Published: March 31, 2020 By

CU Boulder visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy to address the topic in Zoom event on April 18

George Washington argued that America should establish a “national character.” Did the nation ever do so? If it did, has the national character improved or decayed over time?

Colleen Sheehan

Colleen Sheehan

William B. Allen

William B. Allen

Two scholars at the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder have spent four years asking those (and related) questions. 

The American National Character project (ANC) began as a collaboration between Villanova University's Colleen Sheehan and William B. Allen (through the auspices of the Ryan Foundation and with support from the Hewlett Foundation and the Bradley Foundation). Sheehan, CU Boulder visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy, and Allen, senior scholar in residence at the Benson Center, have organized a series of colloquia and the 2019-20 Benson Center Lecture Series, through which they engaged prominent academics to assess the present state and future prospects of an American national character.

Allen is scheduled to give a one of these lectures on the subject, titled “Down with Diversity,” on April 18 at 7 p.m. MDT via Zoom. Participants must register via Eventbrite. After registering, they will receive an email with information on how to join the lecture.

Writing together, Allen and Sheehan recently answered five questions about the project, its genesis and its results, which follow:

1. What was the impetus for the American National Character Project?

The ANC project reflects a response to the repeated directions provided by George Washington at the founding of the United States, that "we have a national character to establish." It would be fair to say that some intelligent observers doubt whether that task was ever accomplished; still others affirm that it was established but has since been undermined; and still others consider it a work in progress, never yet consummated and still weighing in the balance. The ANC project aims to resolve those differences in an intellectually compelling manner.

We can only say that we prefer hope over despair, optimism over pessimism, trust over cynicism.​"

2. Over the four years of the project, to what extent did the ANC project resolve those differences?

The American National Character Project began in 2014, spurred by concern for the growing divisiveness and ideological polarization in America. The idea became a reality when Professor Sheehan secured a 2016 Hewlett Foundation grant. As a result of that grant, the first colloquium was held in 2017, with associated publications following.  And we have continued since that time (having secured additional funding along the way).

The main question of the project is whether Americans are still, or whether they can again be, a united people. To answer this question in the affirmative requires that there are some fundamental principles that Americans hold in common, principles which in turn stimulate concord among the citizens and shape a healthy civic life. Perhaps needless to say, if this is the great challenge facing America today, the ANC Project has not yet succeeded in resolving either the theoretical or the practical components of this challenge.

3. As your project observed them, what are defining characteristics of an American national character? 

Great question. That is what we are asking Americans of 2020 to conclude for themselves.  Are there still defining characteristics that constitute something we could call the American character in 2020?  In the past, Americans were fairly clear on what constituted these virtues or qualities. The list included things such as the love of freedom, love of family, love of God; it also included both hard work, independence and neighborliness, maybe even a certain kind of persistence, if not stubbornness. Certainly, the American character has always been one of daring and spiritedness. 

4. As we head into the November elections, how optimistic are you about the future prospects of an American national character?

Another great question. We can only say that we prefer hope over despair, optimism over pessimism, trust over cynicism. But that doesn’t answer your question, does it?

5. What’s next for the ANC?

The Benson Center and the Ryan Foundation are continuing their collaboration with a conference this fall in Philadelphia and a forthcoming publication with contributions from participants in the ANC lecture series.  We also hope to reschedule a few of the speakers whose CU Boulder lectures were canceled due to concerns over the coronavirus.