One explanation for the contempt and polarization in our country is that many of us never learned what it means to be “American.”
Unlike citizens of most countries, “Americans” do not fit a racial stereotype. George Washington said that Americans were “a new race,” unlike any other. American colonists cultivated liberty and self-government. Immigrants came to pursue religious freedom – the right to follow their own conscience.
Immigrants to France or Germany or Russia can become citizens of those countries, but that doesn’t make them French or German or Russian. In those countries, immigrants stand out as different and don’t enjoy the same societal status as native citizens. But immigrants to America, through becoming citizens, contributing to the economy, and engaging in their communities can soon become as “American” as anyone else. Often, they are an inspiration to natives who forget that life in our country truly is better than in any other.
The genius of America is captured in our motto, E pluribus unum, correctly translated, “Out of many, one.” From many different countries, backgrounds and beliefs, we come together as one people: Americans.
Becoming Americans also means leaving the past behind. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an advisor to President Kennedy, wrote that the unstated motto was “never look back.” “The point,” he said, “was not to preserve old cultures, but to forge a new American culture.”
We forge this forward-looking American culture by mixing together, not by huddling in our own insular groups. That means that Americans with established roots on our soil must welcome newcomers, not treat them as outsiders.
Since 1820, nearly 80 million immigrants have flocked to our shores – more than to any other country. They may change what America looks like, but so long as they share the longstanding ambition to become Americans, they don’t change America’s character.
In 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously described his dream “that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Taken directly from the Declaration of Independence, that creed declares that all Americans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
True enough, some of the Declaration’s signers were slaveholders while others favored the abolition of slavery. Still, the principles to which they agreed provided inspiration to many who fought for equality from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to King and Kennedy.
After the Civil War, many Americans from both North and South, black and white, sought to, in Lincoln’s words, “bind up our nation’s wounds” and heal divisions. Being an American means continually striving to “build a more perfect union,” not stirring up broad recriminations over sins – both real and imagined – from centuries past.
Our foundation is built upon the understanding that our freedoms are not an invention of government that can be taken away on the whim of a majority. No, our rights are inherent to each of us as individuals – not as members of any group. The concept of inherent rights ensures that those whose opinions or actions are unpopular nevertheless retain the right to act upon their own beliefs without infringing on the rights of others to do the same.
However, our freedoms must be guarded relentlessly.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” warned Ronald Reagan. “We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States when men were free.”
Our founders – and each generation thereafter – have understood that protecting our freedom sometimes requires more than words. It’s a very serious, sometimes life or death, commitment.