Politics & Policy

The Idea of America

What some wise men had in mind.

For all too many Americans, the Fourth of July is just another summer holiday, albeit one that usually features fireworks. Of course, most Americans dimly recollect that it was on this day sometime in the distant past that Americans declared their independence from Great Britain, but they seldom stop to reflect on the true revolution that the Fourth of July signifies: the Declaration of Independence and the creation of a nation based on a universal idea.

The word “nation” comes from the Latin natio, a noun derived from a form of the verb meaning “to be born.” It has traditionally meant a grouping based on such tangibles as race or blood. National movements since the 19th century have usually had as their goal the creation of a territorial state encompassing those possessing that common identity. It is this understanding of nationhood that Hitler reflected when he reputedly claimed that the United States was “not a nation (Volk), but a hodgepodge (mischung).” But it is the Declaration, not race and blood, that establishes American nationhood, constituting “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.…”

As Abraham Lincoln remarked in 1859:

All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

In a speech delivered just after Independence Day 1858, Lincoln clarified the link between the Declaration and American nationhood. His argument is one we should ponder at a time when “multiculturalists” are advancing the view that the U.S. is not a land of free individuals but instead a conglomeration of discrete racial and ethnic groups.

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, Lincoln told his listeners in Chicago, we celebrate the founders, “our fathers and grandfathers,” those

iron men…But after we have done 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…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 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 the 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.

In Lincoln’s view, America is a nation by virtue of its commitment to the principle of equality, by which he meant simply the idea that no person has the right to rule over another without the latter’s consent. For Lincoln, what made the United States unique, and constituted the foundation of American nationhood, was the incorporation of this moral principle into the Union. This belief lay at the heart of his opposition to slavery, an affront to the very idea of republican government.

Of course, defenders of slavery such as South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun, Georgia senator Alexander Stephens, and Chief Justice Roger Taney and “don’t-care” politicians such as Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas disagreed. Taney and Douglas argued that Jefferson did not mean to include blacks when he wrote that all men are created equal. Calhoun and Stephens contended that he did mean to include them but that his view was false.

The irony is that while Lincoln’s view prevailed with the Union triumph in the Civil War and was subsequently incorporated in the Constitution via the 13th and 14th Amendments, it is the Taney view that often predominates today. The rejection of Lincoln’s view of American nationhood is visible on both today’s political left and political right.

The main threat to American nationhood is multiculturalism, a notion that would appeal to Hitler: the discredited idea that race defines destiny, that blood determines who we are and what we can become. Multiculturalists reject the principles of the Declaration because they see them as, at best, “cultural imperialism” and at worst, racism.

To argue against multiculturalism is not to reject ethnic pride. I like to joke with my students that since “Mackubin” is a sept of the Clan Buchanan, whenever I hear a bagpipe, the hair on the back of my neck bristles and I want to kill an Englishman. But then I realize that other of my forebears were English and Welsh, so I would have to kill myself.

In America, ethnicity is an indicator of whence we have come, not where we are going. It is precisely the rejection of ethnic politics and the embrace of politics based on individuality and equality that have created the conditions of civility and domestic tranquility upon which American strength and prosperity rest. The increasing hyphenation of America bodes ill for these conditions.

But multiculturalism couldn’t exist if even those Americans who praise the Declarations didn’t misunderstand its principles. How widely they are misunderstood is driven home by a piece by a piece in the July 2 Washington Post by David Broder. In his penultimate paragraph, Broder makes it crystal clear that he misses the point.

“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.” Is our belief in equality truly self-evident? How does it jibe with the growing inequality of income and wealth and opportunity in this country? And is the pursuit of happiness, as now understood, wedded to the same sense of duty and responsibility that animated the men in Philadelphia?

To answer Broder, the equality of which Jefferson speaks is that arising from the equal natural rights all men possess, antecedent to the creation of government, and the political right not to be ruled by another without the former’s consent. As Jefferson wrote to Roger C. Weightman on June 24, 1826, “all eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them….”

As we celebrate the Fourth of July this week, we should reflect on the uniqueness of American nationhood arising from the Declaration of Independence. We have, of course, not always lived up to the “self-evident truths” articulated in this document, as the history of slavery attests. But these truths constitute what Lincoln called the “central idea” of the American republic without which republican government will fail and the American nation will dissolve.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is on leave from the Naval War College to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, 1968-69.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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