What is an American?
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Simon Schama traveled through America to dig deep into the conflicts of its history to understand what was at stake.
Simon looks at the bitter conflict over immigration in American history. Who should be allowed to enter America and call themselves an American has always been one of the nation’s most divisive issues, and it continues to be so at this election. He traces the roots of this conflict to the founding of America.
The early settlers were themselves immigrants, but they saw America as fundamentally a white and Protestant nation. Simon looks at the key events that challenged this view: the annexation of parts of Mexico in 1848 that made 100,000 non-whites American citizens, the immigration and subsequent expulsion of the Chinese in the late 19th century, and the massive immigration from Eastern Europe during the industrialisation of the 1920s. Each time there have been those who have insisted America must stay white if it’s to stay true to itself, and each time they have been defeated by the sheer force of history.
John F Kennedy defined America as a Nation of Immigrants in 1964 and Simon argues that the candidacy of Barack Obama represents the final triumph of the vision of America as a multi-ethnic nation.
Simon explores the ways in which faith has shaped American political life. His starting point is a remarkable fact about the coming election: for the first time in a generation it is the Democrats who claim to be the party of God. It is Barack Obama, not John McCain, who has been talking about his faith. In Britain we have always thought of American religion as a largely conservative force, yet Simon shows how throughout American history it has played a crucial role in the fight for freedom.
Faith helped create America – it was the search for religious freedom that led thousands to make the dangerous journey to the colonies in the 1600s. After independence was won, that religious freedom was enshrined in the constitution; America was the first country in the world to do so. Simon also looks at the remarkable role the black church has played, first in the liberation of the slaves in the 1800s, and again in the civil rights movement of the 1960s; neither would have happened without its religious activists. It is this very church that has been the inspiration for Barack Obama, who traces the roots of his political inspiration to his faith.
In American War, Simon reveals how different the American attitude to war is from what outsiders assume it to be. Two of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, disagreed about whether America should even have a professional army – a division still evident when Simon visits America’s premier military academy at West Point. From the Civil War right through to Mark Twain’s denunciation of President Teddy Roosevelt’s imperial adventure in the Phillipines, American wars have inspired profound debate.
And nowhere more so in the 2008 election than San Antonio, Texas, nicknamed Military City because of its high population of veterans and serving soldiers, where Simon finds feelings about the war are deeply divided. As with the great war elections of the past, it’s a debate which forces America to dig deep and rediscover what it stands for.
He explores how American optimism about the infinite possibilities of its land and resources is in danger of coming to a grinding halt. Nowhere is it more evident than in the American West, which has always been a symbol of opportunity and freedom. Oil at four dollars a gallon may dominate the headlines, but here it is the lack of water that is an bigger threat to the American future. The West is in the grip of a years-long drought.
America’s optimism about its natural resources has always been spiced with clashes over conservation, going back to the first man to navigate the Colorado river, John Wesley Powell. American ingenuity made farming on an industrial scale possible in the early years of the 20th century, but at the cost of making Oklahoma a dust bowl. The Hoover Dam, a modern American miracle which used to provide essential irrigation for farming and for the new city of Las Vegas, is not able to cope with the demand for water any more.