Hamilton: American Way

Wall to discuss American way

By Willie Kiernan


At first there was private enterprise, but in the late 1930s free enterprise became the catchphrase as well as the American way. Colgate Professor Wendy Wall has turned her dissertation on this subject into a book.

"We take it for granted, free enterprise, but it wasn't in the dictionary until the late 30s," said Wall.

Wall will discuss her book "Inventing the American Way: The Politics of Consensus From the New Deal to the Civil Right Movement" at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday April 1 at the Colgate Bookstore (Class of 2003 Events Room, third floor) at 3 Utica Street, Hamilton. The event is free and open to the public.

"Different groups had different ideas about what the American way should be," Wall said. "Eventually it became democracy, free enterprise, and religious and political liberty, business groups in a tri-faith society, diversity getting along."

In "Inventing the American Way," Wall investigates the ways in which Americans of divergent backgrounds and beliefs shaped public understandings of the 'American Way' over nearly three decades in the mid-twentieth century. She challenges the idea that, in the wake of World War II, Americans developed an unusually deep and all-encompassing national unity, as postwar affluence and the Cold War combined to naturally produce a remarkable level of agreement about the nation's core values.

Instead, Wall argues that Americans were united, not so much by identical beliefs, as by a shared conviction that a distinctive 'American Way' existed and that the affirmation of such common ground was essential to the future of the nation.

"There was a lot of turmoil and strife, various ideologies, there was a need for a distinctive common language," Wall said.

Moreover, the book asserts that the roots of consensus politics lie not in the Cold War era, but in the turbulent decade that preceded U.S. entry into World War II. Inventing the 'American Way' sheds new light on a period that proved pivotal for American national identity and that remains the unspoken backdrop for debates over multiculturalism, national unity, and public values today.

"I think there was a period in the mid 20th century when the religious divides disappeared," Wall said. "The belief in God united America. There was pluralism but also unity."

Wall, who loves living in Hamilton, has called several places home and is not sure she's done traveling. She has recently been selected by the Organization of American Historians as co-winner of the Ellis W. Hawley Prize, which is given annually for the best book-length historical study of the political economy, politics or institutions of the U.S.

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