The American image today is painted with national pride
The American image today is painted with national pride, international valor, and the faith of a land of opportunity. However, the American identity is much more complex than the traits the United States broadcasts publicly. It is defined by the culture, values, and aspirations that serve as a framework for society in the nation. This identity takes root from the 1600s in the first few colonies located in present-day Virginia. Both the initial settlers, whose aims were to gain wealth quickly through cash crops, and the disenfranchised, who came to pay off debt by work or were enslaved for labor in plantations, helped lay the foundation of the nation’s identity. The two groups aimed towards the eventual opportunity to provide for themselves in the New World and live with freedom. Many colonists were more successful in creating self-sufficient plantations and businesses and lived with rights and freedom, while the disenfranchised, although working towards the goal of freedom and self-sufficiency, were bound by their work to lower classes in American society. Although the disenfranchised contributed to the formation of the American society through their work that allowed for prosperity and industries to grow, the Virginian colonists significantly impacted the American identity through their values of self-sufficiency and freedom.
From economics to politics, self-sufficiency is a predominant value in the American identity. The earliest examples originate from the Jamestown colony in Virginia. John Smith, the leader of the Jamestown colonists, described in “The General History of Virginia” how he helped restructure the colony and living conditions so the colony was able to survive and everyone had their own living quarters (1). Although Native Americans later helped the colonists by providing supplies and food, Smith believed this was the success brought from his colony’s endurance through a period of disease and famine (Smith 3). Smith’s ideology of the importance of self-sufficiency in the success of the colony instigates one of the foundations of American identity. This value sustained to the Revolutionary Era as Edmund Morgan, Professor of History at Yale University, mentioned self-sufficiency was significant during the formation of the United States in his article, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox.” Morgan said founding father Thomas Jefferson believed citizens in the republic could only be free if they were “economically free by virtue of owning land on which to support themselves” (8). Providing for oneself through a source of income, such as land, plays a significant role in the development of American identity as it also develops the core capitalist values found in America. The principle of self-sufficiency also extends to the government as according to Morgan, the idea of the ability for a man to provide for himself was the “axiom of current political thought” of republican government (8). The government’s unwavering focus on self-sustainability provided a framework for policies to build up America’s international strength and lessen the dependency on other nations, which ultimately allowed it to grow today’s level of influence.
The value of minimizing dependence and idleness in work held by the successful colonists led to the introduction of slavery to promote self-sufficiency (Morgan 10). This aided the development of republican and capitalist values as colonists had more time for specialization and governance (Morgan 29). The disenfranchised persons themselves, however, came to the colonies dependent on their masters as indentured servants or slaves for survival and later, once they were “freemen,” many were homeless, jobless, and ineffective in society (Morgan 20). According to Professor of History at Louisiana State University Nancy Isenberg’s book, “White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America,” many of the poor and unsuccessful white colonists were unemployed and became a distasteful part of American community (63).
With the introduction of the disenfranchised African slaves, many of the poor colonists reverted back to idleness or to working in plantations, generating income for the land owners. Although the efforts by the disenfranchised to build up American infrastructure and work on plantations were important factors to the success of the American colonies, the first disenfranchised were poor and meager workers who lived by dependency and did not serve to help build the American identity; instead, the colonists were the bastions of developing the United States through their values of self-sufficiency.