What is understood by the term the “American Ideology”

Ideology is a set of core beliefs, formulate answers to political questions and problems, the freedom to be whatever you want to be. In a broad sense American Ideology is considered be the freedom to be whatever you want to be, to be different, to have diversity in the greatest sense, to be free from political and religious persecution. In this essay I will look in depth into the fundamental aspects exist in the American Ideology. I will then look at aspects across US History to determine how, if at all, the Ideology has changed, focusing primarily on Black Civil Rights from the Post Civil War era to the Civil Rights period of the 1960’s. Also looking at the treatment of Native Americans in the United States and how this reaffirms or opposes the Ideology of the United States.

The core to the ideology of the United States is set out in the Constitution. It sets forth the nation’s fundamental laws. Establishing the form of the national government and defines the rights and liberties of the American people. It also lists the aims of the government and the methods of achieving them.

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“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote general welfare and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution and House of Representatives.”

Liberty, the right to move, inherit wealth; accumulate wealth the right to be free from political and religious persecution. The Ideal of liberty is born from a background of commercial rivalry, political and religious friction and persecution. As the founding fathers saw it British Crown had exceeded their powers of rule without the consent of the people. America was born out of revolution, a revolution to rid the states of an overpowering sovereign from a country where they had no representation. Therefore when writing the constitution the Founding Fathers were careful to avoid a strong centralised monarchical state that they felt would restrict the rights of the people of the United States to practice their religion and cultures freely.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” 1

This clearly states that there shall be no religious persecution, or any type of institution set up to restrict religion in the United States. America was and is supposed to be a society where everyone is equal no matter what his or her religion on social status

“The highest and only true form of Civilisation is Christian Civilisation -as Civilisation without Christianity is only cultured Barbarism”2

The Assimilation of Native Americans was a major campaign of the US Governments in the 19th Century, particularly through the establishment of boarding schools. The Carlisle Indian School was founded in 1879, prior to this Education of Native Americans was conducted in the Missions by clergy. From the outset the education of Native Americans was concerned with assimilating them into “Civilised” US Society. However the Boarding Schools were different, although they too were to be used as tools to bring Native Americans in to society, however unlike the Missions they took the child out of their natural environment, often thousands of miles with the intention of completely displacing them from their culture and religious beliefs. Pratt’s intention was not to segregate the Native Americans; in fact he was deeply anti-segregation

“All men were created equal, and he deplored the inconsistency by which reservation Indians were barred from civil society…complete assimilation should be the only object of race education”3

However, despite Pratt being anti-segregation what he did was to put in place was an institution that was specifically designed to prevent the Native Americans from practicing their cultural and religious life styles. Boarding Schools such as Carlisle and Chilocco were there to

“Educate, assimilate, and as anthropologist Tsianina Lomawaima says, “detribalise” American Indian children”4

They were intent on completely removing any identification that Native American Children had with their tribe, so much so that the students were prohibited from speaking their Native Languages and practicing their religion.

“The General Allotment Act, passed in 1887, and subsequent legislation had worked to erode the traditional communal method of landholding in favour of individual ownership on reservations”5

All these policies clearly contradict the idea of Liberty, the right to practice religion and live under their own culture within the United States without being forced otherwise. Is it possible however to live in the United States without having to subscribe to a certain way of life? Clearly, Pratt and others did not believe it to be this way. They believed that for Native Americans to be able to live freely in the United States they needed to be assimilated into the popular culture of the United States ridding them of their cultural and religious identity.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

Another core aspect to American Ideology is the idea of Equality. In essence this is concerned with Equality of opportunity, a political ideal that is opposed to caste hierarchy but not to hierarchy per se. It assumes that society has some hierarchy, but does not accept the hierarchy of caste society where individual’s role in society is assigned to them at birth acquiring the social standing of their parents. The right for social mobility is possible in caste society, but generally it is only possible for people who already have a good social standing. The ideal of Equality of opportunity that Americans prescribe to, be one that involves the opportunity to move through competitive process, all members of society are eligible to compete on equal terms.6 The emphasis of Equality of Opportunity is through Education, the state should provide everyone with a good basic education the benefits of which are an equal opportunity to earn and move socially on the same standing as others. This has however, not been the case for many minority groups in the US, particularly African Americans, up until the 1960’s with the advent of the Civil Rights Acts, African Americans had been exposed to a:

“System of explicit hierarchy, of caste, of inequality related to hereditary origins”

Equality, at least in regards to American Ideology, as mentioned before is achieved through Education, an equal education. A Europeanised education system along the lines of English Grammar schools had been rejected in the United States, believing it would foster a “rigid class society” 7 all those who entered into education were to be treated the same regardless of class, birth, religion, gender or colour, evidently however this was not general practice.

African American schools however were not equal, under funded and with a lower proportion of students going on to higher education.

Not only where they prevented from achieving through education, White Southerners attempted to separate the races in every sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. The Civil Rights Movement during the 50’s and 60s was a political, legal and social struggle by black Americans to achieve racial equality. It was primarily a challenge to Segregation. This segregation, the protesters argued was a violation of their rights as Americans. The civil rights protesters appealed to the federal government claiming it was breaching the 14th amendment

“All persons born or naturalised in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…”

The Idea that everyone should be treated equally no matter what their race, creed, has undoubtedly been violated in regards to the treatment of African Americans. Evidently states were making laws which prevented African Americans from having complete liberty and privileges However although these “unalienable” rights had been set out in the constitution it was still difficult for Federal Government to impose any control over the States internal affairs. The system of government in the United States was set up to avoid being a strong centralised government. It is not there to involve themselves in state affairs. It would be very difficult for the Federal Government to involve themselves in state affairs, as Americans are very mistrusting of a government that doesn’t let them choose. Essentially it all boils down to the fact that when the constitution was signed, because they didn’t want a strong central government they gave the states certain rights which they choose to exercise in whatever way they see fit. Therefore they believe that the federal government shouldn’t engross themselves in those matters, as that would be unconstitutional

“From a logical point of view, the Declaration of Independence either affirmed the freedom of the African immigrant, or it denied his humanity. Because each state continued almost as a separate sovereign entity, the Declaration of Independence became a philosophical abstraction, and the status of the African in America was determined independently by each.”8

The Founding Fathers were suspicious of collectives and unions, this suspicion of mass groups created tensions between equality of opportunity and economic individualism. There is a huge stress on individual rather than collective action in the states, which is a reason why Trade Union membership is so low. This spirit of self-reliance goes some way to explaining why despite the United States being the most industrialised yet; it has the “Weakest welfare system in the developed world” 9

However two major changes in the 20th Century occurred which do contradict the original creed that America was built on; it’s emphasis on antistatist, and individual rights. Firstly in the 1930’s the beginning of plans for a welfare state placed greater emphasis on class-consciousness. Also Trade Union Involvement began to grow. The Great Depression greatly altered the view of the role of Federal Government. There was a greater emphasis on planning, on introducing a welfare state increasing the role of the government as a major player in the economy, something that before could not have been imagined. As there was a deficit in financing the role of government went up in regards to the economy, and in turn whilst dealing with economic downsizing support furthered for the Trade Unions. After world ware two however there was greater prosperity and huge growth, social mobility was up and the numbers who went into higher education was steadily rising, this increased mobility created a new liberal ideology, there were fewer class tensions and the support for the labour movement reduced after it had flourished in the New Deal era.

“Positive discrimination in favour of ethnic minorities, women… can mean the application of rules and standards intended to benefit whole social groups…. The merits of individuals are sometimes subordinated to those of the group.”10

Affirmative action moved away from equality in an individualistic sense, towards equal treatment for the collectives. An example of how individual and collective gains contradict each other is in that of African Americans, who collectively pulled together to favour their group rights, yet as American they are expected to respond positively to individualistic philosophy.

“When we examine the meaning of Americanism, we discover that Americanism is to the American not a tradition or territory… but a doctrine… like socialism… attraction toward a system of ideas, democracy, liberty, opportunity, which the American adheres because it does him good”11

It was once said that it was Americans fate as a nation not to have an ideology to be one12.

“America [is the] only nation inn world rounded on creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence”13

To be American is an ideological commitment and to reject the ideologies of the USA is to become un-American and to exclude yourself from those rights that the government give to you. It appears to me that there have been in the past two value systems in the states, one for Whites and one for Native Americans (primarily). Indeed there may have been equality of opportunity, but this equality of opportunity was only open to whites, as before the abolition of slavery African Americans were caste in chains and subjected to cruel conditions restricting their right to equality. Even after the abolition of slavery, African Americans were still treated as inferior and unequal. Their schools were under funded and they did not have the same facilities as white people, clearly therefore, it is can be seen that African not only didn’t have Equality of Opportunity, but they also didn’t have Equality of Condition. The treatment of African Americans throughout American history up until the civil rights period has been a systematic deviation from the American Creed,

“An American Dilemma that white Americans including most southerners believe in the Creed even though their race practices violate it”14

Not only did it deny their right to Education, Equality and Liberty, but also they were excluded from voting by arbitrary laws, which regarded as only 3/5 of an American Citizen, the Grandfather Clause and Poll Tax.

Throughout American history minorities have been denied their right to actively take part in the one principle, which embodies the true nature of America, legitimises the government and is essential in the running of a capitalist economy, Democracy.

American Ideology has remained the same throughout political history in the USA, but it is the methods with which it is implemented which have changed. The ideology of the states does involve equality but if there is not equality for opportunity or equality of condition then there can be no equality at all. America clearly does have an ideology, however this ideology is an ideology imposed from above, not one that is representative of society as a whole, it is one that has been adopted from a white puritan background, as pointed out although African Americans as Americans subscribe to the idea of individualism, as a minority group they also are strongly drawn to the rights of the group, a direct contradiction to Individualism. The core components of the American Ideology, although good in principle, form an idea of “Americanism” therefore creating a boundary for all those immigrants from other countries who want to live in America but also practice their cultural beliefs.