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You, the People

American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric

By Vanessa B. Beasley

Publication Year: 2011

New in paperback As we ask anew in these troubled times what it means to be an American, You, the People provides perspective by casting its eye over the answers given by past U.S. presidents in their addresses to the public. Who is an American, and who is not?   And yet, as Vanessa Beasley demonstrates in this eloquent exploration of a century of presidential speeches, the questions are not new. Since the Founders first identified the nation as “we, the people,” the faces and accents of U.S. citizens have changed dramatically due to immigration and other constitutive changes.  U.S. presidents have often spoken as if there were one monolithic American people. Here Beasley traces rhetorical constructions of American national identity in presidents’ inaugural addresses and state of the union messages from 1885 through 2000. She argues convincingly that while the demographics of the voting citizenry changed rapidly during this period, presidential definitions of American national identity did not. Chief executives have consistently employed a rhetoric of American nationalism that is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive; Beasley examines both the genius and the limitations of this language.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication


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pp. i-ii

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pp. ix-x

In the process of writing this book I have been humbled many times. Like any writer, I have been humbled by how much I have not known about the subject matter herein. Henry Steele Commager once wrote that it would take “a thousand essays to penetrate to the truth about America.” Although there were times when I took his words literally as I revised this work, most of the time I took them to mean that all any author writing about the nature of democracy in the United States can hope for is...

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Introduction: Presidential Rhetoric and the Challenge of a Diverse Democracy

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pp. 3-23

On September 11, 2001, as I listened in disbelief to news of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I could not stop asking myself two questions: What was happening to us, and what might we do in response to the attacks?
Like most people, I asked these questions in part because of the attacks’ obvious geopolitical implications. Surely these were calculated acts of aggression, meaning that the United States was...

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1. The Riddle of the “American People”

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pp. 24-45

America is truly a shock to the stranger,” Gunnar Myrdal wrote knowingly in 1944. “The bewildering impression it gives of dissimilarity throughout and of chaotic unrest is indicated by the fact that few outside observers—and indeed, few native Americans—have been able to avoid the intellectual escape of speaking about America as ‘paradoxical.’”1

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2. A Presidential Rhetoric of Shared Beliefs

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pp. 46-67

In the preceding chapter I noted that, despite the many factors that could ostensibly pull the American people apart, for centuries scholars and other observers have agreed that the people of the United States are somehow bound together by ideational models of national identity. The working hypothesis behind most explanations of American...

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3. Immigration and Presidents’ Rhetoric of Shared Beliefs

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pp. 68-92

One can hardly think about the United States’ diverse democracy without also thinking about Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and Emma Lazarus. Bartholdi’s copper Statue of Liberty, one of the few uncontested icons in the United States, symbolizes the nation’s great invitation to the rest of the world, captured so eloquently in Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus.” Carved into the base of his sculpture are her words...

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4. Race and Presidents’ Rhetoric of Shared Beliefs

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pp. 93-120

Although many pundits of the mid-1990s declared O. J. Simpson’s murder trial to be the “trial of the century,” future historians may wonder whether this event deserved such a title. What could possibly make the Simpson trial more important than, say, the...

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5. Gender and Presidents’ Rhetoric of Shared Beliefs

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pp. 121-148

Woodrow Wilson did not mention American women’s suffrage in his December 2, 1913, annual message to Congress. This omission was hardly unusual; almost none of his predecessors had mentioned the issue when dispatching the annual message to Congress. Yet Wilson’s failure to mention women’s voting rights was significant nonetheless, at least to Anna Howard Shaw. Like many...

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Chapter 6 Implications of Presidents’ Rhetoric of Shared Beliefs

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pp. 149-170

In this book I have asked how U.S. presidents have constructed American national identity from 1885 to 2000. In doing so, I have considered the following questions: How have chief executives defined American identity in such a highly heterogeneous, pluralistic culture? How have they explained the more symbolic aspects of U.S. citizenship to a rapidly diversifying public? And why have they...


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pp. 171-188


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pp. 189-198


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pp. 199-206

E-ISBN-13: 9781603444873
E-ISBN-10: 1603444874
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603442985
Print-ISBN-10: 1603442987

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: Bib. Index.
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication
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OCLC Number: 607802176
MUSE Marc Record: Download for You, the People