“We the People.” The Constitution begins with those deceptively simple words, but how do Americans define that “We”? In his new book We the People, Ben Railton argues that throughout our history two competing yet interconnected concepts have battled to define our national identity and community: exclusionary and inclusive visions of who gets to be an American. From the earliest moments of European contact with indigenous peoples, through the Revolutionary period’s debates on African American slavery, 19th century conflicts over Indian Removal, Mexican landowners, and Chinese immigrants, 20th century controversies around Filipino Americans and Japanese internment, and 21st century fears of Muslim Americans, time and again this defining battle has shaped our society and culture. Carefully exploring and critically examining those histories, and the key stories and figures they feature, is vital to understanding America—and to making sense of the Trump era, when the battle over who is an American can be found in every significant debate and moment.
Ben Railton is a Professor of English Studies and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He is the author of five books, most recently We the People: The 500-Year Battle over Who is American (July 2019 in Rowman and Littlefield’s American Ways series). He also writes the daily American Studies blog, contributes the bimonthly Considering History column to the Saturday Evening Post, and has published online public scholarship with the Washington Post, We’re History, and the HuffPost among other sites.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.