WASHINGTON, July 3, 2017 – As we prepare to celebrate July 4, perhaps the best thing we can do at this moment of political partisanship and increasingly intemperate rhetoric is to recognize America’s uniqueness and reflect upon it.
Sadly, many in our contemporary political life seem to have little understanding of the real nature of the American story. One of the top national security advisers in the White House, Michael Anton, recently said that the diversity of our population is “a source of weakness, tension, and disunion.”
Anyone who shares this view does not understand that America is more than simply another country. Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people.
In his “Letters From an American Farmer,” J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782:
“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
Several years ago, I visited the U.S. Military Cemetery at Nettuno, Italy, down the road from Anzio, with my son and grandson. Reading the names of the dead and their hometowns tells us much about the nature of our society. Virtually all nationalities and ethnic groups are represented.
In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote that,
“We are the heirs of all time and with all nations, we divide our inheritance.” If you kill an American, he said, “you shed the blood of the whole world.”
Today, those on today’s left and right wings of our society, with their different versions of “identity politics,” seem to understand little of America’s story.
The U.S. has been an ethnically diverse society from the very beginning. By the time of the first census in 1790, people of English origin were already a slight minority. Enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants made up 20 percent of the population, and there were large clusters of Scotch-Irish, Scottish, German and Dutch settlers, and smaller numbers if Swedes, Finns, Huguenots and Sephardic Jews.
The American political tradition is embodied in George Washington’s letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. He wrote:
“Happily. The government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
As if speaking to our diverse society of today, Washington concluded:
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make them afraid.”
During another period of political turmoil and division, the 1960s, author Mario Puzo wrote,
“What happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries…whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, and why not? And some even became artists.”
As a young man growing up in Manhattan’s Lower Eqdt Side, Mario Puzo was asked by his mother, an Italian immigrant, what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded,
‘For a thousand years in Italy no one in our family was even able to read.’ But in Americs everything was possible—in a single generation.”
America was populated by adventurers, men and women who wanted freedom and more for their families than could be achieved in their native countries. They risked everything to travel to a country they had never seen, which, in most cases, spoke a language they didn’t understand.
They took a chance, and today’s Americans are their descendants. All of us, except Native Americans, have ancestors who bet their lives on America. And now, new adventurers are making that same journey.
Today, America is still in the process of becoming. In 1904, the British author Israel Zangwill wrote a now famous passage, as relevant to our new immigrants as those of more than a hundred years earlier—and a prophetic commentary about why so many people will be celebrating July 4:
“America is God’s Crucible, the Great Melting Pot, where all the races of Europe are reforming. Here you stand good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your 50 groups and your 50 languages and histories and your 50 blood-hatters and rivalries. But you won’t long be like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to—-these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas, Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians. into the crucible with you. God is making the American.”
In 1866, Lord Acton, the British Liberal leader, said that America was becoming the “distant magnet.” Apart from “the millions who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon with the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West.”
America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany. Frenchmen have loved France. Swedes have loved Sweden. This, of course, is only natural. But America has been beloved not only by Americans hurt by men and women throughout the world who have yearned for freedom.
America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in the history of man.
This dream remains very much alive, despite the efforts of some in our political life to diminish it, such as the White House aid who thought that diversity is a “weakness.”
They may want to make America ordinary, but in their efforts, they are flying in the face of our history.
Those who are dividing our society into warring groups are rejecting the very tradition we are now celebrating.
Happy July 4th,