What is an American?

What is an American?


Editor’s Note: The following article will appear in the Editor’s Corner of the Spring 2017 issue of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs.

What does it mean to be an American? Is being an American a function of blood, race, or language, or is it something else? When one asks such questions, one is really asking this: in what respect is America a “nation”? Is there an American “nationalism” and if so, what does it mean? These issues have come to the fore in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and his administration’s approach to immigration.

Nationalism is a heterogeneous concept. The term “nation” is derived from natio, a form of the Latin verb, natus est, “to be born.” Implicit in this understanding of a nation is that those who share a common birth are thus related by race or blood. In this sense, the nation is an extension of the family, the clan, or the tribe. Thus, a nation is a natural phenomenon, based on a common conception of the “love of one’s own.”

Nationalism in the modern sense of national political autonomy and self-determination, an “imagined community,” arose in reaction to the universalist- cosmopolitanism of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. The attempt by France to impose its political, legal, and cultural hegemony over Europe created a nationalist backlash. While Britain’s sense of national identity predated the rise of Napoleon, the long series of wars against France, especially those fought against Napoleon, strengthened and consolidated British nationalism.

But the reaction was strongest in Prussia. While Johann Herder had originated the term “nationalism,” before Napoleon’s rise, the true stimulus for German nationalism was Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806. In the view of a trio of Prussian historians, Johann Droysen, Heinrich von Sybel, and Heinrich von Treitschke, it was Prussia that was destined to transmit the German spirit (geist).

In the mid-nineteenth century, a similar understanding of nationalism took root in Italy as nationalists such as Garibaldi sought to unify Italia irredenta, “unredeemed Italy.” The implication of this conception of nationalism was that the best way to ensure peace was for each nation to have its own territorial state. Otherwise, the threat of irredentism would constantly disturb the international order.

In addition, there was always the specter of a virulent nationalism. Although the European nationalism of Herder and the nineteenth-century Prussian writers was more or less benign, nationalism took a decidedly evil turn in the twentieth century, culminating in the racialist policies of Nazi Germany. It is for this reason that nationalism often elicits a negative connotation among those of a liberal persuasion in both Europe and the United States. It is also the reason there is such a backlash against Trump based on the belief that his “America first” slogan is appealing to a dark, illiberal, and racially motivated nationalism.

But this belief fails to distinguish between two types of nationalism: ethnic and civic. The examples of nationalism above, based on language, blood or race, are ethnic. On the contrary, American nationalism is civic in nature. It holds that the United States is a nation based on a set of beliefs—a creed—rather than race or blood.

In a speech Abraham Lincoln delivered in Chicago on July 10, 1858, he identified the sense in which the United States is a “nation.” Speaking less than a week after Independence Day, Lincoln observed that

we hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole.

There is something else connected with it. 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.

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

Although the United States is founded on universal principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the fact is that “rights and liberties” can exist only in separate and independent nation-states, in which the “just powers of government” are derived from “the consent of the governed.” American civic nationalism is still a function of sovereignty. This brings us to the relationship between American nationalism and immigration.

As a sovereign state, the United States has plenary power to determine the conditions for immigration, as set forth in Article I of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization.” Sovereignty is the critical issue here. Each country has the sovereign right to determine who can become a citizen.

There are two aspects of sovereignty that apply to the present immigration debate. The first is the right of “we the people” to be secure. A large influx of un-vetted immigrants makes domestic terrorist attacks more likely. The second aspect of sovereignty is the expectation that those who come to the United States will assimilate and embrace the principles that underpin the American nation.

Today’s debate over American nationalism and its implications is not new. A similar debate took place during the early years of the Republic pitting Alexander Hamilton against President Thomas Jefferson. Although Hamilton was himself an immigrant, he was opposed adamantly to the open immigration policies that Jefferson proposed in his First Annual Message to Congress in 1801. Although as the incoming president, Jefferson once had opposed unlimited immigration, he now saw it as a way to secure the future political dominance of his own party over Hamilton’s Federalists.

Hamilton, like most Federalists, was concerned about French influence on American politics. Although the French Revolution had descended into terror and then led to the rise of Napoleon, Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party persisted in their attachment to the French. Hamilton feared that Jefferson’s proposal for unlimited immigration would lead to the triumph of the radical principles of the French Revolution over those of the more moderate American Revolution.

Writing as “Lucius Crassus,” Hamilton argued that “The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.”

Invoking Jefferson’s own Notes on Virginia, Hamilton observed that “foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners.” He argued that “it is unlikely that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism.”

He continued: “The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all-important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.”

Hamilton concluded: “To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens, the moment they put foot in our country, as recommended in [Jefferson’s] message, would be nothing less than to admit the Grecian horse into the citadel of our liberty and sovereignty.”

Hamilton feared that a large number of immigrants attached to the French Revolution would undermine that “temperate love of liberty” essential to republican government. Today, should we be concerned about immigrants who espouse the belief that Islamic law supersedes the U.S. Constitution?

American nationalism is based on the idea of a political community in which citizens, whether foreign-born or native-born, have reciprocal responsibilities to one another. In addition, citizens and government also have reciprocal responsibilities. George Washington captured this relationship in his 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island:

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which 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.

To require anything less of those who come to the United States would be, as Hamilton put it, “to admit the Grecian horse into the citadel of our liberty and sovereignty.” This is the essence of American civic nationalism and is a principle worth defending.