The Documents that Define America

Thursday, May 31, 2012

What does it mean to be an American? By what texts do we define ourselves as "We, the People"? Since our country's founding, Americans have debated the speeches and tracts sacred to our founding, from the Exodus story to the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, Americans are defined by the diversity of our voices, by our ability to remain united while we disagree through our civic discourse. 

In this election year, politicians and pundits constantly debate the "true" meaning of America's core canon, asking what the Founding Fathers or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Eleanor Roosevelt would think of immigration reform, or affirmative action, or birth control. In his new book, author and professor Stephen Prothero writes, "To answer these questions, they have returned, over and over again, to certain core texts. These core texts constitute a de facto canon of American public life." Prothero has collected these core texts in his new book, "The American Bible."


Stephen Prothero

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman and Jillian Weinberger

Comments [12]


The "Law" portion of Prothero's book is mostly inexplicable. The U.S. Constitution; I get that one.

But Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and Roe v. Wade are two completely weird choices. Both decisions are historic, yes. Both decisions made big differences. But both decisions are technically warped and terrible examples of Supreme Court jurisprudence. In Brown, the Court went overboard in relying on obscure and dubious social science evidence to justify itself, instead of denouncing "separate but equal" as fundamentally unconstitutional. And in Roe, the decision has been hotly criticized by scholars from the day it was delivered. It is a messy, incomprehensible, sloppy decision no matter what one might think about abortion rights.

Prothero left out the Federalist Papers. That is such a glaring omission that one wonders what he was even thinking.

Can anyone figure out why Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- a list of names -- counts as American literature? It is a stunning, gorgeous, moving and beautifully executed bit of sculpture. But so is the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Statue of Liberty. Incidentally, why isn't the inscription at the base of Lady Liberty ("Give me your tired, your weak...") a nominee?

May. 31 2012 07:01 PM
Margaret from UWS Manhattan

The aspects of the Iroquois Federation that were influential in developing the Constitution.

May. 31 2012 03:50 PM
matt malpass from East Jordan MI

East Jordan, Michigan
I would nominate Dr. King's speech "Where do we go from here?"
August 16th, 1967
" day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are questions that must be asked...."

May. 31 2012 03:24 PM
J. Ross from Long Island, NY

Principled Minority: If freedom is the potential that constitutes human existence,
then assertive, self-actualizing people of conscience must be ready to perform rationally that which they advocate in principle. For, we are our freedom!
(Based on: Maslow, Alberti, Kohlberg, Ellis, Ross, Sartre)
The Moral Majority exists, I believe, in name only.

May. 31 2012 12:40 PM
Tim Fradeneck from Eastpointe MI

Although I am not a Rotarian I have long had a copy of "The Four Way Test of the things we think, say or do." in my office. I offer it here as an ideal of civility for this discussion.
1. Is it the Truth?
2. Is it Fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build Good Will and Better Friendships?
4. Will it be Beneficial to all concerned?

May. 31 2012 10:03 AM
Neil Reisner from Hollywood, FL

"Once in a while you get shown in the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right."

While not part of the established American canon, this lyric from the Grateful Dead's song "Scarlet Begonias" epitomizes American inventiveness, the notion that's led to everything from polio vaccines to computer chips.

May. 31 2012 10:01 AM

I was wondering why you did not use the
term "القرآن الأمريكي" in your piece?

May. 31 2012 10:00 AM

Well at least the show is keeping a audio editor employed as the substantive content wanes.
Hey, you try defending this President's policies all summer based on the facts.

"Everybody gets a a really powerful notion as America as a place of opportunity"
Getting free stuff from others is what America is about on public radio? Figures.
I think the professor is missing the point and it is not at all surprising.

May. 31 2012 09:57 AM
Mary Jo Valdes from Newport, RI

George Washington's 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport, RI, was the first statement made by a world leader guaranteeing freedom of worship for all people. Its as relevant today as it was over 2 centuries ago.

May. 31 2012 09:56 AM

The climax of Theodore Roosevelt’s nomination acceptance speech at the Progressive Party convention of 1912 was his declaration that “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” How ironic therefore that Armageddon for the supposedly “Progressive” forces of organized labor should be occurring in the Progressive promised land of Wisconsin next week."

Where does the Liberal-Progressive insistence on religion go the other 364 days of the year?

"Sic Semper Biblia", or, if you'd rather "Go ahead. Make my day."

May. 31 2012 09:13 AM
Ed from Larchmont

I would vote for Leaves of Grass and Catch-22 as the most American of books.

May. 31 2012 08:14 AM
Joseph Smith from Oak Park, IL

Wilson's Fourteen Points. This document ended the ability of the United States to ever employ an effective isolationist foreign policy again.

May. 31 2012 07:30 AM

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