“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” begins the main body of the Declaration of Independence, and the definition of “America” may likewise seem utterly self-evident: the short form of the nation’s official name. Yet the meaning of this well-worn term becomes more elusive the closer we scrutinize it. Since “America” names the entire hemisphere from the Yukon to Patagonia, its common use as a synonym for the United States of America is technically a misnomer, as Latin Americans and Canadians continually (if resignedly) point out. Given the nearly universal intelligibility of this usage, their objection may seem a small question of geographical semantics. But “America” carries multiple connotations that go far beyond the literal referent of the nation-state. In the statement “As Americans, we prize freedom,” “American” may at first seem to refer simply to U.S. citizens, but the context of the sentence strongly implies a consensual understanding of shared values, not just shared passports; the literal and figurative meanings tend to collapse into each other. The self-evidence of “America” is thus troubled from the start by multiple ambiguities about the extent of the territory it delineates, as well as about its deeper connotations.

This essay may be found on page 13 of the printed volume.

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