Summer School 2021—At no time in American history have “We The People” been more ignorant of our own history, our own Constitution, and the sources of our own civic traditions. Consequently, in the midst of a robust if cantankerous national conversation about Critical Race Theory, Anti-Racism, and the merits or distortions of the “1619 Project,” the body politic seems uniquely unqualified to answer the most significant question of 2021: What makes an American, American?
Pose this question to bright and well-meaning young Americans sitting in high school and university classes—as I have for decades—and a haunting admixture of panic laced with ignorance quickly creeps across their well-meaning faces. Sometimes I take a different approach: If we all believe in the former national motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” then what is the source of our “unum?” If you consider yourself to be part of “We The People,” then where does the “The” come from? Why are we “one people,” instead of many?
To their credit, they certainly are aware of what does not yoke us together. Ask them if you have to be white or Christian or straight or have a lineage linked to the Mayflower to be a proud red, white, and blue American patriot and they suddenly come to life—“Of course not!” they rightly exclaim.
Frankly, it would be nice if they realized that for most of human history these were precisely the traditional anchors of national and tribal unity, that the “American Experiment” was and is an extraordinary and righteous attempt to forge a nation on a set of broad political principles beyond the traditional glue of “altar and throne.”
Moreover, we should remember that this is a generation that often declines to say the pledge of allegiance, a generation that sympathized with Nike for discontinuing production of the Betsy Ross shoe because “it could unintentionally offend,” a generation that sees “mixed messages” in the American flag or singing of the national anthem.
It should come as no surprise, then, that they are quick to celebrate the pluribus but seem woefully unaware of the unum. This ignorance is especially perilous at a time when American civil society is becoming increasing fractured and diverse, when polarization and a balkanized demos have become the norm, when everyday Americans look at their fellow citizen and bluntly ask themselves, “what in the world do we have in common?”
This, I would passionately argue, has become the defining question of our time. And an inability to thoughtfully and confidently answer this question is the root of much of our civic toxicity.
Fortunately, there are tonics aplenty. Everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Bono to Margaret Thatcher have offered their explanation of what makes someone an American.
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln explained that the United States was “a new nation” that was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The genius of Lincoln’s statecraft in Gettysburg was to center the locus of citizenship not on blood and soil, but on acquiescence to “a proposition.” Believe in the Jeffersonian proposition and, yes, you can become an American.
In 2012, one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, Bono, was invited to speak at Georgetown University. He offered his own updated explanation of Lincoln’s “proposition.” He said, “America is an idea. Ireland is a great country, but it’s not an idea. Great Britain is a great country, but it’s not an idea. That’s how we see you around the world, as one of the greatest ideas in human history.” Anyone on the planet—no matter race, gender, class, or religious creed—can be an American if one believes in the “idea” of America.
Ultimately, it was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who stated the point most succinctly when she observed, “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” The philosophy of America was elegantly described in the Declaration of Independence. It has been restated again and again throughout our history by those with a stentorian commitment to living up to the Declaration’s embryonic promises. It is present in the Gettysburg Address, in the 14th amendment, in Frederick Douglass’s elegiac July Fourth Address, in Martin Luther King’s “Dream,” in President Obama’s observation that America cannot be reduced to “Red America” and “Blue America.”
Want to know what makes an American?
Belief! Belief in the Declaration of Independence. Belief in natural law and inalienable rights. Belief that the purpose of government is to protect the rights of its citizens and to secure their liberties. Belief that rights do not come from governments or royal writs, but from Nature and Nature’s God. Belief that everyone should equally have these rights and that justice is not an arbitrary construct of power, but is attained when the ideals of the Declaration are made real in the lives of everyday Americans.
To forge a nation based on common beliefs is genuinely unique in the annals of history. Who knows if it will work? Or if the history books of the future will describe the United States as a failed social experiment that couldn’t make good on the promises and hopes of the Enlightenment?
But one thing will guarantee the failure of our noble experiment. It is a failure we are speeding towards on this Fourth of July: forgetting how to answer this all-important question of national identity.
Let us not forget how fragile liberal democracy truly is.
The Athens of Pericles didn’t last very long. The Federalist Papers are filled with anxiety about the problem of political rot. Hamilton was well aware of the unchartered territory the American Constitution would travel upon. As he wrote in Federalist Paper no. 14,
Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
America has always been affixed to the internal affections of the heart and mind. Our children must learn why it is appropriate to feel affection for their own nation. But when the civic heart turns cold and the patriotic mind is rendered ignorant, it is appropriate to ask: for how long will we truly remain free?
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the forthcoming book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation (Regnery). He has been a high school and college civics teacher for over two decades in Bakersfield, California,and was the 2014 DAR California Teacher of the Year.
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