A review of Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity by Mary E. Stuckey

In the aftermath of 9/11, we find ourselves in a war in which it is difficult to identify the enemy. Is our enemy Osama bin Laden and his followers alone, as John Kerry sometimes maintained in the last presidential campaign? Or the states in the Middle East that harbor them? Or Islam? Or some branch of Islam? Or some heresy within some branch of Islam? One cannot intelligently fight a war without knowing who the enemy is.

We must also be able to distinguish our enemies from our friends. But in the war on terrorism, we also find this difficult to do. Is the House of Saud our enemy despite outward manifestations of support? Are France and Germany our friends despite outward manifestations of opposition?

Aristotle taught that there are different kinds of friendships, some based on mere pleasure or utility, but the deepest dependent upon a shared understanding of what is good and just. This deeper understanding tells us who we are as Americans. The topic of Mary Stuckey's book is thus a timely one. Through a study of presidential rhetoric, she seeks to aid us in forming a better definition of what it means to be an American. Stuckey, a professor of communication and political science at Georgia State University, looks at past presidents not so much to ascertain this better definition, but to point out that their definitions have deficiencies that need to be overcome. 

The book is a series of seven snapshots of the ways in which American presidents have defined Americans. The seven essays examine Andrew Jackson; the less-than-holy trinity of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan; Grover Cleveland; Woodrow Wilson; FDR; Dwight Eisenhower; and the elder George Bush. In each case, Stuckey attempts to show how the rhetoric of presidents has tended to either include or exclude various groups from full participation in the political and cultural life of the nation. The pattern of inclusion and exclusion, she argues, is based upon the necessity of preserving and protecting the coalitions that won them the White House in the first place. Though the trend has been towards a gradual inclusion of groups in the national mix, the defect in these presidents' rhetoric is a tendency toward "a seamless, linear, univocal articulation of America," one that serves to suppress alternative voices and restrict political opinions.

The book does not proceed under the assumption that we can learn from past presidents a good definition of the United States. Rather it accepts without examination the multicultural definition of America, and by this standard judges past presidents. The perfect America—perhaps impossible, but nevertheless an ideal to be sought—is one in which no cultural group is excluded and all are equally respected. America's identity, then, is to "celebrate our plurality of identities."

The attacks of 9/11 revealed the inadequacy of this ideal for anyone with eyes to see. The attacks showed that there was at least one group, one murderous culture in the world that was not our friend and did not wish to be our friend.

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Nonetheless, Stuckey conceives of America as a kaleidoscope of different groups. America's identity is therefore different at every moment, rendering impossible any definitive answer to the question of what America is. But Stuckey does not see that even this view would require that which she abhors, namely, the need "to suppress alternative voices and restrict political options," because one would need to suppress the voice of any group that defined America in opposition to multiculturalism.

Stuckey's theoretical confusion perhaps explains the strange anomalies of her analysis. If one had decided, as Stuckey has, to examine presidential rhetoric in order to see how America has been defined, it would make most sense to examine those presidents who were in office at the times in which American identity was most in question. The two obvious times are the founding, when the country was yet to be formed, and the Civil War, when disputes over the meaning and character of America led to calamity. The two most important presidents to examine would be George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yet Stuckey scarcely mentions either one, without justification for her neglect.

It would be difficult to examine Lincoln's rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion without rejecting Stuckey's analysis. The group Lincoln would exclude in defining America would be the Southern slave-owners and their sympathizers who thought that slavery was justified by the laws of both man and God. Lincoln was willing to wage a terrible war to prevent pro-slavery opinion from dominating the Union, and as a result the slave-owners' culture was entirely destroyed. In Stuckey's view, Lincoln would have to be considered the greatest villain in American history for being completely intolerant of almost half the country. At the same time, he must be its greatest hero for including the slaves in America. Yet the latter was possible only because of the former. 

Stuckey has difficulty defending her thesis even though she restricts her gaze to less revealing and troublesome figures. In fact, she is compelled at times to be morally and politically obtuse in order to maintain her argument. An interesting case is that of the Mormons. She treats the statements of various 19th-century presidents critical of the Mormons as yet another example of the willful, improper exclusion of groups with a culture at odds with the dominant one. But she never asks, for instance, whether Brigham Young ruled as a kind of theocratic despot incompatible with American democracy, as President Buchanan alleged, or whether the practice of polygamy is irreconcilable with the equality of men and women, as President Cleveland alleged. Stuckey wishes to avoid making any moral or political judgment about a group, no matter how reasonable, for fear someone, anyone, will develop the habit of making exclusionary judgments.

But one cannot judge a group's inclusion or exclusion from America as good or bad without an understanding of what America is. This is perhaps a second reason why Stuckey does not look at Lincoln, for he gave a powerful answer to that question, one that Stuckey disdains. As Lincoln stated succinctly in the Gettysburg Address, he held the United States to be a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." And as he explained in a speech in Chicago in 1858, there are many Americans who have no ties of blood to those who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Yet when they hear the phrase We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, Lincoln said, they

feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.

Different cultures can unite together as one country, he believed, because the country was founded on principles that transcend them all. 

Stuckey rejects this view of America without considering it, and it is clear why. Lincoln views human beings as individuals, possessing "certain unalienable rights," rather than as creatures defined by the group to which they belong and by the government that recognizes and often rewards them. In Stuckey's view, to address Americans in terms of the rights they all share is to deny differences like "race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, age, or disability," which to deny is itself a form of oppression. She complains, for example, that after women gained the vote, the presidential attention given them as a group declined, for "they now became invisible again, vanished into the mass of citizenry."

U.S. presidents have much to teach us about what it means to be an American, but one cannot learn that from Stuckey. She claims to see American history as a continual conversation about what being American means. But the first step in a proper conversation is to listen to what the other person has to say; and she will have none of that.