What Is American? 1 - Introduction

We talk about Americans without knowing what that means.

"My fellow Americans..."  It seems like every movie speech by a Hollywood president, and not a few real speeches by real or would-be presidents, starts out this way.  It's such a commonplace that we don't even think about it.

Maybe we should.  How many pro-DACA articles have you read bemoaning the uncertainty in the lives of those unfortunate "young Americans"?  This stems from a deliberate misrepresentation, of course, because illegal immigrants are not actual Americans, except perhaps in the geographic sense of being North, Central, or South Americans.

So the question, always important, is increasingly urgent and visible.  Our entire structure of international law is built on the premise of there being independent nations each with their own citizens they're responsible for.  If humanity has decided that distinctions based on citizenship are no longer valid or relevant, then we need to start talking about such things as citizenship, treason, and government in a totally different way.

Postmodern Problems

As recently as a century ago, everybody understood what a nation was and what citizens were: In just about every country in the world, you belonged if your daddy, granddaddy, great-granddaddy, and perhaps a half-dozen more greats were also from there; and if not, not.

It went without saying that you had to speak the national language; the idea that you could be a citizen of France and not speak French would be met with an uncomprehending stare, followed by the prompt arrival of men in white coats or other uniforms.

You didn't necessarily have to wear the national costume, per se - but 99% of the time, you could tell who was English, German, Russian, Japanese, or whatever simply by how they dressed.

Indeed, just about every aspect of life could easily disclose your nationality, from the food you ate to the church you worshipped in.  Oh, there were always exceptions, and they stood out like a sore thumb, even where the differences were tolerated.  There were a handful of English noblemen who were Jewish; you'd think being an Earl would make you 100% British, but the rest of the British at the time were far from convinced no matter how much "filthy lucre" had purchased the patent of nobility.

There was also another type of country - an empire, which is composed of many nations.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, consisted of Austria, Hungary, and a whole bunch of smaller Balkan nations.  Every citizen may have carried the same sort of Imperial passport, but each knew what nation they really were.  The British Empire was similar - Englishmen considered themselves different from Irish, Indians, even Canadians or Australians, and even where the ethnicities were the same, the rest of the cultures quickly and visibly diverged into clearly separate nations within the unifying Imperial government.

To this day, national stereotypes persist: If you see a cartoon of a man in a black suit with a round hat holding an umbrella, you know he is an Englishman, even though real Englishmen haven't dressed that way in several lifetimes.  You'd never confuse the cartoon with the stereotypical Australian or Canadian even though their ethnic heritage and their monarch were the same.  A hundred years ago, it wouldn't have been a stereotype so much as a reflection of reality.

As a result, the citizens of any independent nation, or subsidiary nation inside a larger empire, had a tremendous amount in common with every other citizen of their nation, right down through every aspect of daily life.  Even more importantly, they knew what those commonalities were, and for the most part treasured them.

American the Unique

The one giant, glaring exception was the United States of America, which gloried in not caring who you were or where you came from, at least up to a point.  Saying that America is "a nation of immigrants" is simple historical truth and just about all of us can trace our family history back to somewhere else.

Our Founders, however, knew that you can't just collect random people from all over the planet and make an effective nation out of a grab-bag.  America may not be based on ethnicity, but there was always a strict requirement expected of all who would become Americans: You had to believe in America.

What does that mean?  It meant that you had to subscribe to the ordered-liberty philosophy of our Founders - of the Declaration of Independence, of the Constitution, of the Bill of Rights.  Ellis Island welcomed illiterate peasants who wanted to breathe free and work hard, but it had no tolerance for those who would establish a monarchy or proposed anarchy.

In other words - unlike any other nation on Earth, you become an American by choosing to be so in your heart, and then, by letting your actions reflect those beliefs.  If this sounds religious, that's because it is - America never demanded that everyone worship God in the same way, but all had to bow before the Constitution.  How else could we become, as our national motto put it, "E Pluribus, Unum" - "Out Of Many, One"?

For that matter, America generally expected respect for God, though the particulars were open to diversity.  Even during the Civil War when we were fighting and killing each other, as Lincoln pointed out:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

Whether Lincoln intended it to or not, his observation applied equally to blacks both free and enslaved, most of whom were (and still are) Christians.

And even in the midst of the war, both sides agreed on most things regarding political process -  they agreed as to the principles on which a nation ought to be run, the general gist of how its leaders should be selected, and most of all, on the rights that were granted by Almighty God to the people.

Where they disagreed was as to who "the people" were: The South believed that blacks did not count as "people" for the purpose of possessing rights, and the North believed that they did, or at least ought to.  Over this profoundly fundamental issue, hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their lives.

After that all-encompassing question had been resolved, America was able to re-form into one country again, because everybody still generally agreed on what sort of country it was.  Sure, for decades thereafter the South attempted to prevent blacks from actually enjoying their rights by hook or by crook, but the handwriting was always on the wall.  Because of so many sacrifices and struggles by our predecessors, today, in fact and in law, Americans of all colors enjoy the rights promised them by our Constitution.

Alas, we no longer agree on what those rights are and even less on what they ought to be.  In the next article in this series, we'll explore the deep-rooted disagreements which are making us no longer one nation.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Partisanship.
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