innovative. Immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries rallied around the immigrant Columbus. As Ronald Reagan remarked in a ...

The Origins and Traditions of Flag Day

No Author

On June 14, 1777, while finalizing the draft of the Articles of Confederation, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, whiten a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

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The Origins and Traditions of Independence Day

No Author

The actual birthdate of the American Republic was July 2, 1776, when delegates to the Continental Congress, meeting at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, approved the resolution introduced on June 7, 1776 by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia calling for independence from Great Britain: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Two days later, the body adopted the more well known Declaration of Independence, which justified the deed by “declar[ing] the causes which impel them to the separation.”

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The Origins and Traditions of Labor Day

No Author

Just as Memorial Day has become embedded in American culture as the day marking the beginning of summer, so too Labor Day, celebrated annually on the first Monday of September, has come to signify summer’s end. Serving as bookends to the summer season, both holidays are celebrated with three-day weekends that include travelling to visit friends and family, barbecues and picnics, swimming, and parades. Although it may seem strange to celebrate the value of labor by taking time off from work, these leisurely pursuits have long been regarded as fitting for a holiday meant to honor the “contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

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The Origins and Traditions of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

No Author

Fifteen years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the third Monday in January became a national holiday to honor the birthday of the slain civil rights leader. A Baptist minister and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, King advocated nonviolence while leading the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s and famously articulated a vision of America wherein every citizen truly had equal rights. Although King championed nonviolence, his life was tragically cut short on April 4, 1968 when he was shot and killed before a demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee.

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The Origins and Traditions of Memorial Day

No Author

Celebrated on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. Families fire up the grill or flock to the lake house, while those who remain in town are able to take advantage of the weekend’s sales. But Memorial Day is also the day we set aside to honor those who died in service to their country. It is more than a day of remembrance, for it is also a day for “us the living” to re-dedicate ourselves to civic renewal and to perpetuate our form of government.

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The Origins and Traditions of Thanksgiving

No Author

Thanksgiving is a venerable and much beloved American holiday. In colonial times it was primarily a harvest holiday, in which the colonists offered thanks for a good harvest, sometimes by feasting, sometimes by fasting. A holiday was already celebrated in the Spanish colony of Florida in the 16th century, and in the British colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts in the 17th century, most famously in 1621, when the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts celebrated their first successful harvest in the company of some of the Native American tribesmen. Thanksgiving became a regularly celebrated national holiday only during the Civil War, when ...

The Origins and Traditions of Washington’s Birthday Holiday

No Author

Remembering the birthday of George Washington—February 22, 1732—should be a particularly cherished national obligation. Americans celebrated Washington’s Birthday long before Congress in 1879 declared it a holiday for federal workers in the District of Columbia, and, in 1885, a holiday for federal employees everywhere. It was celebrated at Valley Forge in 1778, and, after the Founding, it was annually, if unofficially, marked throughout the new republic. Writing in American History, historian Richard Brookhiser notes, “No need to say whose birthday, or who the big man was; February 22, as every American knew, was the birthday of Present George Washington, the biggest ...

The Passionate Bedrock of Genius

By: Noemie Emery

Like Edwin P. Whipple in an earlier selection, journalist and Washington biographer Noemie Emery (b. 1938) is also interested in probing the grounds of the greatness of Washington, whom she too finds an enigma. But whereas Whipple looks to qualities of his mind, Emery looks to the strength and energy of his passions. Puzzled by how history has managed “to make this man who tamed the fire-eaters of his lifetime seem so much the dimmest of them all,” Emery examines the emotional complexities and turbulence of Washington’s life, arguing that it was out of his struggle to control his ...

The Peacemaker

By: Joyce Kilmer

In this poem, written in the last year of his life and the last year of World War I, the American poet Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918) offers a complex and moving picture of the American soldier then giving battle in Europe. When the United States entered the war, Kilmer was 31 years old. Although he was exempted from his service obligation (married with four children), Kilmer voluntarily joined the New York Seventh Regiment, later transferring to the “Fighting 69th” Regiment when it was chosen to be the first New York unit sent to France. During the war, he continued to write. ...

The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions

By: Abraham Lincoln

According to its Preamble, the United States Constitution has as one of its aims to “establish justice.” Understanding law as the path to justice, “We the people of the United States” bound ourselves to a fundamental law that would organize our polity and guide the statutory laws. Half a century later, on January 27, 1838, an aspiring young politician named Abraham Lincoln gave a speech on “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” in which he worried that Americans were increasingly inclined to take the law into their own hands. In the grip of strong passions, they were substituting vigilante ...

The Pledge of Allegiance at the Hanoi Hilton

By: John McCain

In response to the US Supreme Court decisions in the flag-burning cases (Texas v. Johnson, 1989, United States v. Eichman, 1990), Congress has considered amending the Constitution to prohibit physical desecration of the American flag. From 1995 to 2006, the proposed amendment passed the House of Representatives, but failed to obtain the necessary supermajority in the Senate, failing in 2006 by one vote. In the Senate debate of 2000, speaking in support of the Flag Protection Amendment, Senator John McCain (b. 1936) related this moving story about a fellow Vietnam prisoner of war who was severely beaten by guards for ...

The Power of Nonviolence

By: Martin Luther King Jr.

After Rosa Parks’ arrest and conviction, in 1955, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, the Negro citizens of Montgomery Alabama, under King’s leadership, began a boycott of the city’s buses in order to protest the law requiring racial segregation on public transportation. The boycott, perfectly legal, lasted for over a year until after the Supreme Court, in late 1956, upheld a lower court’s decision that had ruled the city’s segregationist laws unconstitutional. This victory for the combined approach of legal challenge and peaceful public protest was one of the first successful applications ...

The Republic

By: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In this excerpted poem (1850), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82), popular American poet and educator, uses the extended metaphor of the “ship of state” to describe our still-young republic. What mood and tone does the poem convey?Examine carefully the metaphor of “ship of state.” Does the ship have a destination or a goal? What are “the anchors of thy hope”—and what the hope itself? What are the dangers—rock, tempest, “false lights on the shore”—to the Union’s “voyage”? Why might the poet believe that humanity itself is “hanging breathless on thy [the Union’s] fate?”

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The Rise of Washington

By: Myron Magnet

Books instruct and inspire, habitual practice produces character, but in George Washington’s case it is most of all the deeds that make the man. And, in the view of American author and editor Myron Magnet (b. 1944), from whose crisply written 2012 essay this selection is excerpted, it is great men who make history and George Washington is, for this thesis, “Exhibit A.” This selection provides a synoptic yet engaging account of Washington’s rise from promising young man to commander in chief of the American army in the War of Independence, tracing his path from surveyor to militia man to entrepreneur ...

The Significance of Columbus Day to New Americans

No Author

As was noted in “The Origins and Traditions of Columbus Day,” the early celebrations of Columbus Day, occurring in the 19th century, focused not on Columbus as explorer or symbolic founder but on Columbus as immigrant. American Catholics, and Italian Americans in particular, invoked the figure of Columbus—as immigrant, Italian, and Catholic—to counteract the ardent anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic activism from which they were suffering. This editorial, published in The Independent, a New York City magazine, in 1910 before Columbus Day became a legal holiday, explains why the holiday should matter to American immigrants.

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The Significance of Labor Day

By: Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers (1850–1924) was the first and longest serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), holding the office nearly continuously from 1886 until his death in 1924. Gompers was born in England and put to work at the age of ten as a cigar maker. The young Gompers continued in this trade as a teenager when his family immigrated to New York City, where he soon became involved in the labor movement. In 1875, at the age of 25, he was elected president of his local union, and, in 1896, was made the first vice president of the ...

The Soldier of the Revolution

By: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

While many remembrances of war emphasize events of the battlefield, it is important to keep in mind the costs of war to loved ones left behind, as well as the sacrifices soldiers make in leaving them. These costs and sacrifices are poignantly presented in this story by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879), first published in her Sketches of American Character (1829). The New Hampshire-born Hale was a well-known writer and editor, champion of education for women and a common national culture for the United States, and a dogged—and finally successful—campaigner for establishing a national day of Thanksgiving. In this story, Captain ...

The Story of a Year

By: Henry James

This story by the prolific novelist and storywriter Henry James (1843–1916) raises deep questions about what loved ones left behind owe to their lovers who go off to war, and especially about how they—we—should honor the love and explicit wishes of those who do not make it back alive. When the Civil War began, James (age 18) attempted to enlist, but his father overruled his inclination. Instead, the young man turned to writing, and in March 1865, “The Story of a Year,” his second published short story, appeared in the Atlantic. The story is in five parts, each part tracking ...

The Trials and Triumphs of Presiding

By: Myron Magnet

In this final excerpt from his 2012 essay, “Washingtonianism,” Myron Magnet offers a synoptic account of Washington’s presidency, its trials and its successes. The position of popularly elected chief executive of a large republic was simply unprecedented, not only in America but throughout human history, and a crucial part of Washington’s task was “inventing the presidency.” In addition, he had to endure mounting public criticism and manage huge battles, with formidable opponents even within his cabinet, over policies domestic and foreign, regarding the nation’s financial system, economic development and commerce, the French Revolution and the ensuing war between France ...

The Veteran (1905)

By: Paul Laurence Dunbar

The son of two escaped slaves from Kentucky, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was a prolific poet, novelist, and playwright, authoring a dozen books of poetry, five novels, four books of stories, and a play that successfully toured on Broadway and in England for four years. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, he was the only African-American at his high school (at which he served as class president), and he showed an early interest in literature and poetry, publishing two poems in the local Herald newspaper while still in high school. His father fought in the Civil War, serving in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry ...

The Village Blacksmith

By: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82) was a celebrated American poet of the 19th century. Born in Portland, Maine to a well-to-do family, Longfellow began writing poetry at an early age: His first poem, “The Battle of Lovell’s Pond,” was published in the Portland Gazette when he was 13. After attending Bowdoin College (where he became good friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne) and studying in Europe, Longfellow taught first at Bowdoin and then later at Harvard College. “The Village Blacksmith,” first published in the literary magazine The Knickerbocker in 1840, pays tribute to an ancestor, Stephen Longfellow, who earns “a night’s repose” by his labor.

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The Vow of Washington

By: John Greenleaf Whittier

In previous generations, Americans have celebrated not only Washington’s birthday but also the anniversary of his inauguration as America’s first president. This poem, composed by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–92), was read on April 30, 1889, at the centennial celebration of Washington’s first taking the oath of presidential office in New York City. How does Whittier describe the scene and national mood? What was the vow of Washington, and why did “freedom’s great experiment” succeed? How does the poet deal with the Civil War in relation to Washington’s vow? Why is Washington’s name “our Union-bond” and why should we “take on ...

The War Prayer

By: Mark Twain

As the soldiers go off to battle, those at home work, worry, and pray for their success and safety. Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835–1910), never one to miss a chance at satire, takes aim at our nation’s wartime prayers. Twain wrote this short story in 1905 in response to the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine-American War (1899–1902), but, at the request of his family, he did not publish it. In 1916, six years after Twain’s death and shortly before the United States entered World War I, Harper’s Monthly finally published the “prayer.”

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The Welcome Table

By: Lee Martin

The goal of nonviolent direct action, according to King, is to lovingly prick the conscience and to win the friendship of the opponent, beginning by inducing shame but ending with brotherly reconciliation. The stresses of black-white relations, under conditions of segregation and in the face of protests, raise difficult challenges also for decent whites, not least about their own strengths of character and identity. In this disturbing story (1996) by novelist, short story writer and professor of creative writing at Ohio State University, Lee Martin (b. 1955), we see what happens to both father and son of a New Hampshire ...

Those Who Have No Turkey

By: Langston Hughes

This story by celebrated African American poet and short-story writer Langston Hughes (1902–67), written in 1918 when he was still in high school, raises the disturbing possibility that prosperity may in fact be the enemy of gratitude and thanksgiving. Hughes himself did not grow up in material comfort or stability; after his parents separated, he moved with his mother and grandmother half a dozen times before finally settling in Cleveland, Ohio. Here, young Diane Jordan, from rural downstate Ohio, comes to spend Thanksgiving with her wealthy aunt Ruth (her mother’s sister) and her two daughters (Diane’s cousins) in a prosperous ...

To Be of Use

By: Marge Piercy

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in the midst of the Great Depression, Marge Piercy (b. 1936) is an American poet and novelist, perhaps most famous for her New York Times best-selling novel Gone to Soldiers (1988). The first in her family to attend college, Piercy published her first book of poems in 1968. Since then, she has authored 15 novels, a play, and 17 volumes of poetry. In this poem, first published in a volume of the same name in 1973, Piercy suggests how people work is as important as what they do.

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To Build a Fire

By: Jack London

American freedom and individuality have often been expressed in, and celebrated by, stories of exploration, adventure, enterprise, and the pursuit of gain: the conquest of the prairie, the settling of the West, the taming of the wilderness, the gold rush, and the mastery of nature through science, industry, and technology. Jack London’s story (1908) offers us a picture of one such fortune-hunting, rugged individual. London (1876–1916) took part in the Klondike gold rush, and though he failed as a miner, he struck gold with stories drawing on the places and people he encountered during those hope-filled and brutal times in the ...

To Fulfill These Rights

By: Lyndon B. Johnson

As the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam and gaining supporters, things were also changing in Washington, DC. In 1964, taking advantage of the nation’s moral mood following the “Great March on Washington” in August 1963 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy three months later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–73) helped push through the first Civil Rights Act in almost 90 years, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or sex in all public accommodations in the United States. The following year, Congress passed Johnson’s Voting Rights Act that required every state to abolish all practices that would ...

To His Excellency General Washington

By: Phillis Wheatley

This difficult poem, written in neoclassical style, is included in this collection partly because of the remarkable story of its author, partly to show how early the celebration of Washington began, and how widely he was admired. Phillis Wheatley (1753?–84) was born in Africa and brought in 1761 on a slave ship to Boston, where she was purchased by a Mr. Wheatley. But her extraordinary intelligence and character soon led the Wheatleys to treat her more as a family intimate than as a slave. Displaying a thirst for learning, she acquired, without formal schooling, a first-rate education and great familiarity ...

Triangle Memorial Speech

By: Rose Schneiderman

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City erupted in flames when a pile of fabric caught fire. When locked factory doors made escape impossible, 146 women perished in the fire. At a memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, Rose Schneiderman (1882–1972), the founder of the Jewish Socialist United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers’ Union and a key leader in the strikes by New York’s women workers, memorably expressed the anger many felt at the plight of the American worker. Schneiderman was later elected president of the New York Women’s Trade ...

True Americanism

By: Theodore Roosevelt

America, it is rightly said, is the world’s first cosmopolitan nation. Our fellow citizens come from every corner of the earth. A small few may still trace their origins to the original settlers, but most of us are children or grandchildren of immigrants. What, then, do we have in common, and what unites us as Americans? Today, questions of identity are often discussed under the heading of multiculturalism: people are viewed and view themselves as members of racial and ethnic subcultures, as hyphenated Americans (for example, African-, Mexican-, Chinese-, etc.). Yet this project assumes that notwithstanding our enriching differences, there ...

Turkey Red

By: Frances Gilchrist Wood

This short story, first published in The Pictorial Review and again in The Best Short Stories of 1920, was written by Frances Gilchrist Wood (1859–1944). Born in Carthage, Illinois, a small prairie town, Wood worked as a reporter and editor for western newspapers, and worked alongside her father in railway administration, traveling all over the United States and Mexico. “Turkey Red” presents a realistic version of the hardships faced by American pioneers, working on their homesteads in the “Great American Desert.” In 1935, Wood published a novel of the same title.

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Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen

By: O. Henry

Maintaining traditions in America is neither easy nor always welcome. Times change. Rituals ossify. Their meanings become obscured. For those who are down and out or who live alone, even our most beloved holidays can be depressing. More deeply, upholding traditions may be at odds with our devotion to progress or self-interest. These issues are humorously but powerfully exposed in this short story (1905) by O. Henry (pseudonym for William Sydney Porter [1862–1910]), who casts an ironic and irreverent eye on Thanksgiving Day—perhaps on institutionalized ritual altogether. Every Thanksgiving for the past nine years, Stuffy Pete, a homeless man, has ...

United States Constitution

No Author

The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It established America’s national government and fundamental laws, and guaranteed certain basic rights to its citizens. Adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it was ratified by conventions in 11 states. It went into effect on March 4, 1789.

The following text is a transcription of the Constitution in its original form.

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US Flag Code

No Author

On June 22, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved House Joint Resolution 303 codifying the existing customs and rules governing the display and use of the flag of the United States by civilians. The law included provisions of the code adopted by the National Flag Conference, held in Washington, DC on June 14, 1923, with certain amendments and additions. The code was reenacted, with minor amendments, as part of the Bicentennial celebration. In the 105th Congress, the Flag Code was removed from title 36 of the United States Code and recodified as part of title 4.

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Valley Forge

By: Henry Armitt Brown

Throughout our nation’s history, the memory and example of George Washington and his accomplishments in the Revolutionary War have been appropriated by many people and used to inspire their contemporaries to pursue what they regard as worthy purposes. For Henry Armitt Brown (1844–78), author and orator, the cause was progress and enlightenment. On June 19, 1878, the hundredth anniversary of the departure of Washington’s troops from Valley Forge—where they had wondrously held out against the British for six months despite snow, disease, and severe deprivation—Brown gave this oration to commemorate the moral victory that was Valley Forge.

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Veterans Day Remarks, 1961

By: John F. Kennedy

Seven years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, President John F. Kennedy (1917–63)—like Ike, a World War II veteran—gave his first Veterans Day address at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. How does President Kennedy answer those who might say that “this day has lost its meaning”? What is his view of the current meaning of the holiday? Can you reconcile his final prayer—“that there will be no veterans of any further war”—with his assertion that “the only way to maintain the peace is to be prepared in the final ...

Veteran’s Day Speech to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis

By: John F. Kelly

In this (excerpted) speech to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis—an organization supporting US Marines and their families—Lieutenant General John F. Kelly, US Marine Corps (b. 1950), commander of the Multinational Force-West in Iraq from 2008 to 2009, pays a moving tribute to the heroism of our warriors. He makes clear the debt of gratitude that the rest of us owe these dedicated men and women, whose sacrifices make it possible for us to enjoy peace, freedom, and the pursuit of private happiness. He concludes with an account of a most remarkable display of self-sacrifice on the part of ...

Visitors, 1965

By: Oscar Hijuelos

American-born novelist Oscar Hijuelos (1951–2013) grew up in New York City, raised by Cuban parents who immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s. He funneled the alienation he felt growing up between two worlds into his writing. Hijuelos was the first Hispanic winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which he received in 1990 for his work The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, later adapted into a film and play. “Visitors, 1965” sheds light on the varying experience of Cuban immigrants and their differing attitudes toward their new home and old homeland.

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Voluntaries

By: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), essayist, poet, and leader of the Transcendentalist movement, was a staunch abolitionist and a vigorous supporter of the Union during the Civil War. In 1861, at the beginning of the conflict, many young men, both Northerners and Southerners, quickly enlisted, most of whom were eager for adventure or in search of honor and glory. But as the war continued and the casualties mounted, many of the initial recruits became war-weary, and recruiting new soldiers became much more difficult. Seeking to inspire more volunteers to join the Union cause, Emerson wrote this poem, published in the Atlantic ...

Was America a Mistake?

By: Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The son of a distinguished historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1917–2007) would himself rise to become a well-known American historian, social critic, and public intellectual. He specialized in American history, with a focus on 20th-century liberalism.  He was the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Age of Jackson (1946) and one for A Thousand Days (1966), a history and memoir of the Kennedy administration in which Schlesinger served as Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy. The present selection was published in the Atlantic Monthly in September 1992, on the eve of the quincentennial of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. ...

Washington and Our Schools and Colleges

By: Charles W. Eliot

At least until the latter half of the 20th century learning about George Washington was a staple of American public education. His picture adorned the walls of many classrooms, and young people—including the editors of this book—grew up, as it were, under his gaze and in his continual presence. The importance of Washington to the civic mission of our schools and colleges is the subject of this speech, given in 1889 in New York City at the centennial celebration of Washington’s assuming the presidency, by Charles W. Eliot (1834–1926), the extraordinary president of Harvard University from 1869–1909. Eliot imagines the ...

Washington and the Constitutional Convention

By: Myron Magnet

Independence had been won for the new nation, but the large problems of governance and political structure remained. As this selection by American author and editor Myron Magnet (b. 1944), excerpted from his 2012 essay titled “Washingtonianism” (two other excerpts appear in our Washington ebook) indicates, there was a growing sense that the original Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced if the new republic was to flourish. Although eager to continue in his retirement and enjoyment of private life, George Washington once again answered the call to public service. He presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and, ...

Washington the Nation Builder

By: Edwin Markham

In this poem (written for the bicentennial celebration of Washington’s birth), Edwin Markham (1852–1940) pays tribute to the life of Washington, from his Spartan mother who “called him into Time and kindled duty in him as a flame,” until past his end, when “he flamed with God.” Where did Washington acquire the virtues needed for nation-building? What, according to the third stanza, is the relation between the “Cause” and Washington’s greatness? What, according to the fifth stanza, is Washington’s creed? What does Markham mean when he says that Washington “turned from all the tempters, / Stood firm above the perils ...

Washington’s Inauguration

By: Edward Everett Hale

The American colonies revolted against England’s monarchic rule, declaring that governments exist to secure the equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By the consent of the governed, they established a republic—a representative democracy—where the people are sovereign and their leaders are held accountable to them. Yet the inauguration of George Washington—and those of other presidents since—is accompanied by ceremonies that might strike a democratic temperament as resembling kingly coronations. This account, written by clergyman, prolific essayist, and story-writer Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), best known for his story “The Man without a Country,” describes Washington’s ...

We Shall Keep the Faith

By: Moina Michael

John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” resonated deeply with the public, even in the then-neutral United States. Three years later, when the United States had entered the conflict, Moina Michael (1869–1944), an educator and volunteer trainer of nurses, wrote “We Shall Keep the Faith,” as a response of the living to the call of the dead in McCrae’s poem. Soon afterwards, she launched the tradition of selling and wearing red poppies to aid and honor wounded war veterans. Michael’s autobiography, The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy, published in 1941, is dedicated to the late ...

What Columbus Day Really Means

By: William J. Connell

In the face of growing public criticisms of Columbus and objections to celebrating Columbus Day, American historian and educator William J. Connell (b. 1958), writing in 2010, undertakes a defense of the holiday. What exactly is that defense, and how does it develop from the beginning to the end of his essay? Is he right in saying, “the holiday marks the event, not the person”? Can one celebrate an event without honoring the person responsible for it? Is the holiday no more than “a pretty good excuse for taking a day off from work”? Is there any connection between the ...

What Does the Working Man Want?

By: Samuel Gompers

In this International May Day address delivered in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1890 (20 years before his speech on “The Significance of Labor Day” ), Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), argues for the importance of the eight-hour workday. Like many labor leaders, Gompers protests the injustices of the industrial process, which treats workers as nothing more than “a veritable machine.” However, he also makes an appeal to business owners’ self-interest, noting that “men under the short-hour system not only have opportunity to improve themselves, but to make a greater degree of prosperity for their employers.” ...

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

By: Frederick Douglass

As virtually every American today understands, without the need for any argument, the existence of slavery was a stain on the American Republic from its Founding. It also embarrassed our alleged devotion to the principles of human equality and unalienable rights, principles that had been presented in our birth announcement as truths by which we Americans define ourselves in declaring that we hold them to be self-evident. No American in our history has exposed our hypocrisy more powerfully than did Frederick Douglass (circa 1818–1895), a one-time slave who became a great orator, statesman, and abolitionist. Douglass made the case best ...

Whitewashing the Fence from Tom Sawyer

By: Mark Twain

In this famous selection from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), written by Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835–1910), Tom, burdened with the chore to whitewash his Aunt Polly’s fence as punishment for his having played hooky from school, comes up with an ingenious way to get out of his work: He convinces his friends that it’s not tedious work but an enjoyable privilege and, indeed, an honor. At the end of the story, the narrator offers two general truths that Tom or the reader can learn from the story: one, a law of human action about how to make something ...

Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?

By: Frederick Douglass

How to lift people out of degradation and despair? Others may provide material aid and encouragement, but a case can be made that full success requires people to stand up for themselves. Few better understood this necessity than Frederick Douglass (circa 1818–95), who during the Civil War urged his fellow black Americans to overcome the degradation of slavery. Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), Douglass published a stirring message—“Men of Color, To Arms!”—and worked tirelessly to recruit soldiers for the black regiment being organized in Massachusetts. Resistance to the idea that blacks should fight for the Union ...

Working as Meaningful Fulfillment

By: Leon R. Kass

On Wednesday, May 2, 2012, American educator Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) delivered the 2012 Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute Annual Dinner in Washington, DC. In his remarks, titled “The Other War on Poverty: Finding Meaning in America,” Kass considers “the growing gap between our thriving capitalist economy and our unraveling bourgeois culture. . . . Are we Americans, despite our continuing freedom and prosperity, really losing the quest for a meaningful life?” In addressing this question, Kass surveys four realms in which meaning can still be found in order “to live a life that makes sense”: work; ...

Young Washington and Cato

By: Noemie Emery

Young Washington was interested in the cultivation of the habits and conduct of a gentleman. But he was also moved by stories of republican virtue and political courage, as revealed in this excerpt from Washington: A Biography (1976) by American journalist and biographer, Noemie Emery (b. 1938). It explains how George Washington might have been inspired by Joseph Addison’s 1713 play, Cato, a Tragedy, one of his favorite plays and the one with which he is most closely associated. The play, which deals with the words and deeds of the man famous for opposing the tyranny of Julius Caesar, was also ...