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.