Look at any American history textbook, and you can see that the definition of what it means to be an American is not static; from the nation’s start to modern day, “American” as an identity has evolved and grown constantly. In a country that prides itself on its “melting pot” status, we must not forget how far we’ve come to achieve such a plethora of ethnicity, and how much further we still must go to eliminate the racial tensions that still lurk in our institutions and everyday life. Beliefs bind Americans, not exterior appearances.
While the American identity is not defined by a specific “look” or racial/ethnic background, there are a few set of values that bind all Americans together, values that have remained mostly static since the country’s birth. Benjamin Franklin perfect summarizes the “American identity” in his essay “Information To Those Who Would Remove To America“. Written in 1782, right after the country’s establishment, Franklin describes life in American for other Europeans wishing to immigrate. He proposes contrasts between America and Europe, focusing on the emphasis on ability in America versus the European emphasis on birth and nobility. Franklin writes “In Europe [birth] has indeed its value; but it is a commodity that cannot be carried to a worse market than that of America, where people do not inquire concerning a stranger, what is he? but, what can he do?” (The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 472). Here, Franklin exemplifies the oldest American value, that it’s not what you’re born with, but what you can make of yourself. American identity revolves around the notion that anyone can be happy and successful in life, no matter their circumstances; all that is required is hard work. This idea is still part of American identity today, evolving into the motto that “anyone can strike it rich”; we went from the California Gold Rush to the California tech boom and then to the rise of social media millionaires, making money off of product endorsements and a few hundred thousand followers.
Though Instagram starlets may not be what Benjamin Franklin had in mind when described America as “the land of labor”, this is what his ideas have evolved to (473). Hard work, no matter the job, is held as one of the highest values in American, and is something we can all identify with; whether is be working three jobs to support a family, working towards a college degree, starting up a business, etc., all Americans can understand and value a good work ethic, regardless of generation, race, class, gender, or religion.