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The Ideas of Unity and Diversity in the American Experience, Research Paper Example

Pages: 10

Words: 2634

Research Paper

Since its founding, America has gone through a great deal as a country. Crises have torn the nation apart, yet these very national traumas have served to enhance our unity as a people.  America was not without struggles, even as it first established itself as an independent country;  divisions of purpose and spirit marked the colonization of the America, and still continue until this day.  All of it, however, has helped shaped our country and our people.

Over the course of American history, people have tried to craft imagery or symbols to try to embody the nation and shape its meaning and character (Higham, 2001). We sought from the first, as we seek today, a “national identity”, something distinct and relevant to us all. The nation, however, is never one entity. Given the diversities in culture, race, heritages, and beliefs that comprise what we are, can there really be one united image or idea for America? The answer is yes, provided we accept the undeniable fact that diversity itself is our national emblem. We are one because we are so many, in terms of everything that makes a society what it truly is.

The middle of the 19th century would prove to be an era immensely significant in the life of the country, in that its very survival was in jeopardy.  America was still extremely young as a nation, and the waves of immigration in the period, as in prior years, took on certain cultural shapes and moved in specific directions. These waves settled, of course, and revealed in time  separate characters within the single nation. There was the more urban North, with its emphasis on industrializing and other elements of city life, and it grew in stark ideological contrast to the  agrarian, more slowly paced, South. Without meaning to, America had made itself into two nations.

It is generally believed that the Civil War was a simple, if devastating, schism over slavery. There was a great deal more to it than that. For decades prior to the eruption of the war, America had been moving into, not a union, but a confederacy in which individual states preserved far more autonomy in government. Slavery became the focus of all the disputes, as it had been the sticking point preventing a true union forming for a very long time. As far back as 1787, when a great convention was held in Philadelphia to promote a comprehensive union, the South was already backing away. “The Convention would have at once and forever prohibited…the African slave trade; but South Carolina and Georgia were present…to menace, ‘No Slave Trade, No Union!’” (Greeley 45). It would be nearly eighty years before this disagreement would erupt into full-scale war.

As history records, the clash very nearly ended the life of America itself. A nation that can undergo such a rupture of itself is a nation clearly not yet formed and solid, and the battles between North and South were clashes to defend and preserve whole cultures.  The Civil War, raging from 1861 through 1865, was a massive, internal feud over beliefs in politics, economics, society, and the African American slavery issue (“History of the United States, 2010”). No  upheaval in America before or since has carried the impact this war did, for nothing else in our history ever allowed for the possibility that we would end our history ourselves.

Most of the decade following the Civil War would be known as the “Reconstruction of the Gilded Age”, a somewhat optimistic term. President Lincoln had indeed issued the Emancipation Proclamation and slavery was outlawed, but that was hardly the cue for widespread rights. The “Reconstruction Amendments” were passed to expand the civil rights of African Americans (“History of the United States”, 2010), and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 forbade discrimination against blacks. However, it is one thing to have a statute on the books, and quite another to reverse tides of popular feeling which had been dominant and unchallenged for generations. The newly-liberated slaves were not walking into a promising new world, by any means, and the best most of them could get was poorly paid manual labor, much like what they had done as slaves.

Nor were the freed blacks the only ones facing a dark landscape. The South had largely been burnt to the ground and, commercial and economic factors aside, bitterness and resentment were felt by both winner and loser, and for years. Diverse views were not healed in this time; rather, the sheer business of living again took hold. War devastates, but it also creates opportunities, both honorable and, as in the case of the “carpetbaggers” who ran to the South to pick what they could from the wreckage, less so.

Unity, however, came. It came quickly, as well, and the United States became a world economic and military power during the 1890’s. The Spanish-American war over Cuba was the pivotal element, both unifying the nation as one entity and creating a desperately needed financial boost. It seems extraordinary that a country just recently out of its own, huge civil conflict would make such an overt act. Still mending, however, the United States informed Spain that it would not tolerate Spanish rule in Cuba any longer, and would fight on Cuba’s side for independence.

It may be that we had some experience in knowing how limited a foreign power was in waging a war across the Atlantic. Whatever the true motives, however, the Spanish-American War gave a huge boost to the American economy, as it elevated America’s prestige worldwide. “As the result of what John Hay, the American Secretary of State, called ‘a splendid little war’…Puerto Rico and the Philippines became American territories” (Addington 128). Patriotism was running high, as government loans were fueling a new and vital economy.

There were already, however, signs of trouble coming within America. A new middle-class  just beginning to take shape, and it was not completely pleased with how things were going. Primarily, this growing segment of American society was unhappy with the government’s failure to deal with increasingly important urban and industrial problems. The Industrial Revolution, in fact, was beginning, and it was the very prosperity it created which led to the emergence of the Progressive Movement.

This movement was by no means merely political; Progressives were determined to challenge the diversity of America itself, and many had the funds made in the Gilded Age to back them up. “The Progressives developed a stunningly broad agenda…they intended nothing less than to transform other Americans, to remake the nation’s feuding, polyglot population in their own, middle-class image” (McGerr xiv). This platform would prove to have lasting repercussions on how diversity would be viewed and dealt with in America for generations to come.

During the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the United States remained neutral. Three years later in 1917, the United States joined the Allies, which proved victory (“United States”, 2010). The many consequences of the war for America, including its increased presence as a world leader and the massive casualties brought on by both war and flu epidemic, have been well-documented. In terms of American diversity, however, it was a troubling period. German-Americans were openly abused; several states declared it illegal to speak German over the telephone. It did not matter that the enemy was in Europe, nor that the war had been fought and won. We as a nation revealed, and not for the last time, an unpleasant reactionary aspect born of fear and ignorance, one which flew in the face of our diversified foundation itself.

The years of the late 19th century to the early 20th century have also seen struggles faced by women and the strengthening of the Woman Suffrage Movement (“History of the United States”, 2010). The struggle for women’s rights, and most particularly the right to vote, is reminiscent of the slavery issue in that, from a hindsight view, it is usually seen as a fairly straightforward and fast change in the American social order. Nothing could be farther from the truth, for women were jailed for years long before any headway was made. They faced as well staunch opposition from both women and men, and powerful resistance from the government. It was only through a persistent “unifying” of their voices did women achieve the basic rights so many truly suffered to obtain. As we will shortly see, it would happen again.

Right after the First World War, the stature of the United States as a world power grew on a steady trajectory. The first few decades saw an unprecedented level of prosperity, and the U.S. reveled in its hard-earned position as a global force to be reckoned with, even as its citizens enjoyed the frenzy of Jazz Age excess. When the crash came in 1929, it came with an impact nobody could have foreseen. Wall Street was ruined, as were millions of Americans, and the jobs the manufacturers needed filling were gone. This was known as the Great Depression (“History of the United States”, 2010), and it crippled the country for nearly a decade.

Ironically, unity came out of this awful experience. Homelessness and hunger were no longer the problems of an unfortunate or lazy few, and Americans bonded in their troubles. Diverse backgrounds suddenly became unimportant, as each neighbor knew the desperate needs of the home next door, and a spirit of “helping your brother” overtook the land. There was crime, of course, but the overwhelming reality is that the Depression years proved how misfortune is a greater unifying element than prosperity.

As with the First World War, the United States did not enter in the World War II until after the rest of the other Allied countries had done so. That reluctance ended dramatically when Japan launched a surprise attack on the American Naval base in Pearl Harbor, just four days after Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. Our involvement in this epic conflict solidified America’s role in world affairs as strongly as it created a national patriotism the country had yet to experience. There were, as in the previous World War, issues of discrimination against Japanese and German citizens, another example of how fear creates maltreatment. That ugliness aside, the vast majority of Americans of all backgrounds were fully behind supporting the war effort. It both revitalized a severely damaged economy and the national spirit, and it gave birth to a patriotic fever which would not be seen again until the 911 attacks of 2001.

During the mid 1960’s, the climate of a pervasive, social liberalism took hold, and this was largely sparked by the Civil Rights Movement. “For years African Americans would struggle with violence against them, but would achieve great steps towards equality with Supreme Court decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education… the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968” (qtd. “History of the United States”, 2010). It was a movement that shook the nation, as it was marked by violent protest from both white and black factions. Moreover, the Civil Rights debates of the time fueled a wider discontent with established social orders. It was not merely young people listening to The Beatles and attacking older viewpoints; the whole country was uncomfortably shifting as large populations within it began demanding absolute equality.

By the 1970’s, women were again in the headlines. Gender equality was the word of the day, referred to then as “women’s liberation”, and this movement had more to do with a discriminatory and demeaning social status, than with actual rights. Equal pay for equal work was insisted upon, but the goal was a reshaping of how women were seen. Simultaneously, and not quite as widespread, the Gay Rights movement gained strength, officially beginning with the riots at New York’s Stonewall Bar in 1969. This, too, was based on a reaction to long-held and abusive social treatment, and within a few short decades gay people would increase their standing to generate gay marriage legislation in several states.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980’s and the end of the Cold War, the United States remained the sole superpower of the globe (“History of the United States”, 2010). The road to this position has not been easy or uneventful, as outbreaks of discontent from various segments within society occur today. Racism, sexism, and ageism battles are fought in courtrooms every day, and new legislation guarding against all kinds of discrimination practices are continually written into the law books.

The United States underwent much in its history before the awakening of the country’s self-conscious cultural nationalism (Spiller, 1973). It is highly unlikely that the the U.S. could have attained its standing in the world, as well as the relative stability it enjoys within its own borders, had it not gone through the struggles it faced throughout the centuries. The nation has been, time and again, torn apart by wars, discrimination and economic downturn. Each time,  Americans prove themselves to be amazingly resilient. We make mistakes and we fight for often foolish reasons, frequently with one another. Yet we have a history to show that we do indeed learn, and come out of the hardships a stronger and more united people.

According to Daneed (1996), author Robert Royal believes that “supporters of multicultural studies insist on two contradictory positions: first, that the white, male, Protestant class of the United States has throughout history systematically repressed minority groups, women, and homosexuals; and second, that these groups somehow, in spite of their repression, have managed to make significant contributions to the history and culture of the United States, a fact that has been ignored by the dominant culture.” It is debatable, however, if these positions are truly contradictory, as it is very possible that any dominant class recognizes the need for minorities who empower themselves.

Throughout the history of the American experience, minority groups are typically mentioned only when they have taken the spotlight. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that even a “silent minority” is a part of its nation, and of that nation’s identity. If the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Gay Rights Movements were and are needed to bring attention to inequalities, blacks, women and gays have been within society all the while anyway, and there is no accounting of the influence and power these mere presences have had. Living, even daily living, brings about change in a culture, even if it is without fireworks or riots.

If it were not for the great diversities in culture, beliefs and ideas in America, the nation would not exist. They are what we are, and the unity of America is the diversity of America. People have had to struggle for respect, often in the face of outrageous bias, and a perfect nation would have no such struggles. That nation, however, would be lifeless. America grows and evolves because its people demand rights and freedoms, and stretch its perceptions with every new generation. This is what makes America a living nation, and a truly united one.

Works Cited

Addington, L. H. The Patterns of War Since the Eighteenth Century. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994. Print.

Deneed, P.J. The CBS Interactive Business Network. “Reinventing the American  People: Unity and Diversity today.” 1996, May 3. Retrieved from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1252/is_n9_v123/ai_18266251/

Greeley, H. The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States. Chicago, IL: O. D. Case & Company, 1865. Print.

Higham, J. Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.

History of the United States. Wikipedia.org. Retrieved (2010, September 15) from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States#History

McGerr, M. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement. New York, NY: Oxford University press, 2005. Print.

Spiller, R.E. “Unity and diversity in the Study of American Culture: the American Studies Association in Perspective”. American Quarterly, 25(5), 1973. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2711699.

United States. Wikipedia.org. Retrieved (2010, September 15) from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States#History

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