Tuesday, July 12, 2016


In the waiting room at the hospital while Polly was enduring yet another MRI in the seemingly endless quest for relief from pain, I stumbled onto a three year old copy of Forbes Magazine that yielded a treasure worth sharing.

It was an article written by Steven F. Hayward, author of a two volume biography of Ronald Reagan and a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado. His subject was immigration, and he included a quote from a 1988 speech by President Reagan which really caught my eye and attention.  Here it is:

America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said “You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk” but then he added “Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.

Hayward went on to say that a person becomes an American by adopting America’s principles, especially those principles summarized in the “self evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Then he quoted Carl Friedrich, who wrote “To be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact.” Hayward then quoted a friend, who told him: “I was always an American; I was just born in the wrong country.”

I can remember filling out an application for something or other back in the middle of the last century, and the form asked two questions: What is your citizenship? and What is your nationality?

It seemed odd to me that citizenship was something different from nationality. So I wrote: Citizenship – USA. Nationality – Irish.

It seemed logical. My father was proud of his Irishness, as was his father before him. Truth is, our Brennans came over in the famine times of the early nineteenth century. My mother was a Sullivan, another good Irish name, but in fact no ancestor of mine on either side had stepped a foot on the old sod in nearly two hundred years.

Still, the idea of “American” being a nationality remains an uneasy truth. We call Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and others the ‘founders of our nation.” But were they, really? Did they think of the United States as a nation, or something else?

The fact is that they were almost all Englishmen. They spoke English. They talked about their rights as Englishmen. They studied English law, and treasured English civil liberties. The constitution they wrote did not say that they were founding a nation, or creating a new nationality. They called it “a more perfect union.”

It wasn’t until 87 years later that Abraham Lincoln claimed that they had “brought forth a new nation” and that the Civil War was testing whether a nation founded on the novel idea that all men are created equal could possibly last.

The indigenous population of our land never thought of themselves as Americans. Their nationality was tribal: they were Cherokees, Ottawas, Seminoles.

‘American’ as a nationality was conceived in the slaughter at Gettysburg, born on San Juan Hill in 1898, matured in the Argonne Forest in 1918, and at  Omaha Beach in 1944, tested in Korea and Viet Nam in the 20th century, and confirmed in the sands of the Middle East in the 21st.

In our day, the name ‘American’ is reserved for men and women who believe that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights – rights that cannot be sold, surrendered or stolen; that among these are life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the right to establish the kind of government we want by means of a written Constitution which is the Supreme Law of the Land.

We live mostly on the North American Continent between the 49th parallel and the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande River, and between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

We speak English and we worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. We are Americans, and so are a lot of other people who adopt the American dream of freedom under law.


  1. Looking at your last four paragraphs, you seem to be saying that true Americans "speak English and . . . worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ," and also that true Americans are obligated to fight in cultural crusades in order to preserve your particular Irish-American-rooted concept of our nation.

    The following might be of interest in the context of your divisive concluding sentence.


    I say you are being divisive because your last sentence is understood to begin with "Only." At least, that seems to me to be your point.

  2. Setting up a straw man ("Only") is unworthy of your debating skill, Al. Lots of people living in America are not Americans. Becoming a naturalized American involves demonstrating a minimum knowledge of our language, laws and customs, and taking an oath to support the Constitution of the United States.

  3. I wasn't setting up a straw man. Rather, I was shining a spotlight, for your benefit, on the main insinuation of your essay, as I saw it.

    My Italian immigrant parents, naturalized and loyal citizens though they were, never saw themselves as Americans, and neither did I see them as such. They never learned English very well, and they always saw American culture and practices as inferior to Italian. They were ignorant, bigoted peasants, basically, of whom I was ashamed, I now am ashamed to admit. But I am very grateful to them for my and my family's existence here and now, and I now appreciate their role in the American fabric.

    But your essay denigrates them in a way that I would have, admittedly wrongly and unjustifiably, in my naive youth. You pushed my buttons in that regard . . . both in defense of them and in compensation for my own previous shame.

    Another button that got pushed was your made-up Judeo-Christian criterion for being a true American. I was raised and educated Roman Catholic, and probably was at least as devout as you are (probably more so), and I remain deeply interested in religion and Christianity in particular, but I happen to have moved on beyond worship of any deity. I now have my own ideas within the "spiritual" domain. Your essay implies that you think I don't belong here. That is bullshit.

    In my opinion, you have been trying to champion an anti-Muslim Crusade, grounded on cherry-picked historical facts and arguments that probably resonate with most of your readers, but I want you to know that they don't resonate with me.

    I happen to strongly identify with American cultural underdogs. I see from what you proudly have written about your admirable and blessed (recent) family heritage that you yourself are not among them, while I see myself as being barely emergent from that stock.

    You are inadvertently attacking my parents and me from a place of lucky privilege. (For one superficial thing, the Irish speak English while the Italians do not.)

    The USA, as a nation, is a rich and complex abstraction. In my opinion, you oversimplify it in a most negative and divisive way, drawing a circle that conveniently puts you and those with whom you happen to culturally identify on the inside, and all others on the outside.

    America is America in large part because of your "outsiders," in my view.

    You should consider reframing your last four paragraphs more positively.

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  5. Thanks for your insightful comment, Al. The question Ronald Reagan was addressing in the article in Forbes was basically: When does a person become an American? Putting it another way, is there such a thing as an American nationality?
    Clearly, if your father filled out the same application that I did, he would have said:
    Citizenship, USA; Nationality, Italian. Hayward wrote that "a person becomes an American by adopting America's principles." Except for Native Americans, everyone in our country or their forebears, came from someplace else.
    Some argue, and maybe you do, too, that there is no such thing as an American Nationality. I think there is. Perhaps it is merely a matter of choice. You get to be an American the same way you get to be a Republican, a Democrat, a Christian, a Muslim or a Liberal: just by deciding that you are.

  6. A bit off center, but jumping in anyway to the back and forth with commentary without taking sides.

    I think irrefutable that Judeo-Chritain doctrine was at the core of the "more perfect union". But, more importantly it's foundation was/is the basic freedoms, to practice any religion or no religion; to make what we can of our lives, to engage in political discourse. To me Hayward was speaking about the "melting pot" that is America.

    I am a first generation Italo-Canadian and my grandparents' collective English was limited as well. They came to the New World because there was nothing for them in the "Old World". They endured, modestly, and built a life so their progeny could go forth and prosper...To me that is the immigrant's sacrifice and part of that is a willingness to assimilate...but not to lose their "nationality, their identity, custom, language, but to engage in this "New Nation", which logically make us all a little different, but eventually more alike.

    My personal story is that I have lived my entire adult life in the U.S., a simple assimilation from Canada. A few years ago I became a U.S. Citizen, well into middle life. During the official ceremony (to note: swearing an oath of allegiance to the U.S.A.) I was struck by the 100 plus newly minted Americans, representing more nationalities than I can recall, and that the emotion in the room was overwhelming. The gratitude, the relief, the joy, the hope; I was slightly embarrassed that I did not understand fully what immigrating to the "New World" must have represented to my grandparents.

    To me that will always be what becoming an American (or Canadian) means. I understand as well as anyone that while the founders were striving for a "more perfect union", we are no where near perfect. But it is well worth continuing the struggle to make us all more alike.