I didn’t realize how proud I am to be American until I lived in Paris and Caen (Normandy) for a year and a half. When I spoke in French, sometimes people would mistake me as a British citizen, because they couldn’t place my rather funny accent. When they asked me if I was English, I would immediately clarify my native country, and I found myself doing so with surprising urgency: “No, I am American.”
Admittedly, my discomfort of being mistaken as British was a bit ridiculous—after all, the Brits have wonderful humor, and they are some of the most caring people I have ever met—but I unashamedly drew the line at being mistaken for one of them. This gives me some pause--why am I so resolutely patriotic?
After thinking about it, I realize that it is because I believe this nation was founded upon some of the very best, most noble principles. Yes, the realities are too often very grim. The recent murders in Charleston reflect a present moment that is blighted by echoes of a terrible and violent past in which racism and discrimination was regularly practiced in society. Yet as the prayer circles in Charleston reveal, hope and perseverance help to define American character.
In that respect, we are not too far off from the founders of the nation. I take some comfort in thinking about the struggles that colonial Americans took on. Did you know that although American Independence was declared in 1776, fighting had been going on for a year already, and would continue through 1783? The eight years were fraught with histories of allegiances and betrayals; upon closer look, one realizes that the diplomacy that carried the nation through was nothing short of remarkable.
Of course, we had a genius at the helm—Benjamin Franklin—who, along with Henry Laurens, John Jay, and John Adams, forged a definitive peace treaty late in 1782. These leaders were from different colonies, with different ideas about slavery and Native Americans, but they managed to bond together to forge an independent United States.
The portraits we have of these men help me connect and understand an impressive history of American independence. They had an unshakable faith in American character. Their actions might even be considered as the seed to the current ongoing outpouring of American beliefs in freedom, equality, and justice. I think I understand better why I have been so quick to insist on my American identity.
—Kate C. Lemay, Historian, National Portrait Gallery