Are You, or Have You Ever Been, an American?

Participants carry the American flag during a Fourth of July parade in Los Angeles in 2013. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
When the country is someday again exposed to greater dangers and risks, our love for what we share in common will come back to us.

‘This generation will pass away and give rise to a race of Americans.” So predicted Gouverneur Morris, perhaps the oddest of America’s Founding Fathers. Morris was following the direction of his own heart. He was born in Westchester County in 1752. He had French and English blood. He went to a Huguenot school. He was a leading drafter of America’s constitution and a deeply conservative man in his outlook. He also hated American chattel slavery and denounced it at the Constitutional Convention. Morris was eventually the United States’ plenipotentiary to France and spent years afterward touring Europe and having affairs there.

I’ve been thinking of Morris’s prediction about the Revolutionary generation and their heirs while promoting my book My Father Left Me Ireland. In an attempt to make sense of the “nationalist” moment in our politics, the book relays a highly personal appreciation for Irish nationalism in a series of letters to my own Irish father. Naturally the book has occasioned questions about my relationship to America. Eve Tushnet put it pointedly: “The other great elision is Dougherty’s unreadiness to talk about who he is as an American, in America.”

That’s fair. After all, I am an American, and America is my home. America wasn’t the proper subject in a book of letters to my Irish father about the inheritance I have through him. But I am ready to talk about the American nation — namely, to defend its existence from those who doubt it.

Over the past weeks, my book has provided an occasion for conservatives such as Rusty Reno and Ross Douthat to doubt that Americans have the same access to a cohesive sense of national identity and story as European nations do. Douthat wrote that the book left him “feeling a curious kind of envy for its author — not for his childhood fatherlessness, but for his potent personal connection to a tradition that even in its weakness, its abandonment by many modern Irish, still seems like a potentially coherent national narrative, an integrated thing.” While not in response to the book, Matthew Walther of The Week held out that “America is an empire, not a nation,” writing that “if one means that there is an ‘American nation’ in the same sense in which there is a French or an Italian one, I am afraid the answer is that there is no such thing, nor will there ever be one.”

To this I feel like stuttering: Wrong! Entirely wrong. Incredibly wrong. You’re all wrong.

But maybe my friends are understandably wrong. We think the French not only have had a stable population group and a national language but that they also possess a very particular character. We find ourselves reaching for words like “hauteur.” This is a generalization, of course. And the eminent Morris also generalized about “the sedentary Belgian, the wandering Tatar, the sprightly Frenchman, the sober Spaniard, the proud Briton and obsequious Italian.”

Perhaps the character or the unity of other nations seems obvious to Americans, and our own character elusive or too various. Walther asks, “Which are the virtues common to Davy Crockett, William T. Sherman, Sitting Bull, Louis Armstrong, and Dick Butkus?”

But one can draw up similar lists for other nations. What virtues are common to Jeanne d’Arc, Charles de Gaulle, Thierry Henry, and Sylvia Guillem? What unites Owen Roe O’Neill, Wolfe Tone, Patrick Kavanagh, and U2’s “The Edge”? Perhaps we should not look for virtues, because no nation can say all its members are one way or another. But we can say that these people collectively, belong, respectively, to America, to France, and to Ireland. And belonging is not nothing.

Just as we know and struggle to describe the French or the Filipino but recognize a collective personality that emerges across them, people of other nationalities know they are brushing up against the American nation as it barges in. A Hungarian friend drew my attention to the fact that, after the Cold War, American media had filled in many of the spaces vacated by Russia. She complained how American movies — particularly Disney movies played on Sunday afternoons in her childhood — were slowly changing the Hungarian attitude toward love, which was more reserved, more intimate, and presumably weightier in some way I cannot begin to comprehend. She didn’t want Hungarians to be remade as moon-faced American high-schoolers.

How do we know that we belong? My contention in many columns and across my book is that conflict, risk, political stress, and collective ambitions bring our nationality to the fore. Sometimes this is an insidious process, where happy “citizens of the world” discover to their dismay that, in a clamor of conflict, the world will hang them for the national character they deny in themselves.

But in any case, the difference between Ireland and America that Douthat senses is, I believe, a difference about not coherence but power. Ireland too has religious and ethnic variety, it has competing political philosophies and camps. It has its own internal contradictions and problems. And in times of peace and prosperity, those conflicts take center stage in the Irish mind.

The United States of America is currently so powerful and preeminent that it can effectively stay engaged in two wars it had won and stay in them long enough to lose them through inattention. But humiliations in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in no noticeable diminishment of prosperity and health in the country itself. The most powerful nations have occasionally confused their nationalist ambitions for universal ones. This has been true of France, Britain, and Russia. Their escapades and trespasses across the globe inspired what? Nationalist reaction and rebellion. But when France or Russia have been humiliated afterward, their response has been nationalist self-assertion. The United States, perhaps very happily, is insulated from the kind of history — often a miserable history — that seems to make the Irish, Polish, or Hungarian stories seem so coherent and urgent compared with others.

But when America is someday again exposed to greater dangers and risks, our love for what we share in common — the common inheritance of Americans — will come back to us. The parts of our political, cultural, and military legacy that are relevant to some future conflict will feel like “ours” again, and be immediately relevant. We will credit ourselves for industry, improvisation, and a deep desire to be and remain freeborn men and women.

What drove Morris and others to feel themselves to be Americans was the Revolutionary War and the ambition to establish an American government for posterity. Someday we, or our children, will wake up on a dread day and find great consolation and strength in the fact that we do indeed belong to one another, and that we are Americans. Men who today seem to have nothing in common — neither religion nor color — will find the rhythm of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” beating in their chest, and on their lips the words of John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to fight.”

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