In this odd political season — so shallow in rhetoric, so fundamental in consequence — Americans are not only celebrating their nation’s independence, but they are also considering its meaning. All of a sudden, the most basic questions in our democracy are on the table: What is a real or good American? How do we define what is unique and great about our country?
At least a portion of the current populist wave is a nationalist backlash against cosmopolitan elites. In this view, Americans do not merely love a set of philosophic abstractions; they love a concrete nation, with an identity that is under siege. An Anglo-Protestant heritage of law, religion and culture is threatened by a variety of forces, within and without: multiculturalism, illegal immigration and politically correct leaders who refuse to even name our enemies.
It is a paradox that those who want to emphasize the uniqueness and particularity of American culture — rooted in a specific ethnic and religious background — are adopting the most typical form of nationalism. Historically speaking, nations defined by ethnicity, motivated by grievances and looking backward to a golden age are commonplace. What has been different about the United States is its remarkable ability to make a nation out of nations. This is a tribute to national ideals that emerged from within one culture, but now appeal and inspire far beyond it.
No nation, of course, is disembodied. It is legitimate to love the rocks and roots of a definite plot of ground, and our plot is particularly grand and lovely. It is not a coincidence that one of America’s first symbols was a rattlesnake in a defensive coil. But another symbol was the rising sun on George Washington’s chair at the Constitutional Convention, as hopeful as the break of day. America’s founders thought their work was somehow the culmination of age-old longings and a new order for the ages. This is the reason that the term “American creed” is rich in meaning, and “American race” sounds like a profanity.
The hypocrisies of our history are startling. A nation dedicated to freedom was a prison for millions of slaves. In the founding era, many towns celebrated Pope’s Day, in which effigies of the Bishop of Rome were cheerfully burned. While Chinese laborers worked on the massive foundation of the Statue of Liberty, Congress tightened the Chinese Exclusion Act, which set immigration rules by race. Even now, some would have those rules set by religion.
But how do we even know these are hypocrisies? It is because they are revealed by the light of the Declaration of Independence. America’s founders set a principle in place that has judged and changed cultural practices for more than two centuries. It is primary to our national identity.
Keeping the balance between a real community — with the right, like any other people, to define its boundaries and traditions — and the liberal principles of justice and equality has not been easy. It has led to a troubled and bloody history, which is also a shining achievement in the conscience of humankind.
The American who understood both of those aspects best was Abraham Lincoln. In July 1858, he spoke of the strength that Americans draw from pride in their forebears who founded the nation. Then he said words worth recalling in full as we celebrate our independence:
“We have besides these men — descended by blood from our ancestors — among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe — German, Irish, French and Scandinavian — men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us. But when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration. And so they are.”