The Idea of America: A perennial story of value tensions?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series The Idea of America
Williamsburg Idea of America book cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Storytelling entertains, educates, and teaches.

The stories we tell—about our nation’s founding, about our history, and about our future—convey the continuity of American ideals and principles. One such story, or set of stories, is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia—an entire town that has been restored to what it was like in the 18th century. In addition to a restored village, it has many educational programs.

One such program is The Idea of America. Do you know about it?

The Idea of America has several expressions: It is a digital program for students, then a digital program for the general public, and now it’s a book. The central premise is that “Americans embrace values that are often in tension.” These tensions existed in the founding moments of our nation and still exist today.

What are these tensions? The program and book outlines four tensions:

  • Law versus ethics
  • Freedom versus equality
  • Unity versus diversity
  • Common wealth versus private wealth

The Idea of America project walks us through our history, discussing how these four tensions have animated virtually every domain of life. This week, we’ll take a look at each tension, one each day.

Today, I’d like to begin the story with a conclusion reached by journalist Max Lerner decades ago, commenting on the polarization that existed then and that, in a various forms, exists still today. His astute observation is reproduced in The Idea of America:

“One may see in these polar impulses the proof that American life is deeply split. One may prefer to see them as contradictory parts of a bewildering puzzle. Or one may see them as signs of an effort, on a grander scale than ever in history, to resolve the conflicting impulses that are to be found in every civilization but each of which occurs here with a strength and tenacity scarcely witnessed elsewhere.”

If you have visited Colonial Williamsburg, what was your reaction?
Do you agree that America is an effort to resolve conflicting impulses?
Or, are we just deeply split?

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