Behold, America: Sarah Churchwell in conversation

Sarah Churchwell's book Behold, America explores how ideas of 'the American Dream' and 'America First' shaped decades of US history. She met fellow historian Adam IP Smith to discuss her arguments

Sarah Churchwell and Adam IP Smith in conversation

Adam IP Smith: Your book is about two ideas: ‘the American Dream’ and ‘America First’. Why did you want to write a book balancing those two concepts?

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Sarah Churchwell: My previous book was about The Great Gatsby, and it turns out that if you write about F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel you get asked endlessly to comment on the American Dream. My research for that book showed that when people in the 1920s and 30s talked about the American Dream, they were referring to something very different from our understanding today – which is, generally speaking, personal opportunity and economic success.

And then Donald Trump launched his bid for president. His rhetoric about the American Dream – and the way it seemed to mobilise America’s cult of business – fitted into what I’d been thinking about. When he also started using the term ‘America First’, that rang a bell, so I dug into it further. It turns out those two concepts emerged in American popular conversations at about the same time, and that is not really a coincidence.

There’s a view that the American Dream and free-market capitalism are one and the same and always have been
Sarah Churchwell

AS: One of your core ideas is that ‘the American Dream’ has been drained of the meaning it had in the first half of the 20th century. Can you talk more about the nature of that change?

SC: It’s basically been flipped on its head, and now means the opposite of what it was coined to express. Among US conservative commentators and rightwing media there’s a provocative, explicit assumption that the American Dream and free-market capitalism are one and the same and always have been, and to say anything else is un-American. But in fact the American Dream was coined to articulate the need for what we would call social democracy and for regulating capitalism. So whatever else you may say about ‘the American Dream’ as a phrase, it is absolutely not inimical to those two ideas.


Listen to Sarah and Adam’s conversation in full on our podcast:


AS: It was, to draw on the phrase you use in your book, about how to stop bad millionaires, not about how to become one.

SC: Exactly. I was really interested in the idea that the conversation about the American Dream emerged at a time when US capitalism was consolidating, causing widespread concern. I researched this book by exploring newspapers to look at the conversations ordinary Americans were having on all sides of the political spectrum. People had different answers, but were asking similar questions about how to tackle rampant monopoly capitalism and burgeoning corporate capitalism.

What they said was: if we were to let this run amok, it would destroy the American Dream of justice, equality and democracy. And, when you think about it, that makes much better sense as a ‘dream’ – what political scientists sometimes call ‘the American creed’. That’s a phrase I also use to try to distinguish older ideas that have always been there in the US political consciousness from the phrase ‘the American Dream’ that was invented around the start of the 20th century.

AS: Who were the people who started using the term ‘the American Dream’ in its early-20th-century sense?

SC: Thanks to computers, I was able to search for forgotten uses of these phrases in newspapers across America – not only major papers but also small local publications – which lets us reframe some of our cultural and social history. This isn’t ‘great man history’, because it wasn’t always so-called ‘important people’ who coined these phrases. They emerged from national conversations.

It’s interesting to watch the idea of the American Dream as it began to get iterated. The earliest use I found was in about 1895, in a speech commemorating President Ulysses S Grant. It was one of the earliest instances I found of the phrase being used to identify a collective, national ideal. You can see it start to seep across the political conversation over the next 20 years, and the notion that the American Dream denoted a value system that needed to be protected from capitalism began to consolidate between 1900 and 1915.

There were many ways to articulate that ideal, of course, and the ‘American creed’ was in many ways a more popular and powerful one at the time. I felt as if I was watching a race, in which that particular phrase had been at the forefront – until ‘the American Dream’ begin to overtake it as a way to articulate similar concepts and to coalesce around the idea of economic inequality as a threat. And, of course, as these phrases emerged, the ideas around them continued to shift. They didn’t suddenly calcify into one idea.

AS: You’ve talked about the emergence of the term ‘the American Dream’ referring to, in essence, a political dream. Where did the phrase ‘America First’ come from?

SC: The earliest use I identified was as a local Republican political slogan in 1885. It was also used on campaign buttons and banners, again locally, around the turn of the century. But the phrase was really popularised by Woodrow Wilson during his campaign for re-election as president in a speech in 1915. At that point it really took off as a national catchphrase.

AS: And what did Wilson mean by America First?

SC: He was using it to try to navigate a very complicated political terrain between a very strong isolationist sentiment that held sway in the US at the time, and a strong urge towards political neutrality – which is not necessarily the same as isolationism. The reasons for American neutrality in the First World War were more complex than people often appreciate. For instance, a large number of Irish-Americans were absolutely outraged at the idea of entering a wartime alliance with Britain.

But Wilson was an internationalist. He gave a speech setting out that he wanted to put America first not by being last to do anything but by waiting to see the outcome of the conflict – and therefore putting the US in the best position to help everyone afterwards.

It was fundamentally his attempt to have his cake and eat it, to pander to isolationism in the name of internationalism, and it didn’t really work. The phrase took off, but all of the nuance he wanted to inject into it got lost instantly. It just became a kind of calling card for isolationism and neutrality.

Propaganda poster for US war bonds, 1917
A 1917 propaganda poster for US war bonds, aimed at recent immigrants. The First World War was marked by arguments about who was and wasn’t ‘American’ – and how you could tell (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

AS: When Wilson used the phrase he was running an election campaign, in the words of one of his contemporaries, as “the man who kept us out of the war”. No sooner had he been elected, of course, than he brought the US into the war. At that point, America First became conflated with an upsurge in wartime nationalism that had a very nasty racial component.

SC: One of the things that most interested me was how the phrase became instantly jingoistic as soon as America entered the war. It was used for war bonds and first-aid drives, but at the same time got caught up with a complex xenophobic conversation. It became associated with another national catchphrase – ‘100% Americanism’ – the meaning of which moved and shifted.

And the whole point of using such codes is so you can hide behind them and never quite be clear about what you mean. You can always claim, for instance, that you meant ‘pure patriotism’ when you say somebody should be ‘100% American’. This is a nation whose constitution had a ‘three-fifths compromise’, which said that slaves were three-fifths of a person, and a so-called ‘one-drop rule’, which meant that you ascertained whether someone was ‘legally negro’ – that is to say, legally not a ‘full’ person – by whether they had one drop of ‘negro blood’.

So this notion of eugenicist ‘purity’ was very much caught up in the idea of what it meant to be American, and those two things converged at the same moment around conversations about America First. The phrase ‘100% Americanism’ started being used as a way to ask whether, if American-Germans were only 50% American, you could really trust them. And that, in turn, got conflated with ideas about African-Americans being hyphenate and not really ‘pure’ Americans. The very strong implication in all of these conversations was that the only really pure Americans were white Americans.

Ku Klux Klansman gather for a ceremony in Atlanta Georgia, 1912
Ku Klux Klansmen gather for a ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia, 1912. “I was struck by how often people would explain the KKK in terms of Mussolini and vice versa”, says Churchwell. “People quickly started saying that America First was American fascism” (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Just to complicate things further, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise at the same time. It had emerged around 1866 after the end of the American Civil War, but was quickly killed off by federal forces. It grew again in 1915 thanks to DW Griffiths’ film Birth of a Nation. The KKK declared themselves for both America First and 100% Americanism early on, so these ideas got tangled up very quickly. You could use either phrase as a pretext to express any number of racist, xenophobic or nativist ideas – and that’s exactly what started happening.

AS: When Trump started using the phrase ‘America First’, people pointed out that it was particularly linked to the campaign to keep the US out of the Second World War. The most famous person associated with that America First movement, the America First Committee (AFC), was aviator, explorer and inventor Charles Lindbergh, who was a major celebrity both in the US and around the world. He lent his fame to the AFC, which – to put it politely – straddled the line between the view that the US should keep out of the war from self-interest, and a Nazi sympathy. You argue that this most famous use of the term was a logical progression from the way it had been used 20 or 30 years previously, and that when people such as Lindbergh used it they knew what they were doing.

SC: Yes: the racial connotations were always there, and everybody knew it. It was a dog-whistle. I’ve found letters in local newspapers in the 1930s and 40s from people opposed to the AFC, saying they knew it was racist and anti-Semitic. This isn’t historians going in with hindsight, correcting the naive, racist people of the past; people at the time were well aware of what was going on and, indeed, were often fighting these same battles themselves.

What surprised me, when I traced the evolution of America First, was the degree to which it was associated with the Klan and fascism much earlier than I had thought. When Mussolini came on the political scene in Italy in 1921, the word ‘fascism’ started to enter the American political conversation. I was struck by how often people would explain the KKK in terms of Mussolini and vice versa – ‘fascism is 100% Americanism but for Italy’, and so on. People very quickly started saying that America First was American fascism. I was surprised by the degree to which America First remained associated with these ideas as people watched the rise of fascism, of the KKK and, later, of Hitler. It was absolutely front and centre in the national conversation.

AS: Let’s bring together these two ideas, then. It’s not as if these are warring terms in US history, with an ‘American Firsters’ camp and another ‘American Dreamers’ camp: people using one phrase also used the other. Were the former group, then, responsible in some way for the transformation or subversion of the latter phrase? Were those who were drawn to the ideas of America First – that is to say, a kind of racially defined nationalism – in some sense consciously retooling the American Dream to make it a usable idea for them?

SC: I don’t think so, at least not at the start, though they may have intuited later on that they could do that. In some sense one of the risks of my book is that it gives the impression these two concepts can be cleanly distinguished. I do think they both represented a particular strain of an argument in US thinking a century ago that is still there, and that it’s interesting they can be found in opposition to each other.

These aren't warring terms: people who used the phrase 'the American Dream' also used 'America First'
Adam IP Smith

Where I see the real shift is in the rise of libertarianism. Its emergence as a quasi-political, anti-government or small-government movement in the US in the 1940s and early 1950s is the point at which the two concepts we’ve been discussing converge intellectually. It’s important to say that I don’t think having that value system necessarily means that you’re a white nationalist – but it is unmistakable that there were an awful lot of libertarians who were.

A broad notion of ‘liberty’ was, I think, the hinge on which this all swung. We said earlier that the American Dream was used in the First World War to articulate ideas of patriotic nationalism, while in the Second World War it was used to talk about what the US was going to Europe to protect: liberty and democracy. That notion of liberty as being opposed to fascism was what started to pivot the American Dream away from a notion of a state that protected the rights of all citizens and towards a more simple idea that it was there to protect the idea of liberty itself.

AS: Finally, what about the future? This is very much a book written in the shadow of Trump, and you talk about his use of ‘America First’. It could be read as a passionate and angry but rather bleak and despairing book. But if you’d set out to write this book in 2008, might you have been able to say that Barack Obama had reinfused the idea of the American Dream with something of that older, small ‘R’ republican ethos, channelled through Martin Luther King, perhaps?

SC: I don’t think I would have said that in 2008, either. I remember being told by a co-panellist at a discussion just after Obama was elected that US racism was over. I told them that there was no way a black president was going to end racism in America. I do, however, take hope from what Obama said when he spoke just after Trump became president: that history doesn’t go in a straight line, but in zigzags. And he’s absolutely right. The idea that the election of one president was going to realise the American Dream was always naive and foolish, in my view. But what I’ve tried to say is that notions of democracy, equality and justice are not ideas we achieve and then put on a shelf to admire. They are part of an ongoing process.

Does Obama’s election and his success overall – whatever criticisms we might have of his administration – and the great admiration he continues to inspire around the world make me think we’re closer than we were 40 years ago? Yes – it’s just that we’re not there yet. But that’s another thing I try to say in the book: for me, the importance of the dream is not that it gets achieved, but that it gives us a higher ideal. And without that, we’re left with lower ideals. You may say that this is sentimental and naive, and ask how, as an academic, I can even say with a straight face that the American Dream is something we can take seriously as a concept – but I’d ask in reply: without it, then what?

AS: Former US president Bill Clinton once said: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right with America” – which may be corny, but in a way it’s correct. And it also seems to be one of the messages of your book. What I think this kind of history can show is that ideas that seem hegemonic can change, do change, and in the end will change.

SC: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s absolutely right.

Hear more of Sarah Churchwell and Adam Smith’s conversation on our podcast:

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the University of London. Her latest book is Behold, America (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Adam IP Smith is senior history lecturer at UCL. His books include The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1848-1865 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)

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This article was taken from issue 10 of BBC World Histories magazine