What Is An American?
One of the unique things about being a citizen of the United States is that unlike other nationalities, we often have these discussions about what being an American actually entails. We’ve been engaged in just such a discussion for the past four or five years now, and many people have landed on many different definitions.
Are we defined by our borders, the territory we control as a nation? Are we defined by our ethnicity or ethnicities? By our economic circumstances, both as individuals and as a nation? For many, these definitions, or a combination of these definitions, is what defines “Americanism.” These may be aspects of American life, but they are not what defines us as a people. As we saw this past weekend in Virginia, clinging to those notions is more divisive than unifying. They cannot define a nation as diverse as ours, one where wealthy and poor from every ethnicity on the planet call home.
Likewise, political leaders who foster these views cannot be unifying. They can only divide the nation along religious, ethnic and class lines. Both our last President and our current one have willingly used the imagery and language of grievance, attempting to force the nation as a whole to view the world through the distorted lenses of one subset of Americans or another.
The reality is the United States is not confined by our borders, defined by our economic clout or existent by our military power. You might have heard the United States identified as an ideal, and that is what our nation is. The glue that binds us are not the temporary trappings of wealth and power. The power that has allowed our nation to grow, to prosper, despite welcoming every ethnicity, every religion, and every race on the Earth was given to us by the men who created this country:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I think that for many of us, these words have lost their meaning. After all, we’ve all heard them countless times. I can scarcely think of anyone who can’t recite them word for word.
Yet, we cannot deny the power they hold. It is those words, more than anything else, that drew our ancestors to this country. Those words are the birthright of every American and it is those words that are our unifying force.
One of the things I like to do, when faced with a passage whose meaning is difficult to comprehend, is to reword it in a way that is easier to understand. Bear with me as I do so here.
We: Who were the Founders referring to by “we?” The document this passage is taken from – the Declaration of Independence – was an open letter to the King of England and Houses of Parliament, on the behalf of the citizens of the new nation they were creating. “We” is nothing less than every American citizen.
hold these truths: to hold a belief is to accept it without question; a truth is an incontestable fact.
to be self-evident: something that needs no outside proof of its existence.
that all men are created equal: everyone, everywhere is no different than anyone else – and we are born into this condition. Whether you have the privileges and wealth of a Wall Street billionaire or are left scrounging for subsistence in the Somali sun, every person that will ever see this world is the same.
that they are endowed by their Creator: While the majority of the Founders believed in the Christian god, it’s important to note that not all of them did. George Washington and John Adams were deists, as were notable non-signatories of the Declaration, including Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. It should also be noted that New York and New Jersey already had sizable Jewish populations by the middle of the 18th century (indeed, Dutch Jews were among the first settlers in New Amsterdam and Newark). Even among the devout Christians, there were religious differences – Charles Carroll of Maryland was a practicing Catholic, for instance. But the one thing all of them agreed on was a belief in a higher power, or Creator.
with certain unalienable: something which can neither be granted nor taken away by human authority.
Rights: Jefferson, John Adams and Franklin all were well versed in the philosophy of John Locke. While Locke’s ideas regarding natural rights were already well-established in philosophical circles by the mid-18th century, the Founders were doing something truly revolutionary here: they were claiming that by our existence, human beings have entitlements that no government can interfere with.
What follows is a listing of what those entitlements are.
that among these are: Whoops! make that a partial listing. Jefferson is saying there are other, unspecified rights, and he’s selected only the ones pertinent to why the Colonists are creating a new nation.
Life: Yes, you have a right to live. Sounds almost silly, until you watch this.
Liberty: for the 18th century thinker, Liberty was well defined by David Hume – “By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; this is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may.” I’ve read many other definitions of liberty, but this one – despite it’s age – still seems the best.
pursuit of Happiness: While nobody can guarantee that you will find peace and joy in the world, you’re entitled to try and find whatever it is that lets you achieve it.
One 36 word sentence carries quite a bit of import, I would say. If we were to reword the entire thing, it would come out something like this:
American citizens agree that the following is a statement of fact:
All people are born the same, and the Creator that grants us our existence does, by that existence, grant us certain privileges and entitlements that no person, government or entity can take away. Some of these entitlements are our lives, our freedom of movement and thought, and our attempt to derive peace and joy from our existence.
It isn’t as flowery or memorable as the original, I know. But this statement is what separates America from every other nation. It is what defines us a people, and as a country. America has not always lived up to the ideals laid out in this statement, but it is the fact we continue to strive towards it – rather than abandon it – that has characterized our place in history.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said he dreamed of the day when his children wouldn’t be judged by their ethnicity, but by who they were as people. It was Dr. King’s way of restating our guiding principle, the American principle of natural rights. We haven’t gotten there yet, as the events in Charlottesville showed. Call me a sap, a sentimental fool or a man blinded by his beliefs, but I still think the vast majority of the people who call the United States home believe in our founding principle, but are being led astray by fear of an unknown and rapidly changing future.
Thank you for your time today, and may God bless America.
*The video I linked to above can also be watched here. You’ll need about 20 minutes to watch the whole thing. It’s painful and at times angering, but I suggest you do.