Becoming America: Thinking through Identity, Culture, and Traditions in Early America

Out of Many, One?

Overview: Out of Many, One?

Studying history is one way for all kinds of people to feel a part of something together. It is a way of discussing and having conversations with other people despite our differences. Sometimes those stories become important ways to show we belong or that we believe in the same values or ideals.

A nation is often defined by its borders, but that doesn’t always mean that all of the people inside have the same beliefs and values, especially at the time of a nation’s founding. The United States is made up of people from many different backgrounds. Diverse viewpoints are constructed by people who all have different accounts of the past, which is shaped by their perspectives, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and lived experiences. Over time those accounts can become stories and myths that we tell each other about what happened, and those stories shape our identities as a nation.

Sometimes those stories from the past are not historically accurate because our memories don’t quite hold on that long. We build collective memories of our history to pass on to future generations and make the stories fit who we think we are or who we want to be. Often we use objects, songs, stories, art, and rituals to help fill in the gaps or to keep myths going. In turn, our collective memories and various accounts of historic events can change what we think happened.

Image of a bald eagle on a Union shield with an American flag in its beak; other items including an olive branch, broken chains and shackle, and the Constitution.

Julius Bien (1826-1909, printer), White-headed eagle with Union shield and Constitution, 1861, color printed lithograph. | The Jay T. Last Collection of Graphic Arts and Social History, Huntington Digital Library

Americans seem to value creative expression, pioneering attitudes, and striving to be our authentic selves. But we are also not immune to the judgement of others and the human need for connection. We live in a nation made of many communities, so we all struggle with the tension between expressing individuality and fitting into groups. We each make decisions about how much of our true selves we are willing to compromise to be a part of the herd. Being a part of a nation naturally requires some sacrifice of individual freedom, but how much is too much?

The objects and activities in this unit will help you and your students explore the tension between being an individual and being part of a group or nation. Investigating each object’s origins, use, and symbolic meaning, will give you new insight into what it means to be an individual in America today and centuries ago.

Essential Questions That Frame This Unit

  • How do objects and art help us understand our past?
  • How do the stories and myths of our past impact our view of society?
  • What can we learn about who we are from historical myths that persist in our culture?
  • Have American values about individualism changed over time?
  • How much individual freedom should we sacrifice to be part of a bigger group or nation?
  • How much do our communities shape who we are?
  • How much do you value individualism?

Student Understandings

  • People's perspectives shape the historical sources that they create.
  • Dominant narratives about American identity sometimes stray from historical fact.
  • Historical objects and art can be used to inform or change beliefs, values, or behaviors of an individual or society.
  • Historical objects and art can be used to represent, establish, reinforce, and reflect group identity.
  • Americans generally tend to value individualism more than collectivism, but it’s sometimes hard to find the right balance.
  • Being a part of a group or community is good for a person’s well-being, but can also lead to mistreatment of those outside the group.
  • People make decisions about how much to change their individual identities in order to fit in with bigger groups.
Featured Object Stories